Around 1643, Mary Latham fell in love with a boy who rejected her. About 17 years old and impetuous, Mary Latham decided to marry the next man who asked. It was a bad decision.
Despite her friends’ advice, she married a much older man, who had little to offer. She quickly grew dissatisfied with the marriage. What followed was the case of the only known execution in America for adultery.
The little we know of her comes from the diary of John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Mary’s husband was “an ancient man who had neither honesty nor ability, and one whom she had no affection unto,” Winthrop writes.
“It was reported also that she did frequently abuse her husband, setting a knife to his breast and threatening to kill him, calling him old rogue and cuckold, and said she would make him wear horns as big as a bull,” wrote Winthrop.
“Whereupon, soon after she was married, divers young men solicited her chastity, and drawing her into bad company, and giving her wine and other gifts, easily prevailed with her.”
Now everything might have proceeded without a problem except Mary Latham took up with a man named John Britton. Britton, a professor in England, came to the colonies, but he was not a Puritan.
“He opposed our church government, etc., and grew dissolute, losing both power and profession of godliness,” Winthrop wrote. Britton was “a man ill affected both to our church discipline and civil government.”
Britton also apparently couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He confessed to his affair with Mary Latham. The magistrates in Plymouth, where Mary lived, wasted no time in shipping her to Boston to face the charges against her.
At first, Mary Lataham denied the allegation. Britton had made advances, she said, but had not succeeded.
A witness against her said, “a company met at Britton’s and there continued drinking sack, etc., till late in the night, and then Britton and the woman were seen upon the ground together, a little from the house.”
The jury found her guilty, and soon after that Mary confessed. She not only admitted the affair with Britton, but she named 12 other men, two of them married, that she had been with. The scandal produced a roundup of five of the men, though the others could not be found. The accused denied everything and for lack of witnesses or confessions they went free.
Mary Latham, however, had far less luck. The court sentenced her and Britton to death. Though a number of magistrates argued that death was not an appropriate punishment for adultery, they were outvoted.
Britton petitioned the court for a lesser sentence, but the court denied his request. Mary was penitent, and both stood a good chance of getting pardoned. Despite the strictness of the Puritan laws, criminals who repented often received pardons.
Winthrop concludes their story on March 21, 1644: “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.”
This story about Mary Latham was updated in 2020.