Were Widows Getting Cheated in Colonial Philadelphia?

Dateline: Philadelphia, 1687-1688. The facts are basic and short. The Council took action.

No need for a long introduction to a short post.

To appear before the Council one had to present a petition—the proper paperwork. Would the board hear the case of widow Elizabeth Shorter?

17 May 1687

Modernized transcription begins:

Thomas Lloyd, President

Arthur Cook, Wm. Clark, Griff. Jones, Joseph Growdon, John Simcock, Wm. Markham, Secretary

The Petition of Elizabeth Shorter, widow, was read, complaining that John Rush, her son-in-law, instead of a letter of attorney that she was to sign, prepared a deed of gift of all her estate with power of attorney to one Samuel Atkins, to acknowledge the same in court.

The witness to the deed was severally examined; they all confess the writing was not read to her, nor could she ever write or read, so it appeared to this board to be an absolute cheat. (p. 207)

Transcription ends.

So it looks like widow Shorter won her case, and the document she put her mark on was declared null and void.

In a related story, the Council decided on rules for widows. The Council met in the Council room in Philadelphia, on this date:

7 Apr 1688

Thomas Lloyd, Deputy Governor

John Simcock, Arthur Cook, John Eckley, Wm. Yardley, John Bristow, Samuel Carpenter, John Cann, Bartholomew Coppock, Joseph Growdon, Samuel Richardson, Griffith Jones, Peter Alrichs, Wm. Markham, Secretary

A bill for enabling widows and administrators of intestates, with approbation of the Council, to dispose of part of the intestate’s lands towards defraying of just debts, towards the education of children and support of the widows, etc. was first time read. (p. 217)

A few days later, 12 Apr 1688, we read:

The bill for enabling of widows of intestates to sell land … [was] for the third time read and unanimously passed, in order for promulgation (p. 221)

It had been read the second time on 9 and 10 Apr 1688.

Here comes another case involving a widow. In those day, Sussex County was within the jurisdiction of Pennsylvania.

25 Sep 1688

Robert Turner

John Simcock, John Eckley, John Bristow, Bartholomew Coppock, Samuel Carpenter, Samuel Richardson, William Markham, Secretary.

Transcription begins:

Margaret Fisher, widow, of the County of Sussex, complaining that she having appealed from the judgment of the County Court of Sussex, where she had indicted one John Barker of the said county for robbing her and her son Thomas Fisher of three head of cattle and that she was come up according to her security given, to have it reheard in the Provincial Court, but the Court was not sitting, nor the said Barker appearing in Philadelphia, she very much feared that said Barker would before the next Provincial Court make away with the said cattle.

Ordered that the Secretary [of the Council] send to the justices of Sussex County in behalf of widow Fisher that they do her what right the law will allow to secure the cattle or the value thereof, till it be reheard next Provincial Court, in regard there were no court at this time (pp. 227-28)

Transcription ends.

In other words, cattle was expensive and rare enough in those days, since they had to be brought over from the Old World (Europe) to the New World (America). Widow Fisher wanted the Provincial Court to hear her case, but it was not in session. Would John Barker, the alleged cattle thief, take the cattle out of reach? The Council sent word to the county court to secure the cattle or an equivalent value, until the Provincial Court was to sit. Let’s hope the case ended in her favor.


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

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