It’s a warm July Sunday in 1745. You’re sitting in your pew at the First Church of York, Maine, waiting for the service to begin. It is a quiet time, a time for reflection and prayer. Today will offer something different though and try as you will to focus on more spiritual matters, you can’t help but wonder at what is to come. Your pastor, old Samuel Moody,has gone with William Pepperrell’s colonial militia to lay siege to Louisbourg at Cape Breton. Old Moody is the army’s spiritual advisor and knowing him as you do, you have no doubt that his long-winded prayers and cutting commentary alone might be enough to force the French from Quebec. You admit that the new pastor might be a breath of fresh air, considering that old Samuel Moody seemed to know everything about everybody in the church and had no qualms exposing the private lives and sins of his congregation from the pulpit. The new pastor, though, has some issues of his own. He stands in front of the crowd and begins to speak, quietly, almost silently. He is well-known to you. But in the past few years, he has isolated himself more and more from people, sent his own children to live with relatives, for his wife has passed, and is only seen outside rarely, at night, walking among the headstones or along the beach. Stranger still is the man’s appearance and that’s what you have been wondering about as you sit there quietly. Will he remove it? Will he preach without it? Apparently not. He’s wearing it now as he speaks, the fabric fluttering with his breath as he forms the words. Then, when he must read from the Scriptures, he takes the Bible in his hands and turns his back on the congregation and only then does he remove it. Reading to the wall, so no one can see his face, only then is he free from it. When he turns back around, it is there. You suspected as much. His sermon is as long as his father’s and you sit there, sweating and listening intently. He certainly doesn’t seem demented but he does seem clouded or depressed. This is Joseph Moody, the son of your own pastor. Everyone in York knows that he wears a veil to cover his face, is never seen in public without it, and with no explanation why. The minister’s black veil is in place this morning as it has been for the past seven years.
It wasn’t always this way for Joseph Moody. There was a time when he was one of the most popular and influential men in the village of York. Old Samuel Moody’s son grew up with his father’s tutelage and was highly educated. He was the school master of the settlement, helping to prepare young men for Harvard. He was the Register of Deeds and the Town Clerk, not to mention being his father’s assistant minister. There was hardly a more social, community-minded man in the village. He married and had a family and in all ways seemed destined to continue in the footsteps of his father, that is, until something happened, something that he never shared with anyone and made him cover his face from all except the eyes of God for the remainder of his life. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about him, although he changed the minister’s name, in one of his earliest stories, “The Minister’s Black Veil.”
Women wore black veils when they mourned, but for a man to cover his face with a veil was unheard of. It was strange. But the people of York grew used to his bizarre habit because he was one of their own, because he could still perform the functions of a minister, even though he was the preferred choice for funerals over christenings. Except for the veil, he seemed mostly normal. He spent most of his time in his own rooms, bothering no one, and to avoid contact when he was with others, he often sat facing a wall. Some people think his strange behavior is a result of the death of his wife, but the wearing of the veil did not coincide with the time of her death. What could cause an educated socially-minded man of God to cover his face, as though he was ashamed of some private sin? The people did not know, and after his death in 1753, they still were unsure. A legend arose that he told a friend on his deathbed that he wore the veil because once, when he had been a child, he and friend had been out hunting and he mistakenly shot his friend to death. Then he reported to the people that his friend had been shot as a result of an Indian attack, a harsh reality of the time. No one would have questioned an Indian attack. The legend says that the good reverend lied his entire life about the accidental death and that lie ate away at him. The veil was his outward sign of his secret sin. The legend even says that he was buried with the veil over his face, according to his wishes. We know that at the end of his life, Joseph Moody, the veiled man, lived with one of his deacons. One night in 1753, Joseph was in good spirits and began to sing hymns, something he rarely did at home. Then he refused to eat dinner before retiring. Then, he went to bed and died in the night in his sleep. He went to sleep in one world and hopefully awoke in the next, although whether it was in Heaven or Hell, God only knows. He did not confess to anything on his deathbed, or at least, there is no proof. The eccentric son of an eccentric man died and was buried with the following epitaph:
“Here lies interred the body of the Reverend Joseph Moody pastor of the Second Church in York, an excelling instance of knowledge, ingenuity, learning, piety, virtue and usefulness, was very serviceable as a school master, clerk, register, magistrate and afterwards as a minister was uncommonly qualified and spirited to do good, and accordingly was highly esteemed and greatly lamented.
