We arrived here in Boston in 1706, having set sail from Salem with our beloved Captain Benjamin Harrow at the urging of his then eight-year-old daughter, little Sophie, who is also Mary’s niece.
It hadn’t been planned. In fact, it began when sweet Sophie begged her father to take her on his ship for just a wee ride, not his whole journey down the coast to Jamaica. She wanted to see how Papa sailed the high seas since she most certainly would be a ship’s captain some day, to which her papa replied,
“I should hope not! The only lady captains are pirates. Ye wouldn’t make me walk the plank, would ye?”
And Sophie promised that she’d treat him well as her captive, and she’d see that the rest of the pirates did the same.
So Captain Harrow was Sophie’s prisoner just as surely as if she already sailed beneath the Jolly Roger’s skull and crossbones. After she’d seen what it was like on the high seas, he could return her to Salem where she’d live with Mama Lettice in peace, if not in pieces. The truth of the matter was that she didn’t ever again want to be left alone with Mama, who thought she was a witch and tormented her accordingly — sticking pins into her warts and freckles to see if they bled.
He was a fool for Sophie, the Captain was. Had a blind spot where his little Sophie was concerned. Not so the rest of us. We knew that the minute she got away from her mama, she’d never go back.
Mary, Dorcas, ’Chuba, and Sophie had taken refuge in the pesthouse. They thought it was safely unoccupied, with no idea that the “scar children” (as Sophie called them), ten-year-old Abigail and twelve-year-old Thad, as well as I, the hideous Elihu and their surrogate father, still lived there. There’d been no smallpox around for years, except for the sailors restricted to their ships mid-river. Our stay together worked out well until Lettice’s slave, Tituba, caught the plague, probably from trying to scrub it out of the walls. Mary returned Sophie to her home so as not to expose her any further and also to be cared for by her parents in case she became ill. Letty, terrified of contracting the disease, hauled herself and their two sons off to reside with her fellow witch-watcher neighbors. Besides, she couldn’t abide the shame of the red flag hanging like a rash outside her very own front door.
During their idyll of delight, the Captain and Sophie waited at home to see if she had contracted the plague, from which he was immune, having already had a touch. They made molasses and hardtack soup and baked bear meat and mince pies. They wove garlands for Sophie’s dolls and tried them out on different shelves and tables all over the house to judge where they belonged. They sang sea chanties like “What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor?” and “Blow the Man Down” and “She Had a Dark and Roving Eye-eye-eye,” (“and her hair hung down in ring-a-lets”). These songs were filthy, of course, not fit for tender ears such as Sophie’s, but our sweet sunshine girl had no idea as to their meaning, recalling them only as memories of companionship. When not singing, they read The Pilgrim’s Progress aloud and played hide-and-seek among Lettice’s precious furnishings from England, France, Italy, and China. And they napped anywhere they pleased, even on the floor.
When Captain Benjamin finally acceded to Sophie’s pleas for an itty-bitty voyage, Mary begged passage for herself and Letty’s slave, ’Chuba, named for the Salem witch, Tituba, who had taught the Reverend’s young daughter and her friends that they were afflicted by the Devil. To the children’s horror, Tituba led a dance around a bonfire waving a dead chicken around her head. Furious at ’Chuba for nurturing Sophie, Letty had shot and nearly killed her. She and Sophie had run off. With all the slave catchers abroad in the land, ’Chuba didn’t think she’d survive much longer if she had to stay with Mistress Letty. In gratitude to ’Chuba for feeding Sophie whenever Letty punished her with starvation, the good Captain freed her. Now, she no longer wanted to be named for a witch, because something witchy might seep into her soul; she took the name of Sally, because she was becoming someone else. Yet, she feared the slave catchers who made no distinctions. Free or slave, every colored was fair game to be caught, carried off to the South, and sold at auction for a profit.
