Sunday, August 05, 2012

“I have a light within that directs me to renounce my husband”: the unnatural practices of Elizabeth Pigeon.

Lawrence Stone territory this posting, with A brief relation of the strange and unnatural practices of Wessel Goodwin, Mehetabell Jones the wife of Edward Jones, and Elizabeth Pigeon the wife of John Pigeon (1654).

This indignant pamphlet was written by Wessel Goodwin’s son-in-law Samuel Vernon, who followed up with another account of the disaster which struck the family in the form of two sisters, Mehetabel and Elizabeth. This second account comes in The trepan being a true relation, full of stupendious variety, of the strange practices of Mehetabel, the wife of Edward Jones, and Elizabeth, wife of Lieutenant John Pigeon, sister to the said Mehetabel, being both Quakers : wherein is discovered the subtle method whereby they cheated Mr. Wessel Goodwin, a dyer in Southwark, and all his children of a fair estate: with sundry copies of letters, perfumed locks of hair, and verses they sent him, and many other notable devices belonging to the art of trepanning (1656).

It’s a salutary work to read if one is minded to deplore the subordination of women in 17th century England. Obviously, we do not get to hear what Mehetabel and Elizabeth could say for themselves, but, having read Samuel Vernon’s pamphlets about them, I am inclined to believe the one witness we have. The son-in-law looks on in horror as his wife’s father ruins the family under the manipulative influence of the two sisters. In the follow up pamphlet, he has incriminating letters by both women in his possession, and invites anyone interested to come and verify that they are as he says. Elizabeth Pigeon was appalling, a cunning and dangerous woman, of high ability, but entirely self-seeking and shameless.

The stories told, and personalities involved, are all interesting. In the end remarkable in social history terms is that both sisters managed to use the law to break off their marriages. Master Jones, a lutenist, and Mr Pigeon, were brow-beaten by factitious arrests for debt, sexual manipulation, by provocations to which their occasionally ill-considered responses are all made to play into the hands of two determined women. Both men limp wounded and penniless out of their marriages. They sign ‘divorce’ documents put to them by their wives, or associates of their wives, and leave the scene of their defeat for years.

But to the main story: Wessel Goodwin was a London dyer. He had an estate of about £2,000, and his trade as dyer clears him between three and five hundred pounds a year. He had a wife, and four children.

But he had an extraordinary combination of “a weak head, yet an obstinate will” (as the 1656 pamphlet puts it). His marriage had been plagued by his bizarre extravagance – he spent insane amounts of money on music.

“He was ever strangely given to music, to which he had a ravenous appetite; five pounds for pricking out two or three lessons, which when he had, he understood like Arabic; thirty pounds for a Lute, of which he had with other sorts of fiddles, a whole room full; and which is the wonder, can ply of none, only admires them, ten pounds at a time to a music Master for a months teaching (or rather playing to him.)

Goodwin forced his children to learn music, and only if they did this (to the detriment of anything else, any other way of life) did he regard them as obedient. The biographer of his folly, his son-in-law, quarreled with him about this.

His obsession with music seems to have been genuinely unbalanced. When he was 58, his wife, who had struggled gamely with this impossible husband, asked from her deathbed that the music in the house might stop, and was refused:

“About the 58 year of his age, his virtuous wife fell sick of a painful disease contracted by melancholy, of which in a few months she died. 
When she drew near her death, some few days before her departure, overhearing the music which was daily in the next room, she desired one of her sons to call in their father, to whom with a broken sad voice she said, Husband, you well know what a burthen this Excess of music hath been to me all my life; must that which hath been so much affliction to me in my life, be brought to my death bed? may I not dye out of the noise of it? pray forbear, I have not many hours to live, and then you may have your fill of music. To which he replied not one word, but went out in discontent and so fell to his music again.”

