Abby Chandler

Date of Award


Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Liam Riordan

Second Committee Member

Martha McNamara

Third Committee Member

William TeBrake


This dissertation is a comparative study of sexual crime trials in four New England jurisdictions: Essex County, Massachusetts, Plymouth Colony, The Province of Maine, and Rhode Island Colony. It argued that sexual crime trials could be used as a tool for studying the diverse and changing legal cultures of different regions within New England. Whether morality or child support was under discussion, sexual intercourse outside of marriage threatened to disrupt the social and economic bounds of early modern society. Nevertheless, methods for addressing the issue varied widely in New England, depending on the jurisdiction in question. As a result, examining the particular legal decisions made during sexual misconduct trials contributes greatly to our knowledge of regional identity and legal autonomy in colonial New England. Trials from all four jurisdictions were cataloged and analyzed, then placed in their larger social and economic contexts, thus allowing for both quantitative and qualitative study of the data. Many of the Essex County trials were driven by issues of paternity and child support. Unlike the other three jurisdictions, Essex County residents had the time and money necessary for prolonged court battles. Plymouth Colony, on the other hand, utilized sexual crime trials to reinforce their tenuous control over colonists with differing cultural and religious backgrounds. As a frontier colony, the Province of Maine used its trials to demonstrate that life in the "wilderness" did not preclude a lawful society. Rhode Island's trials indicate a growing emphasis on legal procedure, one linked to the colony's close ties with English law and the mercantile world at the turn of the eighteenth century. While colonial New England is usually considered as a homogeneous region, shaped by the dominant Puritan culture found in Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut, close analysis of these sexual crime trials reveals instead that the region's colonies were shaped by the divergent experiences of their own environments. Verdicts directly reflected the needs of the individual societies and court justices making them, rather than a region wide dominant culture.

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