Crime and Scandal

Nathaniel Eaton, the Sadistic Puritan Who Made Harvard Disappear for a Year

Harvard University got off to a rough start in 1638, when Nathaniel Eaton and his wife led such a reign of terror the school closed down for a year.

There wasn’t much to close down. Harvard was little more than half of John Harvard’s library, a farmhouse and a one-acre cowyard in the middle of Cambridge cow country. Samuel Eliot Morison wrote the college smelled like a stockyard.

“The ammoniacal streams emanating from yarded cattle mingled not inappropriately with odors from Mistress Eaton’s cooking,” wrote Morison.

For the handful of Harvard students, it was hard to say which was worse: beatings from Nathaniel Eaton or dinner from his wife.

Nathaniel Eaton

On Oct. 28, 1636, the Massachusetts Bay Colony Great and General Court ordered the establishment of a college to train ministers. Two years later, a minister named John Harvard died childless and left his library and half his property to the college. For that, the school took his name.

The school also took his friend, Nathaniel Eaton. Eaton, a well-educated Puritan, had just arrived in Massachusetts in 1637 at the age of 28 with his family. His older brother Theophilus Eaton moved on to Connecticut and started the colony of New Haven. Nathaniel Eaton stayed behind in Massachusetts because he had a job as ‘schoolmaster’ at Harvard.


Nathaniel Eaton, mistakenly identified as John Harvard on a cigar box

Cotton Mather called him a rare scholar. Of his students, Mather said, ‘their Education truly was In the School of Tyrannus.”

One student said Eaton was “fitter to have been an officer in the inquisition, or master of an house of correction, than an instructer (sic) of Christian Youth.”

But it was Mrs. Eaton who got him fired.


At the beginning of the second academic year in 1639, Eaton beat his assistant Nathaniel Briscoe for two hours with a cudgel ‘big enough to have killed a horse.’ A neighbor rushed in to save Briscoe’s life, and the victim thanked God that he didn’t die. Eaton then began beating Briscoe again for taking the Lord’s name in vain.

The beating of Briscoe got Nathaniel Eaton hauled into court. And then the airing of students’ complaints began.

It came to light that he routinely whipped his students with 20 to 30 lashes. But the Puritan magistrates, all familiar with the rod, didn’t have much concern about Nathaniel Eaton’s sadistic beatings.

They did, however, find Mrs. Eaton’s cooking inexcusable.

The students accused her of serving hasty pudding laced with goat dung, which she denied. But she did admit she made bread with sour meal. She also served spoiled fish and never, ever served beef, an Englishman’s birthright. Even worse, she would go for an entire week without serving the students beer.

The magistrates dismissed Nathaniel Eaton, and Harvard shut down for the 1639-40 academic year.

The students went home, or studied with a tutor or had fun.  Only nine would graduate in 1642. Of those, three would return to Europe.

Nathaniel Eaton spent the rest of his life moving around the world, first to New Hampshire, then Virginia, then to Italy and England, where he died in debtor’s prison.

Henry Dunster took over Harvard as president and put the college on sounder footing, though he, too, had a penchant for beating students.

Images:Nathaniel Eaton on a cigar box: By The Image itself was taken from Harvard’s official website. The individual webpage is presently located at: [1], and the image’s properties there presently are: [2]., PD-US,


This story about Nathaniel Eaton was updated in 2021.

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