Although this stone may moulder into dust,
Yet Joseph Moody’s name continue must.”
There is another side to the story of Joseph Moody. Something else occurred in his life that could have led to this strange behavior, something far worse than a lie. To understand it, we have to look at the life of his father and of a 23 year old Native American woman named Patience Boston. The intersection of the lives of these three people may well have led to Joseph Moody wearing a veil and hiding his face from all but God.The real reason he wore it may lie in that intersection of souls.
Joseph Moody’s father, Samuel, was the grandson of an accused witch, Mary Bradbury. She was imprisoned for the crime and taken into custody in May of 1692. She was not executed. His own father, Caleb, was imprisoned for five weeks for daring to speak as a Free Man. Young Samuel put his nose to the grindstone and eventually graduated Harvard in 1697 and was offered the chaplaincy of York, then on the very edge of the frontier, a place where locals had been killed in Indian raids and people only attended church services while armed. He accepted the task but without any remuneration, believing that God would provide. He gave away all that he owned in the world, even his horse, and took up the cause of the Lord. He was a powerful speaker with a temper. He would visit alehouses and drive the drinkers out. He spoke long prayers and uttered things his congregation may not have truly understood, but he was steadfast and strong in a dangerous place. You might not agree with the Reverend Samuel Moody but you did not miss his Sunday sermon. He was a self-righteous, bombastic, holier-than-thou, fire and brimstone preacher whose power of personality was immense among his people. This was the man who at 71 years old, a very ripe age for the time, volunteered to be the senior chaplain to the expedition at Louisbourg. At the time he was the oldest man in the Colonial Army. When they did capture the fort, Moody took an ax to the Catholic altar and religious images in the chapel there. He was a fiery, powerful, not-to-be-questioned man.
Old Samuel Moody may have been so righteous and driven because he felt the “irresistible grace” of the Lord. Like most of the other early American religious sects, he was a follower of that branch of Protestantism called Calvinism, named after John Calvin of Geneva. One of the core beliefs of Calvinism was that before God created the world, he predestined or predetermined the eternal destiny of each and every soul born into the world. You were either going to Heaven or Hell and there was nothing you could do about it. Neither Faith nor good works could change your standing in the eyes of God and you had no way of knowing if you were saved or not. But there were clues and the hope of salvation was what this system of beliefs was all about. Samuel Moody approached his work on earth from a very particular kind of Calvinism called Preparationist Predestination.In this nuanced form of Calvinism, God grants each person a kind of foreknowledge, a preparatory grace. Some people will simply know if they are saved, hearing the call, feeling the will of God at work within them. These are the lucky ones because, although God gives everyone the ability to feel this grace, not everyone does. Some people like the good Reverend Samuel Moody felt something called “irresistible grace,” an overwhelming confirmation in your heart that you are saved, a feeling so strong that it changes your life completely. After all, if you know you are going to Heaven, then you are one of the chosen ones, you don’t have to worry anymore. Samuel believed in this kind of preparatory predestination and it is safe to say, so did his son Joseph. Ostensibly, so did the members of his congregation. The question is, did Joseph feel this irresistible grace? If he didn’t, it is also safe to say that doubt would haunt him day and night, uncertainty would gnaw at his sleep. Why hadn’t he been chosen? When would he know? How difficult it must have been to be the son of Samuel Moody. How could you ever please such a man? How could you ever hope to gain his pleasure and approval? How could you ever function outside of his shadow? When old Samuel Moody died in 1746, he did so in his son’s arms. Was there relief for Joseph who could now finally become his own man in the community or was there fear? Fear that he might not be good enough to fill his father’s shoes in the community? Fear that he was not a chosen one.
