Lisbeth Anthonijsen was born in the free Black community of New Amsterdam around the year 1650. Very little is known about her parents. Her last name, Anthonijsen, means “daughter of Anthony,” but her father does not appear in any known colonial documents. Her mother Mary is mentioned once in Lisbeth’s court records, but was otherwise not a person of prominence in the community.
The free Black community Lisbeth grew up in was formed by enslaved people from New Amsterdam who petitioned for their freedom. Colony directors granted those they freed small pieces of land so they could support themselves, and the newly freed Blacks who lived on those parcels of land banded together for support and survival. When Lisbeth was born, the community was only a few years old, and the status of the free Blacks of New Amsterdam was still very uncertain.
Lisbeth began to work as a servant in the households of New Amsterdam’s white colonists when she was very young. This work allowed her to make money to suport herself and her family. But as a young woman of color in a mostly white community, Lisbeth was vulnerable. In June 1661, Lisbeth’s employer accused her of stealing wampum. Wampum (pictured above), was a very valuable commodity in New Amsterdam because it could be used to trade with the local Native communities. Lisbeth was brought before the New Amsterdam court, where she confessed that she had committed the crime. She told the court she had been pressured into the crime by an older Black woman she knew. Because she was so young, the court punished her by making her mother beat her with a rod. The whole court watched the punishment to make sure that she was beaten severely, implying that the community did not think Lisbeth’s mother was doing a good job of raising her and keeping her in line. Lisbeth was the only child in New Amsterdam court records to be punished in this way.
As a young Black woman without family ties, Lisbeth had no protection against the accusations of her community and the whims of the court.
After this scandal, Lisbeth returned to her work in the homes of New Amsterdam’s white colonists. Her mother probably passed away around this time, because she is never mentioned in the records again. This left Lisbeth without any family to take an interest in her and protect her, which became a big problem in 1663.
Lisbeth’s next round of troubles began when her new mistress, the wife of Marten Crieger, beat her for stealing wampum. Since Lisbeth’s reputation as a thief was well known in the community, no one doubted Mistress Crieger’s accusation was true. Without any family to stand up for her, Lisbeth had to accept the beating.
Things got worse in November of 1663. The Crieger house burned down and Lisbeth ran away during the fire. The Crieger family thought Lisbeth’s running away was very suspicious. She was captured quickly by government officials and brought before the court in February 1664, this time charged with the very serious crime of arson.
At first, Lisbeth insisted that the fire began when she accidentally dropped a burning coal, but the court refused to believe her. Knowing that the court could torture her if she didn’t give them the answer they wanted, Lisbeth confessed. She claimed that she started the fire to punish her mistress for beating her unfairly. This version of events made perfect sense to the court, which believed that without a family to help and guide her, Lisbeth had taken vengeance into her own hands.
The court continued to question Lisbeth even after she confessed. Under pressure, she confessed to more thefts committed against her current and former employers, selling the goods she stole, and having sex outside of marriage. The court took all of this evidence together as proof that Lisbeth, as a young woman without parental authority, had become a public menace and a threat to community order.
The court sentenced Lisbeth to death by strangling at the stake, and ordered that her body be burned to ashes. But when she was led out of the room, the court changed the sentence. They wanted Lisbeth to believe she was going to be executed. She would be walked through the town to the stake, and a fire would be started nearby. At the last minute, the officials would announce that Lisbeth’s sentence was changed. Instead, she would be enslaved to the Crieger family to pay for the damages to their home. The Crieger’s could do whatever they wanted with her. They could keep her and force her to work for them, or they could sell her to make up the money they lost when their house burned down. The court believed sparing her life was an act of mercy. They probably also believed that by enslaving her they were putting Lisbeth back under the control of the community. Whether Lisbeth felt relieved or enraged by her new sentence goes unrecorded in the official documents.
Lisbeth’s entire ordeal, from her first beating before the courts to her mock execution and ultimate enslavement, is unique in the history of New Amsterdam. As a young Black woman without family ties, she had no protection against the accusations of her community and the whims of the court. Her story stands as evidence of just how wrong a single life in New Amsterdam could go.