As they boarded the ship, Sally-’Chuba waved to the dark figure skulking around the barrels on the wharf, black Josiah, looking for the opportunity to bid farewell to his pretty little lover.
Dorcas came with us, of course, half-crazed as she was since being gaoled as a witch at the tender age of four, her beggar mother hanged. When set free, Dorcas wandered Salem at the mercy of every drunk and vagrant and batterer who accosted her, her hair coming out in handfuls.
“It’s because she doesn’t eat well,” said my Mary, gentle mistress of herbs and healing. “The trash pits aren’t nourishing.”
Aboard ship amid an unaccustomed bounty of victuals, eighteen-year-old Dorcas tried to help in the galley by frantically stirring things to make them hurry up and get cooked. She got half of whatever it was on everything around. It was said that the galley floor ate best of all.
As for myself, the hideous Elihu, whom the others call “El,” no school in Boston will have me again for master. Nor cordwainer, although I fashioned shoes much sought after in Salem. Mary pretends not to notice my cratered face with the twisted nose and jagged mouth like the mask of tragedy she’d seen in Father LeClairois’s study. Not even my long mane of lion hair that the Lord saw fit to bestow upon me, perhaps in foreknowledge of my fate, can successfully shadow this face. She ignores my eye with the gray cast shorn of lashes — that gentle she is. If she could find space aboard ship for a hulking refugee from the pest such as me, his face so blackened and pitted that he scares the little children in the school where he used to teach, she can accommodate anyone.
Women swoon at the very sight of me — in terror, not passion. Although, if honesty holds sway, there be an occasional fair maid of pleasure who throbs at the notion of what I might do to her. I take my pleasure where I find it.
I brought with me young Thad, now fourteen, and Abigail, twelve, also severely marked by the pest — my children but no relation. Torn forevermore from my beloved Susanna, I just happened to be in the pesthouse afflicted with smallpox at the same time Abigail and Thad’s family was brought in. After their parents died, I tended them.
Thad asks me about his family sometimes, but by the time I entered, they were buried in the Potter’s Field across the way. Thad remembers less than he should, and Abigail more. She answers all his questions in detail about what they looked like, their favorite foods, the work they did, and the pastimes they enjoyed. But, between you and me, I think she makes it up as she goes along.
Abigail loves to draw and vows she’ll be a famous artist someday. Our limner she is, painting portraits like the ones she’s seen on wealthy Salem walls, these in turn created and framed in France or England. Lacking beauty herself, she’s painted the women of Salem town in all their finery, as well as the background landscapes of the property they belonged to, as is the fashion. For, more often than not, the women belong to the land, just as the slaves do, and not the other way around.
She began by walking the Salem streets with a small painting as a sample of her skills, knocking on doors and holding up the portrait to distract whoever answered from her scars. Occasionally, a woman who’d seen European portraits and who was not discouraged by the Puritan opposition to such vanity gave her a chance. At about the time she became well enough known in Salem and didn’t have to walk the streets anymore, we moved to Boston, and she must start over.
The wealthy women marvel at how a girl so young and ugly, with the pocks and scars of the pest, can be so sensitive to beauty. Some offer her wax and suggest charitably that she fill the holes in her face. But the heat of the hearth near where she paints will set that wax to running, if she isn’t shielded by a fire screen or a fan.
Of course, her ambition is unseemly. Whoever heard of a woman artist? The greats of Europe are all male, as I recall. Something about the nature of the species, I suspect. It is no more in women’s nature to excel in art than to master mathematics or Latin. They have their own virtues. I encourage Abigail only because marriage and children seem unlikely for such as she, and painting is what she lives for.
As for her brother, Thad, he loves to invent things. Set a few useful items in front of him — a cowbell, a wagon axle, a vise, a scrap of cloth, a candle mold, a wigmaker’s net cap, a hammer — he’ll have a dozen new uses for them, chortling as he works. He says he sees their new arrangements in his head and promises inventions not yet dreamed of to improve our lives.
