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The chronology now brings us to the central event of this account: the compassionate decision of William and Martha Munroe to take Mary Ball into their home and thereby, I argue, to save her life. Technically, I can’t prove it ever actually happened: an indenture document would come in very handy here. But the context I’ve presented leaves, it seems to me, little room for alternate scenarios.

Puritan society in mid-seventeenth-century Massachusetts made no provision for unattached females. There was simply no place for the bachelorette–particularly under-age–in her own apartment. Unmarried girls and women lived with their parents or as servants (or, exceptionally, as guests) in other properly-constituted homes. On good behavior, widows living alone had a special brand of respectability derived from their former married state (the term “relict” carries the meaning). But a teenage single mother, with or without baby, had no viable status whatever: unless some legitimate social entity would agree to take responsibility for her, usually in return for her service, she was in serious danger of starvation.

Mary Ball’s own immediate family had dissolved. Watertown, the legitimate social entity within whose warm confines she had grown up, had explicitly declined the honor of harboring her any further. As Bacon country, Woburn presented an unfriendly face (except, perhaps, for the Reeds). And she had pretty well exhausted the hospitality of her extended family in Rhode Island.

Into this vacuum, apparently, stepped Cambridge neighbors William and Martha Munroe, whose “Scotland” farm lay three miles west of the Bacon spread, right up against the Woburn line. The Middlesex County Court records give no indication that the Munroes and the Bacons had ever tangled before (although they would, soon, again), but it is plausible that the two families were already acquainted.

Why would the Munroes choose to deviate from the social consensus by rescuing so scandalous a character as Mary? It’s all speculation, but I can think of three possible reasons:
  • They may have needed help at home. George Munroe, Martha’s last child, was born about this time, and she had only about a year to live. We don’t know that she was already ailing, but with four kids under the age of six, we imagine that Martha could use a hand around the house.

  • Swimming against the social tide was not a new experience for William Munroe. I honor him particularly for overcoming a lot of socially-imposed adversity with, by all accounts, considerable grace.

  • I don’t want to make too much of this, but all the evidence suggests that Grandma Mary was an attractive, intelligent, and spirited young person. ’Nuff said.
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William and Mary
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