In 1643, Londoners were worried about the well-being of street children. So they developed a scheme to improve the children’s lot in life by sending them to America, where they could be apprenticed as laborers. So it was that Nathaniel Sewell arrived in Massachusetts aboard the vessel Seabridge. He was sent to live with William Franklin of Newbury.
Hung in the Chimney
Franklin and Sewell apparently couldn’t get along, with Franklin determined to reform the boy at all costs. Sewell apparently resisted.
John Winthrop devoted quite a passage to the case in his diaries, which turned out badly for all involved.
Franklin “used him (Nathaniel Sewell) with continual rigor and unmerciful correction, and exposed him many times to much cold and wet in the winter season,” wrote Winthrop. He also “used divers acts of rigor towards him, as hanging him in the chimney and so forth,” Winthrop noted. But apparently the punishments did little to reform the boy. So Franklin set off toward Boston to take Sewell to court for a hearing about his bad behavior.
Winthrop recorded: “the boy being very poor and weak he tied him upon an horse and so brought him (sometimes sitting and sometimes hanging down) to Boston, being five miles off, to a magistrates, and by the way the boy calling much for water, would give him none, though he came close by it, so as the boy was near dead when he came to Boston, and died in a few hours after.”
Trial for the Murder of Nathaniel Sewell
The case created a stir. What was Franklin’s culpability? He had tried to reform the boy and turn him into a productive citizen. Yet his methods were undoubtedly harsh.
Winthrop came down on the side of Nathaniel Sewell. The treatment, especially depriving the boy of water on the journey to Boston, was unreasonable. It was “evil because it arose from a distemper of passion,” Winthrop wrote. He turned to the Bible, to Deuteronomy and Exodus, to determine the proper course of action.
“If a master strike his servant with a rod, which is a lawful action, and he die under his hand (as the servant did), he was to die for it,” he concluded.
Other leaders of the colony had doubts, however, that Franklin was guilty of a crime that warranted the death penalty. Franklin had stature as a respected member of the Newbury community, one of its original settlers and landholders.
So in April of 1644, a court of assistants found Franklin guilty of murder. But because of the disagreement among its members, this lower court referred the case to the General Court. It asked if the higher body felt Franklin deserved a second trial.
The General Court agreed with the lower court that Franklin was guilty and deserved the death penalty. In May of 1644, William Franklin was hanged — the first American colonist executed for murder while correcting a servant.
Thanks to History of Newbury, Mass., 1635-1902, by John James Currier and Town Born: The Political Economy of New England from Its Founding to the Revolution, by Barry Levy. This story was updated in 2022.