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Dorothy Talbye Trial: 1638

Defendant: Dorothy Talbye
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: No Record
Chief Prosecutor: No Record
Judge: Governor John Winthrop
Place: Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony
Date of Trial: October 4, 1638
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death by hanging

SIGNIFICANCE: The Talbye case demonstrated that early American society and its legal system did not fully understand or acknowledge the concept that someone could commit a crime and yet be judged not guilty by reason of insanity. There was no practical alternative to treating the insane as ordinary criminals. Although England's officials had a few institutions, such as the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem (known as Bedlam), to which they could send people, the American colonies had none.

A defense of not guilty by reason of insanity is a comparatively recent innovation. However, by 1641, the Massachusetts Bay Colony's "Body of Liberties" did state that:

Children, Idiots, Distracted persons … shall have such allowances and dispensations in any Cause whether Criminall or other as religion and reason require.

Even if these words had been written three years earlier in 1638, they still might not have saved the "distracted" Dorothy Talbye from the gallows, for such "allowances" were limited. The 17th-century society could do little to either aid or restrain the severely mentally ill.

Over time, Dorothy Talbye changed from a respected member of the community, "of good esteem for godliness," into a melancholy woman given to fits of violence. She fought with family and neighbors. She experienced what she believed to be divine revelations, sometimes on a daily basis.

Talbye's husband and children were often the targets of her madness. Her revelations told her to starve her family and herself. According to her husband John, she tried to kill him. Prayers and admonitions of ecclesiastical authorities were useless. Finally, she was expelled from the church.

The expulsion seemed to aggravate her emotional state. Eventually her actions twice brought her before civil authorities. The second time a magistrate ordered her to be whipped. For a time, Talbye seemed to improve. But her condition worsened again. Dorothy's revelations convinced her that the only way to "free" Difficult, her daughter, "from future misery" such as Dorothy herself had suffered, was to kill the child. She took the 3-year-old to a secluded spot and broke her neck. When apprehended, Talbye confessed freely.

Talbye was charged in the Court of Assistants. Although she had earlier confessed to what she had done, in court Talbye "stood mute for a space" and would not enter a plea until Governor John Winthrop threatened she would be pressed (have stones piled on her chest). She pleaded guilty. The record states:

When she was to receive judgment, she would not uncover her face, nor stand up, but as she was forced, nor give any testimony of her repentance, either then or at her execution.

Talbye was no stalwart martyr. As she had cursed her excommunication, so did she fight her execution. Talbye was dragged to the gallows where she refused to stand. She grabbed at the ladder. She may have been willing to "free" her daughter from "misery" but she was unwilling to be freed herself.

Teddi DiCanio

Suggestions for Further Reading

Powers, Edwin. Crime and Punishment in Early Massachusetts, 1620-1692, A Documentary History.

Boston: Beacon Press, 1966.

Winthrop, John. Winthrop's Journal, Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1908.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832