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Indentured…The 18th Century Plight of Widows in Debt

Updated: 5 days ago

It’s hard to imagine going to prison for taking on debt to improve your lot in life. In today’s world, we routinely assume debt to purchase a home or a car, for education, or to open a business. If our debt cannot be repaid, we might be sued but we would not wind up in prison. In 18th century England, people whose debt could not be repaid were not so fortunate. London debtor’s prisons became overcrowded given the myriad ways a citizen might be deemed insolvent. I was taken by the plight of unsuspecting widows whose husbands assumed a reasonable amount of debt to secure a family’s future. If the man died, his wife, oblivious to her husband’s financial maneuvers, was asked to repay his debt or face incarceration. In the latter part of the 1700’s, England needed a solution to the overcrowded debtor’s prisons. The answer was to have wealthy colonists assume the debt of an individual in exchange for a period of indentured servitude. The indebted were forced to travel across the Atlantic in less than desirable cargo holds of unworthy vessels. To add insult to injury, the cost of passage was added to their debt. This included the fare, and additional amounts for food and clothing.

Such was the case for Essie Lassiter, the fictitious 18th Century English midwife who husband, the town doctor, died abruptly from a smallpox outbreak. Essie was confronted by the holder of her husband’s debts and, with no ability to pay and no one to retire the debt on her behalf, was taken to the London Debtor’s Prison. While incarcerated, Essie witnessed untold abuses and struggled to survive. Eventually, her debt was assumed by a wealthy mill owner in the British colony of Maryland, and she traveled across the ocean in less-than-ideal conditions.

What happened to Essie in the New World?

She found herself in an unexpected situation requiring the use of her medical knowledge to save the life of Aquila Wright, her benefactor. When Mr. Wright was later asked to start the colony’s first hospital, he turned to Essie, and she was faced with overcoming the odds of leading a difficult venture in a society ruled by pompous men.

The Diary of Essie Lassiter is currently in development. No release date has been announced. To receive updates, join the Komodo Dragon mailing list at

Sam Polakoff is the award-winning author of four prior novels, Hiatus (2018), Shaman (2019), Escaping Mercy (2021), and An Inch from Oblivion (2023). These titles are all available in paper and Kindle formats at Amazon.

© 2023 Samuel R. Polakoff, Komodo Dragon, LLC. All rights reserved.

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