By Diana Dunlap
Although popular stereotypes of women in 17th century New England often present a black-and-white image of oppression, the reality is shaded in more subtle and shifting tones of gray. The English female colonists of early Salem negotiated a culture that limited their legal rights and barred them from leadership in churches in which they were the majority of members. However, many of these women also seized opportunities to do business, to defend their families, and to wield influence with their neighbors and kin, taking up and even stretching the traditional rights and privileges of a mistress and goodwife. Two such women were a resourceful mother and daughter, Eleanor Hollingsworth and Mary English.
Eleanor, possibly born Eleanor Storey, married a man named William Hollingsworth, who came from a family of seafarers and shipbuilders on Salem Neck, leading towards Winter Island and modern-day Salem Willows. Their eldest child Mary was born in about 1650. Mariner’s wives like Eleanor managed on their own for months or sometimes even years at a time as a “deputy husband,” making business decisions and even acting with power of attorney to make legal decisions. Married women were legally one with their husband and unable to own property or sign contracts, but they could take up these powers in their husband’s name if necessary. The Hollingsworths’ finances were healthy enough to provide Mary with a high-quality education: her proud descendants preserved a sample of both her religious poetry and her complete sampler of embroidery stitches, which still exists at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum. However, life as a lone woman and teenage girl in a remote house carried danger as well. In 1669, Eleanor was struck unconscious by a Native American man named John, who was convicted of public drunkenness and may later have been arrested for attempted rape. As a white colonist, Eleanor was in a position of power to see an indigenous person like John punished, even though her gender made her vulnerable.
William Hollingsworth experienced an array of financial problems due to his losses at sea in the early 1670s, just when Mary might have expected to marry. Eleanor was forced to both mortgage their home and obtain a tavern license, offering a set meal and the beer she brewed in their yard in order to keep the family afloat. This did not deter a talented and temperamental young merchant named Philippe L’Anglois, better known in Salem as Philip English, from wedding the accomplished twenty-five-year-old Mary. A French-speaking native of the isle of Jersey, an English possession off the coast of France, Philip did business and boarded at the Hollingsworths, and he was part of a growing community of Jerseyan immigrants on the North Shore. Their French language and culture inspired suspicion in some of their English neighbors, as did their adherence to the Church of England and loyalty to the Stuart Kings, both despised by the Puritans. Their descendants remembered that Philip respected Mary’s head for business, no doubt inherited from Eleanor, and she managed his affairs while he was at sea.
Sadly, Mary’s father William joined the ranks of Salem’s thousands of mariners lost at sea over the centuries, disappearing on a voyage in 1677. Although faced with creditors who threatened her arrest, Eleanor labored to pay off her lost husband’s debts “out of my own labor not diminishing the estate,” and her neighbors granted her loans. She paid off the mortgage on her Blue Anchor tavern, but not before one Elizabeth Dicer insulted Eleanor in public by screaming that she was a “black mouthed whore” and a “black mouthed witch.” Eleanor promptly took Goody Dicer to court to protect her reputation, and was no doubt gratified when her contentious neighbor was forced to pay a fine. Meanwhile, Mary and Philip built Salem’s largest and most impressive house near the Blue Anchor, and Philip’s successful trade lifted him into the top 1% of Salem’s population. While Mary was now a church member and the mother of several young children, her husband was gaining a reputation for legal disputes and tax avoidance, and her younger brother William followed his father’s tradition of getting deeply into debt. When a local constable showed up to arrest William, he escaped over the back fence while Eleanor smacked the constable and threatened to “stave out his brains.” William died only a few years later, and in 1689 Eleanor herself was buried beside him at the Old Burying Point. They share a beautiful double tombstone, one of the most decorative in the burying ground. She left her prosperous estate of 467 pounds, 18 shillings to Mary, to whom she had already given the tavern and wharf. Among the property was a dictionary, needlepoint chairs, brewing equipment, plenty of cash, and a person: an unnamed “Indian servant” assigned the value of 25 pounds.
Whether this enslaved person remained a member of the English household to witness the great crisis of Mary’s life is unknown. Three years of war with France and attacks on frontier settlements stoked xenophobic fears of Jerseyan immigrants—one of them accused of inspiring enslaved people to rebellion—before witchcraft accusations exploded in the late winter of 1692. This, together with the previous accusation against her mother, may have drawn suspicion to Mary and then Philip. Though imprisoned in Boston, their great wealth and connections eventually enabled Mary and Philip to escape to New York while the young and ambitious sheriff, George Corwin, seized their household furnishings and livestock. Philip sued his enemies repeatedly to gain restitution, but this could not heal Mary’s health. She died in about 1696, still in her forties, of consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis) caught during her time in the overcrowded prison. Her legacy survived in her daughters, notably her well-educated daughter Susannah, who passed down her name and the family tradition of financially able women to her own great-granddaughter Susannah Ingersoll, spinster businesswoman and owner of the House of the Seven Gables.
Salem-based theatre-maker and public historian Diana Dunlap specializes in the fusion of the arts an
d historic interpretation. Diana appeared in many productions with History Alive Inc. and Salem Theatre Company while founding a local Shakespeare project, the Upstart Crows, and directing for Beverly’s Still Small Theatre. Over the course of the last fifteen years she has worked as an educator and interpreter at historic sites across New England, most recently at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum and the Print Shop of Edes and Gill at historic Faneuil Hall. Diana designs and performs first-person and interactive historic interpretation by request for a variety of museums and tour groups, and she is a Trustee and founding member of the Salem Historical Society. She is now Lead Writer and content developer at Intramersive Media and most recently co-directed and co-wrote Daemonologie:Smoke and Mirrors, a partnership with the Peabody Essex Museum and the Creative Collective.