Posts filed under 'Massachusetts'

1686: James Morgan, a Warning to you all

4 comments March 11th, 2014 Headsman

From Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana: Or the Ecclesiastical History of New England from 1620 – 1698:


On March 11, 1686, was Executed at Easton, one James Morgan, for an Horrible Murther. A Man, finding it necessary to come into his House, he swore he would run a Spit into his Bowels; and he was as bad as his Word.

He was a passionate Fellow; and now, after his Condemnation, he much bewail’d his having been given to Cursing in his Passions.

The Reverend Person, who preach’d unto a great Assembly, on the Day of this poor Man’s Execution, did in the midst of his Sermon, take occasion to read a Paper which he had receiv’d from the Malefactor then present in the Assembly. It was as followeth.

I, James Morgan, being condemn’d to die, must needs own, to the Glory of God, that He is Righteous, and that I have by my Sins provok’d him to destroy me before my time. I have been a great Sinner, guilty of Sabbath-breaking, of Lying, and of Uncleanness; but there are especially two Sins whereby I have offended the Great God: one is that Sin of Drunkenness, which has caused me to commit many other Sins; for when in Drink, I have been often guilty of Cursing and Swearing, and Quarrelling, and striking others. But the Sin, which lies most heavy upon my Conscience, is That I have despised the Word of God, and many a time refused to hear it preach’d. For these things I believe God has left me to that, which has brought me to a shameful and miserable Death. I do therefore beseech and warn all Persons, young Men especially, to take heed of these Sins, lest they provoke the Lord to do to them as he has justly done by me. And, for the further Peace of my own Conscience, I think my self oblig’d to add this unto my foregoing Confession, That I own the Sentence which the Honour’d Court has pass’d upon me, to be Exceeding Just: inasmuch as (though I had no former Grudge and Malice against the man whom I have kill’d, yet) my Passion at the time of the Fact, was so outragious, as that it hurried me on to the doing of that which makes me now justly proceeded against as murderer.

After the Sermon, a Minister, at his Desire, went unto the Place of Execution with him. And of what passed by the way, there was a Copy taken, which here ensueth.


The entire interview — as reported by Cotton Mather, the “reverend person” who attended the doomed soul — is here.

“Secure the Welfare of your Soul,” Mather implored Morgan on the morning of the latter’s hanging, “and this (now) pinion’d, hang’d, vile Body of yours will shortly be rais’d unto Glory, Glory for evermore.”

The terrors of the sentence had already worked the clergyman’s part before Mather himself turned up. Whatever Morgan’s conduct day by day in life, he had grown up in the same universe of New England Puritans as Mather, and breathed the same ideology. We find him not so much assenting to his minister’s exhortations, as soliciting them, almost leading the conversation at some points.

Sir, as for the Pain that my Body must presently feel, I matter it not: I know what Pain is; but what shall I do for my poor Soul? I’m terrified with the Wrath of God: This, this terrifies me, Hell terrifies me: I should not mind my Death, if it were not for that.

Mather runs with this for a while, perhaps a little too far — “those exquisite amazing Torments … such as never have an End. As many Sands as could lie between this Earth and the Stars in Heaven, would not be near so many as the Ages, the endless Ages of these Torments.”

Morgan steers his confessor towards solutions with a leading question.

But is there not Mercy for me in Christ?

(Two things to bear in mind: first, Morgan at “I think about thirty” years old would have been the elder figure in this conversation with 23-year-old Cotton Mather; second, this is Mather’s own account of Mather’s private conversation, as composed in a self-consciously literary “dialogue” form for the purposes of publication.)

This conversation hones by mutual consent of the speakers on the classics of the condemned cell: drinking, Sabbath-breaking, and bad company as the root sins that watered the gallows-tree, mitigated by the redemptive opportunity to turn one’s own public strangulation into a pedagogic moment for the gawkers.

Morgan was right on board. (They didn’t all come so easy.)

Mather records his charge’s last speech, made from the hanging-ladder before he is turned off.

I Pray God that I may be a Warning to you all, and that I may be the last that ever shall suffer after this manner. In the fear of God I warn you to have a care of taking the Lord’s Name in vain. Mind, and have a care of that Sin of Drunkenness: For that Sin leads to all manner of Sins and Wickedness: (mind, and have a care of breaking the sixth Commandment, where it is said, Thou shalt do no Murther) for when a Man is in Drink, he is ready to commit all manner of Sin, till he fill up the Cup of the Wrath of God, as I have done by committing that Sin of Murder.

