The 'Headers In Life & Legend
by Russell W. Knight

He Weren't No Rose Geranium...

"We in New England are not His Majesty's subjects ... We're rebels!"

Time proved the speaker right, but John Hunniwell, the Marbleheader who uttered the preceding words, soon found himself involved in a veritable sea of trials and tribulations. Shortly after John expressed his opinion, he was summoned to appear before the magistrates of the Essex County Quarterly Court.

There, he was asked to explain to that august tribunal his reasons for voicing such an obviously treasonable remark, one not only reflecting a deep-seated disloyalty to the Crown but fomenting and fostering civil discord and strife. And even worse, downgrading the authority of the King and the British Parliament.

Furthermore, for certain other good and sufficient reasons, the court wanted to quiz the Marbleheader about a series of misdeeds and escapades in which he was apparently involved. In brief, the courts intended to charge him with crimes from assault and battery, theft and cuckoldry, plus one or two other tantalizing transgressions and peccadilloes!

Although he had braved wind and wave, fog and shipwreck to learn the "art, trade and mystery" of fishing, John wasn't of a mind to face-down a panel of staid and stuffy provincial judges. In the first place, he didn't feel that he was ready to exchange words with a court of law, it being a far cry from a lifetime of yanking thousands of slimy, struggling cod and haddock from the depths of the North Atlantic. Moreover, he believed that the decisions of the court were biased, that its magistrates tended to look down on Marblehead's earthy, obstreperous fishermen with ill-concealed scorn. In fact, the thought of engaging in a battle of wits with a bevy of class-conscious judges made him mad, damn mad!

For one who had endured a hard and taxing life and was now as rugged as his town's ledge-strewn headland and as restive as the combers battering its shores, John's fears did not appear unjustified. He and his cronies were sure that the decisions meted out by the Quarterly Court were often unfair, capricious and degrading, some cruel and painful, others mean and humiliating.

So under the circumstances, it is not surprising that John knew exactly what to do shortly after constable William Beal handed him a summons issued by the court ...

He took to his heels!

With nary a farewell to family and friends, nor so much as a tongue-in-cheek apology to the Justices of the Essex County Quarterly Court, the errant Marbleheader headed for the wilds of New Hampshire. There, nestled within the folds of its green-clad hills, John was sure he could find a cozy hospitable haven. There, amid vast virgin forests and numerous crystal-clear lakes and streams, John hoped to enjoy a life of peace and quiet.

And to make certain that the sylvan paradise he had dreamed of was indeed the Promised Land, he was accompanied by a companion--a young, comely damsel ... the wife of Alexander Gilligan, an octogenarian fellow-Marbleheader!

There, the erstwhile fisherman and his ladylove shared several weeks of unalloyed rapture and bliss. Each day was long and tranquil, each night filled with intoxicating delights. And as week after week passed with nary an unsettling incident, all thoughts of the County Court and its toplofty magistrates slowly faded away. Now, miles from Salem, presumably well beyond the long arm of the law, the graceless pair lived as happily as the proverbial clam at high water.

But alas and alack ...

Unexpectedly, those halcyon days suddenly ended. One bright, sunny morning as John napped in a cozy, bone-warming corner, he was awakened by a voice from the past. Standing before him was Vincent Stillson, Marblehead Constable and officer of the Essex County Quarterly Court! No neighborly greetings were offered, and no pleasantries were exchanged as the thoroughly stunned John Hunniwell was served an order from the court.

Elizabeth was charged for "absenting herself from her husband," and John for uttering irreverent remarks, assaulting an officer of the law and profane swearing and adultery. Constable Stillson also told them that they were under arrest, and that he had orders to return John to Salem, bound in chains.

John blew his top!

Seething with rage, he grabbed a splintered two-by-four and took a mighty swipe at Vincent Stillson's head!

Stillson, however, a veteran of innumerable brawls and waterfront ruckuses, was not caught off-guard. He quickly ducked and charged for John. And in jig time, Stillson decked and chained John hand and foot. It was a truly humiliating experience, especially for an irrepressible and uninhibited Grand Banks fisherman!

Within the week, John Hunniwell and Mrs. Alexander Gilligan were lodged behind the bars of Salem's dreary jail. There, the amorous pair remained until mid-September, 1685, when John was brought to trial. In addition to the original charges, John was also charged with "striking Vincent Stillson and hurting him greatly, for swearing by the name of God that he would kill Stillson. And for suspicion of living in adultery with Alexander Gilligan's wife."

'Twas an interesting trial:

Q. Are you (John Hunniwell) acquainted with Mrs. Elizabeth Gilligan?
A. I am.
Q. Where did you meet her on the night in question?
A. We met at night by a haycock, in a pasture near a barn in Marblehead.
Q. Please tell us (the court) why you met there.
A. She wanted to go to Piscataqua where she had relatives, and she wanted me to go with her.
Q. Did you go with her?
A. Yes. I thought it was bad for a woman to go alone through woods alive with hostile Indians, rascals, scamps and drifters.