Patience Boston was a Native American woman who was executed for murder in July of 1735 outside the old York jail at the young age of twenty-three years. She had freely confessed her guilt to the authorities in York. There was no trial for Patience. Young Benjamin Trott, she said, had been lured to a well and she had pushed him in and held him down with a stick until he drowned. But before she died upon the gallows, she played a very important part in the lives of the Moodys and in particular, may well be the reason that Joseph had his breakdown and began withdrawing from the world – all of this because, though she was a confessed murderer, she may have been entirely innocent.
What we know of her actually comes from her own story, as told to the Moodys, most probably Joseph, while she lingered for a year in jail awaiting sentencing. It is one of the few first-person tracts we have from a native American of the time. Through many visits with the Moodys, she narrated her tale, though upon reading it the men state that the words may not all be hers, the spirit of what is written is. Her story begins when she was born a member of the Nauset tribe in Massachusetts, a group of natives who had converted and were known to the white settlers as the ‘praying’ Indians. Her grandfather was one of the leaders of the tribe through her mothers side, but her mother died when she was three and her father indentured her to a white family, where she was removed from her people and placed among strangers in a separate, distinctly different culture than her own. Massachusetts law at the time declared that indentured servants were required to be able to read so they could study scripture, so young Patience was taught to read but not to write, thus requiring the Moodys to scribe for her while she was in prison. She was a Native American living under the roof of an English settler at a time of the French and Indian Wars, a stranger in a strange land. In her confession she indicates that while growing up, she was wicked and set fire to the house three times. She was taught that she had a wicked spirit by her mistress, the only person who, it seems, paid the girl any attention at all, that her nature was evil and sinful.. She writes, “My mistress would tell me that if I did not repent and turn to God, he might justly leave me to greater Sins. She was greatly concerned for me, and told me she was much afraid I should come to the gallows; and though she might not live to see it, she expected it.”
When she reached the end of her indenture, she was free. The problem was that she was also an outcast. Who would she keep society with? Other natives? Probably not because she had not grown up among them and did not know them, influenced as she was by the English families she had been indentured to. The white settlers? Again, probably not, because of the color of her skin and the fact that she was native. Patience Boston had a problem: she didn’t really belong anywhere.
She gained her freedom and eventually met a black man, a slave, named Boston. Patience owned some land and used it to purchase Boston’s freedom. However, no natives were allowed to live within the confines of the town unless they were connected with a member or servant of one of the English families, so Patience indentured herself again so she could be connected and remain with her husband in the settlement. How much time she actually spent with her husband is in question. He was a whaler and gone for long stretches of time. She must have truly loved him to sacrifice so much to be with him, or perhaps she was simply so very hungry for connection to something, to someone.
During one of his absences, Patience gave birth to her first child who subsequently died soon after. She later claimed to the judicial authorities that the child was physically damaged during a particularly difficult birth and there was no way it could have lived. Truthfully, a native woman would not have expected or received help from an English master during birth, not a midwife or a helper in sight. This was her first child and she was mostly likely alone during the birth, which she claimed was a difficult one. Subsequently, she was either accused of infanticide or accused herself. A pious Christian woman of the time might well have blamed herself as having brought down the wrath of God by not being pious enough. If there was no other apparent cause, then it must be the fault of the mother for the death of the child, God’s punishment to her. To what extent Patience believed this can be inferred because, strangely enough, she claimed it happened again.
Boston returned and soon Patience was pregnant again and he was back at sea, leaving her to engage in whatever life she wanted insofar as her indenture allowed. Did she engage in the consumption of alcohol during this time? She claims she did. Did she consort with unfavorable characters while her husband was away? Yes. There was a belief in the culture of the time that if a woman was a sinner and had been actively engaged in sinful behavior that her offspring might be misshapen or deformed and the reason that the child was born this way was proof of a sinful nature. Thus, she claims in her confession, she gave birth to such a child, her second, and it only lived for a brief time, like her first. It is no stretch of the imagination to conclude that Patience blamed her child’s misshapen form and death on her own sinful behavior.
