Alfred Willis was born in Barham in Kent in 1824 – the eldest child of James & Elizabeth (nee Prebble). In 1835 the family (including Alfred and his younger brother James) sailed across the Atlantic to the USA and settled in West Newbury, Massachusetts. The following account gives an insight into not only the schooling practices of the 1840s, but also how incomers such as the Willis family were treated. At this time Alfred was 18 years old, his father James was 41 years old and probably a comb-maker. The family had been in the USA for just seven years.
[from the Newburyport Herald]
COURT OF COMMON PLEAS, MARCH TERM, 1842, AT SALEM
Judge Warren presiding
COMMONWEALTH VS WILLIAM WEBSTER
This was an appeal from the decision of a magistrate, who had imposed a fine of two dollars and costs on the defendant, for an alleged unreasonable punishment inflicted on Alfred Willis, a scholar in the district school, kept in West Newbury, during the last winter, by Mr Webster. The instructor is about eighteen years old, a student in Dartmouth College, and of a size considerably smaller than the pupil.
The first witness called was Alfred Willis, who said:-
“I attended Mr Webster’s school; am between seventeen and eighteen years of age; we went up to spell our lesson; master said, whoever missed three words should go back and get it over; I missed so many, and he told be to go back; as I was turning from him, I said. ‘Damn the lesson, I won’t get it again’. He stepped up to me, and said, ‘What is that?’ I said, ‘I didn’t say anything to you.’ He then sent out one of the scholars to get two of the best sticks he could find. Three sticks were brought in. Master said, ‘You’ve got to take a whipping;’ and told me to take my coat off, and step into the floor. I told him I wouldn’t. He seized me by the hair of my head, and began to whip me, and dragged me into the floor. He got upon a seat, and whipped me on my shoulder. After he broke the first stick, he asked me if I’d do so any more. I said ‘No;’ but he still whipped me with the other stick; used it considerably. I went to my seat, and sat there crying. He said, ‘If you don’t hold your tongue, I’ll come and put it on again.’ The school was soon after dismissed. In the afternoon, father and I went to the schoolhouse, and called Webster out. He said he had cause for whipping me. Father asked him to go down and look at my back; he said he couldn’t then, but would in the evening. I was disabled; couldn’t work; carried the marks for a month; felt it for a week, but didn’t lose my appetite; couldn’t take off my clothes and put them on myself; did a little round the house the same day; brought a half bushel of salt on my shoulder same afternoon; father didn’t say to Webster he’d whip him; had had a little difficulty with Webster the day before; my brother went up with his class, and master told him to spell his name; he couldn’t, and Webster told him how; made another boy spell it, and my brother didn’t spell it then; master told him to stand out, and he went to his seat; master took him out, and shook him round a little; I told master not to shake him; he said if I didn’t keep still, he’d shake me; I told him I doubted it.’
Jonathan Ilsley Jr: ‘Alfred Willis contradicted the master three or four times; wouldn’t get his lesson; went to his seat, and threw his book into the desk; said ‘Damn the lesson;’ master told him three or four times, to take his book out, and he wouldn’t ; master sent for two sticks; Joseph Wood went and got three apple-tree sticks, not very large, the largest as big as my little finger, at the largest end; master told him to take his jacket off, and he said ‘I shan’t do it for you;’ master struck him three or four clips; Willis began to rise, and master seized him by the foretop, and put it on, and then Willis began to howl; master asked him what he lied for, (in saying he did not swear;)
Willis said he didn’t, but master made him own it, and then whipped him for lying; he didn’t touch him after he took his seat. The character of the school was good, and approved of by the district and committee; orderly and well taught; never knew the master to whip any other scholar with a stick; he kept the school out, for eight or nine weeks after this.’
James Willis: ‘I am the father of Alfred; went over to the schoolhouse that afternoon; my wife had been crying about it; I told the master I thought he had given my boy and unreasonable whipping; told him if he wanted to whip any body, to whip me; if he’d step out, I’d shake him all to pieces. There were several places on the boys back as black as a hat; I washed his back with new rum; the flesh was broke a little, but his health was not affected; can’t say whether the door of the schoolroom was open when I told him I’d shake him.’
Kirby Silloway: ‘Heard Mr Webster say, if he had known Mr Willis would make such a fuss, he’d have whipped Alfred twice as hard. Willis said he didn’t swear, and didn’t say anything to him. It was a good school; I attended it all the time to the close.’
This was the case on the part of the government, and the respondent was not put upon his defence. The district attorney rose, and said that he could not but be very much surprised to find such a case in court; that he had had no opportunity to investigate it before, as the original examination was before a magistrate; and that, if he had had the least idea of its nature, it would never have been presented at all; that, so far from blaming Mr Webster, he could not but express the highest approbation of his conduct; that the only thing to be regretted was, that the boy was not punished enough, and that he could not but think it would have a been a good thing if the father had been whipped twice as much as the boy. He was, of course, anxious to stop the prosecution.
Judge Warren said he could not permit this course to be pursued; it was a case eminently entitling the defendant to a verdict of acquittal by the jury. He addressed the jury very handsomely and appropriately, for ten or fifteen minutes, upon the improper conduct of the boy and his parent, and in commendation of the conduct of the instructor, and upon the general subject of discipline in and out of school.
The jury, of course, acquitted Mr Webster without leaving their seats.
Mr Huntington, district attorney. Mr Lunt for defendant.
To read the original, click here: Alfred-Willis-Court-Case-The-Common-School-Journal-Volume-4
More about the Willis migration to the USA can be read in the article The Swing Riots of Kent and the WILLIS Emigration to the USA – 1836