Judith Catchpole Trial: 1656

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Judith Catchpole Trial: 1656

Defendant: Judith Catchpole
Crimes Charged: Infanticide and witchcraft
Chief Defense Lawyer: No Record
Chief Prosecutor: No Record
Judges: Michael Brook, William Fuller, Edward Lloyd, John Pott, and Richard Preston
Place: Patuxent County, Maryland
Date: September 22, 1656
Verdict: Not Guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: While trying to adhere to common law, colonial judicial practices often arose from immediate practical needs, as had the common law itself. In this case, the practical need was for a woman's expertise, which led to an all-female jury.

Even after obtaining the vote with passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, for decades some states still prohibited women from serving on juries. Nevertheless, in 1656, an all-woman jury was impaneled to decide the case of Judith Catchpole. Although unusual, hers is not the only recorded case of a female jury.

Catchpole was an indentured servant, who had arrived in Maryland in January 1656 aboard the Mlary and Francis. An unnamed fellow passenger, identified in court records only as the indentured servant of William Bramhall, told a bizarre story claiming Catchpole had given birth to a child that she subsequently murdered. The storyteller died before Catchpole could be tried, but not before telling his tale to other servants.

Andrew Wilcox sworn and Examined Saith that William Bramhalls man Servant that dyed Said that when the Murther was done all the people and Seamen in the Ship were asleep and after it was done Judith Carchpole and the Said Servant of William Bramhall went up upon the Deck and walked a quarter of an hour afterward off they went to their lodging this being at Sea in the middle of the Night.

This trial was held eight months after Catchpole arrived. Others had not come forward to accuse her of infanticide. Nor was there any explanation of how Catchpole could hide a pregnancy and give birth aboard a cramped ship without anyone noticing.

According to additional hearsay evidence, the dead manservant also spoke of witchcraft. He claimed that she had "cut the Skinn of a maid's throat when She was a sleep," then sewn it up again without waking her. Catchpole was also supposed to have "prickt a Seaman in the back" with a knife the manservant had ground "Dutch fashion," following which she rubbed a little grease into the man's back "and he Stood up again." The manservant said that she was to kill several others.

In addition to weighing the evidence presented in testimony, the jury acted in an investigative capacity. The women examined Judith Catchpole for any physical signs of recent pregnancy and childbirth. They found none and gave an oath to that effect.

The court appeared to pay little attention to the charges of witchcraft. The decisions of the court seem to have hinged on the plausibility of the charges. Neither the judges nor the jury could give credence to the accusations made by the dead manservant. They declared Judith Catchpole's accuser to have been of unsound mind and released her.

Teddi DiCanio

Suggestions for Further Reading

Browne, William Hand, ed. Archives of Maryland. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1883.

Rose, Lou. "A Memorable Trial in Seventeenth-Century Maryland." Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol. 83. (Winter 1988).

Semmes, Raphael. Crime and Punishment in Early Aaryland. Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1970.

[Reprint from Johns Hopkins Press, 1938.]

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