Monday, June 17, 2013

Lucretia Derby: Feisty formidable and ahead of her time


Great article by Brigid Alverson Photos by Barbara Poole
 Among ancient court records in the Philips Library, Emily Murphy has discovered a bit of human drama, a story that she calls "'Law and Order,' 17th-century style" about a woman who went after justice as methodically as any TV detective.

Lucretia Derby would probably have been remarkable in any era, but in the late 17th century she was truly unusual. Lucretia Derby's descendants are much better known than she is. The Derbys of the 18th century were prosperous merchants in Salem. Her great-grandson, Elias Hasket Derby, was the first millionaire in America.

Murphy, a graduate student at Boston University, is writing her dissertation on the Derby family, but was frustrated that there were so few female voices, partly because no personal papers have survived from the 18th century.

"The one thing I was really hoping to find was a strong woman's voice," said Murphy, who also works as a ranger at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, "and when I flipped open those court records, I said 'Wow, there she is.'"

Lucretia Hillman and Roger Derby were married in 1668 in Wessex, England, and immigrated to New England in 1671, when Lucretia was expecting their second child. They spent a few months exploring the countryside, then bought a plot of land in Ipswich.

The fact that the Derbys could do that so soon after their arrival suggests they had some money before they came. Another clue is that just three years later, in 1674, Lucretia offered all her silver as surety for a neighbor, Samuel Hunt, so he would not go to jail in a legal dispute.

"Having silver in one's house was an important way of displaying your social status in 17th-century British culture," said Murphy. "They either had enough money that they could come to America without selling off their plate, or started acquiring it soon after they came to America."

Roger Derby was a soapmaker, which was a lucrative business in the 17th and 18th century because soapmakers often made candles, as well. However, soap and candles can only be manufactured in cool weather, so it made sense for the Derbys to have a second source of income.

"Ipswich had a waterfront and, therefore, easy access to trade with Salem and Boston," explained Murphy, adding that it was Lucretia, not Roger, who took advantage of that opportunity by running a shop at a time when women had no legal rights and could not enter into contracts.

From the descriptions of the goods Lucretia sold, Murphy concluded that this was not a small trade between women, but a true general store. Her inventory included ribbons, blue linen, ivory combs, paper, three dozen bone-shaft knives and a barrel of smoking pipes - goods that would have been bought by men, as well as women.

Lucretia was not serving as a "deputy husband," as many wives did when their husbands went to sea. Roger wasn't at sea; he was right in the house, making soap. Nor did Lucretia simply work behind the counter in her husband's store. The records make it clear that she was the one who traveled to Boston to choose the goods to be sold.

We have a catastrophe to thank for that part of Lucretia's story.

"In 1679, there was a dreadful fire in Boston," explained Murphy. "The Derbys had two bales of goods and an iron furnace in a warehouse awaiting shipment to Ipswich."

In the court case that followed, the goods were referred to as Lucretia's and the furnace as Roger's. Lucretia had contracted with brothers John and Samuel Dutch to transport the goods from the Boston warehouse to Ipswich.

After the fire, Lucretia and Roger traveled to Boston to survey the damage.

"Lucretia was not about to stay at home doing laundry while her husband saw to business affairs," said Murphy. "She was actively occupied in this business."

The warehouse owner's slave, Mingo, told the Derbys all their goods had been saved, but the Dutches claimed that one bale and part of another had been lost.

Lucretia wasn't buying that account. The Derbys found a pair of lamps at Samuel Dutch's house. Suspiciously, Samuel Dutch refused to let Lucretia look inside his chest.

At that point, Lucretia started going house to house, asking people where they had bought their handkerchiefs and lace, her suspicion growing as people produced items just like the ones of which she was awaiting delivery.

There was circumstantial evidence, as well: "Since the fire at Boston, [the Dutches] have risen mightily and have been able to pay their debts long due, and supply their family with good and new things," testified Lucretia.

In his deposition, one John Hadly describes Lucretia catching Samuel Dutch in an apparent lie.

"Lucretia Derby said 'Sam, you have been taken notice of that, since the fire, you have risen very much and have sold several goods as silver lace. Prithee, Sam, tell me where hadst thee that silver lace that is so much talked of.' Samuel Dutch answered that he Bought it at Boston & thought it was on ye book still. 'So, Samuel, thy wife said today that you had it of a woman at Passadaway in an old Debt & could get nothing else,' said Lucretia Derby."


Dutch then threatened to "trounce" Lucretia unless she dropped the case, but she retorted, "No, Samuel, I shall never doe that ... "

Despite Lucretia's detective work, the court only found that Dutch could not account for some fine English linen, and fined him 54 shillings.

"So many people posed possible origins [for the goods], the court said there was no positive evidence they had stolen them," said Murphy.

Moving to Salem

The Derbys also show up in the Ipswich court records for quite another reason. Nearly every year they were summoned to court for not attending "meeting."

