Henry Greenland found out the hard way that being an aristocratic English doctor didn’t grant immunity from Puritan justice. He made the mistake of jumping into bed naked with a young woman whose husband was away at sea — and he thought he could get away with it.
From the Puritan town of Newbury in the spring of 1663, a fisherman named John Rolfe sailed to Nantucket to fish, leaving behind his pretty young wife Mary (Bishop) Rolfe and their baby. Mary was ‘merrily disposed.’ In other words, a bit of a flirt.
Before he left on his fishing expedition, John Rolfe, a ‘verie loving husband,’ arranged for a single woman in the neighborhood, Betty Webster, to stay with Mary and the baby while he was gone.
Betty’s stepfather, John Emery, agreed to watch over both of them. But when John Rolfe sailed away, two English doctors – Henry Greenland and John Cordin — sailed into Newbury.
The court records of what happened next show the emergence of a new sexual morality that held women accountable for resisting unwanted advances, historian Laurel Thacher Ulrich argues in her book Good Wives, Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England. At that point, the Puritan view was evolving from the idea that a woman’s chastity was her husband’s property to the belief that it was hers.
Henry Greenland had little patience with the pious ways of the Puritans. He and Cordin lodged with John Emery. One evening, in the middle of Emery’s grace at dinner, Greenland put on his hat and said, “Come, landlord, light supper, short grace.”
Mary and Betty joined them at that dinner and had a merry time. Mary told Betty she found John Cordin very handsome. When Henry Greenland pulled her apron strings she resisted at first, then gave in ‘to save my apron.’ She laughed at his jokes and ate samp (cornmeal mush) with him out of the same dish. But she also rebuked him for his incivility, suggesting she was attracted to him but afraid of what he might do.
She had good reason to fear.
Henry Greenland Pounces
Late one night Mary was lying in bed with Betty. Greenland knocked on the window, frightening the two women. He begged them to let him in. He just wanted to get out of the cold and smoke his pipe, he said. Betty reluctantly let him in.
Mary stayed in the bed, which was near the door. She asked Betty to rake the fire to give Greenland some light. While Betty tended the fire, Greenland took off his clothes and jumped into bed with Mary, who promptly fainted. Betty cried, ‘What have you done? You have put the woman into a fit!’
Greenland jumped out of the bed. “The devil has such fits,” he said. “It is nothing but a mad fit!”
Mary was now conscious. “What offence have I given that you should speak such words?” she cried.
Greenland jumped back into the bed with her.
Just then a servant, Henry Lessenby, happened to pass by and hear Greenland’s voice inside the Rolfe house. He knocked on the door. Greenland told Mary to be quiet, because two witnesses could cause them to be tried for their lives.
Lessenby climbed through the window and made his way to the bed in the dim lights. He discovered Rolfe in bed with the distraught Mary. Lessenby and Mary went outside to decide what to do. “We thought because he was a stranger and a great man it was not best to make up an uproar but to let him go way in a private manner,” Mary later explained.
They managed to keep the episode under wraps until Sunday, when Mary’s sister Sarah Bishop noticed her crying. Sarah told their mother.
Goody Bishop called on Mary the next day. Mary admitted to her mother that Greenland had ‘with many arguments enticed her to the act of uncleanness,’ but God had hitherto helped her resist him.
Goody Bishop insisted that such things were not meant to be kept quiet. Mary objected, pointing out that Henry Greenland was a gentleman and seemed honest to many people in town. “It is said the governor sent him a letter counting it a mercy such an instrument was in the country, and what shall such a poor young woman as I do in such a case, my husband being not at home?” said Mary.
Undeterred, Goody Bishop went to John Emery, a juryman, and asked him to take his lodger to court. Emery said he’d keep a closer eye on Greenland, lock up the hard liquor and keep him at home when he got drunk, but he wouldn’t go to court.
Goody Bishop, however, ran into John Emery’s wife and told her the story. The two women went to talk to Mary and Betty. They concluded Greenland’s actions were ‘more gross’ than they first thought. Mary’s mother went to a wise man in town, who urged her to tell the magistrates. She did, and Henry Greenland found himself charged with attempted adultery on March 31, 1663.
The magistrates found Henry Greenland guilty, confined him in jail until the next session and ordered him to pay a fine of 30 pounds or get publicly whipped. It isn’t clear whether he paid the fine – 30 pounds was a lot of money in 1663 – because the records are lost.
Soon after John Rolfe returned from his fishing trip, he successfully sued Henry Greenland for damages.
Henry Greenland continued to cause trouble in Newbury, and by 1666 he left town for the seacoast – no doubt to the great relief of Mary Rolfe.
This story about Henry Greenland was updated in 2019.