Patience accused herself once more of infanticide, claiming that she was responsible for the death of her second child as she was for the first. The court took this seriously. She took them to the place where she claimed she buried her misshapen child. There was no corpse. The court ordered her to be examined by midwives who concluded that she had not recently given birth. Had there even been a second child at all or was this second claim of infanticide a sign of some kind of deep mental illness on her part? A need for attention, a call for help? The local authorities pronounced her not guilty as there was no proof. Her husband effectively abandoned her after this debacle and Boston is not heard from again. At this point, Patience is indentured to the family of Benjamin Skillin in Falmouth, modern day Portland, Maine. She leaves Massachusetts forever.
The events so far show us a young woman who, at the age of three, was removed from her native culture and family to live with English settlers. When she comes of age, she is a young woman without a place in the world – she does not belong to the tribe in that she was not brought up as one of them. She does not belong to the English community, because as a Native American, she would always be an outsider. She gains her freedom only to sell it again so she can be with a man who is rarely home and then abandons her. She is now working for a family of strangers in a new place, a place unfamiliar and for her, it must have been even more lonely and isolating. She claims that she hated her position and her master. She writes about wanting to poison him and either cannot find the courage or the opportunity to kill him in that manner. She decides instead to kill his favorite grandchild, an 8 year old boy who she claims to love, named Benjamin Trott.
One day, with the entire family gone and while in her charge, she calls him to a well either in or near the forest and tells him that a stick has fallen into it and she needs help retrieving it. He obliges and while bent over, she claims she pushed him in and held him down under the water with another stick until he drowns. From there, she immediately goes to a neighboring house and confesses her deed. She is taken into custody and placed in York jail, which is, coincidently, not very far away from the workplace of Joseph and Samuel Moody. There, she confesses to the willful murder of the child. Because she confesses, there is no trial. Instead, she needs to be sentenced by the court that tries capital cases and that is a traveling court that visits York only once a year. She is incarcerated until they return the next year. What makes the case even stranger is that at the time of her incarceration, Patience is pregnant for a third time.
Or perhaps only her second. While in jail, she is visited often by the Moodys who listen to her and witness her conversion, pledging her life to Jesus and narrating to them one of the most remarkable narratives in early American history. Samuel Moody is convinced in the sincerity of her knowledge of possessing the ‘irresistible grace’ that he, too, has felt, from God. She is so convinced that she committed the crime that she asks to do something that might be thought of as the time’s equivalent of a lie-detector test. In front of the Coroner’s Jury, she asks to touch the body of young Benjamin Trott. At the time, there were limited methods of investigating crimes and science and logic did not always play as large a role as they do today. They had their own methods from times past. According to English folk belief, it was thought that the body of a murder victim retained some form of mystical connection to the perpetrator. If the murderer touched or somehow came into contact with the victim’s body, it was believed that the corpse would bleed, that the blood would rise to the murderer’s touch. This ‘trial by touch’ was allowed in Patience’s case. Young Trott’s body did not bruise, move or bleed at her touch, which was some proof that she did not commit this crime she admitted to. She disputed the results of this test, and perhaps she was troubled about it. Perhaps Joseph Moody was, too.
“The Faithful Narrative of the Wicked Life and Remarkable Conversion of Patience Boston” will one day become a pamphlet one could buy in any of the colonies. A repentant sinner who has experienced the irresistible grace of God, she impresses the Moodys in her earnestness and calm, convincing old Samuel that she is one of the elect, as far as he can tell. At the gallows, a man who was well-known for doubting anyone’s chances of salvation, proclaims that he is fairly certain that if Patience is telling the truth about the murder of Benjamin Trott, that she would be in Paradise with the Elect after her execution. How strange to say that if she was ‘telling the truth’, then she would be saved. Was he somehow saying publicly that he was absolving himself of his part in this affair, that the lie was hers to own, not his? Did he know she was lying?
She was hanged. Her grave is unmarked and unknown. Thus, we have the confession of a sinner and a murderer and that is the end of it. That is how it rested for two hundred years or more.
