McKinstrey House, St. Thomas Church Rectory
Now the rectory for St. Thomas Church, this home dates back to the colonial period. The home was the site of an infamous murder of a woman by one of the family's slaves. Future signer of the Declaration of Independence Robert Treat Paine defended the suspect. Several years after the murder trial had concluded, the American Revolution began and the McKinstrey family sided with those Loyal to the British government. Similar to other prominent royalists, the McKinstrey family's property was confiscated after the war. St. Thomas Church was built next to the house in 1828; the house remained on site and currently serves as the church’s rectory.
Backstory and Context
One of the most infamous crimes of the colonial period occurred at this home. Elizabeth McKinstrey, the sister of Dr. McKinstrey of Taunton, was murdered by one of the family's slaves on June 4, 1763. The slave known as Bristol was only sixteen years old and had been working in the McKinstrey household since being forcibly brought to America eight years prior.
On the morning of the murder, Bristol had been in the back yard tending to the doctor’s horse. Bristol tied the horse near the back door and came into the house to find Elizabeth and a little girl (still unidentified) working in the kitchen. Elizabeth was starting to do some laundry and asked Bristol to put some flat irons on the hearth and instructed the little girl to go upstairs to grab the ironing cloth. After the girl left the room, Elizabeth bent over the hearth to check on her flat irons. For some unknown reason (the motive was never clear), Bristol seized one of the flat irons and struck Elizabeth on the back of the head, pitching her into the hearth and burning the left side of her face. He might have struck her one more time before he dragged her unconscious body downstairs to the basement of the house. Bristol delivered a fatal blow to the back of Elizabeth’s head with an ash, giving her a gash two inches long and one inch wide in her skull. The young woman suffered another twenty-four hours before she finally succumbed to her wound.
After he struck her with the ax, Bristol ran from the house, stole the doctor’s horse and escaped out of town. Sometime while Elizabeth was still languishing in her bed, the slave was captured in Newport and returned to Taunton. Robert Treat Paine, most famous for his role representing Massachusetts in the First Continental Congress and as a signer the Declaration of Independence, was a friend of the McKinstrey family. He hurried to their home as soon as he heard the news of Elizabeth’s ordeal. Paine served as a pall bearer at her funeral and then was asked to represent the accused slave in his upcoming trial. For twelve hours after his arrest, young Bristol asserted that he was innocent. After twelve hours he reportedly admitted the crime and would later make his admission public.
Paine's defense of the enslaved Bristol hinged upon alleged threats that had been made by another slave belonging to John McWhorter. According to Bristol, tat slave had concocted the plot and threatened him should he not go through with the murderous plot.
When Bristol sat before the judge in Superior Court, he was asked if there was any reason why the court should not grant the request of the King’s Attorney (Samuel White) that he should be sentenced to death. Bristol made no response and was scheduled to be hanged on November 4, 1763, five months after the murder. Paine’s secured a three-week reprieve for Bristol, delaying his execution date to December 1, 1763. Bristol was hung within sight of his victim’s grave and buried in the town of Berkley. His death was only the third case in Taunton’s history to end in hanging.
The McKinstreys were eventually turned away from the home because they were devout supporters of the British Crown. After Taunton’s Liberty and Union flag was raised in the city’s center on October 21, 1774, the locals reacted to the McKinstrey family’s scorn. According to Two Men of Taunton: In the Course of Human Events, 1731-1829, Mrs. McKinstrey,
…took no pains to conceal her contempt for the Patriots. Her neighbors endured her scorn for a while; then, one morning, these women of the New England Taunton, jealous because Mistress McKinstry was still enjoying her afternoon tea, proceeded to her house on High Street (as the women marched in Old English Taunton during Monmouth's Rebellion), dragged her from her fireside, marched her down to the Green, and around the Liberty Pole in humiliating token of allegiance.
In 1779, the doctor's house and property were confiscated by the Massachusetts Legislature because of the doctor's Tory sympathies during the Revolutionary War. In 1828, his property was sold. The St. Thomas Church was built on his property and remains there to this day. The house still stands as the rectory for the Church. The McKinstrey House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
Before Old Glory, There Was the Taunton Flag. New England Historical Society. Accessed May 13, 2017. http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/before-old-glory-there-was-the-taunton-flag/.
Davol, Ralph. Two Men of Taunton: In the Course of Human Events, 1731-1829. Taunton, MA. Davol Publishing Company, 1912.