Music was going to bring its own nemesis upon Wessel Goodwin. He was employing a lutenist called Edward Jones, and no doubt Jones’ incredulous accounts of his employer’s infatuation with music alerted Mehetabel Jones to an easy mark. She starts, acting with her sister, to secure sums of money from Goodwin, and denigrating his wife (while she lived) and his children. Her sister Elizabeth pushes the whole thing on. Samuel Vernon, fascinated and repulsed, gives this account:

“because Mrs. Pigeon is the chief agent and contriver in these sinful projects, I shall give this brief description of her: She is one that can transform her self into an Angel of light, and having her tongue tipped with Scripture, can with tears, sighs, gesture at command, set off what she would have believed, as Gospel, though very false, thereby to ensure such as hearken to her Charms; no sport to her like catching credulous persons with her faire Saint-like expressions, making sure prey of all that she can thus draw into her toils; and so implacable, that when she hath once got an advantage, nothing shall satisfy her but the utmost rigour, which she will rise at midnight to prosecute.”

Mrs Pigeon was what Roman satirists would have called a captator, a legacy-hunter. She had done well out of her first marriage, and has a second husband who is a Lieutenant of Oliver Cromwell’s regiment, one John Pigeon. You’d think an old Ironside like that might have been able to hold his own, but Pigeon has willed everything to her. In the course of procuring this, she has almost killed him (according to Vernon) with a mixture of aphrodisiac drugs and refusal to consent to sex (“if you touch me, I will cry murder”, she reportedly says to her husband – this in the 1656 pamphlet), until he left her everything. After this success, Mrs Pigeon went on to plot the judicial murder of her husband “it being immediately after the late Kings death, she makes show of much discontent against the actings of the present Governors; she projects to her husband to draw up a declaration against them, and their proceedings, which he must subscribe and avow, and then he should be her dear husband, and she vows to stand by him to the last in it. Let others think their pleasure, for my part, I believe this was a plot laid to have destroyed Mr. Pigeon; but he wisely refused to act in it.”

After being drawn into an affray, which his wife (who, according to Vernon, improved mightily on her facial injuries with make-up) exploits to get him cashiered from the army, Pigeon is brow-beaten by one of his wife’s legal agents into signing a bill of divorce, “alleging he might lawfully in the sight of God do it”. After this, the couple separate. (What sort of confusion of mind had Milton created, with those divorce pamphlets of the 1640’s?)

Sister Mehetabel that makes the running with old Goodwin, and soon has the old man infatuated: “She must be freed from her husband, that so she may be free for old Mr. Goodwin, who is now so taken with her, that he can enjoy himself no where but in her company: scarce one day in the week but he is at her house, spending his time in dalliance with her.” Vernon has had report of her demeanor to Goodwin: “And Mr. Pigeon affirms, that about the year 1646. sojourning then in the house of his Brother Jones, he set himself to observe their carriage, and at one time he saw Mistress Jones take Mr. Goodwin about the neck and kiss him: at another time, being (as they thought) in private, he saw her take Mr. Goodwin’s hand, and putting it under her apron, holding it against the bottom of her belly, with many repeated mutual kisses, she saying, oh my dear Love! At which Mr. Pigeon being much scandalized to see his Sister Jones so behave her self to Mr. Goodwin, she being a married woman, and her husband in the house, went presently and told his wife what he had seen, and that he would tarry there no longer, for that he believed the house was a Bawdy house, and that her Sister Jones was Mr. Goodwins whore.”

Vernon himself cannot resist a bawdy comment on the complete change the women effect in Goodwin’s preoccupation: “Now the Lute and the Lute Master is quite laid aside, Mr. Goodwin speaks not one word more of musick; he hath found another manner of Lute that is easier to play on, which he had been long before a tuning…” I suppose you could say that Goodwin finds himself (as he sees it) transformed from being a passive admirer, into a participant, the admirer thinks himself admired.

Outsiders try to intervene: everyone in the neighbourhood knows what is going on, even small children report details of Goodwin’s infatuation. But “he is so bewitched with her, that as it is reported of leprous persons, into whose flesh you may thrust needles to the head, and they feel nothing; so though reproof, admonitions, prayers, from children, neighbours, Justices, Ministers, assault him daily, yet he is insensible of all.” His minister uses the final deterrent, and “suspends him from the Sacrament, which he values so little, that to this day he so continues, without so much as once desiring to be restored, professing his conscience is clear, and that he values the reproofs of Ministers no more then the dirt under his feet.”