But this is where things begin to fall apart. Let’s imagine another scenario. This is not the one that will be written about, published and sold to the edification of the righteous. This one,however, might be true. On the day in question, Patience Boston is left alone to care for young 8 year old Benjamin Trott. They are together on the property and she leaves him alone for a few moments while attending to one of the many chores she is required to complete before the family returns home. She calls for young Benjamin and he does not answer. Searching for him, she finds him in the well, drowned, unable to climb out of the water on his own. She knows this is all her fault, that she should have been watching him and not knowing what else to do, she goes to the neighbors house and explains what has happened. One can imagine her taking the blame for the boy’s death, claiming that is “all my fault.” They hold her there, a native American servant with no real rights, and go to the well, finding the boy’s body as she had told them. They immediately take her to the jail, the place in the settlement where the men of the law could question her. It is not out of the question to surmise that Joseph Moody, Town Clerk, Register of Deeds, Schoolmaster and minister might have been the first to know of her presence there and he visits her in the jail, most likely accompanied by his father, the Reverend Mr. Samuel Moody of the long prayer.
Samuel sees one of the most wretched sights of his life sitting on the cold stone floor of the cell, a Native American indentured woman who has a known history of having claimed to have murdered her own children, though most people doubt the veracity of her wild assertions.. She is known to be a person who has made unsubstantiated claims in the past. And it is then that I believe Samuel Moody makes a decision as the senior pastor of the Church, a decision that will strengthen his standing among the people, a decision that will haunt Joseph for the remainder of his life. There she was, confused and alone in the world without any champions or rights, a person without support. She feels responsible for the deaths of her own children, though it seems highly likely that she did not actually murder them, and now there is another child whose life was taken because of her own negligence. She feels responsible for the child’s death, she decides, and she will most certainly burn in the fires of Hell for all eternity. She is being punished by God and she is lost, alone, and wretched.
In walks Samuel Moody, powerful, and able to speak with confidence about the assurance of salvation and the grace of God. In walks Joseph Moody right behind him, the chronicler of her story, two men whose lives are at this moment intersecting with the life of Patience Boston. Words were said among sinners in that cell, words that convinced Patience to repent and confess and accept the irresistible grace that must surely be hers, even though she die upon the gallows for it. If you tell someone they are guilty often enough, if you repeatedly beat them down with their own words, you can make them believe and say things that simply are not true. Did Samuel and Joseph Moody convince her that she was truly guilty of pushing the boy into the well, not just of negligence because she was not focused on his whereabouts at the time? Might someone already convinced of the verdict of God against her be easy to manipulate?
During her time in jail, she had moments where she despairs, moments where her anxiety about burning in Hell nearly totally consumes her. She gives birth to her child in that cell. She is allowed out to go to Church where her evil nature would be reinforced, but at least she got to leave once a week. There was no doubt as the days turned into weeks that sooner rather than later she would be executed. This gave Patience plenty of time to question her confession and that was when Joseph came to visit with his pen and paper. Sitting through hour after hour of conversation and counseling, he made sure she told him everything about her, her entire life story. One can well imagine how the more sensitive Joseph could listen with a sympathetic ear and bond with Patience, always assuring her that if she would only submit herself to the Lord, she might be gifted with that irresistible grace that would assure her she was one of his Elect, though it is very likely that Joseph never once felt that way himself. She continued to vacillate, to be unsure about having pushed young Trott into the well which would be murder or having merely lost track of where he was and therefore to be guilty only of negligence. It was a very difficult time for her. The visits from the two clergymen continue, likely her only visitors, and if old Samuel prayed with her, it is likely that he spoke out the entire narrative aloud as he prayed. And it must have been the tale we eventually read in the pamphlet that he and his son Joseph put together and even share on the gallows just before her hanging. I believe she eventually gave way, because one day she is described as being very calm and bright, happy to go to her end, convinced that she was blessed with the true knowledge that she was going to be with the Lord. She had finally found the grace that Preparationist Predestination promises. It was proof to her that she was saved.
But was she? Or was she simply brainwashed into believing that the narrative outlined by the Moodys was in fact correct and that she did willfully murder young Benjamin Trott by luring him to the well and pushing him down into the water? Though she may not have actually done this, over time did she come to believe that she might as well have and if she might as well have, then she did, in truth, willfully kill him when in all likelihood, she did not? Just as she did not kill her other two children? Just as she confessed to crimes in the past that she obviously did not commit? Samuel and Joseph Moody had a great conversion tale to tell the world, a profound prison confession that clearly showed the power of the Holy Spirit moving through the most unworthy among them in the village. If Patience Boston could feel the grace of God, the power of the Holy Spirit moving through her, was this not proof of the power and glory of the Lord?
