Rebecca Rawson was a living morality tale for all Puritan New Englanders. But for vanity, she might have lived a wonderful life.
Rawson was born in 1656 in Newbury, Mass., to Edward and Rachel Rawson. Her father went on to become Secretary of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He built a large estate and a family of nine children, who lived in relative luxury.
Local boys courted the beautiful Rebecca Rawson, and she could have had any one she wanted. However, when Thomas Hale arrived in Massachusetts, he caught Rebecca’s eye.
‘Sir Thomas Hale’
Hale said he was Sir Thomas Hale, nephew of the Lord Chief Justice in England. Rebecca and her family were impressed with the notion that she might marry a lord, and when he asked, she agreed. In July of 1679, Rebecca and Thomas married in a large wedding, he with a fancy suit and she with a silken gown. With her considerable dowry and personal belongings packed up, they set sail for England.
Upon arrival in London, the exhausted couple spent the night at an inn. The next morning, Thomas went back to the docks to retrieve their trunks, which he promised to send to Rebecca. The trunks soon arrived, but with no keys to open them.
As the day wore on, and Thomas did not reappear, Rebecca had the locks forced and discovered the trunks were emptied of any valuables.
Thomas Hale, she soon discovered, was Thomas Rumsey, a local con man who had preyed on naïve New Englanders before. Not only that, he already had a wife and two children.
Much to her dismay, Rebecca soon discovered she was pregnant with Thomas’s child. Embarrassed and penniless, Rebecca decided she would not return to New England. Instead, she found a home in London and for 13 years supported herself and her son as an artist and handywoman.
Eventually, her father wrote to her and urged her to return to Boston and live with him. Rebecca Rawson agreed. She set sail, first for Port Royal in Jamaica, and from there she planned to return to New England.
Port Royal was a lawless, pirate haven, rich in both money and sin. Rebecca’s ship arrived in June of 1692 and lay in port on June 7 when an earthquake struck. The earthquake killed 2,000 of the 6,500 people in Port Royal.
Descriptions of the event recount the ground opening up and swallowing people, ships pushed ashore, houses collapsing and the cemetery flooding.
The harbor filled with the corpses of new earthquake victims and the long-buried dead.
Rebecca Rawson died in the earthquake at age 36.
Sarah Anna Emery in her Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian, recalled her story. Master storyteller John Greenleaf Whittier made her story the centerpiece in his fictionalized tale of New England life, Leaves from Margaret Smith’s Journal in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. In it, he says of Rebecca Rawson:
“My grandmother, who affectionately watched over Rebecca, and comforted her in her great affliction, has often told me that, on coming to herself, her poor cousin said it was a righteous judgment upon her, for her pride and vanity, which had led her to discard worthy men for one of great show and pretensions, who had no solid merit to boast of. She had sinned against God, and brought disgrace upon her family, in choosing him. She begged that his name might never be mentioned again in her hearing, and that she might only be known as a poor relative of her English kinsfolk, and find a home among them until she could seek out some employment for her maintenance, as she could not think of going back to Boston, to become the laughing-stock of the thoughtless and the reproach of her father’s family.”
This story about Rebecca Rawson was updated in 2021.