On this date in 1739, Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson were publicly hanged in colonial New Hampshire for “feloniously concealing the death of a[n] … infant bastard child.”
The first people — male or female — executed in New Hampshire history had separately disposed in August 1739 of their respective newborns. Unluckily for them, some never-discovered third woman did the same thing around the same time much less adroitly … and her dead infant was found in a well.
The ensuing investigation uncovered (in one case by the forcible ministrations of a midwife team) the recent pregnancies of this day’s victims, and though Simpson claimed her child was miscarried, she still fell under a law making a capital crime of covering up the death of a baby.
Today, Executed Today interviews New Hampshire historian Christopher Benedetto, whose research situates Kenny and Simpson in the context of their times:
In provincial New Hampshire, as was common across colonial America, the punishment of fornication and bastardy was harsh, and the stigma that followed could cost a working class woman her livelihood. When Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson gave birth in August 1739, they both knew that the physical product of their sexual improprieties must be concealed. It was an awful decision to have to make, but in their minds “infanticide might have seemed a matter of survival.” The discarding of illegitimate children, however, seems to have been an issue in New Hampshire long before 1739. In 1714, the General Assembly passed “An Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children,” which declared
Whereas many lewd women that have been delivered of Bastard children, to avoid shame and escape punishment, do secretly bury or conceal the death of their children…Be it therefore enacted…that if any woman be delivered of any Issue of her body, male or female, which if it were born alive should by law be a Bastard; and that she endeavor privately either by drowning or secret burying thereof…so to conceal the death thereof that it may not come to light, whether it were born alive or not but be concealed. In every such case the Mother soe offending shall suffer Death…except such Mother cann make proof by one witness at least, the Child whose death was by her so intended to be concealed was born dead.
Executed Today: The first hanging in New Hampshire didn’t happen until 1739?!
Christopher Benedetto: There were plenty of capital laws and there definitely were cases where people were tried for their lives, but why it took so long … they had crossed some sort of a boundary. I’m sure the loss of so many children only a few years before [in a diphtheria epidemic] made these crimes that much more shocking.
ET: You’re working on a book on crime in New Hampshire.*
CB: The criminal history of Massachusetts has been studied for so long, but there’s really nothing like this for New Hampshire at all. And there’s so much there. There’s a whole chapter in the book on infanticide and child murder.
ET: What’s the perspective you get working deeply in a local milieu?
CB: I think having grown up here, my own family I’ve been able to trace back to the 1650’s in Massachusetts … it’s always been a big part of my life.
I like being able to go to different sites where these things actually happened. I think that’s true for any historian — you’re drawn to the specific places. The town I grew up in, Ipswich, they have plaques of people who lived there. Anne Bradstreet‘s house is still there.
I could walk on a lot of the streets or at least go to some of the places where these things took place.
But to me, history is about people. It’s about passions. To me, these people are so much like us today. Human nature has not changed a lot over the years.
ET: Does that lead to any conclusions on the death penalty in general?
CB: It’s one of the few things that’s as controversial now as it was two, three hundred years ago. I don’t think capital punishment prevents crime. I do think there are certain instances where the crime is so heinous, so bad — I don’t know, I’m sort of in the middle on it. I think we should reserve the right to do it, but does it improve our society at all?
ET: What advice would you have for a young person about being a historian? What’s the historical method for you?
CB: I would say, just be curious. You’ve got to be relentless. You’ve got to go after what you’re passionate about — nobody wants to do research about something they’re just not interested in.
To me, I love writing, but I think one of the most thrilling parts can be when you’re sort of on the hunt. I kind of see being a historian — and not just professionally; anyone who’s researching a family history — you’re almost like a quilter. You’re taking all these little pieces of fabric and just trying to create a whole picture. That might be my favorite part, taking all those pieces of information and just putting them together.
It’s not that nobody had ever written about that execution [of Kenny and Simpson] before, but maybe nobody had taken all that information and just kind of put it together in that way. You’re not always going to have something 100% new to say, but you might present it in a way that casts a new light or makes somebody think about it differently.
* Tentatively titled Gruesome Stories from the Granite State with an anticipated release in 2009 through regional press Commonwealth Editions.
Part of the Themed Set: The Spectacle of Public Hanging in America.
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