The Native-American servant Patience Boston developed, in her words, “some groundless Prejudice” against her new master, so she tried to come up with ways to take action against him. She thought about poisoning his food, but she did not have access to a toxin that would kill him. She tried to burn down his barn, but she was prevented from carrying out her plan. With these failed attempts, the choice became clear: she needed to act on the “wicked Oath” that she had made with herself last fall, which was to kill the master’s grandchild, “though I seem’d to love him, and he me.”
Patience Boston, alias Samson, was born on December 26, 1711 in Monamoy, which is an island near Chatham, MA on Cape Cod. Her mother, Sarah Jethro, died when Boston was three, so her father, John Samson, bound her as a servant to Paul Crow. The Crow family taught her to read, counseled her in following Christ’s word, and warned her about “sinful Courses.”
But Boston was “very Wicked.” She played on the Sabbath, told lies, and ignored her family’s teachings. At age twelve, she tried to set the house on fire on three separate occasions. While members of the household were at church, Boston would let the cattle out into the corn fields. As she got older she “went out a Nights, and kept bad Company, and followed lewd Practices.” She left the Crows after completing her term of service and began to steal. One year later, she married an African-American servant, and she became a servant as well when her husband’s master insisted that she become bound to him for as long as the two should live.
Soon after her marriage, Boston “was drawn in to the Love of strong Drink, by some Indians.” When she became intoxicated, she would abuse her husband with both word and action. After she discovered she was pregnant, she began to have thoughts about murdering her expected baby. While her husband was away on a whaling voyage, she ran away from her master, drank to excess, and committed adultery. She returned home in time to deliver the baby, but her wild excursion resulted in the child being born with two broken arms, and it died within a few weeks.
Boston continued her course of drinking, lying, swearing, and arguing with her husband until she became pregnant once again. Thoughts of murdering her baby returned to her after it was born, but before acting on her impulses the two-month-old child suddenly died in its bed.
Less than a month later, in order to get back at her husband during a fight, she lied and told him that she had murdered their last child. He immediately brought her before a Justice, who saw that she was drunk and put off making any judgment about her case until the morning when she was sober. But in order to strengthen her resolve to stick by her story, Boston got drunk in the morning. Once again, the Justice put off a decision until later in the day, but before he showed up a third time in the evening, Boston drank still more rum. She continued to maintain that she had murdered her child, so she was finally sent to prison.
At her trial, Boston pleaded not guilty, and she was acquitted on account of the change in her story and there being no other evidence against her. She was released from prison, and, with the consent of her husband, she was bound to a different master, Capt. Dimmick, who then sold her to Joseph Bailey of Casco Bay. While in Maine, she continued drinking and swearing and even claimed to have murdered another one of her babies, although nothing came of it, because the body of a child could not be found where she claimed to have buried it and an examination by a panel of matrons concluded that she had not recently delivered a baby.
Joseph Bailey must have grown tired of Boston’s behavior, because he sold her to the master who now earned her scorn. On July 9, 1734, the perfect opportunity finally arrived for Patience Boston to act on her resolution to kill her master’s grandchild, whom he had been raising as his own. Both her master and mistress were out of the house and had left Boston and the boy home alone together. She lured the child out into the woods with the intent of beating him over the head with a large stick, but just as she was about to lift up the weapon, she began to tremble and lost her courage.
Instead, she went to the well, dropped her stick down it, and asked the boy to help her retrieve it, and when he arrived at the edge of the well, she pushed him in. She then grabbed a long pole and used it to hold the boy under the water until he drowned. Seeing that he was dead, she lifted up her hands and eyes toward the sky and cried, “Now am I guilty of Murder indeed; though formerly I accused my self falsly, yet now has God left me.”
Boston left the child in the well and walked two miles to a house, where she confessed to carrying out the deed.
Boston stayed in prison in York, ME for months while she waited for the Supreme Court to convene and hear her case. During that time, one witness often found her,
crying out in a most terrible Manner, such as I never heard the like. She smote her Hands together often, and kept continually lamenting and roaring and shrieking, for I think Hours together, with little Intermission. Some of her Expressions, which she repeated with utmost Vehemency, ten or twenty Times together, were such as follow–O I have offended a merciful God! a merciful God! I have offended the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. O Sin, Sin, Sin! &c.
But a sudden change came over Boston. She reflected later that “my Case seemed desperate, till I seemed to have some Glimmering of Hope.” One night she fell asleep “full of Trouble,” but she awoke at one point in the night “in a more calm and easy Frame than I had been for a Week before, when I used sometime to cry out at my first Waking, that I was going to Hell! But now I could think about Believing in Christ.”
Boston pleaded guilty to the murder and was sentenced to die. Even though she continued to experience moments of despair after her sudden conversion, two ministers–the father-and-son duo, Samuel and Joseph Moody–continued to counsel her until she fully embraced the religion that her first master and mistress failed to instill in her at a young age. At one point her third child, whom Boston must have delivered while she was in prison, came down with a fever. The thought occurred to her that, if God pleased, the best situation might be for him to die before she did. But she asked the congregation to pray for the child, and he recovered.
Boston was executed on July 24, 1735 in York, ME. She was assured before she received her final punishment that her child was in the custody of a good family who would attend to the welfare of both its body and soul.
A Faithful Narrative of the Wicked Life and Remarkable Conversion of Patience Boston, Alias Samson was not published until 1738, three years after Boston’s execution. The text contains a preface by Samuel and Joseph Moody, who in it maintain, “This astonishing Relation of a bloody Malefactor’s Conversion, was taken from her Mouth while she was in Prison, and being publickly read to her on the Lecture a few Hours before her Execution, she did unconstrainedly own it, as what she had in very Deed experienced.”
The Moodys go on to admit, “It must be confessed, that it could not be exactly taken in her own Way of expressing her self.” But they then use their claim that the “Account was not drawn up in haste, but Things were written down at twenty several Times–One Day Week and Month after another” as further proof of the authenticity of Boston’s narrative.
By the time the Moodys’ manuscript was ready for publication, interest in the case of Patience Boston had died down, and so there were not enough subscribers to bankroll its publication. Years later, a gentleman saw a copy of the text while conducting business at court, and he was so moved by the story that he offered to cover the entire cost of publishing it.
As a further side note, at the time that Joseph, the younger Moody, helped write the Preface, he began wearing a veil over his face and refused to remove it unless he was facing a wall or had his eyes shut tight. This eccentric behavior supposedly symbolized his sorrow over the accidental death of a childhood friend and the recent death of his wife. He became known as “Handkerchief Moody,” and Nathaniel Hawthorne used him as inspiration for Parson Hooper in his story, “The Minister’s Black Veil.”
- “Boston.” New-England Weekly Journal, July 22, 1734, issue CCCLXXX, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
- “Boston.” New-England Weekly Journal, June 23, 1735, issue 429, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
- Boston, Patience. A Faithful Narrative of the Wicked Life and Remarkable Conversion of Patience Boston, Alias Samson. Boston: Kneeland & Green, 1738. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank. A web version of the text can be found at: Text of the work: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA05/peltier/conversion/boston.html.
- Cohen, Daniel A. Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.
- Williams, Daniel E. Pillars of Salt: An Anthology of Early American Criminal Narratives. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1993.