In 1635, Mary Sholy had the tragic misfortune of meeting William Schooler. Schooler was not the sort of man the early settlers of Massachusetts wanted in their midst.
The Puritans who came to America were largely escaping intolerance. They wanted to establish a new country where they could practice their religion in peace. However, they also found America appealed to men and women who had other matters to escape. William Schooler was one of these
Schooler lived in London. He made his living selling wine and was married to an upstanding woman. But Schooler was a philanderer and a drunk. He would later admit his adultery. Schooler got into trouble in London when he wounded a man in a duel. He fled (likely to Holland) and from there made the journey to America.
In 1635, English colonists had small settlements under construction in Newbury, Mass. and Portsmouth, N.H. Schooler moved to the outskirts of Newbury and shared a house with another man. Their neighbors viewed them with a jaundiced eye because they lived as atheists.
Mary Sholy Goes Home
Mary Sholy was a maid. She worked for a man in Portsmouth, and she had come to Newbury on personal business. The trip from Newbury to Portsmouth over land would have been a difficult one in 1635, roughly 30 miles on a narrow path, and a traveler would need to cross the Merrimack River.
Mary wanted to go home to Portsmouth, and William Schooler offered to guide her for a fee of 15 shillings. The pair departed Newbury, and it was the last time anyone would see Mary alive.
William returned to Newbury two days after he had left. Because of this unexpectedly quick return, the local authorities suspected something bad had occurred, and so they questioned William.
He told them he had crossed the Merrimack River with Mary, though not where he intended to, and guided Mary toward Portsmouth, then known as Pascataquack. However, she stopped part way and refused to accompany him any farther. He had then left her. He noted ominously that he had encountered a bear shortly after turning back.
Schooler’s neighbors noted that he had a scratch on his nose and blood on his clothing and hat. The blood, he explained, came from a pigeon he had killed to eat. The scratch was from a bramble. The magistrates at Ipswich thought the scratch was too large to be from a bramble. However, lacking any evidence of a crime they released Schooler.
William Schooler Can’t Keep Quiet
About one year later, Indians discovered Mary Sholy’s body in the woods, partially decomposed and undressed. She was about three miles from the Merrimack River.
William Schooler, meanwhile, had been conscripted to serve in the militia. He complained bitterly and loudly about this required service, and word of his complaining reached the governor who issued a warrant to arrest and question him.
When approached by court officers, however, Schooler assumed they planned to accuse him of murdering Mary Sholy, and he began loudly proclaiming his innocence. The protest renewed suspicions that Schooler had not told the truth about Mary Sholy, so he was again questioned.
Jailbreak and Back
This time the judges at Boston concluded he was guilty of a crime, and they sentenced him to death. While he was imprisoned on Powder Horn Hill awaiting execution, Schooler broke out of jail. But he returned and surrendered.
Some in the community, notably some ministers, protested the death sentence. The evidence against Schooler was purely circumstantial. They implored Schooler to confess to save his soul, but he refused. He had lied about certain details, but he had not murdered or harmed Mary Sholy in any way, he said.
John Winthrop recorded the case in his journal. The clergy demanded that the court rescind the order of execution, but the court declined. Even if he had not actually murdered Mary Sholy, the court concluded, William Schooler had abandoned her in the woods and left her in great peril. And even when he suspected a bear endangered her, he did nothing. He was worthy of hanging for that behavior alone.
He was hanged on Sept. 28, 1637, protesting his innocence to the last.
If you enjoyed this article you might like Divorce, Murder and Madness: The Puritan Tuttles of the New Haven Colony. This story was updated in 2022.
Photo Credit: by John Phelan [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons