On this date in 1817, Maggie Houghtaling (alias Peggy Densmore) was hanged in Hudson, N.Y. for infanticide.
Houghtaling lived with the mother of 15-month-old Lewis Spencer. One awful day in August — just eight weeks before the consequent execution — the mother popped out of the house a few moments and left Lewis gnawing on a piece of bread under her roommate’s care.
When the mother returned, she found the child “apparently in convulsions, its tongue protruded from the mouth, and covered with erosions — the inside of the mouth corrugated, and all the shocking symptons which may be supposed to follow from a potion so horrid.” The potion referred to in this account of the New York Evening Post (September 23, 1817): vitriol, also known as sulfuric acid. It’ll do a number on you.
The self-evident inference was that his babysitter had poisoned the kid — an inference the mother made immediately and that Maggie Houghtaling vainly sought to repel all the way to the rope.*
Hudson’s Northern Whig reported a heavily-attended (five to ten to even fifteen thousand souls, by various estimates) but orderly scene and “the ceremonies of the day … conducted with great propriety.” Houghtaling herself was composed and even indifferent** riding a horse-drawn cart with a halter around her neck to a scaffold erected on the pastures north of State Street.†
Houghtaling made one last assertion of her innocence under the gallows, despite the overwhelming confidence her contemporaries had in her guilt. “Such declarations,” sniffed the Otsego Herald (Oct. 30, 1817) “after a fair and impartial trial, and from her incredibility of character, were not entitled to consideration, and made but little impression in her favor.”
Then she swung.
Many, many years later, as the Empire State prepared to execute Roxalana Druse — the very last woman put to death by hanging in New York — one of the numerous pamphlets published in the hope of sparing Ms. Druse curiously resuscitated the Houghtaling hanging.
Mrs. Druse’s case and Maggie Houghtaling: An innocent woman hanged claims that the secret of the crime was revealed to its writer by “a tall, handsome lady of middle age and most refined manner” who had “befriended Peggy, when that unfortunate young woman was being tried and she was the last one who prayed in her cell with her before she was led out for execution.” Since Roxalana Druse was hanged seventy years after our Ms. Houghtaling, this refined Samaritan must have discovered the font of middle age.
There is no evidence I have been able to locate of the manipulative story purportedly related surfacing in any official fashion to exonerate Maggie Houghtaling (or “Peggy Houghtaling”, here). But doubts aside — and we must allow that the incendiary domestic murder of a child has been known to railroad a body now and again — this qualifies at the very least as intriguing folklore: the young woman publicly executed over her protestations of innocence still maintained a purchase on the public conscience seven decades after her death.
In agony she [Houghtaling] begged for her life to be at least spared till she had an opportunity to prove her innocence. But, no, there was no mercy for her as the case was a most revoltingly brutal one, and the wretched woman was strung up like a dog six weeks [sic] after the murder, protesting with her last breath:
God forgive you all for hanging me; but I am innocent, and my only prayer is that some day it may be proved and the black spot taken off my name and memory.
That some day did not come for several years, and then the real murderess was found. She had been a rival of poor Peggy’s in the affections of the same man, and was “cut out” as she called it, by Peggy. In her disappointment and rage she resolved on revenge, but buried it in her heart, and appeared very friendly and indifferent on the surface. At last she got her opportunity, and she cold-bloodedly murdered Peggy’s child. [sic] Her devilish plot had been laid with the most consummate skill, in such a way that suspicion was thrown upon the mother, who accordingly was arrested. The public mind was aroused to the highest point of excitement, most especially by the testimony of this very witness, given on the stand amidst a flow of crocodile tears, and apparently with great reluctance. Her revenge was thus complete; but as he always does, the devil sowed in her bosom the little black seed of remorse, and it sprouted and grew, and spread, until she was the most unhappy wretch in existence. At night the ghosts of her two victims came to her in her sleep, and she would wake up screaming with terror and in daytime her imagination brought them before her, at times so vividly that she would fall in fits.
After enduring a lifetime’s pangs of remorse, the “real murderess” (never named) at last expires
in convulsions on the bed, screaming, clasping her hands, tearing at her throat, and crying out:
“I am lost! I’m lost, forever! There is no forgiveness! none! none!”
In the midst of one of these awful paroxysms the guilty wretch suddenly expired, and her soul stood in the presence of her Maker, to answer for the hideous crime she had committed on earth.
* Maggie Houghtaling was prosecuted by District Attorney Moses I. Cantine with the assistance of his brother-in-law, who just happened to be the state Attorney General: future U.S. President Martin Van Buren. (Evening Post, Sept. 23, 1817)
** By the conventions of the execution bulletin, condemned prisoners are remarked “indifferent” when their composure exceeds the reporter’s own.
† I have no idea whether it actually relates to this date’s events but one would be remiss not to mention that the next lane north of State Street in Hudson is something called Rope Alley.