Judging Hannah Duston | Woman Scalped Captors
Be that as it may, we have come to midnight, March 30, 1697.
Hannah, Samuel, and Mary hold hatchets in their trembling hands. There is a little light from the moon. The only sound is of wind and water. Hannah is thankful for that rushing river. Its thousand voices are her cover. Its moving body is her secret lover, calling her home. Like a woman stepping naked into the arms of a cold, strong stranger, she raises her hand. The hatchets fall.
Now all is confusion. Now all is bucking, gurgling, flailing horror. Samuel and Mary fall back, stunned by this descent into mortal sin. It is Hannah who raises her weapon again and again, detached and centered at the same time. And when she finally pauses, winded, it is quiet. Except for the water and the sound of her harsh breathing.
Most accounts say that Hannah killed nine of the Indians, and Samuel one. One badly wounded squaw escaped with the young boy Hannah had intended to spare. I believe that Mary was given the less arduous task of killing one of the three Indian women, and that this was the one who survived. She was not so good at killing, it would seem.
Hannah does not scalp the dead right away. She is suddenly terrified that her plan will fail. The wounded woman is making her way to the other band, only a bit upriver. We know this because a white captive in that band will later tell of it. How the squaw staggered in, bleeding “from seven wounds,” and told her ghastly story.
So Hannah gathers up what food is at hand. She directs Mary and Samuel to dress in Indian clothes. She grabs her hatchet and her dead captor’s gun. She carries all this to the bank of the Merrimack River. She packs one of the Indians’ canoes, scuttles the others.
They are moving away from shore when she thinks of what she has forgotten. She turns the canoe around, heads back, and, leaving Samuel and Mary at the river’s edge, retraces her steps to the bloody encampment. She finds a knife among the scattered belongings and scalps all ten of the dead human beings, six of them children. She wraps the bloody evidence in the same cloth torn from her loom a couple of weeks ago in Haverhill. Now her deed is done. She need only wash her hands, quickly, in the river, before jumping back in the canoe and heading south.
Imagine the amazement of the first person who sees them, walking up from the bank of the river in Haverhill. They look like ghosts, gaunt and stunned. Hannah tells the story of their escape, and at some point, she unwraps the cloth from her loom. The scalps are there, tangled together, stinking.
At home her children gather round her, hugging her and exclaiming at her clothes. She sinks down in a warm place, allows herself, finally, to be weak. If there are tears to be shed, it is now that she sheds them.
She rests for a few weeks, and then she, Mary, Samuel, and Thomas go to Boston, where they petition the General Court for money for the scalps. Hannah is voted 25 pounds. Mary Neff and Samuel split 25 pounds between them. And not only that. Hannah is invited to visit Cotton Mather and Samuel Sewall, the distinguished judge and diarist. Cotton Mather is the one to record her story. It is preserved in his Magnalia Christi Americana.