1786: Hannah Ocuish, age 12

(Thanks to Caitlin at Vast Public Indifference for the guest post -ed.)

On December 20, 1786, the Sheriff of New London, Conn., led a distraught 12-year-old girl to the gallows, placed a rope around her neck, and hanged her in front of a crowd of spectators. The girl was Hannah Ocuish, a young member of the Pequot nation. She was charged with the murder of six-year-old Eunice Bolles, a white girl with whom Hannah had quarreled the previous summer.

While it is difficult to get a clear picture of Hannah’s life from the available sources, it is clear that hers was not a comfortable existence. An appendix to Rev. Henry Channing’s execution sermon notes that Hannah’s mother was “an abandoned creature, much addicted to the vice of drunkenness,” who sent Hannah to work as a servant in a white family’s home. At the age of six, Hannah was accused of beating a white child while trying to steal her necklace. The anonymous author describes Hannah’s character thus:

Her conduct, as appeared in evidence before the honorable Superior Court was marked with almost every thing bad. Theft and lying were her common vices. To these were added a maliciousness of disposition which made the children in the neighborhood much afraid of her. She had a degree of artful cunning and sagacity beyond many of her years.

This description, expressed in terms designed to emphasize the importance of training children in obedience, may or may not be accurate. Regardless, all evidence suggests that Hannah was alone in a hostile world.

On July 21, 1786, someone found Eunice Bolles’ body at the side of the road outside Norwich, Conn. The corpse displayed signs of extreme trauma: “the head and body were mangled in a shocking manner, the back and one arm broken, and a number of heavy stones placed on the body, arms and legs.” Investigators questioned Hannah, who initially denied any involvement, but mentioned that she had seen a group of boys on the road earlier. The town officials did not believe her. On July 22, “she was closely questioned, but repeatedly denied that she was guilty.” Still unconvinced, the investigators “carried [Hannah] to the house where the body lay, and being charged with the crime, burst into tears and confessed that she killed her, saying if she could be forgiven she would never do so again.”

Hannah’s confession, which was accepted as truth by the court, indicated that she had sought revenge on Eunice because the younger girl had “complained of her in strawberry time … for taking away her strawberries.” When Hannah saw Eunice walking to school alone, she beat and choked her, covering the body with rocks “to make people think that the wall fell upon her and killed her.”

Rev. Henry Channing, a talented local minister, visited Hannah in prison many times, urging her to repent so that her soul might be spared. On the day of her execution, he delivered a thundering sermon entitled, God Admonishing His People of Their Duty as Parents and Masters, which held Hannah up as an example of what could happen if parents did not raise their children to be “dutiful and obedient.”

Her crimes, he argued, were the “natural consequences of too great parental indulgence,” and warned that “appetites and passions unrestrained in childhood become furious in youth; and ensure dishonour, disease and an untimely death.” In the portion of the sermon directed at Hannah herself, Channing did his best to scare her into repentance:

HANNAH! — prisoner at the bar– agreeably to the laws of the land you have arraigned, tried and convicted of the crime of murder … The good and safety of society requires, that no one, of such a malignant character, shall be suffered to live, and the punishment of death is but the just demerit of your crime: and the sparing you on account of your age, would, as the law says, be of dangerous consequence to the publick, by holding up an idea, that children might commit such atrocious crimes with impunity … And you must consider that after death you must undergo another trial, infinitely more solemn and awful than what you have here passed through, before that God against whom you offended; at whose bar the deceased child will appear as a swift witness against you — And you will be condemned and consigned to an everlasting punishment, unless you now obtain a pardon, by confessing and sincerely repenting of your sins, and applying to his sovereign grace, through the merits of his Son, Jesus Christ, for mercy, who is able and willing to save the greatest offenders, who repent and believe in him.

At her trial in October, Hannah “appeared entirely unconcerned,” but as the date of her execution approached, she began to show fear. In early December, visitors began to ask her how long she had to live, and Hannah “would tell the Number of her Days with manifest Agitation.” On December 19th, she “appeared in great Distress . . . and continued in Tears most of the Day, and until her Execution.” Witnesses to her execution reported that Hannah “seemed greatly afraid when at the Gallows.” With her last words, she “thanked the Sheriff for his kindness, and launched into the eternal World.”

In the United States, the youngest children put to death by the government have all be children of color. James Arcene, a Cherokee boy, was only 10 or 11 years old when he was hanged for committed a robbery and murder that resulted in his 1885 hanging in Arkansas.* At 12, Hannah Ocuish was the youngest female offender executed by any state. In the 20th century, the youngest children executed were both African-American: 13-year-old Fortune Ferguson of Florida (1927) and 14-year-old George Stinney of South Carolina (1944).