After she was hanged, she was quickly forgotten, as was the written record scribed by Joseph Moody. One thing led to another and the Moodys never did publish her story to the world. It was only when a minister from Boston saw the story while visiting the Moodys that they decided to give this tale more attention and it was published not in York but in Boston and it quickly became a best-seller in the colonies. The names of Patience Boston and the Moodys were on the lips of many as they read the story to the family after prayers in the evening. How remarkable.! How full of wonder!
What I find remarkable about this is that the publication of her story, which didn’t occur until three years after her execution, coincides with Joseph’s breakdown and the first wearing of the cloth over his face. What if Joseph Moody had reservations about the guilt of Patience Boston? What if he had helped an innocent woman to confess something that she did not do, or what if he had seen the actual truth and said nothing, allowing events to unfold as they did? What troubled Joseph so much that three years after her death, he effectively shuts himself off from the society of others? Did he feel guilt for his part in her execution? Did he feel pain at the orphaning of her child? Did he feel anger at his father for using this poor woman as an example, possibly because she was easily manipulated? Did he truly believe in her guilt or was he haunted by it because he lacked the strength to oppose his father at the time when it was needed the most? He never told anyone why he hid from them.
In the end, my supposition is based upon a single thread, trying to make sense of an educated man’s choice to separate himself from the people, and an uneducated woman’s supposed confession, having confessed previously to murders she did not actually commit. While it is not clear how often Joseph Moody wore the veil, or even if he did at all, it is clear that he spent a great deal of time with a young woman who was troubled and lost, apart from her people, belonging nowhere, not even to Heaven above. He scribed her words and, alone in the cell with her, he may have grown to see the truth, something that is difficult to see when you’re the only one who does. He was a sensitive man, by all accounts, and might well have been troubled by the conversion of Patience Boston, suspecting that it was insincere, a kind of wish-fulfillment on her part and a promise given by his father to her that should never have been offered. Did Patience admit a false confession to the murder of Benjamin Trott? It’s possible and the good people of Old York knew it, too. All we have are modern studies to back this up, but according to the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals, false confessions were a factor in about 25% of the DNA exonerations in the United States. In her case, Patience may have likely had mental health problems that made her susceptible to making false confessions under even the slightest pressure. In a world where nothing you could do could save your soul from eternal damnation, anything was better than nothing, even confessing to murder and then claiming to be saved, convincing yourself that everything will be fine and supported by God’s top representative in the land, the good Reverend Samuel Moody. If the timing of the publication of Patience Boston’s confession and Joseph Moody’s subsequent donning of the veil is mere coincidence, then it is a strange one indeed. Was Patience Boston a murderer or did young Trott simply fall into a well and drown, an unfortunate accident, but an accident nonetheless? Did Joseph Moody ever find peace, ever feel that he was one of God’s chosen? Did he wear the veil to hide the secret sin in his part of convincing and selling the idea of Patience’s guilt to people of York, even when many disputed it? Time has a way of blinding as well as of enlightening. For over two hundred years, a young native American woman has been claimed to be one of New England’s foulest murderers of children, but was she? Or was she a tool for a powerful man who used her very life as a way of upholding his power in a world where the Devil lived in the darkness of the forest and where the damned walked the earth for only a span?
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Boston, Patience. “A faithful narrative of the wicked life and remarkable conversion of Patience Boston alias Samson; who was executed at York, in the County of York, July 24th. 1735. for the murder of Benjamin Trot of Falmouth in Casco Bay, a child of about eight years of age, whom she drowned in a well. : With a preface by the Reverend Messi. Samuel & Joseph Moody, Pastors of the churches in said town. : [Six lines of Scripture texts]” Joseph and Samuel Moody, Editors. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N03473.0001.001/1:2?rgn=div1;view=fulltext
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