Seven Badass Women of Salem: Joan Sullivan
By Kristin Harris
When visiting the House of the Seven Gables here in Salem, one of the rooms you arrive in is a small attic space, where most tour guides claim Joan Sullivan spent most of her time. Little is known about her, as all we have as far as record is her certificate of indenture to Captain John Turner, who first built the Turner-Ingersoll mansion in 1668.
It is here that Joan spent the first years of her life in Salem. Purported to be from County Cork in Ireland by many historians, including Diana Dunlap, a local Salem historian who has done research into the origins of Joan, and her Irish heritage. According to Dunlap, “Although we don’t know where exactly Joan was born, her last name offers a strong clue: the Uí Shúilleabháin clan belongs to the far southwest of Ireland, in modern-day counties Cork and Kerry; their name literally means ‘descendants of the one-eyed.’” From this, we can also say with a fair amount of certainty that Joan was Irish-Catholic. Dunlap also states that
“For almost a century and a half before Joan’s birth, Ireland was periodically devastated by a series of colonial wars as the British Crown attempted to consolidate its control over the island. England already had a centuries-long colonial presence in Ireland, but the Protestant Reformation added the brutality of religious warfare to the mix, and the Crown made Irish lands available as “plantations” (land grants) for English and Scottish settlers. Joan’s parents would have lived through the brutal pacification of the native Irish and “Old English” Catholics under Oliver Cromwell’s English Puritan forces, some of whom had connections in New England or later migrated there themselves.”
Other than these background estimates through research, we do know one thing for sure about Joan Sullivan: she is one of the first recorded cases of an indentured servant bringing a legal suit against her employer for abuse. With the mission of bringing Joan’s story to the forefront of historical interpretation at the House of Seven Gables, historian and playwright Keith Trickett wrote his production, I Am Joan Sullivan, which was performed for audiences at the Hooper-Hathaway house on the Gables campus on several dates from May 5- May 7 2017. Asked why he felt so passionately about sharing Joan’s story in an immersive theater setting, Trickett said, “It was a story of an immigrant torn from her home with little choice in the matter. She was a woman with little power, facing domestic abuse, and a powerful patriarch, but she used the laws of the land in her favor. The divide of citizens for and against her fascinated me.”
The historical event behind Trickett’s play? In November of 1681, Joan Sullivan sued her employer, a Quaker tailor named Thomas Maule, for domestic abuse.
Maule was a difficult man, known for changing to the Quaker faith some time after 1670, which
was a frowned-upon religion in Puritan New England. In fact, we know that Maule was involved in a suit after taking up lodgings, and that two men, Samuel Shattuck, and Samuel Robinson were fined 20 shillings each for the “entertainage of Thomas Maule,” in 1669. It is thought that after the 1669 incident, Maule abandoned the Society of Friends, only to rejoin in 1672 or 1673, after his legal marriage to Naomi Lindsey of Lynn by Puritan Magistrate William Hathorne on July 22, 1670. Maule was known to be disruptive (and have a quick temper) and had been brought up in several civil suits prior to 1681. We see Maule in the courts again; “In March 1671/72 when Maule and Edward Sewall were fined for breach of the peace. In 1675, Maule was sentenced to be whipped or fined for working openly in his shop on a public fast day. He declined to pay the fine, because constable Clifford was paid 30d. ‘For whipping Thomas Maule.’” Besides suits brought against Maule, he brought several himself, including for an unpaid debt in June of 1670, and against a neighbor who spat in his face after a religious discussion in 1681. So, by the time Joan brought her case to the tavern of Magistrate Bartholomew Gedney in 1681, Maule already had quite the reputation.
Besides the information about Joan’s origins that we can glean from Dunlap’s research, we do not know exactly when she arrives in Salem. When asked, Trickett stated that his “best estimate was that her crossing was during the Cromwellan persecutions c. 1670s, but it’s a guess at best.” After working in the home of John Turner for several years, her certificate of indenture was sold, according to records and research by Trickett, to Thomas Maule for 9 pennies; which was the approximate price for a pound of bacon in 1660.
In the records of the Salem Quarterly Court for Nov, of 1681, it states that “Thomas Maule and his wife, [were] presented for cruelly beating their maid servant.” The spelling of Joan’s name in the records is written as “Joane Suiflan” which is their interpretation of the Irish spelling of her name. What is so fascinating about the record is that we have Joan’s own words used in her petition (language simplified slightly by Kristin for clarifying):
“A poor Irish servant woman now bound unto Thomas Maule, who hath been ever since I lived with him and unto this Tyme is a cruell master unto me poore Creature, brought from another country & here destitute of any Friend to keep me in this my misery which I endure in this my servitude especially with my master who hath many Tymes unresonably beate me with an unlawful weapon to strike a Christian withall which weapon is by the english called a maunatee or horse whip & with this weapon my master Mawle [Maule] hath some tymes stroke me at least 30 or 40 blowes at a Tyme & some tymes before my cloathes have been on about me.”
Even though there were several corroborating witnesses against Maule for the charges, the court dismissed the complaint. This was probably because of the testimonies of other witnesses for the Maules who accused Joan of stealing, lying, and repeating private conversations in the household to neighbors, which discredited her. Coupled with this, she had referred to the church service at Salem as “devilish” because members did not attend mass. Regardless of the outcome, the case of Joan Sullivan is an illustration of how a woman with no rights in the world advocated for her own voice, and set a precedent for testimony of indentured servants suffering from abuse.
Kristin Harris is a Historian, with an M.A. in American Studies from UMASS Boston, focusing on Death in Popular culture. She has been a public historian in Salem for many years, interpreting at both the Witch House and Pioneer Village for 3 years from 2013-2016. She later went on to work as a public tour guide for Salem Black Cat Tours beginning in 2014, and served on the board of the Salem Historical Society from 2015-2017, until starting full time work as a Tour Guide/Reenactor at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum in 2017. She now continues to work for the BTPSM as a Lead Actor in the Creative Department at the Museum, and to educate as a first person historical interpreter with many organizations including Newport Living History Spaces and Revolutionary Spaces. While researching for her Master’s thesis, Kristin met and joined with the Mass Ghost Hunters Paranormal Society as an investigator in training, and served as an investigator with the team from 2015-2017. Her time with MGHPS informed much of her continued research into the paranormal, and paranormal history. Beginning in 2019, Kristin started work with Intramersive Media LLC as a consulting historian and dramaturge for their third installment of Daemonologie, their yearly October production, which was entitled Smoke and Mirrors, and was sponsored by the Peabody Essex Museum and the Creative Collective. Kristin has since joined Intramersive as a permanent member of the production team.
She is also the host of life After Midnight: Strange History, Salem Style, a podcast dedicated to exploring dark and macabre history, and its impact on popular culture and thought. All episodes are available on iTunes.https://lifeaftermidnightsalem.com/
1. Dunlap, Diana. “Is mise Shiobhain Ni Shuilleabhain.” Article written for online blog for the House of the Seven Gables. June 1, 2017. https://7gables.org/2017/06/01/is-mise-shiobhain-ni-shuilleabhain/.
2. Dunlap. Ibid.
3. Thomas Maule genealogy www.maulefamily.com.
4. Excerpt from the Salem Quarterly Court Records, Nov 1681, Pg 223.