Breta Johnson, Wife of Executed Murderer in Colonial Philadelphia

Dateline: 1693 to 1694, Philadelphia. The earliest Americans, even peaceful Quakers, supported the death penalty—that’s for sure.

The concern here is with his widow and three children.

They felt his absence keenly.

The three transcriptions have been modernized.

28 Apr 1693


Benjamin Fletcher

William Markham, Esq. Lt. Governor

Andrew Robeson, Robert Turner, Patrick Robinson, Lawrence Cock (Swede and Indian Interpreter), all Esqs.

Upon reading the petition of Derrick Johnson alias Clauson, setting forth that he with his wife and sister stand committed in close prison upon suspicion of murder, where he has continued twelve months, without the benefit of being brought to trial.

Ordered that a commission of Oyer and Terminer do forthwith issue for trial of the petitioners.

Speedy trials were not a big thing back then. Now we can see why our Constitution of a hundred years later ordered them.

26 June 1693


Andrew Robeson, Robert Turner, Lawrence Cock, Patrick Robinson, Secretary, all Esqs.

Upon reading the petition of divers [various] of the relations, friends, neighbors of Derrick Johnson, a prisoner condemned to die:

The said petition containing in it reflecting matter relating to the trial of the said Derrick was rejected, which the Lt. Governor and Council imputed to the drawer of the petition (supposed to be John White) and not to the petitioners, whom the Lt. Governor and Council examined because of their ignorance;

And thereafter upon the petition of Breta, the wife of the said Derrick, begging favor from the Lt. Governor of some support to herself and poor children. The Lt. Governor told them he would intercede for them to his Excellency Benjamin Fletcher upon that account.

24 May 1694


His Excellency Benjamin Fletcher

William Markham, Esq. Lt. Governor

Andrew Robeson, Robert Turner, Wm. Clarke, George Foreman, all Esqs.

At a Council held at Philadelphia

The petition of Breta Johnson was read, setting forth that she is the widow of Derrick Johnson, who was executed for the murder of a man etc. whereby his estate, real and personal, became forfeited to their Majesties [William III and Mary II], but by the clemency of the Lieutenant Governor [Wm Markham], the petitioner was ordered one moiety thereof, for her and her children’s subsistence, but could not get possession of any of the movables, only the moiety of the land and house and is now in very low conditions, having three children to maintain;

And therefore, requesting his Excellency [Governor] to consider her condition and reverse the judgment which was executed on the other moiety of the land and in his clemency and charity, [he] orders the restoration of the moiety which is not in her possession, for a further support to her present necessities.

The above said petition was referred to Wm. Salway and Geo. [George] Foreman, Esquires, to report what they judge proper to be done in answer thereto; and they having reported that by the law the widow has a right to half the personal estate and desired with the rest of the Council that his Excellency will grant the other half for the maintenance of herself and children, his Excellency ordered that the same be granted for her [and that use, she paying all reasonable charges and fees.

So her petition for relief from financial stress was answered. The Council showed mercy and bent the rules.

Minutes of the Provincial Council, vol. 1, 1683-1700, (Jo. Severns and Co. 1852), pp. 367, 378, 442.

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