On this date in 1794, Edmund Fortis was hanged in Dresden, Maine* — at the time still a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Fortis was born a slave in Virginia but escaped and slipped into the wage economy by hiring out as a seaman on a ship bound from Alexandria, Va., to England. According to his dying confession he was a habitual petty thief; by the time he had made his way to Maine, “my life was dreadful — Drinking, stealing and gaming.”
Fortis admitted to, and even pleaded guilty to, the rape-murder of a young girl named Pamela Tilton whom he saw by chance and waylaid on a country road on May 18. This confession “the evidence of credible witnesses on oath … abundantly confirmed.” That’s from the sentencing oration of Justice Robert Treat Paine, via The Oracle of the Day (Portsmouth, N.H.), July 26, 1794, which continues with flourishes of hellfire —
This sentence, when executed, will remove you from this world, where you have proved yourself so unworthy an inhabitant, to a state of existence where you must reap the fruits of your past life; where you must appear before the awful tribunal of that holy Being, who cannot be deceived and who will not be mocked, and who will judge you for this and all the other sins in your life …
you have cast off the fear of God from your eyes, and all restraint of reverence to him from your thoughts, words, and actions, till your unbridled lust and malicious disposition had arrived to full ripeness, and urged you to the commission of crimes, at your own relation of which, nature revolts and the human heart is rent with agony. To what a pitch of brutal lust must you have arrived, that a person of your nation, your age, having a wife and children in the neighborhood, should so inhumanly assault and violate the chastity of that young girl in spight of her intreaties and remonstrances, and then with all the savage cruelty of a ruffian and an assassin, deaf to those cries and supplications which would have melted any heart but one lost to every humane feeling, you barbarously strangled to death the inoffensive victim of your lustful crime; thus in a short space of time destroying life, the first right of all mankind, and chastity, the second right of woman.
… repent and live … so, although your aggravated crimes must bring you to an untimely and disgraceful death, yet that you may escape that weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, that destruction from the face of the Lord, that bitterness of misery which cannot be discribed nor conceived, which will be inflicted on all the enemies of the holy Governour of the Universe, and that your soul may be happy forever in the heavenly world.
But Fortis did not need much convincing of his soul’s peril.
The bulk of his confession is taken up describing the transformative apparition of God’s grace as he awaited arraignment in prison — the appearance of which is precisely what induced him to plead guilty to the charge, lest he “lie against God.”
I could not rest, there was no comfort or peace for me: I tho’t no person was so bad as I, my whole life filled with sin, stealing, lying, whoring and drinking, and now murder. At length I got up, and endeavoured to pray, but my heart was hard as a stone, and it seemed bound up; still I thought I would keep praying to the Lord whether he had mercy on me or not.
On Saturday morning it seemed as if I had more desire to pray and plead with God than before; and in the afternoon it seemed as if my heart was in some degree melted, and there was some hope. I heard something like a voice, saying “verily, verily give him a new heart,” and it seemed as if a man was in me working downward, and clearing or cleaning my heart. I thought I could breathe out my heart to God, and could see a light shining from heaven, brighter than snow, and in the light it seemed as though a great many angels were singing, which drowned my groans and prayers; and I cried O Lord! and looked up, and I saw in a corner of the prison something red like fire, and thought it was the Devil. I found I had another feeling, and I cried to the Lord. I now felt relieved; but was doubtful whether it could be true that the Lord had mercy on me, and wanted to see the light again.
On Lord’s day morning I felt more contented; but could hardly believe what I saw, and felt. I looked out of the grates, and all things looked strange, as if in another place; the birds seemed to come near the Goal and sing. Putting myself in the same place where I first saw the light, I prayed, and said, O Lord, for thy dear Son Jesus’ sake, who died for sinners, have mercy on me! And immediately the same angels began to sing again; and I believed in the Lord, and loved every body. I felt cool and calm; all the dread and fear which I had suffered were gone.
When I was brought to the bar, a gentleman spoke to me, and advised me to plead not guilty: Oh! I thought he wanted me to lie against God; and I considered how dreadful it was for a man that could read to give such advice. When the indictment was read, and the judge asked me whether I was guilty or not guilty, I felt very calm, and answered, guilty. And when I was brought the next day to hear my sentence, I felt perfectly resigned and thankful to the court, God knows their sentence was just. I now wait for the last stroke of death. I can trust my soul in the hands of the Lord, and am willing to do, or suffer any thing God shall lay upon me; and if he should cast me off, it will be right for I deserve it.
However wondrous this gallows-foot conversion was for Edmund Fortis, it augured ill for some other residents of the Commonwealth.
A Henry McCausling (or McCaslane), whose own minister also tended to Fortis, took from this example the prospect of using the murder-repentance two-step as a back door into heaven.
It appears that M’Causling has lately become deluded in matters of religion. For some time he has principally associated himself with a party of baptists, living on a plantation back off Pittston, headed by one Stinson, and two or three others. In one of his paroxisms of religious insanity, he burnt an elegant church in the town of Pittston. He says that Stinson told him, that his brother Edmund Fortis, who was lately executed for the murder of Pamela Tilton, was certainly gone to heaven, and that the road to Heaven was marked with blood. M’Causling thought, that as Fortis had gone to heaven, he should go there too, provided he was to use the same means. (Boston Gazette and Weekly Republican Journal, Nov. 17, 1794)
Consequently, McCausling stalked a Mrs. Warren** “in a dark night, through woods and over rivers which were almost impassable by day” until he finally came upon her at her sick mother’s house, tending to her, and thereupon
he flung her back with his left hand, and with his right, drew a knife from his pocket, where he had concealed it, and instantly cut her throat, without her being able to say more than this — “M’Causling, are you going to murder me!” He immediately fled, but was soon arrested and committed to gaol, where he must remain for the sentence which awaits him.
Like his predecessor, McCausling also pleaded guilty to his crime; the court judging him quite mad, he was balked of his objective in this world at least: how he has fared in the next we dare not guess.
* The Pownalborough Court House, which doubled as a jail, can still be seen today. It’s where Fortis spent his last days, although he was not tried in that building.
** From the press accounts I have seen, she is identified only as “the wife of a Mr. Pelton Warren.”