I beg of God, as I am a dying Man, and to appear before the Lord within a few Minutes, that you may take notice of what I say to you. Have a care of Drunkenness, and ill Company, and mind all good Instruction; and don’t turn your Back upon the Word of God, as I have done. When I have been at Meeting, I have gone out of the Meeting-house to commit Sin, and to please the Lust of my Flesh. Don’t make a mock at any poor Object of Pity; but bless God that he has not left you as he has justly done me, to commit that horrid Sin of Murder.

Another thing that I have to say to you, is, to have a care of that House where that Wickedness was committed, and where I have been partly ruin’d by. But here I am, and know not what will become of my poor Soul, which is within a few moments of Eternity. I have murder’d a poor Man, who had but little time to repent, and I know not what is become of his poor Soul. O that I may make use of this Opportunity that I have! O, that I may make Improvement of this little, little time, before I go hence and be no more. O, let all mind what I am saying now I am going out of this World. O, take Warning by me, and beg of God to keep you from this Sin, which has been my Ruine.

O Lord, receive my Spirit: I come unto thee, O Lord, I come unto thee, O Lord, I come, I come, I come.

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1644: Goodwife Cornish

2 comments December 2nd, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Sometime in December 1644 in Maine, one Goodwife Cornish was executed for the murder of her husband, Richard Cornish. Her first name has been lost to history.

The couple had married in the town of Weymouth in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. It was a match made in hell.

According to Daniel Allen Hearn, writing of this case in his book Legal Executions in New England, 1623-1960, Richard Cornish was “a tireless worker” but his wife as “a woman of loose habits.”

The couple moved north to the settlement York in modern-day Maine in 1646, and “Goodwife Cornish wasted no time in reestablishing her notoriety.”

In 1644, Goodman Cornish’s body was found floating in the York River. He’d been killed in an unusual way: impaled on a stake, then placed in his canoe, which was weighted with stones. As Hearn records:

A cry of murder was raised. The sensational news swept the town and surrounding countryside. Had hostile Indians killed Richard Cornish? Probably not. Although the man’s skull had been crushed as if by a war club no one could imagine an Indian being so wasteful as to purposefully sink a good canoe. Such a craft would have been desirable plunder to an Indian. Moreover, what Indian, it was asked, would squander precious time by weighting down a canoe when he could be making good his escape? For these reasons it was determined that the murder of Richard Cornish was the work of some crafty white person. Suspicion fell upon the wife of the decedent. She had openly despised her husband. She was also rumored to have committed adultery.

Goodwife Cornish, when questioned, denied having murdered her husband.

But she admitted to multiple extramarital affairs and named her latest boyfriend as Edward Johnson. The authorities subjected both of them to “trial by touch,” acting on the old superstition that a murdered person’s corpse would bleed if the killer touched it.

When Goodwife Cornish and Goodman Johnson were brought before Richard Cornish’s body and made to touch it, blood supposedly oozed from his wounds. The ensuing trial, Hearn says, was “a farce.”

Much was made of Goodwife Cornish’s infidelity, but the only actual “evidence” against either her or Johnson was the fact that they’d both flunked the touch test. “It was reputation more than anything else,” Hearn notes, “that counted against Goodwife Cornish.”

Johnson was ultimately acquitted, but Goodwife Cornish was convicted of murder and condemned to die. Having maintained her innocence to the end, she was hanged in York.

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1688: Goodwife Ann Glover, Salem trial run

Add comment November 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1688, colonial Boston hanged its last witch … or, its first Catholic martyr.

Goodwife Ann Glover was an Irishwoman who had been among some 50,000 Catholics deported to Barbados* by Oliver Cromwell during the 1650s.0

1688 finds her with a daughter, desperately poor, as housekeepers in Boston to one John Goodwin and his family.

After one of Goodwin’s daughters accused the Glovers of stealing some linen, the daughter got cussed out and — per Cotton Mather’s credulous account of the washerwoman’s devilry — “visited with strange Fits, beyond those that attend an Epilepsy or a Catalepsy, or those that they call The Diseases of Astonishment.” In fact, four Goodwin children began suffering these symptoms, and would do so for weeks on end, only abating enough for meals and a good night’s sleep. (They would finally be cured, weeks after their supernatural tormenter’s hanging, by having to fast for a couple of days.)

The family doctor diagnosed “an hellish Witchcraft.” Mather has an extensive description of their thrashings, but his contemporary, Boston merchant Robert Calef, charged in his anti-Mather tract More Wonders of the Invisible World that Mather himself did not shy from “taking home one of the children, and managing such intrigues with that child, and printing such an account of the whole … as conduced much to the kindling of those flames, that in sir William‘s time threatened the destruction of this country.”

