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What is With Those Tuttles?

Article: What Is It With Those Tuttles?

Author: Sybil Smith
Ancestry Magazine. May/June 1995. 13.3: 4

On an April evening in 1676, one Elizabeth [Note:  Matthews as her maiden surname is not established] Tuttle, a widow, age sixty-seven or thereabouts, was sitting in her chair by the fire.  She had a comfortable house in New Haven, Connecticut (by the standards of the day), and her family was respected.  Her late husband, William had been influential in New Haven and had merited the title of  “Mister,” which was not commonly used during that time.  He had died four years before — rather unexpectedly, we can presume, because he was in court only two weeks before his death completing a land transaction, and because he left no will.  Several of Elizabeth’s adult children were at her house that night.  She had produced twelve children and raised them all to maturity — quite a feat in those days.

David, who was thirty-eight, had never left home, as he was “incompetent.”  David was the fifth child, born in 1639; he died in 1693.

Sarah, a married daughter, age thirty-five, was there as well.  Born in 1642, she was the seventh child and was married to John Slossun.

Elizabeth was the eighth child, born in 1645.

I believe that Mercy, another daughter, age twenty-six, was visiting as well.  Mercy was the eleventh child, born in 1650. She married Samuel Brown, [Sr.], and died sometime after 1695.

Also present was twenty-nine-year-old Benjamin, the tenth child, who was born in 1648.  It was Benjamin who was to mark his family’s name in history with that rather indelicate instrument, the ax.

That night he began quarreling with sister Sarah.  We do not know what they were quarreling about, though I may guess, because certain facts are known.  A fragment of paper preserved in the Connecticut State Archives contains a statement by Benjamin; in it he said that he was with his sister, that they had had a falling out, that he was afraid she would do to him what he had done to her, and that he had no love for her.  He and Sarah may have been arguing about the division of their dead father’s considerable property, or perhaps Sarah made a disparaging remark about their sister Elizabeth, who was showing signs of an impetuous nature and lack of decorum which was quite at odds with the Puritan standards of the day.   Benjamin may have reminded Sarah that she was no angel; she had scandalized the town in her youth by publicly exchanging kisses with a Dutch sailor, for which she and the sailor were fined. Whatever the quarrel was about, Benjamin resolved it in a terrible, final manner.

He went to the barn, got an ax, returned to the house, and struck Sarah on the head, “maulling & mashing her head to many pieces in a barbarous and bloudy maner.”  Benjamin then ran away and hid in the woods.  He was hanged for murder that same year, but before his death he willed all of his property to his sister Elizabeth.

What makes Benjamin’s action even more unusual is that sister Mercy (who, I believe, witnessed the murder of Sarah) would, fourteen years later, kill her own son Samuel by striking him on the head with an ax.

Later, Elizabeth’s husband, Richard Edwards, with great scandal and notoriety, would be granted a divorce from Elizabeth on the grounds that she was pregnant before his marriage to her, that she was frequently adulterous after the marriage, and that she had often threatened to murder him while he was asleep.

These events have prompted me to ask what the people of Connecticut must have asked:  “What is it with those Tuttles?”  I consider myself qualified to speculate for several reasons.  First, I am a descendant of Hanna (Anna) Tuttle, the second child, who was born in 1632.  She married Joshua Judson and died in 1683.  She is my ninth great-grandmother, and she did nothing more notorious than marry and bear children.  Second, I am a psychiatric nurse, with knowledge of mental disorders.  Finally, I have studied the fading but — particularly for the cases of Elizabeth and Mercy — abundant archival evidence that exists.  While the story of my ancestors, the Tuttles, is unique, the documentation that has enabled me to trace their history and speculate about the reasons for their actions is not.  Many Americans can trace their roots using the same sources that I have to reveal the actions and perhaps the motivations of their ancestors (see the list of sources at the bottom of this article).

Elizabeth was pregnant with another man’s child when she married Richard Edwards in November 1667.  That her first child, Mary, was widely acknowledged not to be the natural child of Richard Edwards is evidenced by the fact that, in a codicil to his will, Edwards wrote, “Mary, the eldest child of my first wife, shall have two shillings out of my estate . . . upon her demand” and by the fact that the Tuttles made a special provision for Mary in the division of the Tuttle estate.  Moreover, shortly after the marriage, the Edwards family brought suit against one Joseph Preston for abusing Elizabeth prior to her marriage to Richard.

