Cambridge Cameos

Reading Alicia Crane Williams’s post on Sex in Middlesex reminded me of another great work by Roger Thompson – Cambridge Cameos – Stories of Life in Seventeenth-Century New England, which contains forty-four sketches from the period 1651 to 1686. They are fascinating stories involving mostly ordinary people. Some of the more colorful chapters cover Brutality or Bloodsucking; Town versus Gown; Witchcraft or Madness; and A Subversive Physician. These vignettes are based on thousands of original documents Thompson examined that provide a rare chance to hear firsthand accounts of many seventeenth century New Englanders.

This book came out in 2005, a year before I began working in Publications, but I was interested in the title on the chance that it might shed more light on my ancestor William Healey (ca. 1613–1683) of Cambridge. A Healy genealogy had the following intriguing item regarding this immigrant ancestor:

“An esteemed citizen, a church member, a landholder, and prison-keeper for ten years from 1672 to 1682, at the age of seventy years he was charged with a misdemeanor. Fabricated accusations prompted by jealousy or vindictiveness were not uncommon in the Colonies between 1656 and 1692. He died within a year, 11/28/1683, and his remains lie in ‘The Old Burying Grounds’ in Cambridge.”[1]

I had never had a chance to research this “misdemeanor.” I thought maybe Roger Thompson found something more on William. I quickly found a chapter entitled “William Healey, Married Man, 1661–1683” on pages 123–28.

Thompson in part went through numerous pages of Middlesex County Court records at the Massachusetts States Archives as cited in this chapter. William Healey was married five times and had thirteen children by his first four wives. The first part of this chapter discusses allegations by William’s fourth wife and mother-in-law of physical violence against members of his household; Thompson also highlights additional evidence that cast doubt on some of the credibility of certain witnesses. However, the more colorful story concerned Healey’s time as prison-keeper, which Thompson states was often a means of employment for poor townsmen. Testimony is taken from Deborah Cane, 28, who went to visit the jailer’s quarters at Cambridge prison in October 1682:

“The door being ope[n], she first called and then went upstairs to the prison chamber. [There she found William and] Mary Lovell who was near her time with a bastard both half naked, to her great amazement and shame, so that she turned back and left them together.”

Mary later admitted “She could not help it… It was not the first time; he had done the like more than once before.”

At age seventy, William was fired as jailer and lived in a cell that winter. The former official court flogger in April 1683 was himself sentenced to twenty stripes for having committed fornication with his pregnant inmate. Some misdemeanor! William went on poor relief after his termination and died a few months later with only six pounds to his name.[2]

If you have ancestors in seventeenth-century Cambridge, you may very well find more about them than you were expecting from this terrific work!


[1] Ethel Eliza Pearl Brown Carrier, Healy history (East Longmeadow, Mass., 1968), 6. William is the patrilineal ancestor of my great-great-uncle Morris Larned Healy, subject of this post.

[2] Thompson, Cambridge Cameos, 123–28, and all sources cited therein.

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

3 thoughts on “Cambridge Cameos

  1. Anyone with 1600’s New England ancestry will find this book excellent at giving the flavor of life at the time but also if they have ancestry in Cambridge/Menotomy they may find as I did their ancestors as witnesses if not principal parties. This can even lead to definitive additional information as I found about Joseph and Margaret (Eames) Adams. Joseph himself not being mentioned but his parents, John & Anne Adams were. The Eames and Adams families were neighbors and both John Adams and Thomas Eames were millers/millwrights. This propinquity giving far more impetus to the marriage of Joseph and Margaret than the tradition that he met her when he was with a group redeeming her from captivity amongst the Indians, although it also gives more strength to Joseph being amongst those on the expedition which occurred between her capture in February of 1676 and her witnessing in April 1686.

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