Whenever I am working on The Prince Project (my database of people of color who were in Maine prior to 1800), I encounter many heart-wrenching stories.
The accounts of abuse and the fights for freedom leave me breathless. So many preferred to face death rather than to remain enslaved. Others inspire me with their courage against all odds. And then there are those who simply haunt me.
Patience Boston (aka, “Samson”) is one of them.
She lived only 23 years. She died In York, Maine, in July of 1735, executed for murdering her master’s grandson.
My question is: Did Patience suffer from some kind of mental illness or behavioral disorder from a young age? Did she find the strict Puritan teachings of her enslavers so overbearing that she rebelled? Or did the burden of slavery simply prove too much and drove her to commit the crimes that took her to the gallows?
What would she have been like if she had been allowed to live her life as a free woman? That is what is so troubling. These are questions no one can answer.
The story of Patience is rare because a written account of her life actually exists. It is even more unusual in that it is purportedly in her own voice. In the year in which she was incarcerated prior to her execution, the reverends Samuel and Joseph Moody visited her and “transcribed” their interviews.
Originally they hoped to publish their work, but the public lost interest in Patience and so did the Moodys following her execution. People moved on to other matters at hand. Three years later, a publisher learned of the report. It was finally released in 1738 under the title, “A Faithful Narrative of the Wicked Life and Remarkable Conversion of Patience Boston, Alias Samson.”
The Moodys opened their narrative by proclaiming it an “astonishing Relation of a bloody Malefactor’s Conversion.” Sadly, as the title and this opening suggest, their interest was in her final embrace of Christianity. There was no empathy for Patience the enslaved woman. Quite possibly, she added much more to her narrative than was included in the published piece.
Again, we don’t know. Many can argue that, given the era in which she lived, with more emphasis on the religious and less on the human, that would naturally have been the focus.
But in reading it today, I want to know more about the conditions of her life of servitude that drove her to the despair that ultimately caused her demise.
Thus, once again, much like the gravestone of Prince from my previous blog, we have to read between the lines, do our background checks, and imagine the real circumstances in which Patience lived.
Patience was a Native American woman of the Nauset Tribe who was born on Monamoy Island off Cape Cod on December 26, 1711. According to her Narrative, her father was John Samson and her mother was Sarah Jethro. Historically, forty years earlier, by the time of King Phillip’s War in the 1670s, most of her people had already been fully Christianized and firm allies of the colonists. Patience, herself, related, “I suppose I was Baptized in my Infancy, my Mother being in full Communion with an Indian Church at Nosset, as I have been informed.”
When she was a mere three years old, her mother died and her father bound her to a local family headed by Paul Crowe or Crowell, until she was 21. The hope was for her care and education. For the Crowes, it was another matter. Their objective was to have a servant and to “save” Patience by bringing her more firmly into their religious fold.
At the onset, this proved problematic. Patience rejected their religious doctrines. She claimed, “I took little notice of what was said to me. I used to play on the Sabbath, tell lies, and do other Wickedness.”
Her “wickedness” included spiteful shenanigans such as letting the cows out of their pastures when the locals were at church. For her decidedly fierce independence, she was deemed a “mischievous and rebellious servant.” By the time she was 12, she had even tried to set the house on fire three times which, I concede, goes well beyond a misbehaving pre-adolescent.
This begs the question: What else was happening in this household to make a young girl want to destroy her only home?
To make life more difficult for her, Mrs. Crowe passed away when Patience was only 15. Regardless of the mistress/enslaved relationship, Mrs. Crowe was the only person in her life that was interested in her development, even if it was mainly religious. Even Patience admitted that “she was a Mother to me.”
Following Mrs. Crowe’s passing, Patience progressed to sneaking out at night, seeking out “bad company” and engaging in “lewd Practices.” In her own words, she “had soon worn off the little Sense I had of Religion.”
Being indentured did not guarantee better treatment than being fully enslaved, the latter defined as a “servant for life.” One simply had a time limit and the other did not.
The effects on one’s young life could be very much the same.
