The Brute and Bully At Home
George Barlow’s life before 1657 is a void. He brought two sons, Moses and Aaron with him to Sandwich, but he had no wife. Some researchers conjecture the marriage and births took place in England, and that George may have had other children. Presumably, his first wife died, and, presumably, of natural causes, but this article is about George’s life with a new wife.
The year 1657 was a milestone year, too, for Jane Besse, albeit a sad one. Her husband Anthony, one of the town’s original founders, fell ill in February and died in May. In the 18 years before, Anthony and Jane had built a house in the Spring Hill section, improved land, acquired livestock and other necessities that sustained a family of five girls and two boys.
Anthony Besse had a will, like most wills, a standard legal instrument that conveys property to heirs, but a few details stand out for me. Anthony names Jane his executrix, proof that he trusted in her judgment and abilities, but this was not uncommon. My attention was drawn to the bequests:
“To Jane my wife, three Cowes… blacking Moose and Cherrey…
“To Dorcas my daughter two heifers… Nubbin and Spark and one more now
which we call young moose;
“To Ann my daughter one heifer which we call pretty
To Nehemiah my son one heifer formerly Disposed to him Called Coll:
“… unto my two sonnes…Nehemiah and David…two steers…Burnett & Raven;
“To my Daughter Mary one heifer wee call browne;
“To my Daughter Jane one heifer wee call Daysey.”
Most seventeenth century wills designate livestock the same way as inanimate property, stating a number of cows, steers, horses, etc. That the Besse animals had names (Nubbin, Spark, Pretty, Brownie, Daisy…) recognizing them as unique individuals suggests the Besse family was good natured and caring. Anthony knew his children’s favorites and assigned his gifts accordingly – to make them happy. Yet, how hard it would have been for the Besses to be happy when this thoughtful and loving man was gone from their lives.
Some months after she buried Anthony, Jane gave birth to his last child. Coping with eight fatherless children, a house, farm, animals, and grief, would be daunting to the stoutest heart, and we don’t know how long the Widow Besse was on her own. It was normal that Jane would remarry, but that she (or any woman) would choose the cruel and tyrannical George Barlow – may be beyond understanding.
The date of their marriage escaped record, but Plymouth County Court documents that tell us – it wasn’t going well. On March 4, 1661/62, Jane’s eldest daughters, Dorcas, Ann, and Mary Besse, went before the court for -
“crewell and unnatural practice toward their father-in-law George Barlow.”
Having failed to earn his stepdaughters’ respect at home, George handled them like he handled everyone who pissed him off, – he hauled them into court. To be fair, details of the case suggest the girls were not entirely blameless, and punishment was duly ordered. At the same time, the court recognized the Barlow household was getting out of control. George and Jane -
“were both severely reproved for their most ungodly living in contention with the other, and admonished to live otherwise.”
Conflict was inevitable when George moved in with Jane, – into the house built by and filled with memories of Anthony Besse. To make that work would have required a man of great sensitivity and delicacy, – not the man known from Cape Cod to Boston for his dickishness. George appears in court again, on June 3, 1662 as evil stepfather.
You’ll recall that Anthony Besse’s will gave his daughter, Jane, a heifer the little girl probably named herself, Daysey (Daisy) and which she undoubtedly loved as a remembrance of her departed father. So George took it away. If he gave a reason, the court ruled it invalid:
“concerning a cow belonging to Jane, daughter of Anthony Bessey, of Sandwich, the Court have ordered G[e]orge Barlow, in whose hands the cow has been for some time, to return her to the overseers of the estate of the said Anthony Bessey, to be disposed of by them for the use and the good of the said Jane Bessey.”
Also in 1662, two of the Besse girls he took to court, Ann and Mary, got married, which would have decreased domestic tension. Then, in 1664, Nehemiah Besse, Jane’s eldest son, reached the age of majority and took over his father’s property. This prompted George and Jane to move some miles away from Spring Hill to Pocasset, (part of Bourne, Massachusetts today). A change of scene can mean a fresh start – and a chance to make life better, but George got worse.
On 6 March 6, 1665/66, George was fined ten shillings for being drunk – a second time. Then in May 1665, he was accused of -
“attempting the chastity of Abigaill, the wife of Jonathan Pratt, by aluring words and actes of force.”
It seems a bit surprising that after these public transgressions, Jane bore George two sons, John (about 1669) and Nathan (1670). Because she was also cited by the court for the couple’s scream fights, it’s doubtful she meekly forgave her husband. And to suggest that George also used “actes of force” on his wife, is consistent with his character. In 1677, he was back in court for being “turbulent, and threatening to drive away the minister, Mr. Smith.” He returned in 1678 for being a “turbulent fellow” and was bound over for the next court session.
Fanatical, delusional, or just plain mean, George Barlow believed he was always right. There’s no evidence he ever tried to reform his antisocial behavior, or ever regretted the suffering he caused, and he held grudges to the grave. In his will, to Aaron and Moses, sons of his first marriage, George gave only five shillings each, adding, “that is all I give them,” – showing us the sadist who couldn’t resist a verbal twist of the knife.
A story that claims George Barlow “ended his days alone and in want,” is widespread and popular. A version in Quaker tradition says that George was reduced to begging for food, and was fed by the very victims of his religious persecution. Such an end would be poetic justice, karma, and just deserts for this horrendously horrible human being, – the trouble with it is that it’s not true. For the Quakers, especially, this is a morality tale stressing the virtue of forgiveness, even for our worst enemies. In real life, the craven George Barlow got away clean.
As mentioned earlier, George had a will (August 4, 1684), because he had an estate. While it may have amounted to less than his neighbors, – eight acres, a house, farm stock and equipment, and household furnishings, – it refutes the notion that George was destitute and starving on the streets of Sandwich.
He wasn’t alone either. The sons he had with Jane, John and Nathan, managed to stay in his good graces; he named them co-executors in his will. George left his house, land, livestock, and all remaining worldly goods to the boys and their mother. Time to make a will meant he also had time to make his spiritual reckoning, and prepare any arguments he’d might need for a heavenly court.
Despite all that passed between them, there’s little doubt Jane Besse Barlow dutifully nursed her truculent husband throughout his last illness. The awful George Barlow likely died in his own bed, surrounded by family on a lovely fall day in 1684. He would have imparted his final words, probably religious admonishments, and had a good death. – So the tale of George Barlow illustrates that life is not fair.
In parting, The Barlow progeny all appear to have been respected members of the community and some married into Quaker families. John and Nathan, the ones in accord with their father at the end, had seven sons between them, – but none of them carried the name George.
I imagine Jane a happier widow this time around. I picture her pausing between chores to gaze toward the hearth. The aroma of a meat and vegetable stew emanates from an iron kettle to mingle with baking bread. Jane takes this moment before the children and the grandchildren come inside for the meal to revel in the unaccustomed peace in her home, – and gives her heartfelt thanks to God.
Plymouth Court Records. (Online database: AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2010)
The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England 1620-1633, Volumes I-III. (Online database: AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2010)
Cape Cod, Its People and Their History, Henry C. Kittredge; 1930.
Sandwich Historical Society; http://sandwichhistory.org
The History of The Society of Friends on Cape Cod by James Warren Gould; http://www.capecodquakers.org/smm_history.html
George Barlow of Sandwich Massachusetts – From the research of Edson Barlow; Barlow Genealogy 1998-2004; http://www.barlowgenealogy.com/GeorgeofSandwich/georgemass.html