Jones, the lutenist, no longer has Goodwin under the fairly innocent spell of his art. He has his own troubles, and undergoes a series of legal assaults, provocations, and is led into further problems when he unwisely fights back. The two women offer him money to emigrate. He ends up imprisoned in ‘The Counter’, and when this has happened, his wife “flies to [Goodwin], throwing her self into his arms, saying, Mr. Goodwin, Mr. Jones and I am now parted for ever, and you must keep me. The poor deluded old man being overjoyed, takes her in his arms, tells her, it was the best news to him that ever came to town, and that he would provide for her, with more to that purpose. Mr. Pigeon stands in admiration at these doings; at the last breaks out into these words; Now quoth he, I see the cause my brother Jones was put into the Counter”.

Jones gets himself out of prison, and agrees with his wife that she will leave him, the house and the children to stay with him. This deal she instantly breaks, entering the house while he is out giving lessons, and removing everything of value. He finally leaves the city entirely, penniless, and heads off to Norwich.

Finally, the sisters move into Goodwin’s house. This is accomplished by marrying off Mehetabel Jones’ daughter Lydia to one of Goodwin’s less promising sons, James, “a silly schoolboy” (says the 1656 pamphlet): “In brief, they presently clap up a Match between this boy, that a little before was intended for a prentice, and Mistress Jones her daughter, a girl 19 of about fifteen years old, but so small, that she looked more like one of eight or nine at the most. After short wooing, they are married together. This was a strong subtle device, worth Mistress Pigeons Invention. By this match Mr. Goodwin and his concubine are become brothers and sisters, and who can find fault at decent familiarity between such? By this the women have got an interest in the estate and family, that they dare own to the world, which they durst not before: This brings them boldly into the house to reside; Mrs. Jones pretending that because her daughter is such a childe, she hath the more need of a guide. In a word, this device draws a faire skin over a great many scabby places at once; and so they without any more Ceremony all enter the house, bringing all their children and retinue with them.”

Goodwin enters into “an adulterous contract of marriage with Mistress Jones”, convinced by their assurances that he can justly and religiously do so. The sisters continue spending all the money they can lay hands on. There remain two members of the original Goodwin family to be defeated. The first is a devout and moral minded senior apprentice, who is finished off when he goes down with a fever. During his illness, the sisters ply him with their own prescriptions, and he dies. Then there is the capable son Andrew, who has been acting in partnership with his father, doing his best to run the money side of the business. They unleash an able accountant on him, a Mr Lewis, whom they attempt to bribe, and though this attempt fails, Vernon does not disguise the fact that Andrew, in his anguish at his father’s behaviour, has let control of the money side escape him. They discredit him enough in his father’s eyes for the old man to allow them to break into Andrew’s room, lever open his strong boxes, and finally get him out of the house by having two sergeants and two bailiffs arrive nocturnally. Andrew barricades himself in his room, but his father consents that the bailiffs might break through the wall to arrest his son. Andrew surrenders, and is hauled away into the night.

Installed, and without any opposition left, the sisters take over the house and the business, using a male associate, a scrivener called Colborne. Old Goodwin loses control of his business, and is taken on as a journeyman “and which is to amazement, so far from being sensible of what he hath done, that he proclaims to all comers that he had rather be Mrs.  Pigeons Journeyman,  then to be Master of all without his two women.”

This was the situation that had been reached when Vernon wrote his first account of this hostile domestic and commercial takeover. His 1654 pamphlet ends with appeals to Goodwin to reflect on some pungent verses from the seventh chapter of Proverbs, with some additional commentary of his own, and calls to Mehetable Jones to repent.


The 1656 pamphlet continues the story. Mistress Pigeon settled down to making money from the business, the scrivener Colborne standing security for customers anxious about their goods.

But during 1654 and 1655 business gradually drops away – “nor could they with all their art keep on the paint which daily peeled off from their bold deluding faces”. The unity between the sisters falls away too: Mehetabel has got the old man, and most of the neighbourly reproaches; she observes that her sister has control of all the money that’s in the business. The two leave Goodwin’s house, and resume their former lodgings. When Goodwin comes to visit Mehetable: “the Fish once caught, off goes the bait. Now that all is in their hands, and now that he comes to them stripped, with his empty pockets hanging out, now nothing but quarrelling and caviling questions about the Trade.”