Yet, somehow, she endured sufficiently to finish out her term at 21 years old. Before her death, she related in the Narrative that, at that time: “I thought my self happy that I Had no Body to Command me.”
In retrospect, it seemed the only time she was happy.
Sadly this freedom was short lived. Patience married an enslaved African American, a local wheelman on a whaler. As soon as she joined him, her husband’s master informed her that she, too, was now his property! “Because his Master would have it so, I bound my self a Servant with him during his Life Time, or as long as we both should live.”
Such were the rules that benefited the slave masters.
Patience rebelled. This time there was no redemption. She spiraled out of control.
Had her sense of outrage, helplessness, and hopelessness breached her breaking point?
She herself claimed: “After this I was drawn in to the Love of strong Drink, by some Indians, & used to Abuse my Husband in Words and Actions, being mad and furious in my Drink, speaking dreadful Words.”
During this period, she had two children. Both died. The first was born with birth injuries and passed away after a couple weeks. The second one was found dead in bed at two months of age.
Patience insisted she was responsible for their deaths and even confessed to the authorities. But because of her alcoholism and bursts of rage, no one could determine whether she indeed had killed her children, or had only contemplated their murder before their natural deaths.
All charges were dropped, and at that point, Patience attempted to find a new path for her future even within the constraints of servitude.
“I was sent back again to Prison, till Security should be given for the Charges; but I chose rather to be Bound to a new Master for two Years, than to go back to my last Master; and my Husband consenting, I was Bound to Capt Dimmick, who after about a Year sold me, at my desire, to Mr. Joseph Bailey of Casco Bay, I being enticed by an Indian Woman who was sold in those Parts; and the great Thing that moved me to desire to go into the Eastern Parts was the Hope I had of more Opportunity to follow my wicked Courses.”
That, too, was short-lived and eventually Bailey sold her to Benjamin Skillins of Falmouth, now Portland.
For a brief moment, Patience seemed peaceful. Or at least reliable enough that Skillins entrusted his 8-year-old grandson, Benjamin Trott, to her. They appeared to get along.
But Patience was now too far along on her path of destruction. Even though she later claimed that she cared for the boy, she felt compelled to kill him. Her anger was actually directed towards her Master. “From some groundless Prejudice which I had taken against my Master,…I did last Fall bind my self by a wicked Oath that I would kill that Child, though I seem’d to love him, and he me.”
She lured Benjamin into the woods, threw him down a well, and then held him down under the water.
As she later described, she lifted her hands to the sky following the boy’s death, saying “ Now I am guilty of Murder indeed; though formerly I accused myself fals’ly, yet now has God left me.” She walked two miles to a house and confessed her crime.
From there, the narrative focused on her self-proclaimed path to salvation. At first, she wanted nothing to do with the ministers. She contemplated suicide.
“And the Destroyer of my Soul hurried me, hurried me from Day to Day, to murder my self; and if I could have found a Way to put an End to my Life, I should surely have done it. I wished for a Knife, or a String, my Garters and Coat String being taken from me. I wished I could have gone to the Water, which I saw through the Grates, to have Drowned my self.”
But one night, she went to bed “full of Trouble,” yet woke up the next morning with a sense of relief. “I looked out, and all Things seemed pleasant and smiling. I thought if I as to be Executed that Day, Death would seem pleasant to me.”
From there, she asked to speak with the ministers and began to embrace, in fits and starts, her road to their redemption.
Patience spoke often about her self-image as a sinner. Every event in her life that she related was framed by that. It was only her sins, not those of the people who enslaved her and abused her. No one questioned the life she had been forced to lead, an enslaved woman of color in a white colonial society.
The Moody brothers were elated that such a “wicked” woman had found Jesus, converted and repented for her sins as she stood in the cart on her way to the gallows.
In fact, Moody himself spoke at her execution, using Patience as an example and admonishing the onlookers that those present “if they did not begin to seek God in earnest that Night, would perish forever.”
I wonder. Was it a genuine serenity that she found at the end, or did an enslaving white society finally succeed in crushing the soul out of this free spirit?