In 1673 word reached England that the Rev. Josiah Baxter had been ruthlessly murdered in Boston. Baxter, an Anglican minister, had publicly debated a group of Baptists over their interpretations of the Bible. The Rev. Baxter had gotten the better of the argument. But his opponents would not let the dispute end there.
Four men followed Baxter to his home outside Boston. They tied up his wife and children and tortured Baxter in revenge. They literally stripped the skin from his scalp and body until he died.
Baxter’s brother Benjamin was so appalled by the murder that he published a pamphlet about the crime. He aimed to keep his brother’s memory alive in London and warn about the treacherous nature of Baptists.
The Bloody Murder of Josiah Baxter
His pamphlet hit the shops in early 1673 with the title: Mr. Baxter baptized in blood, or a sad history of the unparalleled cruelty of the Anabaptists of New England; faithfully relating the cruel, barborous and bloody murder of Mr. Josiah Baxter, an orthodox minister, who was killed by the Anabaptists, and his skin most cruelly flead from off his body. Published by his mournful brother.
“I have published this narrative . . . that the world may see the spirit and temper of those men, and that it may stand as an eternal memorial of their hatred to all orthodox ministers,” Benjamin wrote.
The news triggered a shock wave in England, then going through wrenching debates over religious tolerance. Charles II had returned to the monarchy. He had Catholic leanings and tried to introduce greater religious tolerance into the country. However, people resisted. With most pushing and pulling between the Anglicans and the Catholics, some traditionalists feared that smaller denominations might also attain greater acceptance. Proposals in Parliament to give dissenters greater freedom had been stymied, but had considerable support. The broadside against the Baptists reinforced the notion that these Baptists threatened civil society.
The Real Story
Two Bostonians, Richard Martin and Henry Mountfort, sailed literally into the heart of this storm of controversy. Martin was captain of the ship, Blossom, and Mountfort was a trader. The Blossom arrived in London at the peak of the furor over the murder of Rev. Baxter. Martin and Mountfort conferred with the mayor of London and gave him some disturbing news. Not only had Rev. Josiah Baxter not been murdered, no one had been murdered in Boston. Josiah Baxter did not exist.
The news sent city officials to visit Samuel Parker, bishop of Oxford. Parker had somewhat moderate views toward Catholics, but deeply opposed other religious dissenters. Parker had published the pamphlet about Baxter and prepared to publish a second printing, since the first had sold out. British authorities demanded to meet Benjamin Baxter, but no one could find him.
The Josiah Baxter Hoax
Parker admitted that he had published the pamphlet in error. He had accepted it as true too quickly, he said, and suppressed the second printing. His critics and historians have suggested that Parker pulled a hoax. He had written the phony pamphlet himself, they said. The hoax aimed to inflame anger against religious dissenters and stifle efforts to grant them greater liberty. New England, having its own debates about the rights of Baptists and other dissenters, provided the perfect backdrop for the story.
Parker blamed the hoax on a man named Laurence Savil. Savil slipped into hiding, but released a statement saying someone had duped him. That someone had given him the manuscript and authorized him to publish it. He could collect whatever profit it brought. Savil said he had provided the manuscript to Parker, but both he and Parker were now convinced that the manuscript was fake.
And that’s where the matter dropped. The city published the results of its findings in May of 1673, declaring the story fake. Parker never acknowledged deliberately pulling a hoax.
Thanks to: New England’s Struggles for Religious Liberty, by David Barnes Ford and The history of the English Baptists, from the Reformation to the beginning of the reign of King George I, by Thomas Crosby. This story last updated in 2022.