The sisters next get the scrivener Colborne into their power at their “rat-trap in Pauls Alley” (as Vernon calls the base from which they operate), pretending to nurse him during his last illness, in effect, keeping him hostage in hope of taking advantage.

Mistress Pigeon’s husband returns, and tries to get her to accept reconciliation. This does not work. Goodwin’s children appeal to Cromwell, who appoints a number of substantial Southwark citizens to hold a commission of inquiry into the whole affair. During this process, old Goodwin dies (in December 1655), once again he was completely in their power in his dying days. Vernon attributes the death to the sisters, that they withdrew his normal food, and made him subsist solely on their prescription of “Sage-Ale, Marmalade [and] strong extracts”. Goodwin died during a fit of retching.

There follows a horrible stand-off about who is to bury the body. Mistress Pigeon does not want an autopsy, and will not surrender the body to the dead man’s relatives. The body remains in the house for three days. Mistress Pigeon lets it be known that she will hold the funeral, and invites the chief members of the parish, letting it be known that gold rings and gloves will be given out as tokens of mourning. Only one invitee is venal enough to accept the invitation. Mistress Pigeon attends the funeral with an attorney at law, to deter angry interventions, but even with this intimidating presence at her side, she is bombarded with “kennel dirt”. Mistress Jones remains barricaded in the house. Had she gone to the funeral, the best of her bargain, Vernon concludes, would have been “to gauge the depth of mud in the mill-pond”.

The tide seems to turn against the sisters. The report of the local commissioners, p[rinted by Vernon, resoundingly endorses all that Vernon’s account alleges against them. The commission try to make a fair composition, to get Mistress Pigeon to leave with some recompense, but she refuses to budge. Cromwell himself reads the report, and is indignant, but unluckily action is passed on to his privy council, who do nothing for two months, and then recommend the children to go to law. They and their advisers reflect that there will be nothing left worth getting repossession of.

So Vernon’s second pamphlet is in a way the only retaliation left to the relatives. In his possession, he has letters written by both women (one of which does indicate that they read the first pamphlet, and regarded it as libel, so it did affect them), and letters framed by Mistress Pigeon for Goodwin to transcribe and sign as his own. Instructions for him too, in how to handle the commissioners. (He was flattered into assuming a resentful silence as the true sign of his wisdom, and Vernon testifies that he heard Goodwin refusing to answer all questions.) At its end, admitting that she has escaped justice, Vernon gives a pen-portrait of Mistress Pigeon, and compares this effort to the way that “in foreign parts when notorious malefactors have by some stratagem escaped the hand of justice, then they draw their picture as near as may be to the life, which being fixed upon public places of execution, gives notice to all men what manner of person he was, that so he may be discovered”. The chief contriver of all these ills emerges, in another of Vernon’s half-tributes to an utterly unscrupulous and artful woman, as a compound of Shakespeare’s Gertrude and Goneril: “would she win compassion from her Judge, she appears all in mourning, melting like Niobe in tears … if she be before such as she thinks another bait may take better, she will appear in gorgeous Apparel, her neck and breasts bare, her complexion beyond a natural fairness”.

Mehetabel Jones was an early modern woman poet (of sorts). Vernon has various verses in his possession. This one is a down-market ‘Relique’ or ‘Legacy’:

“beg leave for one more sample of her enchanting Madrigals; which with a parcel of her Hair richly perfumed (though all will not keep it from stinking) was found with the rest; and thus it chimes, forth:
            Accept this Bracelet from your friend,
            the owner knows it is your due,
            because she belongeth unto you.
            This paper read, let it see the flame;
            if you grant not this, you are to blame:
            For she that writ it, would for you
            burn paper, and her fingers too
            to light your snuff; which she has done,
            and burnt both fingers and her thumb.
            Burn it, then your friend will I rest;
            if not, say not you love her best:
            The hours I count, the minutes too
            make haste, farewell, adieu, adieu.

Vernon astutely observes the anxiety to have the poem burned. Poor besotted Wessel Goodwin couldn’t bring himself to do that, it seems. The two women hold out, and escape. A postscript to Vernon’s second pamphlet says that they have left Goodwin’s house, and that the building has been stripped, even the lead pipes have been dug up and sold.

Quite a pair.

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