On this date in 1821, a 17-year-old ne’er-do-well was hanged at Winter Island near Salem, Mass., for arson.
Several fires had menaced Newburyport in 1820, and skulking juvenile delinquent Stephen Merrill Clark was swiftly suspected. Clark’s father had even been trying to fix up some kind of intervention for the boy, who had twice washed out of apprenticeships.
Stephen’s main squeeze, a “night walker” and “person of lascivious behavior” by the name of Hannah Downes, obligingly informed on him in the arson matter, and this was sufficient to secure his conviction. (Trial transcriptions are available here.)
The perp’s youth and the impeachable evidence against him helped raise the general public hand-wringing over the matter; even Clark’s convicting jury recommended mercy, which the Bay State’s Governor’s Council declined to extend in view of the serious public menace posed by fires.
And Clark, in the end, provided an obliging 11th-hour confession to set everyone’s mind at ease as regards the shaky stool-pigeon testimony that hung him. Clark blamed that night-walker girl of his for instigating everything, licensing the circulation of outstanding doggerel like the following from an execution broadside.
Be warn’d, ye youth, who see my sad despair:
Avoid LEWD WOMEN, false as they are fair.
By my example learn to shun my fate:
How wretched is the man who’s wise too late!
Ere innocence, and fame and life be lost,
Here purchase wisdom cheaply, at my cost.*
The Essex Register of May 12, 1821 printed this eyewitness report of the scaffold, similarly suggestive of a prisoner just barely keeping his composure.
O, how changed from that sturdy, robust and apparently unconcerned youth who, but a few weeks before, was tried, convicted and sentenced to suffer death. Then, his countenance was flushed and ruddy with the glow of health, his eye was quick and animated his nerves unshaken by the array and circumstance of the judicial proceedings, and his whole frame was firm and strong — Now, a ghastly paleness covered his face, his eye was languid and declined to earth, his aspect bespoke an inward grief and agony that could not be uttered, and as the Rev. Clergyman supported his feeble steps toward the scaffold, his very soul appeared to quake at the terrors of the law that surrounded him.
He was conducted up the first flight of steps … here the agony of his spirit almost overpowered his strength, and he was near fainting, but was in some measure revived by the kind and assiduous attentions of those about him … a profound and solemn silence reigned throughout the vast multitude of spectators, whose countenances were marked by feelings of the deepest interest, and who remained uncovered during the residue of the tragic scene… when he ascended the second flight of steps, and took his stand upon his last support, the sympathies and pity of the beholders were raised to the highest pitch, and when his bosom and his neck were bared and he meekly inclined his head to enable Mr. Brown to adjust the fatal cord, and submissively placed himself in the position most convenient for the dreadful purpose for which he was brought there, the feelings of the multitude could no longer be suppressed, and mingled sighs and groans were heard in every direction. These preparations were soon finished, & at a signal from the High Sheriff, the spring was touched, and Clark was, in a moment, launched into eternity! — Thus died Stephen Merrill Clark, aged 17 years — cut off in the morning of his life, for a heinous offence, and made a public example of the terrible retributions of the present world, and held up as an awful warning to all survivors, and especially to young persons, to shun the paths of vice.
* Not that it wasn’t circulating already; this poem was just an execution-day twist on the argument of Clark’s defense counsel, that “respectable citizens have been unfortunately led, by the wicked arts of the most abandoned of women … of notoriously profligate character … on whose word no reliance can be placed.” Sally Chase, another woman of circumstances similar to Hannah Downes, provided similar testimony against Clark.
Oh, along with a bunch of other confessional things Clark admitted to various authorities under various states of cajolery or duress.