The Hunt For The Regicides

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Sir Walter Scott read a newspaper article about the finding of human bones in the cellar of John Russell’s house and concluded that this was “the obscure grave to which the remains of Whalley were committed.” Upon this fragile basis he inserted the legend into a novel, Peveril of the Peak, and cast Whalley as the nameless champion. He was tall, august, dressed in elk skin, sword and gun in hand. His voice had the roll of thunder in the Berkshires: “Follow me and you shall see this day that there is a Captain in Israel!” He quickly divided the settlers into two forces, surprised the Indians’ rear, and routed them with such bloody slaughter that the tribe “never recovered.”

Was the mysterious old warrior actually William Goffe? It may not be all legend. Hadley was now a garrison town where some of the officers were men vowed to bag the regicides; if Goffe had really showed himself at the attack, Hadley would soon have become too hot for him. Sure enough, the old Cromwellian was soon on the run.

He was in Hartford by early September of 1676. The loneliness, the loss of human society, the long separation from his family weighed upon him heavily. The last known letter from his pen—dated April 2, 1679—is a pitiable plea to Increase Mather for news of his wife and daughter. A year later a contemptible no-good named John London reported to Hartford authorities that Goffe was living in town with a Captain Bull. For his trouble, London was hauled out of bed on the Sabbath and brought before the appropriate Hartford officials, who gave him a cold reception. They forbade him to leave the county without permission. This order London promptly violated, making his way to New York (now British) and telling his story to Governor Edmund Andros. On order from Andros a sixth and final search was made throughout the colonies. No sign of Goffe was found. We hear no more of him; he may have been already beyond the reach of kings.

John Dixwell, after his brief visit with Whalley and Goffe in Hadley in 1665, had vanished like smoke in a gale. But in 1673 we find him comfortably settled in New Haven, still using the name James Davids, retired merchant aged sixty-six, a dignified, sober, and godfearing man whose acquaintance with British government policy and European history impressed his few confidants.

In that year he married a Mrs. Benjamin Ling, a widow who died within a month, and four years later he took a younger bride of thirty-one with the evocative name of Bathsheba How, by whom he had three children.

The last stroke of danger was not past. Sir Edmund Andros, the King’s man if there ever was one, attended a New Haven church service. He stared at the cultivated old gentleman in the pew, remarking that he surely was not the retired merchant that he professed to be. At afternoon worship Dixwell was absent—a rarity with him—and the psalm scored an obvious point:

Why dost thou tyrant boast abroad Thy wicked works to praise? Dost thou not know there is a God Whose mercies last always?

Sir Edmund did not like the choice and said so. The deacon explained that they took the psalms in order, and this one had come in its turn. Andros huffed but said no more.

Through the years others recognized him, but Dixwell continued to live in relative peace. After 1685, when he dared to join the New Haven church as “James Davids, alias Jn Dixwell,” the Reverend James Pierpont was certain of his illustrious parishioner. The two of them beat a private pathway between their adjoining houses, and Mr. Pierpont told his wife that Mr. Davids knew more about religion than anyone else in town.

On March 18, 1688, the last of the New England fugitives rested from the chase. Dixwell was buried on the New Haven green between the church and the future site of Yale College. At his request the stone bore only the initials “J.D.,” with age (eighty-one) and date, “lest his enemies might dishonour his ashes.” This precaution did not suffice. Yale President Ezra Stiles wrote in 1794: “Often have we heard the Crown Officers aspersing and vilifying them [the regicides]; and some so late as 1775 visited and treated the grave with marks of indignity too indecent to mention.”

The bitterness hung on because the Puritan fight for freedom hung on. The regicides were not men to repent acts of conscience. “If it had to be done,” Whalley once said, “I would do it again.” While the redcoats spat on Dixwell’s stone in 1775, the American colonists were finishing what the short and tumultuous Commonwealth had fitfully begun. In their graves the regicides must have stirred. If, now, they ever gather for a shadowy rendezvous on Providence Hill to remember older battles and the sad years of their exile, they can look proudly at the bronze plaque set by the city of New Haven upon the stone of Judges’ Cave. The inscription ends: OPPOSITION TO TYRANTS IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD .