March 21, 1644
Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony
Mary Latham and John Britton are executed for adultery
As the executions and the events which led to them happened nearly 400 years ago, very little historical evidence remains. The entirety of what is known today is held within the diaries of John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A sample page of the diary is included.
Mary Latham was either 17 or 18 living in Plymouth when she was “rejected by a young man whom she had much affection unto.” She subsequently vowed to marry the next man to court her. That man would be William Latham whom Winthrop described as “an ancient man who had neither honesty nor ability, and one whom [Latham] had no affection unto.” Latham’s friends urged her to reconsider the marriage proposal but she ignored their pleas.
The marriage was, from the beginning, an unhappy one. Latham was reportedly to her abusive husband, threatening to kill him and calling him “old rogue and cuckold,” among other acts. Latham also began to have affairs with several young men.
One of Latham’s suitors was John Britton, a professor from England who had recently traveled to the colonies. For reasons that remain unclear, Britton openly spoke of his affair with Latham which resulted in his arrest. Latham was also promptly transported to Boston to address the allegations. She denied them initially and claimed Britton had made advances which she had spurned. A witness was produced, however, who testified to having seen the pair meet, drink sack (fortified wine) late into the night, and lay on the ground together.
While some magistrates contested the trial because they thought the evidence against Latham was insufficient as only one witness had been brought forward, the jury convicted Latham and Britton regardless. Upon her conviction, Latham confessed to the affair with Britton, as well as similar relations with 12 other men, two of whom were married. Five of the men were located though all denied the accusations, and each were released due to a lack of evidence, witnesses, or confessions.
The sudden change of heart to confess to the crime she had previously denied was in an effort to show repentance; with Puritan laws, those who repented stood a good chance at pardoning or parole. While Britton did not repent he did attempt to seek a reduced sentence. He was denied.
Latham and Britton were hanged on March 21. Winthrop wrote: “They were both executed, they both died very penitently, especially the woman, who had some comfortable hope of pardon of her sin, and gave good exhortation to all young maids to be obedient to their parents, and to take heed of evil company, etc.”
Latham was the first woman to be hanged in Boston, and she and Britton are widely regarded as the only people to have been executed in the United States for the crime of adultery.
“Mary Latham Marries an Older Man — And Regrets It.” New England Historical Society. Updated: 2020. Accessed: March 21, 2021. https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/mary-latham-marries-and-older-man-and-regrets-it/
Odell, Robin. The Mammoth Book of Bizarre Crimes. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2010
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. 2001. John Winthrop’s “City of Women.” Massachusetts Historical Review 3: 19-338. Archived: https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/4308735/Ulrich_WinthropWomen.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y
Yates, Edgar. “Where did Hawthorne get “The Scarlet Letter?”” The Herald [Miami, Florida]. July 17, 1927
De Lue, WIllard. “Tales of the Old Towne.” The Boston Globe. March 31, 1922
Original Narratives of Early American History. Winthrop’s Journal. 1630-1649 Volume II. Pages: 161-163. Digitized: https://www.noblenet.org/salem/reference/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Original-Narratives-of-Early-American-History-Winthrops-Journal-vol.-2.pdf