They were fined more than 100 pounds in all, and threatened with prison. In 1677, the court seized four acres of their land, which suggests a certain stubbornness on their part.

Not only did they lose land and money, but without certification that he was a churchgoer, Roger could not vote.

While other researchers have concluded from this that the Derbys were Quakers, Murphy is not convinced.

"The laws on the books were very specific about Quakerism," she said, "and the Derbys are never directly prosecuted for Quakerism."

They may have been members of another dissenting sect, or they simply may not have liked the local minister, Thomas Cobbett, a sternly orthodox Puritan.

Maybe they were simply ahead of their time.

"Looking forward to the 18th century," said Murphy, "the Derbys seemed to personify the rising merchant class that really didn't place much emphasis on churchgoing or the rights of franchise that churchgoing would bring, instead relying on gaining wealth and marrying into the best families."
In 1679, the Derbys moved to Salem, buying a plot of land near the current site of the Salem Public Library. Salem was more tolerant of religious dissenters, so the Derbys may have felt more comfortable there.

There were no more summonses for non-attendance, and Roger Derby was elected constable in 1689. He was also a surveyor, looking over the local roads and arranging repairs. Meanwhile, Lucretia ran her business as before.

The Derbys were no strangers to the local courts, however, mainly because of their run-ins with Quaker merchant Thomas Maule. The first incident was Lucretia's complaint that he was abusing his Irish maidservant, Joan, beating her and forcing her to work on Sunday.

Lucretia and Roger found someone who was willing to buy Joan's indenture, but Maule would not sell, so the Derbys took him to court.


"I had to do with her as she was a stranger and my fellow creature, seeing her so much wronged," said Lucretia.

Messy business

In 1685, the tensions between Maule and the Derbys came to a head with a defamation-of-character suit Murphy describes as "spectacular."

It is impossible to say whether the problems arose because Lucretia's business was more successful than Maule's, or because of her willingness to speak her mind or, perhaps, because the Derby's children were among a group who threw stones at Maule's house and called him names.Whatever the cause, Maule brought six separate actions against the Derbys, asking a total of 3,000 pounds in damages. That was an enormous amount, at the time, more than six times the Derbys' net worth.
In the suit, Maule accused the Derbys of calling him a cheater and a "secret devil" and claimed their accusations forced him to move. One action was for the Derbys calling Maule a rogue and crying out on the street, "There goes the rogue!"

Another, which was only for five pounds, was leveled at Roger "for beating said Maule in front of the magistrate."

Maule also claimed that the Derbys accused him of behaving improperly with Joan, the Irish maid.
"While the accusation that he 'had to do' with Joan was probably gossip," explained Murphy, "others were about Maule's character." The "secret devil" accusation, she added, hinted at something more unsavory.

Because he could not put up surety for the 3,000 pounds, Roger Derby spent nine days in jail. The matter then went to arbitration but, according to Maule, the Derbys refused to follow the arbitrator's decision.

"For Roger, the issue is not the fact that he was imprisoned, but that Maule was boasting to others that he would use this action to ruin their reputation and, therefore, their business," said Murphy.
A good reputation was as important as good credit to a tradesman, and the Derbys did not take this insult lightly. In 1686, they sued Maule, saying they were losing money because of him. The court found in the Derbys' favor this time, but the records do not show much Maule had to pay in damages.

Women's place

Lucretia died in 1689, at the age of 46, leaving Roger with the care of the family's six children. Two years later, he married Elizabeth Hasket, a widow, with two children, who had also run a business. Roger and Lucretia's son, Richard, also went into business, and he became the father and grandfather of the better-known Derbys of Salem.


Murphy's research touches on a field that is starting to get more attention from historians - the true place of women in early American society.

"Lucretia is taken seriously as a shopkeeper, even to the extent of making contracts with merchants and shippers in Boston, which, in theory, she was forbidden to do," said Murphy.

On the other hand, because of her protected status as a woman, Maule had to sue both the Derbys.
"It's difficult to accuse a woman alone for anything less than a capital offense," said Murphy.While the conventions of 17th-century society held that women had no place in the private sphere, the reality was somewhat different and, as more women became active, there was a backlash.

"I think the backlash was beginning," said Murphy. "I think you can see it in the Maule case. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if she had lived through the witchcraft trials."
Murphy's research brings to life a time that was different in some ways, not so different in others.
"It's not just numbers," she said, "it's people and life and death and trying to make a living. The exact same struggles we're dealing with today, they were dealing with in the 1670s, except they had no central heating, no bathrooms, no antibiotics ... So in addition to having to make ends meet, they also had so much less control over the world than we do today.

"Once people get to understand the similarities, then we can start to look at the differences and, hopefully, make people appreciate what it was that has built the American character from the 17th century, and how we reached where we are today."

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