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Harvard Student Beaten in 1674, President Takes Fall

A Puritan who punished too much

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If Leonard Hoar hadn’t been so mean he might have realized his dream of turning Harvard into a leading 17th-century research institution with chemical laboratories, a botanical garden, an agricultural-research station and a mechanical workshop.

Colonial engraving, Harvard College

Colonial engraving, Harvard College

Hoar was a conservative Puritan, and his harsh discipline made him deeply unpopular. He resigned as president of Harvard under pressure after two years and four months. The last straw may have been the severe beating of a student, Thomas Sargeant, for blasphemy. Tutors resigned in disgust, students mocked Hoar and all but three walked out.

Hoar quit six months later, a broken man in his mid-40s who died within a year of his resignation.

Hoar was born in England about 1630 and emigrated to Massachusetts with his mother after his father died. He graduated from Harvard in 1650, became a preacher and returned to England. He married the daughter of John Lisle, a member of Parliament who sentenced King Charles I to death.

Samuel Sewall

Samuel Sewall

Hoar came back to Massachusetts in 1672. On December 10 of that year the General Court appointed him president of Harvard. Not much is known about Hoar’s tenure at Harvard – except for the beating of Thomas Sargeant.

On June 15, 1674, Samuel Sewall wrote in his diary:

Thomas Sargeant was examined by the Corporation; finally, the advice of Mr. Danforth, Mr. Stoughton, Mr. Thatcher, Mr. Mather (then present) was taken. This was his sentence.

That being convicted of speaking blasphemous words concerning the H.G. (Holy Ghost) he should be therefore publicly whipped before all the Scholars. 2. That he should be suspended as to taking his degree of Bachelour (this sentence read before him twice at the Prts. before the committee, and in the library up before execution.) 3. Sit alone by himself in the Hall uncovered at meals, during the pleasure of the President and Fellows, and be in all things obedient, doing what exercise was appointed him by the President, or else be finally expelled the Colledge. The first was presently put in execution in the Library (Mr. Danforth, Jr. being present) before the Scholars. He kneeled down and the instrument Goodman Hely attended the President’s word as to the performance of his part in the work. Prayer was had before and after by the President.

Such severe discipline probably caused Hoar’s unpopularity. John Langdon Sibley, Harvard’s librarian, wrote in 1881.  A fortnight after the flogging, Increase Mather wrote that his son Cotton, who was then 11, ‘received some discouragement,’ and that he returned home because some of the scholars threatened him.

Harvard Walkout

In October, The General Court reviewed whether Hoar should be dismissed. By Nov. 15, 1674, wrote Sibley, all the Harvard scholars but three had walked out.

Thomas Sargeant received his Bachelor of Arts degree in December that year and soon thereafter went to sea. It may have been some comfort for him to know that his executioner, William Healy, would be removed from his post as prison-keeper on Dec. 29, 1682, for cruelty and himself whipped 20 times.

William Stoughton and Sewall would in 1692 preside over the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which executed 20 people as witches in four months.

This story last updated in 2024.



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