There was nothing auspicious about Anne Hutchinson's appearance as she stood in the doorway of the meetinghouse of Cambridge, Mass. that chilly Tuesday in November 1687, awaiting the start of her trial. She was 46 years old, of average height and bearing, with an unremarkable face. Her petticoat fell almost to the ground, revealing only the tips of her leather boots. Against the cold she wore a wool mantua, or cloak. A white coif covered her hair, as was the custom of the day. Besides that and her white linen smock and neckerchief, she wore all black.
She was a stranger to no one present, having ministered as midwife and nurse to many of their wives and children. All knew her to be an active member of the church of Boston, the wife of the wealthy textile merchant William Hutchinson, the mother of 12 living children, and the grandmother of one, a five-day-old boy who had just that Sunday been baptized. There was, in short, nothing external to suggest she was an enemy of the state.
Enemy she was, though, indeed the greatest threat that Massachusetts had ever known. More than a few men in the room, including several of the ministers, considered her a witch. Others believed the Devil had taken over her soul. The governor, John Winthrop, who was waiting in an antechamber of the meetinghouse to begin the trial over which he would preside, suspected her of using her devilish powers to subjugate men by establishing "the community of women" to foster "their abominable wickedness."
Anne Hutchinson's greatest crime, and the source of her power, was the series of weekly public meetings she held at her house to discuss Scripture and theology. At first, in 1635, the evening meetings had been just for women, who were then generally encouraged to gather in small groups to gossip and offer mutual support.
Soon scores of women, enchanted by her intelligence and magnetism, flocked to hear her analysis of the week's Scripture reading, which many of them preferred to the ministers' latest interpretation. "Being a woman very helpful in times of childbirth and other occasions of bodily infirmities, [Hutchinson] easily insinuated herself into the affections of many," an official observed. Her "pretense was to repeat [the ministers'] sermons," the governor added, "but when that was done, she would comment upon the doctrines, interpret passages at her pleasure, and expound dark places of Scripture, and make it serve her turn," going beyond "wholesome truths" to "set forth her own stuff:"
One minister, Thomas Weld, reported that her "custom was for her scholars to propound questions and she (gravely sitting in the chair) did make answers thereunto." This was especially grievous in a time when the single chair in every house was for the man's sole use.
Men had begun to accompany their wives to Hutchinson's meet ings in 1636, and as her audiences swelled she offered a second session of religious instruction each week just as the colonial ministers liked to give a Thursday lecture as well as their Sunday sermon. The Reverend Weld lamented that members of her audience, "being tainted, conveyed the infection to others," including "some of the magistrates, some gentlemen, some scholars and men of learning, some burgesses of our General Court, some of our captains and soldiers, some chief men in towns, and some eminent for religion, parts, and wit."
Anne Hutchinson had "stepped out of [her] place," in the succinct phrase of the Reverend Hugh Peter, of Salem-she "had rather been a husband than a wife; and a preacher than a hearer; and a magistrate than a subject."
She had risen that dayof her trial with the sun, which rose each morning over the ocean beside her house on the Shawmut peninsula--then the center of the colony and now a slender strip of downtown Boston. After her usual morning prayer, Scripture reading, and breakfast of corn mush (cornmeal with milk or molasses), baked apples or stewed pumpkin, and cider, Anne had set out with William for the Charlestown ferry, almost a mile from their house. Ordinarily they made a trip of this length, roughly five miles to Cambridge, on horseback or by coach, but they had traveled on foot because of the ice, which could break a horse's leg.
At the ferry landing they had met William's younger brother Edward, a thirty-year-old whom the court had also called that day. During their four-mile walk inland from Charlestown to Cambridge, they had passed Indian encampments, a few colonial houses and farms, the expansive marshland that bordered the northern bank of the river, and deep forest, extending for miles north and west, beyond what was known. The same trip today, by subway or car, takes twenty minutes, but on foot it took the Hutchinsons more than two hours that morning in 1687.