In 2005, the United States Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for criminals who committed their crimes as juveniles (Roper v. Simmons). The court split 5-4, with Jutices Scalia, O’Connor, Thomas, and Chief Justice Rehnquist dissenting. In his dissent, Justice Scalia excoriated the majority for considering international consensus (along with the laws of 30 of the 50 U.S. states) on the cruelty of executing children under the age of 18 when determining the standard for “cruel and unusual.” Justice Scalia, an avowed proponent of Constitutional originalism, proclaimed, “I do not believe that the meaning of our Eighth Amendment, any more than the meaning of other provisions of our Constitution, should be determined by the subjective views of five Members of this Court and like-minded foreigners.”

* This post originally asserted that Arcene was a juvenile when hanged. In fact, he was (or claimed to have been) 10 years old or so at the time he committed the crime, but was not tried and hanged until over a decade later. (This is corrected in the Arcene post.) -ed.

On this day..

21 thoughts on “1786: Hannah Ocuish, age 12

  1. alice glaston was hanged at the age of 11 years old she lived in much wenlock in Shropshire England her crime is not known probably for stealing a loaf of bread the poor girl must have terrified being led in chains to face her execution how barbaric England was then wonder why nobody pleaded for clemency for the poor girl .a smack on the bottom yes but to hanged in front of a crowed of spectators is not right perhaps she was on her own at her trial and didn’t know what was happening to her

  2. Goes to show that girls weren’t always believed. Although, in that case, she should’ve been. And now days, when they are believed, it’s some times wrong for them, to be.

  3. Reading through this years after writing it, I wish I had used more respectful terms in mentioning the theory of Hannah’s possible disability. I offer my sincere apologies for using antiquated and ableist language.

  4. Some sad things have been done in the past. Burning witches is one of them. But still killing people…doing god’s work. God doesn’t need help like that; he might indeed tell & send them where to go.

  5. I have quite shortly found this site while searching the web for topics around the death penalty.

    I know that my point of view is not at all political correct in our days. If Hannah had truly murdered Eunice, then her hanging was no deed of shame. Nobody can tell me that a 12 year old girl does not know that freewillingly killing a child weaker than oneself is an evil doing. Murder is another thing than petty deeds that youngsters might do out of childish thoughts. The minister was right that Hannah could well habe become a true threat for others as the groundstock of the selfsuchness builds up yet in childhood.

    Some yearhundreds ago, the mindset of time brought forward gruesome punishings. We have reached at the witherdeal of too mild punishing.

  6. We all get punish for our wrong doing,when Hanna put the rocks on the little girls body to make believe an accident, she knew right there that what she did was wrong,…if u read some more it says that she was a bully with the younger kids,it means she was a criminal on the making. She knew right from wrong ,but she didn’t had a responsible ADULT figure to guide her in live.its breaks any body’s heart.and let tell the person from Europe…over there they use to have the worst tactics to make a person suffer before they die.

  7. All that is stated right there in the post’s text and footnote.

    Beyond that, it’s an abiding mystery why some people consider the age *at execution* to be so critically important. If you hang someone for the crime they committed at age 10, you’re hanging the 10-year-old — you’re judging the 10-year-old’s capacity and the 10-year-old’s act.

    Hanging an 18-year-old for a 15-year-old’s crime is executing a juvenile offender. Hanging a 25-year-old for a 10-year-old’s crime is executing a pre-adolescent offender.

    • This is so sad. I mean, George Junius Stinney Jr, was electrocuted without a fair trial and 70 years later the came us reopened

  8. The statement that James Arcene was the youngest person to be hanged in the USA appears to be wrong. This story says he was ten or eleven. On this same site, the story page regarding his case says, he claimed to be ten or twelve years old when the crime he was charged with was committed. The murder he was charged with committing happened on November 25, 1872, he wasn’t hanged until June 26, 1885, roughly thirteen years later. If he was ten years old when the crime was committed he was hanged when he was roughly twenty three years old, far from the youngest.

  9. Guilty or not. You don’t murder children under anycircumstances We obviously can’t choose who sires us. One thing for sure, their murderers are guilty. I pray those kids were embraced by God. RIP.

  10. Was Eunice Hannah’s half sister (same father)?
    Therefore, it could have been a case of sibling rivalry.

    In any case, capital punishment even then, was so severe
    for a girl that young.

  11. Pingback: ExecutedToday.com » 1885: James Arcene, the youngest juvenile offender hanged in the US?

    • I am sure the number of so called murderers who after being executed then exonerated through D.N.A. evidence.would have loved to be living in Europe where mistakes can always be rectified and the innocent released. The number of cases where prosecutor misconduct (hiding evidence) in the “Land of the free” show that draconian laws belong in the past or in dubious holy books not in a modern society.

  12. Death Penalty is wrong in any case, let alone when a child is involved. USA may be the richest country in the World but definitely not the most advanced in terms of human rights. Thank God i live in Europe


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