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“Is that a skeleton in the ancestral closet? Inspired by a mysterious heirloom, Sarah Dixwell Brown sets off on a journey of discovery, which takes her across the Atlantic and back more than three centuries, to learn more about a famous – even notorious – forebear. Recounting her travels and her research, this fascinating book grapples with the myths as well as the facts about John Dixwell, as she comes to terms with having a king-killing revolutionary and political dissident in the family.”

Sarah Dixwell Brown takes her distinctive voice on an ancestral quest that begins with an ancient iron key and ends with the skull of her namesake, who launched her genealogical line by killing a king. It’s a riveting read.

Sarah Dixwell Brown’s Regicide in the Family delivers a warm and wonderful meditation on the constant interplay of history and memory; on fact, fiction, and historical imagination; and on librarians, archivists, and the delights of collegialities formed in the hunt. Most of all, Brown’s lively and thoughtful narrative celebrates the ways in which long and multilayered family histories across generations shape how we understand ourselves today; the book is a testament to the power of family, friendship, memory, and place, and the many ways that the past—near and far, distant and recent—reaches out to forge and sustain the connections that give meaning to our lives in the present.

Marla R. Miller, Distinguished Professor of History at UMass Amherst, is most recently the author of Entangled Lives: Labor, Livelihood, and Landscapes of Change in Rural Massachusetts (2019), a study of women and work in Hadley, Massachusetts.

photo by Tim Gilfillan

Everyone has somebody of interest up their family tree. What Sarah Dixwell Brown has done is to tell her ancestor’s story as an investigative mystery. As a member of the British Parliament in 1649, John Dixwell signed the death warrant of King Charles I and, for his troubles, spent the last three decades of his life hiding in colonial New England from royal agents determined to put him to a hideous death. The story is splendidly researched and brilliantly told, and sets a high standard for the writing of family history.

Sarah Dixwell Brown could have borrowed a title from John Dixwell’s near-contemporary John Bunyan: The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come. Her ancestor literally journeyed to a new world, but he also sought a better one in which tyranny would give way to liberty, as it did, to some extent, in England and America, after his death. But the author is also a pilgrim, whose view of her forebear progresses from dishonor to dignity. Initially almost ashamed to bear the name of a “king-killer,” she ultimately reclaims him as a patriot and a profile in courage.

photo by Val Penniman

Imagine discovering in your family tree a man who sentenced a king to death—a regicide. With humor and not a little chagrin, Sarah Dixwell Brown uncovers layer by layer two interwoven stories. The first is her discovery, breaking through her father’s reticence on the topic, of John Dixwell, her seventeenth-century ancestor who hightailed it to the New World to escape the henchmen of British King Charles II, himself bent on avenging his father’s beheading. She reconstructs Dixwell’s life, starting with one lone clue, a large seventeenth-century key. Along the way a second story shines through—of her own family and a meditation on her own life midst generations of New England Puritan heritage. Regicide in the Family is a fine mosaic of autobiography, family lore, and the social history of seventeenth-century England seen through the magnifying glass of this historical detective.

An ancient key passed down from John Dixwell in the 17th century to his descendants over the following three centuries comes into the possession of his namesake, Sarah Dixwell Brown, his “seven greats granddaughter.”  Reputed to be the key to Dover Castle, a military fortification on the southeast coast of England, it impels Sarah to begin a journey of discovery that will eventually reveal the truth of the key’s provenance and at the same time unravel the complex and controversial reputation of a man directly involved in the trial and execution of Charles I, England’s martyred king.  The result is a compelling narrative of that journey, part history, part memoir, and a testament to the rewards of tireless research.

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