March 31, 2023

It was in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, that we first learned about the colonial American concept of “deputy husbands.”

Ulrich, who devotes a chapter to the subject in Good Wives, provides this definition: “A deputy husband shouldered male duties. These might be of the most menial sort – for a weaver’s wife, winding quills for the loom; for a farmer’s wife, planting corn – but they could also extend to include some responsibility for the external affairs of the family. A deputy was not just a helper but at least potentially a surrogate.”

She goes on to say, “No mystique of feminine behavior prevented a woman from driving a hard bargain or chasing a pig from a field, and under ideal conditions day-to-day experience in assisting with a husband’s work might prepare her to function competently in a male world – should she lose her husband, should she find herself without a grown son, should she choose not to remarry or find it impossible to do so.”

As we research seventeenth century history, particularly that of the people involved in the Salem witch trials, we often meet these women: respected, sensible, and trustworthy, who either naturally became true partners of their husbands or, through unfortunate circumstances, capably assumed the work that would typically have been done by the men of the house. In addition to filling the expected domestic roles – bearing and raising children, feeding and clothing the family, tending livestock, keeping the home – some women had to take on many additional responsibilities. Two women immediately come to mind.

Elizabeth How, a 55-year-old wife and mother, was the only woman from Ipswich who was hanged for witchcraft in 1692. The accusations against her apparently stemmed from a decade-old belief that she had bewitched a neighbor’s child to death – a charge that was refuted by two local ministers. Nevertheless, despite testimony on her behalf from family, neighbors, and religious leaders who knew her well, she was hanged with four other innocent women on July 19, 1692.

Women in colonial times were largely invisible, so we can only speculate about Elizabeth How’s life before 1692 from fleeting glimpses in the witchcraft trial records. What makes her story particularly tragic is the knowledge that her husband, James How Jr., was completely blind by the age of 50. Of the couple’s six children, only two were boys, one of whom died young. It is likely, then, that Elizabeth had to manage the family farm, as well as her domestic chores, with only the help of her two unmarried daughters, still living at home. She was also apparently a devoted wife to James, based on this testimony from her 94-year-old father-in-law, commenting on the thirty years he had known her, “as a wife to my son, [she is] very careful, loving, obedient, and kind, considering his want of eyesight, tenderly leading him about by the hand.”

Another woman who fits the deputy husband description is Abigail Faulkner of Andover (the location of the Faulkner homestead is in North Andover today). Born in 1652, a daughter of Andover’s minister Reverend Francis Dane, Abigail married Francis Faulkner in 1675 and together, the couple had eight children over the next two decades. Sometime in the late 1680s, Francis came down with an unspecified illness, experiencing convulsions, memory loss, and impaired understanding. His sickness meant that Abigail had to manage the family’s affairs, which may have contributed to her strength and determination in the days to come. Apparently, Francis’s medical issues subsided by the time the witch hysteria reached Andover in the spring of 1692, although his illness returned later that year, and then once again disappeared.

The 40-year-old Abigail was one of 28 members of the Dane family to be accused of witchcraft in 1692. Arrested, jailed, and questioned, Abigail showed great dignity and courage during the ordeal – maintaining her innocence under great pressure, admitting honestly to wishing harm on specific people, even withstanding accusations lodged against her by her own young daughters. Abigail was one of 15 people condemned and sentenced to death in September, of whom eight were hanged on September 22. Because she was pregnant with her seventh child, Abigail was granted a delay and remained in jail to await her execution. Although the witch trials court was dissolved in October, those awaiting trial or execution remained in prison, for the new court to begin in January of 1693. Concerned that her ailing husband could not handle the running of the home and family, Abigail petitioned the court for her release, “My husband about five years ago was taken with fits which did very much impair his memory and understanding, but with the blessing of the Lord upon my endeavors, did recover of them again but now, through grief and sorrow they are returned to him again as bad as ever they were. I having six children and having little or nothing to subsist on … and I being closely confined can see no other ways but we shall all perish…”

Although not granted her December request, soon after the trails resumed in January, Governor William Phipps reprieved all of the condemned, partly due to growing public sentiment. Abigail Faulkner returned to her family and, on March 20, 1693, delivered the child who had saved her life. He was named Ammi Ruhamah, which roughly translated means “my people had mercy.”

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