Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Saturday, September 15, 2012

John Winthrop, Scoundrel and Cheat

This is a little study on inaccurate history and how it gets going.

Here's what I read this morning:

"Winthrop befriended the younger [Isaac] Johnson (29 years old at his death) in earlier days in England. . .  Winthrop on Isaac Johnson's death put in probate a sum of over £75,000. Isaac's brother Capt. James Johnson, on his arrival in 1635 was denied his title and right to Isaac's property. With the help of Dudley and others Winthrop kept this wealth in probate, and took fees, for over 30 years. Many documents where destroyed in a very mysterious manner. The documents were part of the "doomsday record" kept by the founders of Boston. Winthrop and others accuse Johnson's wife of adultery and placed her on gallows with the rope on neck, only to let her go. Capt. James Johnson's only crime was to allow his wife to have Bible studies in his home with Ann Hutchinson, "a good woman of the Christian faith" who along with the Lady Arbella came from Lincolnshire, England."
Now, the current take on John Winthrop was that he was a man of honor and so forth; he's even been dubbed a "Forgotten Founding Father" by his most recent biographer, Francis Bremer.  So this is rather shocking, to hear that he kept money away from its rightful recipient so the town could profit from probate fees, and that he threatened to kill off the heir's wife (which is I think insinuated above) to boot.  I'd never heard this story before.  Said biographer Bremer does not mention it.

I've spent some four hours this morning trying to track down the source of this story, armed with nothing but my trusty internet connection and whatever books I have on hand here at home.  What I've found is the same, identical, block of text copied and posted far and wide across the internet, especially on genealogy websites.  And by the way, if you're doing genealogy, beware.  Those sites are unbelievably error-ridden.

I think the original internet source of this story is a guide to touring Boston that Mobil put out.  But where they got this information, I still don't know.  A trip to Northwestern University should clear it up.  I hope.

But I'm pretty sure it's a crock.  I've found no other reference to a dispute over Johnson's will, or the probate issue, independent of the above blurb.  I found a Captain James Johnson, but he did not come over in 1635 and it's not clear if he was a relative of Isaac's or not.  If there is a second Capt'n Johnson, I've yet to locate him.  I've found no mention of a trial for adultery for James Johnson's wife Margery, though I have some more hunting to do on that yet.  Likewise, I've found no connection yet between Mistress Johnson and Hutchinson.

Concerning the "doomsday record:" This is cleared up in "Records Relating to the Early History of Boston"( readily available for download), which refers to Boston's "Book of Possessions" as "our Doomsday Book."  To students of English history, the reference is simple enough.  The Doomsday (or Domesday) Book was compiled shortly after William the Conquerer conquered England in 1066.  It is compilation of all property owned in England, and it was for tax purposes.  First the Normans invaded, then they taxed, but they had assess valuation first.  No wonder the English called this assessment, "The Doomsday Book."  (And a wonderful document it is for historians, for it provides a snapshot of 11th century England society and economy.)

So "our doomsday book" means the New England listing of all land held -- who had what, where.  This listing -- the "Book of Possessions" -- is reprinted in The Second Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston, also available online.  It was not destroyed.   I'm not sure what documents the author above was referring to that were mysteriously destroyed, and if they were destroyed, what documents he was using for this story.  Capt. Johnson is mentioned in the Book of Possessions, but only as a property owner -- not as a litigant.

Now this took a morning for me to track even this much of it down.  I still don't know where these rather specific numbers came from.  The moral of the story is you can't just buy whatever you read on the internet, and blithely repost.

I'm completely impressed that you're still reading.  As a little reward for your patience, here's a guffaw  for you from a genealogy site.  It's a biography from of Isaac Johnson:

Born:  1589
Married: 1582 to Arabella Meaner
Died:  1630
Married:  1630 to Arbella Clinton

Another genealogist records his birth year as 1601 but then says on the same page that their child was born in 1575.  Didn't something like that happen on Dr. Who last season?

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