John Tatham, alias Gray: the secret Catholic

A Catholic in a land of Quakers, a man with a suspicious past, a target of dark rumors, builder of a palatial house – John Tatham stands out as unusual. He bought land from Penn in London and emigrated in 1685. Penn knew that he was Catholic and distrusted him. Penn wrote to Thomas Lloyd in 1685, “… he is subtile and prying and lowly… be sure to pleas him in his land…”. 1 Tatham built a large house in Bensalem, traded as a merchant, and soon ran into trouble with his neighbor Joseph Growdon. Growdon was a wealthy landowner, who wanted to assemble a manor of 10,000 acres, although Penn was reluctant to let him have so much in one place. Tatham’s Bensalem land stuck into Growdon’s like a thorn, and they soon began to squabble over land sales and money owed. They were in Bucks County court in 1686, and Phineas Pemberton called it the “most railing revileing business” he had ever seen, adding that they only behaved to “befoole them selves”. 2. The suit continued for years.

By 1686 Tatham had moved to New Jersey where he built a grand house that some called a palace. 3 At this time Penn learned astonishing news about Tatham. He was a former Benedictine monk who had left his order!  Penn’s suspicions about Tatham grew after an irregular survey made to Charles Pickering and Tatham over a tract supposed to include a silver mine. Penn was furious over this and threatened to fire Thomas Holme for allowing the survey. 4

Tatham’s power and influence grew when he was appointed as agent for Daniel Cox, the wealthy investor and absentee governor of West Jersey. Tatham worked with James Budd, Cox’s surveyor, but when Budd died under suspicious circumstances in 1690 Tatham was suspected of poisoning him. John Budd, James’ brother, accused Tatham, and Tatham sued Budd for defamation. The courthouse was packed with a great press of people, so that some witnesses could not be heard. The testimony was sensational. Jonathan West said that “James Budd after hee was dead swelled and looked black, and wrought in his belly and att his mouth, and that after hee was put into the coffin he swelled much.” William Budd, another brother, said that he met James walking in Burlington, who told him that he was under great trouble, with a letter in his pocket that meant his death. Nicholas Martineau added that Budd said his heart was “almost broke” because John Tatham would not pay him money necessary for his business. Elizabeth Bosse added darkly that Budd “dyed not the common death of all men”, but died of poison. The court must not have believed these tales, since it ruled for Tatham and awarded him damages. By then Tatham was on the council of Proprietors of West Jersey, had served as its president, and had also served on the Assembly. Although the Budd family was influential and well-off, he was more so. 5

The obvious question is how a former monk was able to build two grand houses, acquire merchandise to sell, and set himself up as one of the wealthiest men in either province.  The answer begins with his background from a well-to-do family in Yorkshire. He was sent to Douai University in France as a youth to study for the priesthood, and became a Benedictine. In 1676 he returned to England as Father Bede Tatham. In 1678 a supposed Popish plot to kill King Charles inflamed hysteria against Catholics. Perhaps at this time Tatham left his post and took the name John Gray. He must have married around 1680 since he had a daughter born around 1680 to 1682. 6 In 1684 he bought land from Penn and sailed to Pennsylvania, with his family, a large library and merchant goods. Perhaps the money came from his family, but he apparently also absconded with church money! Penn wrote in 1686 that “the congregation has spoak to the King about him, and to me.” The king commanded that Tatham be sent back to England by the first conveniency. 7  Obviously no one bothered to do that.

Tatham died in 1700, about 58 years old, leaving his pregnant wife Elizabeth, and three children. His will was dramatic. He left his daughter Dorothy “one piece of eight if demanded and no more”, for her “graceless and shameless rebellion”. 8 She had married a man named Robert Hickman, in custody of the sheriff in Burlington as a suspected pirate. They married clandestinely at Elizabeth Basnett’s tavern in February 1700, for which Basnett lost her tavern license. Tatham’s inventory included two crucifixes, gold church plate, seven slaves, a silver rapier, 478 books, and his grand house. He left everything to his wife Elizabeth, but she died soon after him. Their son John continued the suit against Growdon; it was still plaguing the court in 1713. 9

Bisbee asked whether Dorothy’s rebellion hastened his death. Whether  it did or not, the more interesting question is whether he rested easy in his conscience. If some of his wealth came from theft from his church, did that weigh on him?

  1. Henry Bisbee, “John Tatham, alias Gray”, PMHB, 1959, 83(3)
  2. Quoted in Lawmaking and Legislators, vol. 1, the entry on Joseph Growdon
  3. Gabriel Thomas, “An account of West Jersey and Pennsylvania”, quoted in Bisbee.
  4. Minutes of the Board of Property, series 2, 1687
  5. Burlington Court Records. Bisbee, p. 257
  6. Dorothy was of marriageable age in 1700.
  7. Quoted in Bisbee.
  8. A printed abstract in Publications of the Genealogical Society of PA, vol. 3, has “one piece of dirt”, but this is incorrect
  9. Martin Griffin, “Early Catholics of Bucks County”, Papers read before the Bucks County Historical Society. Also Minutes of the Board of Property, series 2.

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