(As the trial progressed, the magistrates remained cool, calm and collected, the accused brash, brazen and bumptious. Each question was sharp and searching, each response specious and evasive. The one probed; the other parried.

It was a contest with no holds barred, with no concessions and no compassion. It was John Hunniwell, fisherman, philanderer and professed Good Samaritan, pitted against a panel of stoney-faced justices.)

Q. You say that it took four days to get to Black Point? Where did you sleep, in an inn or some hostelry?
A. No. We slept in the woods or in some field close to the road. We had no money for inns or lodgings.
Q. If you didn't have any money, how did you live? What did you eat?
A. I stole a cock turkey from a farmer and roasted it over a fire.
Q. For that you were caught and fined, weren't you?
A. Yes. Four shillings.
Q. Did you not steal a bolt of linen about a month ago?
A. No. I did not.

And so, the questions and answers continued. The mettlesome, un-schooled fisherman fended off the organized and sophisticated foe. And no stone was left unturned, no scent ignored, no clue not pursued.

Of the several witnesses called by the court, none had a good word for the beleaguered fisherman. According to one witness, John and Elizabeth had lived with him in his home for a month, that he was present the day Vincent Stillson arrested John, and that he saw the accused knock the constable cold!

Poor, put-upon John.

When the jailkeeper's wife, Mrs. Dounton, was called to the stand, it was obvious that the charms that had beguiled Mr. Gilligan's wife had not appealed to her. John, she informed the court, was positively obnoxious -- that while languishing in his cell, he passed the hours swearing and blaspheming. To hear John Hunniwell, Mrs. Dounton said, made one's blood run cold as his language was the foulest she had ever heard in her seven years as the jailkeeper's wife.

(That the spouse of Salem's jailkeeper was unfamiliar with the blistering imprecations and purple phrases commonly used in Marblehead is beyond belief.)

Q. Is it not true that when questioned at Piscataqua you informed the judge that you and your female companion were man and wife? That you had been married some five or six weeks?

This question knocked the wind out of John's sails. It was the one he did not care to answer, as his response would undoubtedly persuade the court to pry more deeply into his past. And he was right. In due time, the free-spirited Marbleheader was undone.

Under the court's relentless probing, John Hunniwell -- professed man of goodwill, fisherman, philanderer, rebel and fugitive from justice -- the tide had turned, taking him out of the arms of love and into the embrace of his nemisis -- the Essex County Quarterly Court!

In its quest to get at the truth, the court uncovered what had been a well-guarded secret: John Hunniwell was a married man. He had a wife and six children in England!!

From the day Marblehead was settled, the overall behavior of the town's inhabitants spawned a veritable host of rollicking yarns, tall tales, colorful legends and time-honored traditions. Happily, those deeds of derring-do and sagas of high adventure have survived the years, kept alive by a handful of history buffs and a few Old Timers.

In the best sense of the word, I was lucky indeed, for my boyhood years were spent on the shores of Fort Beach and Barnegat where I mingled with many a lobsterman, barnacleback and retired fisherman. They taught us kids many things, to row and scull, to feather our oars and sail a Beachcomber dory. They were innately good-natured, easygoing and indulgent, and their anecdotes and vivid recollections of the past instilled in us boys an undying love for our town's history.

One day, as I sat listening to a bevy of Old Timers "batting the breeze," someone damned the Essex County Quarterly Court to hell-and-gone for its inquisitorial ways. And quite by chance there was present a patriarch who regaled his cronies with a most entertaining capsule account of the aforementioned incident.

Though the trial of John Hunniwell and Elizabeth Gilligan was already well over two centuries old, and the records covering it were dull, ambiguous and dry as dust, but as told by this Old Timer with many a leer, earthy aside and spicy comment, those present were held spellbound.

"Boy, oh boy!" exclaimed one, slapping a knee. "That Liz Gilligan must have been quite a gal--a real humdinger!"

"True," said another. "But don't forget, she got her comeuppance, didn't she? First, she got flogged; then, she was turned over to her husband, who probably gave her a well-deserved larruping!"

"Should've had her keel-hauled, if you was to ask me," growled one. "And that there John Hunniwell, slippery as an eel, he was. But for all of that, he went to jail just the same, and for a good long haul."

"Yep," chimed in another, "but it don't seem fair to me. For John weren't so bad ... didn't do nobody no real harm, so why was they so hard on him?"

The Old Timer snorted: "I'll tell you why. 'Cause that there John Hunniwell sure weren't no Rose Geranium!"

* * *

When he was found crumpled-up and moaning on deck at the foot of the mainmast, it was obvious that Seaman Doakes was about to "slip his cable."

As his shipmates stood helplessly by, one of his buddies knelt beside his inert body, grasped his hand and whispered: "Tell me, Joe, is it true that you see all your sins flash by when you're on your way to Davy Jones' Locker?"

"How'n hell do I know!" Joe answered angrily. "I only fell from the main stunns'l yard, ya dumbbell...less'n a hundred feet and in no time at all!"

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