Verity Bridges shivers in the center of the fort, her arms fastened in the stocks and her body dripping with pig slop that the colony’s Marshall had dumped over her head. Her crime? She had been publically taunting her husband and, even though he seemed to be enjoying the ribaldry, this ridicule of “one’s better” was viewed by the colony’s leaders as disrupting the social order. Verity required a physical “correction” that would provide a warning to all the other women in the settlement.
Scenes like this from the second episode of the television series “Jamestown” touch on attempts by the colonial leadership to deal with the disruptions a group of newly-arrived women brought to live in the settlement. Sent to be wives for the colonists, not all the women were the hoped-for models of pious domesticity—quiet, industrious, and submissive to the wills of their husbands. These qualities of the “good wife” were espoused by popular 17th-century advice manuals such as Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife and were considered essential to establishing an orderly household, the institutional foundation of a successful society. The men of “Jamestown” are concerned that they are losing control as some of the women are pushing back against patriarchal authority. As in England, the Jamestown women have no legal standing. Their husbands are to speak for them and exert patriarchal authority over them. But as the men quickly discovered, it was inherently more difficult to control their wives’ tongues than the women themselves. Women found power through their voices, whether through disorderly speech like Verity’s or through the influential gossip of gentlewoman Jocelyn Woodbryg who was wise to the ways of the royal court. “Cunning drips from her tongue” laments one of the colony’s leaders to another as they realize Jocelyn is undermining their political power.
While the specific details of “Jamestown” are fictional, we know from the public records and the types of laws passed in the colony that women had both physical and verbal agency that often resulted in them being considered troublemakers. Public shaming was an effective form of punishment used in 17th-century Virginia, and was especially applied to disorderly women who didn’t follow the rules. Whether locked in the stocks, made to stand before the church congregation wrapped only in a white sheet, or ducked in water while strapped to a chair, these methods were intended to humiliate and to serve as examples to others who might be tempted to transgress.
The special exhibition opening at the Settlement this November, “Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia,” will delve into the personal stories of some Virginia women who were subjected to these types of punishments. Visitors will learn the unsavory story of Jane Hill whose 1627 sentence from the General Court is illustrated by the rare survival of an early 17th century linen sheet on loan from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. From the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collections, an oak ducking stool once used in England will represent Betsey Tucker who, in 1634, was ducked several times underwater for “ye violence of her tongue.” Ducking was also used to test women accused of witchcraft. Like Verity in the “Jamestown” production, Jane Wright was accused of being a witch because of her unorthodox behavior and her perceived connection with unexplained negative events. Wright, in 1626, was the first recorded woman in Virginia to be accused of witchcraft. In revealing her story, the exhibition will investigate 17th-century societal beliefs in both the supernatural and in a woman’s power to harness it. These accounts and many more in the special exhibition will expose the tenacity of women as they navigated their world in early Virginia, even though they knew there would be consequences.
By Bly Straube,
Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Curator