William Leddra: Executed for Quakerism

Dan Graves, MSL

William Leddra: Executed for Quakerism

William Leddra stood at the foot of the tree where he was to be hanged. As his arms were being tied he said, "For bearing my testimony for the Lord against deceivers and the deceived, I am brought here to suffer." His final words were, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." A few moments later, on this day, March 24, 1661* he became the last Quaker to swing in Boston for the crime of returning from banishment.

From the first, Quakers who landed in Massachusetts were arrested, beaten and banished. Some were lashed behind carts, others taken deep into the forest and abandoned, still others branded with "H" for heretic. Some had their tongues bored with a hot irons and others had their ears cut off. When such severity did not stop them from preaching pacifism and insisting that Christ could be known intimately as a friend without the need of religious rituals, Governor John Endicott pushed for the death penalty. Between 1659 and 1661, four Quakers swung in Boston. These were Marmaduke Stephenson, William Robinson, Mary Dyer--and William Leddra.

Like the other three, William was an individual of pure character. Even the court acknowledged that it "found nothing evil" in William. Even so, he had suffered beatings and banishment for preaching in Massachusetts. When he dared to return in 1660, Puritan authorities arrested him. The charges against him were typical. He had sympathized with the Quakers who were executed before him; he had refused to remove his hat, and he used the words "thee" and "thou," which, to Quakers, implied the equality of all people.

William lay in prison all that winter without heat. But on the last day of his life, chained to a log in a dark cell, he wrote to his wife:

"Most Dear and Inwardly Beloved,

"The sweet influences of the Morning Star, like a flood distilling into my innocent habitation, hath filled me with the joy of [God] in the beauty of holiness, that my spirit is, as if it did not inhabit a tabernacle of clay. Oh! My Beloved, I have waited as a dove at the windows of the ark, and I have stood still in that watch, wherein my heart did rejoice, that I might in the love and life speak a few words to you sealed with the Spirit of Promise, that the taste thereof might be a savor of life to your life, and a testimony in you, of my innocent death."

Robert Harper, a prominent Quaker in Boston caught William's body under the scaffold when the hangman cut it down. For this sign of respect toward his dead friend, Robert and his wife, were banished. Another Quaker, Edward Wharton helped bury the body. Shortly after William's death, King Charles II put a stop to the executions.

* This date will sometimes be given as March 14, because Massachusetts was still under the old calendar.

Bibliography:

  1. Early Quaker History. http://thorn.pair.com/earlyq.htm
  2. Holder, Charles Frederick. The Quakers in Great Britain and America; the religious and political history of the Society of Friends from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century. New York: Nuner, 1913. Source of the image.
  3. Various internet articles.

Last updated June, 2007.

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