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Early American Criminals: The Conversion of Esther Rodgers

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The night before the special event, Esther Rodgers exclaimed to the group of people who had gathered in her cell, “Oh! I have had the joyfullest day to day that ever I had in my whole life. I bless God that ever I came into this Prison.”

Rodgers’s exclamation is remarkable. She had little exposure to religion growing up and had never given it much thought. She had had a long stay in prison–more than eight months–and when her confinement first commenced, she barely talked to the ministers or to the other Christian townspeople who regularly visited her, giving them no more than yes or no answers to the questions they posed. But one minister records that over time, “She felt the power of the Word preached, inlightning, convincing, humbling and softening of her heart,” and she began to read and collect passages from the Scriptures.

Rodgers’s comment is remarkable in other ways. Not only is it an expression of her conversion to an evangelical Christianity, but it also implies that had she not committed the crimes that she did, she may never have come to accept God’s word. Her potential salvation after death, in other words, would ultimately come on the backs of her victims. Can Divine Grace truly be handed out when her past actions against those victims are at least partially justified as a means to her personal salvation?

And finally, Rodgers’s remark is significant in that it is a window into her mental state on the night before the special event, i.e., her execution.

The Crimes

Esther Rodgers was born in Kittery, ME sometime in May 1680. In her “Declaration and Confession,” she mentions nothing about her parents or her early childhood and skips ahead to the age of thirteen, when she became an apprentice to Joseph Woodbridge of Newbury, MA. Even though the Woodbridge family exposed Rodgers to religion and taught her to read, she infrequently observed the Sabbath and never paid much attention to the sermons when she did attend church.

At the age of seventeen while still living with the Woodbridges, Rodgers “was left to fall into that foul Sin of Uncleanness, suffering my self to be defiled by a Negro Lad living in the same House.” She became pregnant. Fearful of the public shame that it would bring her, she hid the pregnancy, resolved to murder the child if it were born alive, and continued her relations with the boy.

When the time came, she delivered a living child, so she “stop[ped] the breath of it,” hid the body in her room, and in the dark of night the following day buried it in the garden. No one ever knew or suspected what had happened, including the father of the child.

Six months later, Rodgers left Newbury and moved into a public tavern in Piscataqua, NH, where she gave herself “up to other wicked Company and ways of Evil.” One year later she returned to the Woodbridge family, but the memories of what she did there forced her to move to another part of town, where, as she says, “I took all Opportunities to follow my old Trade of running out a Nights, or entertaining Sinful Companions in a back part of the House.”

Once again, Rodgers became pregnant by an African-American who lived in the same house as she did. Just like last time, she attempted to hide her pregnancy, but when the time came to deliver the child, she left the house and went out into a field. Rodgers claims that she was not sure whether the infant was born alive or dead, but either way, she took the child to the side of a pond, covered its body with dirt and snow, and returned home.

Some people suspected that Rodgers had left the house to deliver a baby and confronted her, but she avoided answering their questions. The next day some neighbors discovered the body of her dead infant, and when it was placed in front of Rodgers, she had no choice but to confess to the crime.

Samuel Sewall, one of the judges at the trial of Esther Rodgers.

Rodgers was held in Newbury for about one month before being transferred to the Ipswich prison where she went through her spiritual conversion. At her trial, she was found guilty of murder and condemned to die. One of the judges, Samuel Sewall, wrote in his diary that after Rodgers received her sentence, “She hardly said a word. I told her God had put two children for her to nurse: Her mother did not serve her so. Esther [of the Bible] was a great saviour; she a great destroyer. Said did not do this to insult over her, but to make her sensible.”

The Spectacle

On July 31, 1701, the High Sheriff prepared a cart to carry Rodgers to the place of execution, but she requested to walk on foot, and a few ministers joined her to talk spiritual matters as she went along. After about a mile, her pace began to falter under the weight of what she faced, but she recovered and gained strength when the gallows came into sight. As she reached the base of the scaffold, she turned to thank the ministers and then climbed up the ladder “without stop or trembling.”

When Rodgers reached the top, this formerly reserved woman addressed the estimated crowd of four or five thousand people by shouting out her last dying words, which concluded:

O my dear Friends–Take Warning by me. Here I come to Dy, and if God be not Merciful to my Soul, I shall be undone to all Eternity–If I do not turn by Repentance. I Bless God, I have found more Comfort in Prison, than ever before. O Turn to God now. O how hard it is to Repent; If you go on in Sin, God may give you up to a hard Heart. Oh! Turn whilst the Day of Grace lasts.

Rodgers recited a prayer, and with her eyes and hands lifted toward heaven, the officer bound her face with a handkerchief. After he placed the halter around her neck, she cried out, “O Lord Jesus, Now Lord Jesus, I am a Coming: O Come Lord Jesus by Thy Pardoning Mercy, to Save me Now, or I Perish for ever. My Blessed Jesus,–O Lord Jesus, have Pity upon me, O Good Lord.”

When she finished speaking, one of the ministers assured her, “We have Recommended you to God, and done all we can for you, and must now leave you.–If your Hopes can lay hold upon the irresistible Grace and Mercy of God in Christ, and you can cast your self into His Armes, you are Happy for Ever.–And so we must bid you Fare-Well.”

The Question

Whether or not Rodgers’s conversion was sincere, the entire spectacle–including the published account of her life, dying words, and interactions with the clergy–was carefully choreographed. At least seven ministers took credit for the spiritual conversion of Rodgers, and by their account, Rodgers played the role of the Christian convert that they had written for her perfectly.

But the question posed at the beginning of this narrative remains: can Divine Grace truly be handed out when the circumstances of the conversion came at the expense of two “poor murdered Infants” and when their mother’s actions possibly resulted in “sending them to Hell”? The ministers certainly thought so, since their intent in publishing the story of Esther Rodgers and her conversion was to show how even the most miserable sinner can be saved by the Christian God.

When one of the visitors to Rodgers’s cell the night before her execution confronted her with just this question, she answered, “I have greatly mourned for my cruelty and wrong to [the infants], as well as Sin against God in all that I have done.” When a visitor continued to press Rodgers by asking, “But how do you think to answer the Cry of their Blood?,” she responded, “I trust I have an Advocate, and many like things.”

Sources

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  1. The Conversion of Esther Rodgers | Pilgrim Outskirts on Thursday, June 28, 2012 at 4:04 am

    [...] Early American Crime › Early American Criminals: The Conversion of Esther Rodgers. [...]

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