Richard Edwards first attempted to divorce Elizabeth in 1689.  He rather plaintively based his divorce action on the following four reasons:

1.  Her being guilty at first of a fact of ye same nature;

2.  Her refusing me so long together;

3.  Her carage having been observed by some to bee very fond and unseemly to some other man than my self;

4.  Her often comending an other man with show or ye like words . . . hee was worth a thowsand of my self.

That “other man” may have been one William Pitkin, for he brought suit against Richard Edwards in May of 1691 for using a term in his divorce case that was “derogatory of his (Pitkin’s) honor.”  Edward’s plea for divorce was denied, despite the fact that Elizabeth’s two eldest children by Edwards, Timothy and Abigail, testified against her in this statement:  “These may certifie whom it may concern, we, Timothy Edwards, aged about nineteen years, and Abigail Edwards, aged about seventeen years . . . that our mother for many years hath . . . behaved herself with worry, great obstinacy and coarseness against our father Richard Edwards, both before her distraction and for many years since, and hath been absent from his bedd and society for above five or six years and hath refused any amicable carriage to him, according to our observation.”

Testimony of Timothy and Abigail Edwards during the divorce trial of their parents.

Testimony of Timothy and Abigail Edwards during the divorce trial of their parents.

The word “distraction,” found in the children’s testimony, is noteworthy.  The word was widely used during the time to describe the mentally ill.  Regarding this case, Donald Lines Jacobus, a well-known and respected genealogist, speculates that the divorce was not granted because Elizabeth was considered “insane” when she committed her adulterous acts.  This view is bolstered by the fact that, as the divorce action continued, Richard Edwards was at great pains to point out that his wife was unfaithful both while she was “distracted” and when she was apparently lucid.

Certainly, the matter gained great attention in the town of Hartford.  Two years later, in October of 1691, a council of “able divines” (including the famous Rev. Thomas Hooker and Rev. Increase Mather) was assembled to consider the divorce action again.  At that time Richard Edwards made a second, more longwinded plea.  By then he was calling himself an attorney, though he was self-taught.

Perhaps he had been happy for a short time with this difficult woman in the few years prior to her father’s death, before her brother Benjamin killed her sister Sarah.  Elizabeth had borne Edwards a son, Timothy, who was bright and obedient.   But after Benjamin was executed, having willed Elizabeth his land, Elizabeth may have felt more free to do as she pleased.  It became clear that she was, at times, not in her right mind.

Furthermore, Richard Edwards needed to be free to marry Mary Talcott, with whom he had lain already.  In fact, Mary Talcott had been fined for fornication with him.

On top of that, Mercy Brown, Elizabeth’s sister, had killed her son the previous spring.  Surely the judges would understand that his fear of Elizabeth was not ungrounded.  The upshot of this second plea was that the ministers decided “it is not within the compass of human power to deny him a divorce.” Edwards was granted the divorce and eventually married Mary Talcott, with whom he had six children.  She was called “my loving wife” in Edward’s will.

And what of Elizabeth?  Evidently, William Pitkin was not willing to marry her, for there is no record of her ever marrying again.  Nor was the date and place of her death recorded, which leads me to believe she may have been leading a marginal existence by the time she died.  It is possible, too, that she committed suicide.  Suicide was a grave sin in those times, and a person who had committed suicide could not be buried in a cemetery.  Perhaps she had wandered to another, wilder part of the country and died in an area where records were not kept.

Mercy killed her 17-year-old son Samuel with an ax in June 1691 in the town of Wallingford.  Her husband stated that he had seen her give the blow with the ax and that he had “thought her sane that day,” though he later pleaded in court that his wife’s act had not been from malice but from “distraction.”  His deposition is preserved in the Connecticut archives:

“The testimony of Sam Brown . . . What my wife told me.  She would fain have her children buryed in the barne.  I tolde her ye children were well and so why do ye talk so poor.  Why she replyed there are dreadful times a coming.  Conceiving (sic) that her fear and amazement was an effect of her Dystraction I told her she knew not what she said and put her out of that discourse and I am told by my Daughter Sara that my son Samuel hearing of such like discourse asked his mother if she could kill Him she replyed yes if I thought it would not hurt you . . .”  He also testified that she had not slept for three nights prior to the act, and that after she had killed her son she said “she hoped he was Abram’s (sic) seed” (Abraham is the symbolic father of all Christians) “and that she could never get her husband to do the deed.”

