Sunday, September 14, 2014

52 Ancestors #34 - Humphrey Atherson's Quaker Curse?

First published on March 16, 2012 ~
Humphrey Atherton, my 9th Great Grandfather, was a prominent man in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He became assistant governor and in that capacity he was part of the prosecution and execution of Quakers who had been banished from the colony by law. Sources provide modern researchers with two Quaker trials associated with Humphrey Atherton. I started researching because I struck by the unusual manner of death described in accounts online. 

Humphrey Atherton died September 16th (or 17th), 1661 after being thrown from his horse. Various accounts list the reason for the fall as either the horse tripped over a cow or was startled by a cow. Either way he suffered a serious head injury that resulted in his death. Wikipedia provided a starting point for my research and provided most of the pictures and Google books was a great resource for checking original sources. 

First Case: 
Mary Dyer was a Quaker who was executed in 1660 for repeatedly returning to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in violation of a law banning Quakers. Mary and her husband, William, were supporters of Anne Hutchinson (not a Quaker) and followed her to the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. It is unclear why Mary returned to Massachusetts Bay Colony as a Quaker. She was in the company of William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson. They were caught once and warned that the punishment for getting caught again would be severe. Stevenson said he felt called and sent by God to be in Boston and both he and Mary returned and were soon jailed. Mary refused pleas of her family to recant. She was spared from gallows by a last minute reprieve on October 27, 1659. Stevenson was not so fortunate and was hanged. Still Mary chose to disobey orders and returned to Boston again in May of 1660. This time there was no reprieve and she was hanged. Humphrey Atherton was on the court that sentenced her and present at her execution. "General Atherton cracked the silence, 'She hangs there like a flag,' he said." (Plimpton, p.188)

Wenlock Christison was another Quaker who repeatedly returned to Massachusetts despite banishment. He was put on trial in May 1661 and sentenced to death. However, the law was changed before his sentence was carried out. Several sources state that Wenlock Christison warned Atherton that he would soon face God's judgment. 

"Wenlock Christison Defying the Court"

Joseph Besse, Quaker author, provides the following account of Atherton's death: 
"Humfray Adderton, who at the trial of Wenlock Christison, did, as it were, bid defiance to Heaven, by saying to Wenlock, 'You pronounce Woes and Judgements, and those that are gone before you pronounced Woes and Judgements; but the Judgements of the Lord God are not upon us yet,' was suddenly surprised: having been, on a certain day, exercising his men with much pomp and ostentation, he was returning home in the evening, near the place where they usually loosed the Quakers from the cart, after they had whipped them, his horse, suddenly affrighted, threw him with such violence, that he instantly died; his eyes being dashed out of his head, and his brains coming out of his nose, his tongue hanging out at his mouth, and the blood running out at his ears: Being taken up and brought into the Courthouse, the place where he had been active in sentencing the innocent to death, his blood ran through the floor, exhibiting to the spectators a shocking instance of the Divine vengeance against a daring and hardened persecutor; that made a fearful example of that divine judgment, which, when forewarned of, he had openly despised, and treated with disdain.' "  (Besse, Woodward)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow includes the following in the final scene of his play, John Endicott. Governor Endicott is speaking to Richard Bellingham and asks if it is true that Humphrey Atherton is dead. Bellingham replies. "His horse took fright, and threw him to the ground, so that his brains were dashed about the street." Endicott's response is "I am not superstitious, Bellingham, and yet I tremble lest it may have been a judgment on him." 

So was it God's judgment for Atherton's persecution of the Quakers that caused his death? Was it a clumsy horse? Was it a wayward cow? Whichever scenario you prefer to believe, it is an unusual death. 

Humphrey Atherton is buried in the Dorchester Old North Burying Place in Boston. 

Humphrey Atherton & Mary 
Mary Atherton & William Billings
Mary Billings & John Whiting
Jemima Whiting & Jonathan Wight
Joseph Wight & Abigail Ware
Abigail Wight & Enoch Spurr
Roxanna Spurr & Edward Stanley
Mary Frances Stanley & Augustus Mellen Carter
Edward M. Carter & Fannie Mae Capen
T. Richard Carter


Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. John Endicott. Act V Scene III.

The following were accessed using Google Books: 
Woodward, Harlow Elliot. Epitaphs from the Old Burying Ground in Dorchester. Boston Highlands. 1869. p.6 

Mary Dyer: biography of a rebel Quaker by Ruth Talbot Plimpton p.188.

Besse, Joseph. William Sewel. The history of the rise, increase, and progress of the Christian people called Quakers: intermixed with several remarkable occurrences. J. Sowle. 1722. p. 343


  1. Isn't it shocking how the Puritan authorities treated the Quakers? I have no end of stories for my blog about different Quaker ancestors from Maine, New Hampshire or Massachusetts being persecuted in various ways for practicing their religion. This was a great example, too. Thanks so much for sharing with everyone!

  2. When you (individual/group) know that you know that you know what's "right", and the other (individual/group) know that they know that they know what's "right", there's not much room for anything other than an ugly sanctimonious mess. What a very shocking story... and so many parallels. Thanks for posting all the details - very informative, and thorough.

  3. I have ancestors on all sides - some Quakers and some Puritans and some Puritans who got themselves in trouble for "entertaining Quakers" in their homes. Any intolerance is unacceptable but it is unbelievable when it rises to this level of violence. I was shocked and appalled when I found this information but feel that the only way to do better in the present and the future is to know and understand what happened in the past. Thanks for reading!

  4. I'm also a multi-great grandaughter of Humprephy Atherton. I'm going to Salem and Boston, Mass. for the first time in a couple of weeks and thrilled to feel part of my heritage... even if the man was a completely merciless.

  5. The only thing Mary Dyer rebeled against was wickedness.just like the Apostles did in their day. Also the prophets in the OT. It is jurnaled in George Fox,s writing that the Lord told her to go back and preach against wickedness. She loved them enough to give her life

  6. So am I a great great, he's my ancestor and I am a Witch, I find it quite funny, I am going there to see him personally at the Dorchester North Burying ground.

  7. I'm not sure how back he is of my ancestry, it's too hard to do the math, beyond tenth great great's.

  8. yes and on my other side are Quakers, Mennonites, Amish. I'm sickened. But he's my ancestor, I want to know why.

  9. I mean I want to know why he did it to them. I like the Quakers and their ideology. I think that's how I am related to the Pendle Hill witches of Lancashire, Uk. sorry so many posts. I couldn't get it all out in one.