Home Crime and Scandal Puritan Child Killers: Hannah Duston and Her Sister

Puritan Child Killers: Hannah Duston and Her Sister

Some killings were OK, but others weren't

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Hannah Duston and Elizabeth Emerson both confessed to the Rev. Cotton Mather about the children they’d killed. Hannah had tomahawked six native children in New Hampshire and taken their scalps. Elizabeth had hidden the bodies of her illegitimate twins in a trunk and then buried them in Haverhill, Mass.

Mather praised Hannah as a heroine, Elizabeth as a sinner.


Cotton Mather

Hannah collected a bounty for her scalps and later had statues erected in her honor. Elizabeth was hanged on Boston Common and buried in an unmarked grave.

It was a violent and unsettled time. Haverhill, a Puritan town on the frontier, faced threats from without and within. Women were especially vulnerable to those threats, which included King William’s War, the Salem witch trials and predatory Puritans.

As Hannah Duston and Elizabeth Emerson both found out.

Hannah Duston

Hannah was the first child of Michael and Hannah Emerson’s 15 children. She was born Dec. 23, 1657, and she married at 20.  She had 12 children with her husband, Thomas Duston, a farmer and brickmaker. Nine of their children survived infancy. For the first eight of her children, Hannah had left her sickbed the day after giving birth. People said she could do the work of a man.

In 1688, King William’s War broke out, the second of the French and Indian wars over control of North America and the fur trade. The northern theater of the war included New England, Acadia and Newfoundland. Frontier towns like Haverhill were especially vulnerable to attack.

The Duston Garrison house in Haverhill, probably under construction when Hannah was captured.

At dawn on March 15, 1697, 20 or 30 Wabanaki warriors attacked Haverhill. They killed 27 people, mostly children, and captured 13 more. Hannah’s husband, Thomas, working some distance from his home, heard the raid. He then led seven of his eight children to safety in a garrison.  The natives captured 39-uear-old Hannah, her infant and her nurse, Martha Neff.

They then began a trek north through New Hampshire accompanied by 19 or 20 Abenaki. Hannah later told Cotton Mather they hadn’t gone far when one warrior smashed her infant’s head against a tree.

The Abenaki then met up with a family group of 12 natives, including five adults ams seven children.  and a 14-year-old English boy named Samuel Lennardson, captured over a year earlier in Worcester. The Indians told them they would be stripped and forced to run a gauntlet when they reached their village.

Hannah Duston Memorial at the site of the massacre

Taking a Scalp

They stopped to camp on an island at the confluence of the Merrimack and Contoocook rivers. One of the native men showed Samuel how to kill a person with a tomahawk and how to take a scalp.

The three captives waited until the Indians went to sleep. Then, they clubbed and scalped 10 of the 12 kidnappers. One woman and one child escaped. Hannah Duston collected the scalps to prove that she’d killed them and to collect a bounty. Then they made their way home along the Merrimack River.

A few days after she arrived home, Hannah Duston went to Boston. There she told her story to Cotton Mather and Judge Samuel Sewall. Mather delivered a sermon that year, and wrote about her in A Notable Exploit; wherein Dux Faemina Facti. In it, he portrayed Hannah as a Puritan saint who delivered her people with the help of the Almighty.

She collected 25 pounds for her scalps from the General Court of Massachusetts, and Marylan

Elizabeth Emerson

Mather already knew Hannah’s little sister, Elizabeth. Six years earlier, he had interviewed her in a Boston prison cell. At the time, accusations of witchcraft had begun to roil Salem. As a leading Puritan clergyman, Mather would urge the witch trial judges to root out the evildoers.

Elizabeth was born Jan. 25, 1665, the fifth child of Michael and Hannah Emerson. Violence would trouble her youth. In 1676, Michael Emerson was ordered to pay a fine for “cruel and excessive beating …and kicking” of 11-year-old Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth turned 20, she gave birth to an illegitimate daughter she named Dorothy. Her father accused a neighbor, Timothy Swan, of getting her pregnant. Swan’s father denied it because “he… had charged him not to go into that wicked house and his son had obeyed and furthermore his son could not abide the jade.”

Elizabeth later named Samuel Ladd as Dorothy’s father.  Ladd, a married, well-to-do landowner and leader of the local militia, had once in 1677 been caught sneaking into the bedroom of a young woman at night. When her parents caught him, he leaped out of the house. A court later fined him for a misdemeanor.

On the night of May 7, 1691, Elizabeth Emerson delivered twins, quietly, in a trundle bed at the foot of her sleeping parents. They claimed not to have noticed.


One of the infants was later found with the umbilical cord around its neck. Both may have been stillborn. Elizabeth later said she knew one was dead. She also denied murdering her children until she neared her own end. It does seem likely that in 1691 an unattended birth of twins, possibly premature, might not go well.

Regardless, Elizabeth managed to hide the dead babies in a trunk for three days, then sewed them up in a bag and buried them in the yard.

Nathaniel Saltonstall

Elizabeth couldn’t keep her secret. On Sunday, when her parents went to meeting, Elizabeth stayed home, unwell. Nathaniel Saltonstall, later a witch trial judge, led a group of neighbors to her house to check on the rumors of her pregnancy. They made Elizabeth submit to an examination by some of the women who’d come with them, including Mary Neff. The women concluded she’d delivered children. The men found the bodies of the babies in a shallow grave. Elizabeth was arrested.

The next day they questioned her parents. Her mother suspected Elizabeth had gotten pregnant, though she denied it. Her father had no idea. However, he said he knew who had fathered the children – Samuel Ladd. Elizabeth named Ladd as well, claiming he was the only man she’d ever slept with.

Elizaeth Emerson went to jail in Boston. Even if she had given birth to stillborn babies, Massachusetts made it a crime to conceal the birth of a child. She was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang.

No one ever questioned or charged Samuel Ladd.

Cotton Mather said he spent many weary hours with her trying to get her to confess to the crime. She kept insisting on her innocence.


Elizabeth spent two years in a Boston prison cell. Finally she did confess to Mather, or so he said. He probably wrote her confession.

I am a Miserable Sinner; and I have Justly Provoked the Holy God to leave me unto that Folly of my own Heart, for which I am now Condemned to Dy … I believe, the chief thing that hath, brought me, into my present Condition, is my Disobedience to my Parents: I despised all their Godly Counsils and Reproofs; and I was always an Haughty and Stubborn Spirit. So that now I am become a dreadful Instance of the Curs of God belonging to Disobedient Children.

Cotton Mather delivered a sermon about Elizabeth on the day of her hanging. She sat and listened with the congregation as he went into detail about different kinds of “uncleanness.” He later bragged that it was one of his finest efforts. He had it published, and people “greedily bought it up.” Wrote one commenter,  It is no wonder it was greedily bought up.   It was the closest thing to pornography of its day.”

On June 8, 1693, Elizabeth Emerson died on the gallows on Boston Common. A black indentured servant named Grace was hanged next to her.

The Hannah Duston Memorial

About six weeks after Elizabeth’s death, Samuel Ladd’s father died and he received a large inheritance. On Feb. 22, 1698, Samuel Ladd died, ambushed by natives.

The Hannah Duston statue in Haverhill

Not until the 1830s did Hannah Duston’s story become popular. Then Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sarah Josepha Hale and John Greenleaf Whittier picked it up.

Public funds paid for a statue of Hannah Duston, erected in 1874 on the island in Boscawen, N.H., where she killed the Indians and escaped. Five years later, the people of Haverhill created a statue in her memory.

Images: Hannah Duston Memorial By Craig Michaud at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15226877. Duston Garrison house By Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21510246. This story last updated in 2023.


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