Again one of the Tuttle brood stood in court.  The judge intoned:  “Mercy Brown, ye hath committed a most unnateral act . . . at the instagation of the divill . . . for which thou oughtest to die.”  Yet many in the town spoke in favor of Mercy’s being exonerated, albeit by virtue of insanity.

A neighbor, John Beach, testified that Mercy Brown had come for fire on the morning of the murder and that she went down the hill toward the swamp, “partly in one path and then turned about to the brow of the hill and stared about as if distracted.”

One Joseph Dolittle, son-in-law of the Browns, testified that Mercy was often distraught and once threatened to throw scalding water on him.

Daniel Clark, the jailer, testified that Mercy Brown had appeared distracted while in prison and had “cried out against persons without cause.”

Her own brother Simon, the ninth child, born in 1647, with wife Abigail, testified as follows:  “. . . this we believe and do atest, and that our sister Mercy Brown has bine a distracted woman. I myself being at brother Browns house but a litel befor she committed this woful act and I observed that she was verye much out in her understanding then: also we do believe in our conciences that she was a distracted woman when she committed this horid act: I was also at the home that morning after the act was committed and I could judg her no other then a distracted woman both in her words and actions: I and my wife were thar several times after but we found her very litell rational.”

I think it is fair to say that Mercy was delusional and psychotic.  Was Samuel (the son) showing signs of the Tuttle family’s obvious instability?  Had Mercy, like her sisters, been promiscuous?  (She was charged with stealing and drinking liquor at the age of fourteen).  Is it possible that she thought Samuel was not her husband’s child?

Events of the time may have influenced Mercy.  The infamous Salem witch trials were about to begin, and in 1688 Cotton Mather had published a sensational account of four Boston witches.  If Mercy was having auditory hallucinations — “hearing voices” — she may have thought that she herself was a witch.  Did she fear that Armageddon was at hand and believe that her son had to be killed, as he would die horribly at the day of judgement anyway?  And how was it that she apparently had periods of lucidity, during which she functioned normally?  There is no way to know.

What is known is that the court did not sentence her to death for the murder.  She may have lived out her life in prison or in one of the log pens that were then erected for the containment of the insane.

Of course, not all of the Tuttle children committed antisocial acts.  Elder sister Hannah bore and raised the child through whom I have descended;  Simon, the barrel maker, who died in 1719;  Nathaniel, the twelfth (last) child, who was born in 1652, married Sarah How, and died in 1721;  and even murdered Sarah had children whose children prospered and helped found a new country.

Elizabeth Tuttle is the ancestor of a family that was to have an amazing impact on American history.  Her son Timothy married a Stoddard, and he became the father of Jonathan Edwards, the brilliant, neurotic minister who has been called the last of the great Puritans.  Jonathan Edwards married a Pierrepont.  His descendants went on to be influential ministers, college presidents, financiers, surgeons, and judges.  Perhaps the most famous descendant was Aaron Burr.  In Hale, House and Related Families Mainly of the Connecticut River Valley(Anthoensen Press, 1952), Donald Lines Jacobus writes:  “The Edwards family having been selected by eugenists as an example of good heredity and the inheritance of unusual ability, the presence of Elizabeth Tuttle in the ancestry leaves much to be explained.”  He further speculates that the neurotic strain was ‘bred out,’ though a few of the nearer descendants were somewhat eccentric.

