The 1700s Court of General Sessions
By Barbara Rumsey
This article first appeared in the Boothbay Register in 1992. Some language and grammar has been slightly changed.
After Lincoln County was formed in 1760, its Court of General Sessions heard cases about violated laws, rather than cases between citizens; those were handled by the Court of Common Pleas. General Sessions attended to offenses against the state, county and town, including the enforcement of “blue laws” such as bans on fornication, work performed on Sunday, and the sale of liquor. Its duties also covered permits for innholders and ferrymen, the laying out of roads, and conservation of fishways.
A couple of examples of cases handled by General Sessions follow. In 1776 Timothy Langdon was charged with stealing 10 quintals (1000 lbs) of salt fish from a vessel in Boothbay. The fish had been the property of the Boothbay Committee of Correspondence and Inspection; it oversaw the local war effort. Langdon got off on a technicality since the designation of “esquire” wasn’t written on the necessary papers. Another case of some significance was the 1778 apprehension of Joseph Booker of Boothbay for “desertion from the Continental Army to which he had been appointed for the town of Boothbay.”
Nowhere in the records of the Court of General Sessions or the Court of Common Pleas did I see corporal punishment inflicted on men. Normally they were jailed and fined for their wrongdoing, whether their offenses were stealing or using a schooner on the Lord’s Day. Women did not enjoy that luxury. They were jailed, fined, and whipped for fornication. When Sarah Pierce received five stripes in 1769, and Jane (Jean) Reed four stripes at the whipping post in 1771, where were the men? The record is silent on the whereabouts or responsibility of the requisite male partner. Women alone took the punishment for a crime that could not have taken place without two parties.
Margaret (Martha) Crommet was also found guilty of fornication in 1782, but she caught the guy by the arm and said, “Oh no, you don’t—we’re in this together whether you like it or not!” She promptly charged Patishall Knight with begetting her with child. The case was later postponed and never came up again that I could find, but she took a stand and exercised her rights, however limited they were for women. She married Stephen Rollins in 1786 and lived near the Murphy place up Back River.
By the mid-1770s most “blue law” cases had disappeared from the court record. They were then handled on a local level by justices of the peace. For instance, the Maine Historical Society has the justice docket of Daniel Rose from 1803 to 1813. Whether in Newmilford (Alna) or Boothbay, he meted out justice from his house in the evening, the cases running heavily to swearing and indebtedness.
Reflected in the written record is the rocky transition of allegiance from the King to the Republic. Though the Revolution is said to have started April 18, 1775, the court session in June 1775 found nothing changed. The session still opened with the words, “Anno Regni Regis Georgii Tertii / Magna Britannia Francia & Hibernia &c decimo Quinto” (in the 15th year of the reign of King George III of Great Britain, France, and Ireland) “at his Majesty’s Court of General Sessions of the Peace held at Pownalborough within and for the County of Lincoln on the first Tuesday of June, being the Sixth Day of Said Month, Annoque Domini 1775.” A year later at the June 4, 1776 session, there were no grand Latinate words at all, just the facts of when and where court was held. Finally September 24, 1776, two months after the Declaration of Independence, a new heading appeared: “Anno Reipublica Americana Primo”—the first year of the American republic. With those words the county commissioners made public their allegiance. That designation continued up through 1780 with secundo, tertio, quarto, and quinto. 1781 was an odd year when the June heading (four months before Yorktown) became Anno Reipublica Massachusettensis Sixto—a sign of how badly the war had been going and the growing disunion and despair. Evidently the province of Maine was not convinced anything more than Massachusetts would survive the war. Then in September of that year before the war was won, Latin headings were dropped altogether.
The permits granted by General Sessions cast some light on the times. Ordinarily in September innholders and sellers of coffee and tea were given permits. Prominent in the 1760s lists were Boothbay McFarlands, Reeds, Wylies, and someone on Ship (Sawyers) Island; either Joseph Patten, Thomas Hodgdon, or Israel Davis. Most parts of town were covered by someone. Samuel Kelley was in the Pleasant Cove area. In 1769 he was given a permit as an innholder and he was licensed to keep a ferry from Boothbay to Ware (Weir) Cove across the Damariscotta River. A 1767 deed and two 1768 deeds mention the Kelley family mill on Kelley Brook; it runs up north into Pleasant Cove. All the running water above Boothbay Center flows north; below, it flows south. With his triple responsibilities of ferryman, innholder, and miller, Samuel Kelley was a busy man in Boothbay in 1769. Multiple responsibilities tended to accrue to just a few.