Grave obsessions

Mrs. means married…..or does it?
There are challenges when we view history through the lens of modern times. Take the marriage record shown here, for example, in which "Mrs." Sarah Greenleaf weds Benjamin Bradstreet.

For years I wrongly concluded that Sarah Greenleaf was someone's widow, having been married before. A closer look, however, reveals something different.

"Mrs.," an abbreviated form of mistress, was defined in Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary1 as follows:

A woman who governs: correlative to subject or to servant.

A woman who possesses faculties uninjured.

A woman skilled in any thing.

A woman teacher.

A woman beloved and courted.

A term of contemptuous address.

A whore; a concubine.

Notice marital status was not included! Further research shows Sarah Greenleaf was the unmarried daughter of Joseph and Thomasin (Mayo) Greenleaf, a family of prominence in Newbury, Essex County, Province of Massachusetts Bay. In this instance, the term "Mrs." clearly recognized Sarah's position in society!


  • "mistress, n.s." A Dictionary of the English Language, by Samuel Johnson. 1755. Accessed 2021/08/01.
  • "Massachusetts, Town Clerk, Vital and Town Records, 1626-2001", database, FamilySearch,(, FamilySearch, marriage record, Benjamin Bradstreet and Mrs. Sarah Greenleaf, married 9 November 1726, image online; Essex > Newbury > Marriages 1718-1819 vol 25 > image 27 of 248; citing Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth, Boston.
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