The other child in our entourage is the ghost of Mary’s Son of the Morning Star, still six, as ghosts don’t seem to grow older. More accurately, he is the grandson, but that is how he is called, conceived by Awasosak, the Sky Bear, husband to her dear friend, Bead Woman. When Bead Woman learned by the stench from his lungs as she kissed him that he was dying of the Iroquois axe so deeply embedded in his chest that even maggots were no permanent solution for the infection, she arranged the union between her beloved husband and Mary. Bead Woman herself beyond child-bearing age, she meant to give him one more babe in replacement for the little lost three-year-old, Shell Bead, who’d wandered off during the Iroquois attack on the mission, never to be seen again.
The little ghost’s gifted hands, chewed up by the wolves and even paler than the rest of him — “ghosts” of a ghost — can nevertheless perform many a task such as fitting a nut over a bolt in Thad’s creations. Besides, he doesn’t take up much space.
Lastly, James, about fifteen, Mary’s brother and Son’s murderer, joined us because — well, because where else could he go, poor refugee from manhood that he is? Mary had rescued him from Hill Dancer’s emasculating torture at the Abenaki encampment, thinking he was still her brother. It was he who led her to the place where the wolves had feasted on her six-year-old, Son of the Morning Star, thereby communing with him as well. “This is my body — This is my blood.” James knew Son’s whereabouts, of course, because at Hill Dancer’s bidding, he had brought the boy there in the dark of night to be destroyed. Yet grieving, Mary gave birth to her son in the land of the dead as she had six years before in the land of the living.
Then she forgave her brother his monstrous betrayal, understanding that he had destroyed himself as well. She had observed that those who harbor evil intentions against others, or who accomplish them, inflict upon themselves that very same evil, although she was not altogether clear as to how this happened. She had tried to explain this to Jamess when he was still James in the militia and before his best friend, Timmy, was killed.
He was Jamess, now, the name he took to reflect his new identity as a berdache, an Indian seer. As for Son’s ghost, he doesn’t seem to hold his death against Jamess; in fact, Son revels in his murderer’s attempts at atoning. Jamess reawakens in him his Abenaki roots, teaches him to speak both Abenaki and English and to sing their songs, praises his skills with bow and arrow, and does all he can to make the little ghost feel at home.
The plan had been to return Sophie to Mama Letty in Salem, after she’d had her little adventure on the sea. In a letter written the night before they weighed anchor, the Captain had promised his wife. But on the way to Boston, he fell ill on the deck of the very ship he captained. In spite of Sophie’s stomping her foot and demanding that he recover, (and, really, when had Papa ever denied his Sophie anything?), he died shortly thereafter. The new Cap’n Jack took us aside and told us that, out of loyalty to his former master, he would deliver us to Boston. But he could not take the responsibility for Sophie’s return to Salem. For one thing, he was going to have to bury Cap’n Ben at sea, and he didn’t want Sophie to witness it. Mary was torn. Sophie should be returned to her mother, Letty, where she didn’t want to go. But Cap’n Jack shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, and put us off.
When our little group of nine, eight visible, arrived in Boston, the first thing we needed was shelter. We made our way toward the Almshouse, because I figured it was the only place that would have us. We didn’t all walk together, of course. That would attract too much attention, as Mary learned when she set out to find a refuge in Salem. She walked single file with Sally-’Chuba following close behind so no slave catcher, assuming Mary’s ownership, would dare to kidnap her. Abigail, Thad, and I made up a little group, our scars lending us a certain family resemblance. Dorcas and Sophie shadowed us, creeping around buildings and behind bushes and trees. For them, it was a game. Jamess strode alone, a solitary figure in the Indian garments of the berdache, of no relation to the rest of us. Son crept behind him as if this were a war party. All of us headed for the Burying Ground on the edge of which I recalled that the Boston Almshouse was located — not exactly a prime residential area.
