History Trivia #3: Penn’s Wives

I constantly come across fascinating details in my research which neither belong in the novel nor offer enough material for a full essay here. Instead, I’m going to try shorter posts with random bite-sized topics as a compromise. Enjoy.


According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word bloody has been used by the English as a profanity since at least 1676. [1] This was disappointing, as I wanted to use it in a scene that takes place in 1680, and four years is too close for me to expect widespread casual usage.

Still, the theorized history of the word is pretty entertaining.

It has been a British intensive swear word at least since 1676. Weekley relates it to the purely intensive use of the cognate Dutch bloed, German Blut. But perhaps it ultimately is connected with bloods in the slang sense of “rowdy young aristocrats” (see blood (n.)) via expressions such as bloody drunk “as drunk as a blood.”
Partridge reports that it was “respectable” before c. 1750, and it was used by Fielding and Swift, but heavily tabooed c. 1750-c. 1920, perhaps from imagined association with menstruation; Johnson calls it “very vulgar,” and OED writes of it, “now constantly in the mouths of the lowest classes, but by respectable people considered ‘a horrid word’, on par with obscene or profane language.”
The onset of the taboo against bloody coincides with the increase in linguistic prudery that presaged the Victorian Era but it is hard to say what the precise cause was in the case of this specific word. Attempts have been made to explain the term’s extraordinary shock power by invoking etymology. Theories that derive it from such oaths as “By our Lady” or “God’s blood” seem farfetched, however. More likely, the taboo stemmed from the fear that many people have of blood and, in the minds of some, from an association with menstrual bleeding. Whatever, the term was debarred from polite society during the whole of the nineteenth century. [Rawson]
Shaw shocked theatergoers when he put it in the mouth of Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalion” (1913), and for a time the word was known euphemistically as “the Shavian adjective.” It was avoided in print as late as 1936. Bloody Sunday, Jan. 30, 1972, was when 13 civilians were killed by British troops at protest in Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

I like that when Shaw is made into an adjective, the ‘w’ becomes a ‘v’. Shavian.

Penn’s Wives

I’ve been diving deep into the life of William Penn (whom I discussed before), and have recently read a paper* called A Tale of Two Wives: Mythmaking and the Lives of Gulielma and Hannah Penn by Alison Duncan Hirsch. [2, downloads a PDF] William was married twice, to Gulielma Maria Springett and Hannah Margaret Callowhill. The marriages have many parallels: both lasted twenty-two years, the women married at a similar age (28 and 25), had a similar number of children (eight and nine, though few lived to adulthood), and both brides came from money (and William needed the money). Historians and other gossips have built legends around these women, and the author explains and deconstructs these legends with the scant evidence available. I encourage you to read the full paper, but I’ll share some of the juicy, USDA-Prime anecdotes here.

  • Hannah’s grandfather Dennis Hollister was a Baptist deacon and government official who became a religious radical and wrote angry pamphlets. The Baptists weren’t thrilled about Dennis’ writings. They said that Dennis “sucked in some principles of this upstart locust doctrine, from a sort of people called Quakers.” For the record, these pamphets** had titles like:
    • The Skirts of the Whore Discovered, and the Mingled People in the Midst of Her. In a Letter Sent by Denys Hollister to the Independent Baptiz’d People, who Call Themselves a Church of Christ in Bristol, But are Found to be a Synagogue of Satan
    • The Harlots Vail Removed, And Her Lying Refuge Swept Away By The Power Of Truth, With Which She Was Smitten And Wounded Being An Answer To A Book Published In The Name Of About 60 Persons Of The Independent-baptized
  • There is a recent belief that Hannah Penn became Pennsylvania’s governor after William’s death; she even earned an honorary American citizenship for it, but the author argues that is misleading. Hannah did have enormous responsibilities as the colony’s acting proprietor after her husband’s stroke and later death, but she shared her power in a messy fashion with a dozen trustees on both sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, her role was challenged in court for years by her stepson, and the colony was also claimed by English Quakers who argued that William had mortgaged Pennsylvania to them. But even if Hannah had full and undisputed control of the colony, she wouldn’t have recognized herself as a governor; at the time this was strictly a male-only title. Hannah did the work without the glory.
    • And she did have work. During Hannah’s tenure as acting proprietor, she presided over two changes of deputy governors; handled negotiations over the longstanding Pennsylvania-Maryland border dispute; and resolved conflicts with the English government over laws passed in Pennsylvania. She remained involved until her own death, and her sons and grandsons remained proprietors of Pennsylvania down to the American Revolution***.
  • For this last one, I can’t improve on the text, so I’ll just leave a quote.

…Hannah was unsure of William Penn’s motivations in marrying her and sensed some disjunction between his behavior**** and Quaker ideology about marriage, which he himself had helped to formalize. She feared that a third party had encouraged him to seek her out; that he was attracted to her because of her money; that he felt his spiritual stature made him irresistible; and that he was forcing her into a relationship that she was not sure she wanted. She herself had planned on not marrying at all, she had told him early on, but had resolved instead to dedicate herself to Quaker work. In his inimitable fashion, he reassured her that she could serve the Lord by marrying him: “since thou wert for liveing to the Lord, as thy Husband, thou thus marryest him in me.

Edit: For those who didn’t catch it, William Penn is explicitly claiming that marrying him is marrying Jesus Christ. I’ll leave the context and implications as an exercise for the reader.


* I originally found it on JSTOR, which is a great site. You can sign up with a Gmail account and read 100 free research papers. [3]

** Hollister’s fellow radical George Bishop wrote a pamphlet called:

The Cry of blood. And Herod, Pontius Pilate, and the Jewes reconciled, and in conspiracy with the dragon, to devour the manchild. Being a declaration of the Lord arising in those people, of the city of Bristol, who are scornfully called Quakers, and of the manifold sufferings, and persecutions sustain’d by them from the priests, rulers, professors and rude multitude, contrary to law, liberty, justice, government, the righteous ends of of the wars, and the Scriptures of truth. Together with a true account of the material passages in substance between the rulers and them at their several examinations, and commitments, and at two general sessions of the publick peace: and of the tumults, and insurrections, with other necessary observations, and occurences. Gathered up, written in a roll, and delivered to John Gunning late mayor of that city (being the fruits of his year) for the private admonition, and conviction of himself, and brethren concern’d, and named therein: with a letter declaring the end, and reason of what is so done, (of which a copy followes in the ensuing pages) / Subscribed by Geo: Bishop, Thomas Goldney, Henry Roe, Edw: Pyott, Dennis Hollister. And now after five moneths space of time published, for the reasons hereafter expressed.

This has nothing to do with the Penn wives as far as I know, but it is a great title.

*** Establishing a dynasty that ruled a large colony for three generations is an impressive legacy, but as I’ve said before: Penn’s sons were crooks. I don’t know whether Hannah Penn was involved in her children’s crimes, so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

**** I’m not certain what this means, but the author may be referring to how some prominent Quakers opposed Penn’s second marriage as inappropriate (he was nearly twice Hannah’s age, and he had a twenty year old son). [4]


[1] https://www.etymonline.com/word/bloody

[2] https://journals.psu.edu/phj/article/viewFile/25177/24946

[3] https://www.jstor.org/stable/27773761?read-now=1&seq=8##metadata_info_tab_contents

[4] https://www.swarthmore.edu/friends-historical-library/enigmatic-mr-william-penn

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