Pious Pilgrims and Mayflower Misbehavior

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Photo: Globe Photos Inc./ Image Collect

“I sometimes wonder what my Mayflower ancestors would have made of my situation,” wrote Sydney Biddle Barrows in her bestseller, Mayflower Madam. However, the Pilgrims were not always pious.

Sydney Biddle Barrows, the renowned “Mayflower Madam,” operated an exclusive escort service known as Cachet, with some of the world’s wealthiest, high-powered men as clients. Possibly a few Mayflower descendants’ names were in her infamous black book.

Under the alias Sheila Devin, Barrows ran two successful operations employing as many as twenty girls. But in 1984, Cachet was “busted.” Peter Fearon, the journalist who broke the story, discovered her real identity and dubbed her the “Mayflower Madam” because of her Plymouth Colony ancestry.

According to Sergeant Raymond Wood of the Manhattan Public Morals Squad, who headed the investigation, Barrows “was an organizational genius in terms of recruiting women and keeping them in line.”

While her arrest sent shock waves through the veins of her blueblood relations, Barrows’s grandfather received a telegram from a close relative assuring him that “nobody cares about this sort of thing nowadays.” In fact, the bluebloods banded together to build a defense fund. In May 1985, New York City’s hottest new disco—the high tech “Limelight”—formerly the Episcopalian Church of the Holy Communion, graciously hosted a soiree fundraiser. Fittingly dubbed “The Mayflower Defense Fund Ball,” formal invitations told guests that tiaras were optional. A cousin, Anna Biddle, traveled from Philadelphia with a group of friends to attend, proudly wearing a coronet.

Pleading guilty to one count of promoting prostitution, Barrows paid a $5,000 fine. She received no prison sentence and was able to keep both her profits and client list of 3,000 men a secret.

Her book, Mayflower Madam: The Secret Life of Sydney Biddle Barrows (1986) made it to number one on the New York Times Bestseller List. A second book, Just Between Us Girls: Secrets About Men from the Mayflower Madam (1996) also sold well.

“I sometimes wonder what my Mayflower ancestors would have made of my situation,” she says in Mayflower Madam. Barrows is a direct descendant of Mayflower passengers John Howland, Thomas Rogers, and William Brewster. Her Pilgrim pedigree would become the top drawer of society, with connections to the Biddle-Drexel-Duke family.

The Pilgrims were not as pious as you might think, and they, too, dealt with scandal. Perhaps that is why the late Caroline Lewis Kardell, former Historian General of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, was Barrows’s firm supporter when the story played out in the press. Kardell worked on the Mayflower Society’s DNA project and was the first recipient of the Pennsylvania Society’s Award for Distinguished Scholarship. She was well versed in all matters Mayflower, including the early court files of Plymouth Colony. A quick read through the many volumes reveal more “ffornication and other uncleane carriages” than any other crime.

In a 1997 interview for A&E Biography: Sydney Biddle Barrows, Kardell noted she knew Barrows was raising eyebrows but assured the society members it would all turn out well. The Mayflower Society did receive positive attention and new members. When she was invited to attend a cousin’s presentation at the annual Mayflower Debutante Ball, Barrows—a former Mayflower debutante herself—received a warm welcome.

Mayflower historian Caroline Lewis Kardell knew many Plymouth men had trouble “keeping on their britches,” and the women were far from chaste. In fact, the Mayflower Society Quarterly (Vol. 72, 2006) noted an exhibit called Bawdy Court, because the court files and records of the early settlers were “predominantly complaints about fornication, adultery, and bastardy.”

Sydney Biddle Barrows is the 15th generation descendant of Elder William Brewster (ca. 1566—1644), a founder of Plymouth Colony. A scholar and a theologian, Brewster studied at the University of Cambridge. Although not an ordained clergyman, he would prove to be a capable chaplain. Nathaniel Hawthorne noted Brewster’s “laudable efforts contributed much to the order and edification of the first church.” Brewster became Plymouth’s guiding light. His mindfulness of the internal struggle over “sins of the flesh” was reflected in naming a son Wrestling, short for “wrestling with God.”

In New World Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: A New History, Nick Bunker mentions an incident that was pivotal in forging young Brewster to embark on the spiritual quest which eventually led his two-month journey over the vast, furious Atlantic. It was a matter concerning Jane Marshall’s maidservant—spotted in Bishops Field (Blyth, England) removing her shoes and stockings—who was referred to as “William Brewster’s whore.” The maid made her way through the meadow to meet William Brewster Sr., the pilgrim’s father. William Jr. was then 21 and serving on the Privy Council to Queen Elizabeth I.

Within a short time, the maid was with child and Mistress Marshall started to talk. The gossip spread and Bunker suggests that William Jr. feared that his father’s alleged indiscretions might lead to his own loss of employment. The young man answered to William Davison—the newly appointed Secretary of State—and a scandal connected with his staff would not be good. The senior Brewster denied the accusation of fornication in the furrows and slapped Marshall with a libel suit in 1587.

Similar to his father’s plight, Brewster had to again face scandal in his New Jerusalem. Brewster had aided a family by agreeing to ferry Richard More’s children across the ocean. More, who was in the midst of a divorce battle with wife, Katherine, held custody of their four children. He chose to send them to Plymouth Colony without the consent of their mother. More claimed that some of the children may not have been fathered by him, but by Jacob Blakeway with whom Katherine was having an affair. More felt the children could avoid the “great blots and blemishes” of their current situation by being placed in the care of “honest and religious people.” In The Mayflower and Her Passengers, Caleb Johnson details the More scandal which he believes may have created talk among the passengers on the voyage.

Libby Needham, a Mayflower Society member and a regent for the Major James Kerr Chapter (Texas) of the Daughters of the American Revolution, offers an insight into Pilgrim patriarchy: “Brewster had a great vision to build a community that was truly Christ-centered,” and “he was tired of the hypocrites from the old world as well as the corrupt values.”

Needham believes his intimate relationship with William Bradford, namely as father figure and mentor, was extremely significant. Bradford, governor and first chronicler of the Plymouth plantation, “absorbed and ingested Brewster’s philosophy,” Needham asserts. Bradford provided not only a roadmap for Brewster’s life, but deep insight into a man whose wise and discrete ways which gained him the respect of everyone.

William Brewster died in Plymouth Colony in 1644 at age 76. William Bradford attested in the eulogy that Brewster was “seasoned with the seeds of grace and virtue,” and stood strong to correct dalliers dictated by earthly desires because he understood them.

Countless Americans claim the pilgrim as an ancestor—including several who have gained fame. Other than Sydney Biddle Barrows, descendants include President Zachary Taylor, Julia Child, Bing Crosby, Richard Gere, Ted Danson, and Seth MacFarlane.

Special thanks to those who generously contributed to this article: Sydney Biddle Barrows, Jason Starbuck Morley, Judith Lethworth, the Mayflower Society Library, and the Mayflower Descendants Facebook Page.


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