We smelled it before we saw it —or at least we thought we did — the dank stench of moldering bodies in the graveyard littered with tombstones, mainly winged skulls grinning in their various sizes and states of disrepair, some flat on the grass, others sinking, some crooked, and others weathered and crumbling, or broken. An occasional chestnut tree punctuated the grounds as if to pretend that this was a place for dancing and to deny their identity as shade for those buried there.
The Almshouse itself is a hulking L-shaped plain brown wooden edifice erected expressly for the purpose with money donated by a benefactor some years before. As we neared it, we heard pounding. I think our dread was reflected in our faces.
“It’s only for a short while,” I said, trying to reassure the others. “Just until we find a place of our own.” Although how we’d earn our pay for that I had no idea.
A twisted little man was hammering a timber that formed a triangle from the ground into the side of the building to give extra support to the wall. It hardly looked permanent, the pole holding up a few of the slats that dimpled around it, while the rest began to collapse.
On seeing us, the workman removed his hat to reveal a pate trimmed with tufts of cottony gray. We stopped and stared at him, trying to make sense of what we saw, the thick nose of a dissolute sprinkled with the warts of a frog. A polyglot assemblage of parts, all of him appeared borrowed, to be charitable, or donated to be accurate —his pants voluminous as if they’d held hind quarters twice the size, his stockings two different colors of buff, his vest stained most creatively in colors that might please Abigail, his neckerchief actually comprised of two twisted together, and his hat something that I don’t know how to describe, narrow of brim, very tall but crushed. It might have been fine in its time or for its trade. The entire assemblage was one in which he seemed to manifest an inordinate pride.
“Master Peter Prithm. Poormaster. Overseer of this establishment.” He replaced his hat as if he didn’t want to be mistakenly perceived as doffing it to the likes of us. “No room. Except managers. Manager’s room’s empty. Last one dinna work . Well, none. Lazy, the lot! Expect me to.”
We put together his fractured speech into some semblance of meaning just as he had his clothes, but we knew deception when we heard it. Exhausted from the trip, however, all we wanted was a respite before another search, so we accepted. We trooped up the porch steps after the overseer and into the front room where a gaggle of young girls sat mending scraps of cloth on benches. They fell silent at our appearance and then giggled. Master Prithm kept up a running account of insignificant details as he showed us around, such as:
“Fifty-four,” which we gathered was the number of inmates. “Women. Children.”
The rooms were large with rows of beds and wooden chests squeezed together, no two alike, all missing knobs or drawers and boasting gouges of past rage or carelessness. The rooms smelled faintly of “necessaries.” On the walls, dates were scratched in different hands, like those I’d seen in Salem Gaol.
As if divining our thoughts, Master Prithm said, “At back.”
One section to the rear of the building was set aside as a men’s bridewell or gaol. Also situated here were the “necessaries,” or outhouses.
“Secret’s not to feed ‘em.” He nodded several times at his own wisdom, and then, in what I thought was a masterpiece of verbal economy, he added, “Empty stomachs dinna fight.”
“Manager’s,” said Master Prithm, showing us a closet which was ours because not another soul could fit into it. “Best room. Privacy,” he added, licking his lips as his eyes lingered over Mary. I felt the heat rise.
I think that Master Prithm saw Mary and me as a couple. Needy as we were, we didn’t disabuse him of our status, and my children as well as Jamess, ’Chuba, and Dorcas stayed off a little way, so that he had no idea how many of us there were at first. They sneaked in later.
We stayed a night, and then we stayed a day, and then the next, as Mary began to fall in love with the children and perceived how needy they were. Perhaps this was the children’s crusade that she was meant to lead, as she’d seen in her dream so many years ago.
The Almshouse is not supposed to be restricted to children; in fact, I’ve heard tell of at least two colonies other than Massachusetts — Maryland and Virginia,
I think — that have opened orphanages. Mary makes sure to harbor enough adults to parent the wee ones. Most have much love to share — all the love not bestowed upon them in their own childhoods.
