Crimes and Punishments,
page 16 of 17
There was a well-known Dutch saying which referred to this privilege, Den Sleutel op het graf leggen, and simply meant not to pay the debts of the deceased.
This legal term and custom is of ancient origin. In Davies’ “History of Holland” we read of a similar form being gone through with in Holland in 1404, according to the law of Rhynland. The widow of a great nobleman immediately after his death desired to renounce all claim on his estate and responsibility for his debts. She chose a guardian, and, advancing with him to the door of the Court (where the body of the dead Count had been placed on a bier), announced that she was dressed wholly in borrowed clothing; she then formally gave a straw to her guardian, who threw it on the dead body, saying he renounced for her all right of dower, and abjured all debts. This was derived from a still more ancient custom of the Franks, who renounced all alliances by the symbolic breaking and throwing away a straw.
In other states of the Netherlands the widow gave up dower and debts by laying a key and purse on the coffin. This immunity was claimed by persons in high rank, one being the widow of the Count of Flanders.
In New England (as I have told at length in my book, “Customs and Fashions in Old New England,” the widow who wished to renounce her husband’s debts was married in her shift, often at the cross-roads, at midnight. These shift-marriages took place in Massachusetts as late as 1836; I have a copy of a court record of that date.
I know of but one instance of the odious and degrading English custom of wife-trading taking place in New York. Laurens Duyts, an agent for Anneke Jans in some of her business transactions, was in the year 1663 sentenced to be flogged and have his right ear cut off for selling his wife, Mistress Duyts, to one Jansen. Possibly the severity of the punishment may have prevented the recurrence of the crime.
After a somewhat extended study and comparison of the early court and church records of New England with those of New York, I cannot fail to draw the conclusion — if it is just to judge from such comparisons — that the state of social morals was higher in the Dutch colonies than in the English. Perhaps the settlers of Boston and Plymouth were more severe towards suspicion of immorality, as they were infinitely more severe towards suspicion of irreligion, than were their Dutch neighbors.