Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation
Committee Co-Chair (if applicable)
infanticide; concealment; puritan; early america; jeremiad
This dissertation investigates the crime of concealment in Puritan Massachusetts. The 1624 Jacobean statute, which specifically identified concealing as both the crime and the evidence, provided the basis for prosecuting women who concealed the death of an infant. This dissertation focuses on an analysis that connects the act of concealment to a larger discussion of a woman’s association with secrecy and hiding that led to labeling her postpartum, criminal body as a threat to the colony. The act of concealment was evidence of a woman’s ability to control her own reproduction and her unwillingness to acknowledge her calling in Puritan Massachusetts: motherhood. This dissertation begins with a historical examination of the Massachusetts Bay colony to argue that, because of their covenant, illicit sexual misconduct and concealment caused a rift between the body of the colony and God’s favor. Their use of the 1624 statute for concealment and use of the Old Testament precepts were manifestations of their desire to form a legal system that enforced the values of the Puritan community specific to Massachusetts Bay. Chapter one also investigates anxieties concerning captivity, war, revocation of their charter, and declension of the Massachusetts Bay colony to contextualize the tense atmosphere surrounding the Puritan leadership that underscores the development of the Puritan jeremiad as an execution sermon for concealment. Chapter two traces the use of religious texts as instruments of literacy as well as for spiritual and emotional sustenance. Investigating the community’s belief in the power of printed material in a wilderness, both physical and spiritual, foregrounds the discussion about the role of the intimate connection between reading and spiritual life as they formed their Congregational Church. In Puritan Massachusetts women were exceptionally vulnerable in cases of immorality and sexual transgression, even more so when the sexual transgression resulted in a pregnancy. This vulnerability coupled with subjective criminality created a precarious situation for young, unmarried women. Chapter three analyzes Thomas Foxcroft’s sermon and Rebekah Chamblit’s declaration to show the rhetorical function of these texts. Chapter four argues these texts labeled Rebekah’s postpartum body a threat because of her ability to conceal evidence of her sexual sin and denied her calling to motherhood: a tenet of a virtuous woman in Puritan Massachusetts.
White, Jennifer, "Vile transgressor of the womb : prosecution and persecution for concealment in Puritan Massachusetts." (2019). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 3142.