My interpretation is different.  I believe it is possible that some members of the Tuttle family suffered from a severe form of manic depressive disorder and that Jonathan Edwards himself suffered from this mood disorder.  He may, in his epic struggle against the mania and depression which occasionally seized him, have come up with the insights that were explicated in his various treatises.  The Great Awakening (a highly emotional religious revival which started in Edward’s Northampton congregation and spread throughout New England) may, in some way, have been the result of his projection of his own psychological torment onto his congregation.  It is known that in his early 20’s (the age at which bipolar illness often manifests itself), just prior to his marriage, Jonathan Edwards had a few very emotionally difficult years.  Consider this quote from Elizabeth Dodd’s Marriage to a Difficult Man (Westminster Press:  MCMLXXIb), a book about Edwards’ personal life and family:  “His handwriting shows the strain he was undergoing.  In the first page it was small but neat.  By 1725, his most agitated year, it became spiky and taut and the entries went like these:

“December 29 — Dull and lifeless

“January 9 — Decayed

“January 10 — Recovering.”

These appear to be the cries of a profoundly depressed person, yet he is known to have been a creative, driven, and productive man.  In fact, one anecdote tells of Edwards going out for a ride on his horse, perhaps running an errand, and coming back with various notes scribbled hurriedly and pinned to his coat.

Regarding Jonathan Edwards’ wife, Sarah, Dodds writes:  “She learned that he was unpredictable in his moods, swiftly switching from intense creativity to paralyzed slumps.  As he confided to his journal:  “I have had very affecting views of my own sinfulness and vileness; very frequently to such a degree as to hold me in a kind of loud weeping . . .”

I would like to share a conversation I had with my sister, a strong and curious woman, a descendant of the Tuttles and my collaborator in these faintly obsessive forays into the past. “If Jonathan Edwards had come into our psychiatric unit raving about God and the Will, we would have put the lithium right to him,” I told her.  “Don’t forget the Prozac,” she replied.  “And then what would he have written? ‘Mary was very happy’? ‘Sarah was very nice’?” I wondered.  She laughed.  “It rained this afternoon but cleared toward evening.”


Manic Depressive Disorder

Manic depressive disorder is described in the following quotes from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disordres III.  “The disturbance is sufficiently severe to cause marked impairment in occupational functioning or in usual social activities or relationships with others, or to require hospitalization to prevent harm to self or others.  The associated symptoms includ . . . excessive involvement in pleasurable activities which have a high potential for painful consequences.” During the manic phase, “although elevated mood is considered the prototypic symptom, the predominant mood disturbance may be irritability, which may be most apparent when the person is thwarted . . . When sleep disturbance is severe, the person may go for days without sleep . . . if the person’s mood is more irritable than expansive, his or her speech may be marked by complaints, hostile comments and angry tirades.”  During both the manic and depressive phases of the illness there may be psychomotor agitation which takes the form of “inability to sit still, pacing, hand-wringing, pulling or rubbing of hair, skin, clothing . . .”  During the depressive phase “thoughts of death (not just dying) are common.  Often there is the belief that the person or others would be better off dead.”  Further, there are “feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt.”

I think it is entirely possible that Benjamin, Elizabeth, and Mercy suffered from bipolar, or manic depressive disorder.


Sources of Interest

Records of criminal and civil court proceedings can cast considerable light on the activities of ancestors.  In Connecticut between 1665 and 1711, when the deeds of Benjamin and Mercy Tuttle were recorded in the courts, criminal activities were the purview of the court of assistants.  The records of the court of assistants for that period are available to researchers at the Connecticut State Archives.  Though naturally their preservation has been subject to the vagaries of time and catastrophe — fires, floods, etc. — the court records of other states as well are generally available through state archives and libraries.  Many such records have been organized and indexed for the convenience of researchers.

Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1989) lists court records available for each state.

The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1984) contains a detailed discussion of court records and how to use them in genealogical research.

Crimes and Misdemeanors 1662-1789, Connecticut State Archives, Hartford, Connecticut.

Jacobus, Donald Lines. Private Controversies, 1642-1717, Connecticut State Archives, Hartford, Connecticut.

Hale, House and Related Families Mainly of the Connecticut River Valley, Portland, Me.: The Anthoensen Press, 1952.

Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, Aug 1689 – May 1706, edited by Charles L. Hoadly, c. 1861, Case, Lockwood and Brainard.


Sybil Smith is a published author of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction.  She is currently developing a film based on one of her novellas.





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