The Sad Case of Susannah Willard in Colonial Philadelphia

Dateline: Chester Co. PA, 1688-90: She was used by a certain John Bradshaw and then mistreated by her father-in-law in a sexual way. How would the Quakers handle this case?

When a woman in those days had sex, licit or illicit, she was likely to have children, due to inadequate birth control.

4th day, 10th month, 1688 (December 10, 1688)

Modernized transcription begins:

We [of the Grand Inquest] likewise present Susannah Willard of Marple for being found with child and having no husband.

Transcription ends.

Just a few months later she appears in court.

3rd day, 1st month, 1688/9 (March 1, 1689)

The court records that she gave birth to a stillborn baby, whose father was John Bradshaw. He promised her marriage, so it was okay to have sex with him, or so he surely claimed.

Modernized transcription begins:

Susannah Willard was called to the bar to answer her presentment at the last court, she having been delivered and the child dead. The midwife Grace Stamfield and Margaret Coppock, Ellen Coppock, and Margery Pearson being all straightly examined did testify that the child received no harm.

The prisoner confesses one John Bradshaw to be the father of her child and that she was beguiled by him under a promise of marriage and that she was sorry for the same and puts herself upon the mercy of the King and Governor [Penn].

Whereupon the court ordered her to pay to the Governor 50 shillings for a fine with court charges and so to be discharged.

Transcription ends.

Apparently the midwives testified that the baby was simply stillborn, not being harmed either by the mother or by them.

Who was John Bradshaw? Court records show he hung out with Samuel Rowland, who was convicted of assault and battery, and they show Bradshaw was part of other shady dealings involving, for example, a black slave and an unnamed servant woman. The deed books don’t record any land sales, which indicates he never advanced in society.

But things are about to take a turn for the worse for poor Susannah.

4th day, 4th month, 1690 (June 4, 1690)

Modern transcription begins:

Ralph Dracot, being presented and indicted by the Grand Inquest for wickedly, lustfully, unlawfully, and incestuously defile the body of Susannah Willard, his daughter-in-law and with her had carnal copulation and did commit adultery whereby the said Susannah did conceive and was delivered of a bastard man-child [a boy].

Upon which he is called to the bar and pleads not guilty and puts himself upon God and the country.

And being called the second time he pleaded guilty to the indictment.

Judgment passed that the said Ralph Dracot shall forfeit one half of his estate and suffer imprisonment one whole year and that he take care in bringing up of the child and apy all charges both for his daughter-in-law as well as his own.


The Grand Inquest of the Body of the County of Chester by the King and Queen’s authority for the Honorable Wm. Penn, proprietary and governor of the province of Pennsylvania and territories at a session held for the County of Chester, this 3rd of the fourth month 1690 [sic, June 3, 1690] do present and indict Susannah Willard of the County aforesaid that she not having the fear of God before her eyes did wickedly, lustfully and unlawfully and incestuously commit fornication with Ralph Dracot, her father-in-law, whereby she the said Susannah did conceive and was delivered of a bastard man-child on or about the 6th day of the 1st month, [March 1, 1689/90] last past in the township of Marple in the county aforesaid to the high dishonor of God and great scandal of the governor against the peace of our sovereign lord and lady the King and Queen and to the dishonor of our proprietary and his dominion of government and expressly against the statute in that case expressly made and provided.

Upon which the said Susannah Willard is called to the bar and pleads not guilty to this indictment.

Judgment passed that the said Susannah Willard, one half of her estate to the Governor and if none be found she be imprisoned one whole year and kept at hard labor to be for the use of the public.

Transcription ends.

Who was Susannah Willard? Records show a George Willard, from Marple, passed land over to Ralph Dracot (or Draycott or Draycutt), also from Marple, on 2nd day, 10 month, 1689; and another one the fifth of the 10th month, 1690; and still another one bearing date 1st day of October, 95 (sic). This Ralph is probably the convicted Ralph’s son of the same name because he’s at liberty, while the convicted Ralph was sentenced to jail. So is this Susannah’s husband who was cheated on?

Or is this still the cheating Ralph, Susannah’s father-in-law? If so, deed records say his wife’s name was Elizabeth, and she was the former wife of Joseph Willard, George’s brother, now deceased. Elizabeth was Joseph’s widow, back in 1686.

Is George her father or brother? He was involved in various deeds (land records) and served on juries. Other records say he was a yeoman and probably died before 1715. He wasn’t in court for a crime or anything like that, according to those same records.

Unfortunately, we don’t know any more of her backstory.

My point in bringing these people to light is to offer redemption to anyone who messes up and misses out today.

I believe that as the decades rolled on, they experienced it too. I like to imagine that the innocent children lived happy, redeemed lives, eventually.

But I like to believe she experienced redemption. So can you for anything you’ve done or has been done to you.

I need to add that Susannah Willard should not have been sentenced to hard labor for her sins. People back then were too strict. But the point in my bringing the story to your attention is to talk about redemption.

Record of the Courts of Chester County, Pennsylvania, begun the 13th day of September, 1681, ending the 10th day of March 1696-7, pp. 148; 188; 202-03; 228; 356.

Carol Bryant, Abstracts of Chester County, Pennsylvania, Land Records, vol. 1, 1681-1730 (Heritage Books, 2006)

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