The children are usually orphans or half-orphans whose mothers can no longer beg or steal food as well as they can themselves. Or the tithing men catch them out during their surprise home inspections, as is their duty. They report parents to the court which, in turn, seizes their babes, deeming mothers and fathers neglectful for not educating their children in the one true religion.
In further legal proceedings, the courts bind the children out to masters who make applications for apprentices or servants and who are supposed to shelter, feed, and clothe them, as well as instruct them in the Bible, which includes some reading. In return, they prosper from the children’s labor on the farm or in the workshop or in the home, from dark of morning when the waifs rekindle the fire until dark of night, when they drop off during the reading. Seven days a week.
Masters are not supposed to abuse their children, but they are required to discipline, the Bible recommending the rod. The line between discipline and cruelty is often so thin as to seem nonexistent.
Claiming to be a princess, little Caroline turned up at our door, her hand horribly burned with iron tongs by her master and supposed father, the ironmonger, thus rendering her unfit for work. All for spilling a cup of nails. Chattering away, Her Royal Sootness stood on our steps in the freeze of winter, barely clothed in shirt and skirt so tattered as to be a collection of rags held uselessly about her royal nakedness where the red and purple skin was exposed. She might have lost fingers or toes were it not for Mary’s tender care.
If caught at their brutality, the masters of indentured children defend themselves with the Bible and receive such light sentences as to have no effect when another child is bound out to them. They own their servants, a practice that started nearly a hundred years ago —around 1620, I think it was — when England began sending her riffraff off London streets to the Virginia colony that they might work on tobacco farms. No nuisance preliminaries such as parental notifications or trials. Children netted like fish by bounty hunters and dumped as cargo below decks on leaky ships to be sold as tobacco pickers. The planters nourished them on any worms that they didn’t spot and pick off.
The adult Almshouse residents — the drunks, the blind or deaf or mute or feebleminded, the epileptics or syphilitics or senile, the foul-smelling prostitutes, or unmarried mothers, still children themselves, or the occasional respectable wife deserted by her vile old sot batterer — they are usually set to picking oakum, a particularly nasty piece of work on site or at the docks.
They sit on benches with a two-foot ball of rigging made of hemp or jute fibers, damp or worn out, and the workers untwist the fibers that are then dried, coated with pine tar or varnish, retwisted, and reused either for ship’s ribbing or caulking. This work is very hard on the hands. Mary keeps a supply of ointment ready to soothe their chapped and cut fingers at the end of the day.
It’s a harsh life, and most make their getaways when they can, although many die off sooner than you’d expect. Buried in a potter’s field, they are fortunate if they have a single name to mark their graves. Almshouse inmates and other destitutes have only their first names recorded anywhere. Those better off merit last names as well.
A week into our stay, the overseer has ordered us to serve meals at five in the morning, at midday for those too young to be sent out, and at six at night. The idle need a schedule, he claims although he himself doesn’t seem to have one. Further, he prescribes what the children should eat:
For breakfast, one ladle of a thin, watery gruel made out of oats or barley that is so old the bugs have had time to hatch. Mary makes a joke of this, saying, “Oh, don’t eat my gruel or I’ll eat you, yes, I will.” The children don’t know any better than to laugh, the heat warming their little tummies.
For supper, they get bread and cider.
Once a week, there’s mutton soup, made from meat that’s green and slippery. Into this, Mary tosses the vegetables she’s been growing in the garden or has stored in the cold cellar — beets, carrots, turnips, parsnips, beans, squash and the like, as well as herbs, which she tells the children make their hair shiny. The real purpose is to keep their little legs straight so that they don’t succumb to scurvy. Some of the children already have suppurating sores on their legs, spongy bleeding gums, loosening or lost teeth. Many heal under my Mary’s ministrations.
An American Children’s Crusade
by Patricia Weenolsen
Paperback: 326 pages