This Glover case is Cotton Mather’s underreported debut on the witchcraft scene. With the moderating hand of his father away, the ambitious 25-year-old divine took on a starring role in the drama. He would boast of it in published material in the years following, and as Thomas Hutchinson later observed,

The printed account was published with a preface by Mr. Baxter, who says, ‘the evidence is so convincing, that he must be a very obdurate Sadducee who will not believe.’ It obtained credit sufficient, together with other preparatives, to dispose the whole country to be easily imposed upon by the more extensive and more tragical scene, which was presently after acted at Salem … these books were in New-England, and the conformity between the behavior of Goodwin’s children and most of the supposed bewitched at Salem, and the behavior of those in England, is so exact, as to leave no room to doubt the stories had been read by the New England persons themselves, or had been told to them by others who had read them. Indeed, this conformity, instead of giving suspicion, was urged in confirmation of the truth of both.

Years later, when the public turned against Mather’s appalling leading role in the Salem Witch Trials, one of the Goodwin children was among the parishioners whom Mather detailed to come to his defense. “[Mather] never gave me the least advice, neither face to face nor by way of epistles, neither directly nor indirectly,” insisted Nathaniel Goodwin, later to become the executor of his estate. “[H]e never advised me to anything concerning the law, or trial of the accused person.”**

Eventually persuaded by the children’s mysterious or staged illnesses, the town magistrates hauled Goody Glover in for questioning and set upon her poor command of the King’s English. Glover was a native speaker of Gaelic; she had lived in Boston for only a few years, and it’s likely that whatever degree of English she picked up in her indenture in Barbados was heavily creolized by that island’s enormous mid-17th century influx of African slaves for the sugar plantations.

Whatever she said sounded like it came straight from perdition to the ears of Cotton Mather.

she being sent for by the Justices, gave such a wretched Account of her self, that they saw cause to commit her unto the Gaolers Custody. Goodwin had no proof that could have done her any Hurt; but the Hag had not power to deny her interest in the Enchantment of the Children; and I when she was asked, Whether she believed there was a God? her Answer was too blasphemous and horrible for any Pen of mine to mention. An Experiment was made, Whether she could recite the Lords Prayer; and it was found, that tho clause after clause was most carefully repeated unto her, yet when she said it after them that prompted her, she could not Possibly avoid making Nonsense of it, with some ridiculous Depravations. …

It was not long before the Witch thus in the Trap, was brought upon her Tryal; at which, thro’ the Efficacy of a Charm, I suppose, used upon her, by one or some of her Cruel the Court could receive Answers from her in one but the Irish, which was her Native Language; altho she under-stood the English very well, and had accustomed her whole Family to none but that Language in her former Conversation; and therefore the Communication between the Bench and the Bar,’ was now cheefly convey’d by two honest and faithful men that were interpreters.

Just imagine how apoplectic this guy would be if he ever heard “para Espanol o prima dos.”

One can readily picture confusion and malice multiplying one upon the other as it passes not only between two different tongues but also between two different cosmologies. We don’t know very much about Ann Glover; even her name is a slave name. But she was Catholic, and so had a religious world of saints and symbols that her persecutors could readily equate with demons. (Querying her in the condemned cell at one point, Mather is told that “saints” forbid her cooperating with his Protestant exhortations, but he understands it as “spirits” — apparently the Gaelic word is one and the same — and he presses her for the identities of these infernal agents.) She probably did not remotely share her prim persecutors’ regard for temperance and submission. She was of course poor and uneducated, ready prey for the entrapment of a well-schooled prig who could scarcely conceive the lives she had already led in Ireland and Barbados. If one likes, one might take her as the luckless victim of a conservative clergy’s backlash against the slow fade of its authority.

Glover’s broken speech and wrong religion surely made it easy to “other” her. Even so, at least in Mather’s construction, Goodwife Glover’s condemnation reads as if it proceeded with at least the partial participation of the accused.

Several rag dolls were recovered from Glover’s home, and Mather says that Glover agreed that these were “her way to torment the Objects of her malice … by wetting of her Finger with her Spittle, and streaking of those little Images.” Even if this matter is just as her foe depicts it, Glover wouldn’t exactly by the only person in history to be irritated by her employer, nor to satisfy her vengeance on some fetish of an untouchable enemy.

Glover might herself have believed in the folk magic whose practice was only slowly ebbing away at this time; Mather even says that Glover obligingly healed a boy whom she had bewitched when his mother testified at her trial.

Or she might have defiantly embraced the sorcery accusations against her as a last rebuke to the Puritans who had torn her from hearth and home all those years before and now despised her as an idolatrous papist. Her contemporary defender Robert Calef just thought she was a bit out of her gourd; “the generality of her answers were nonsense, and her behaviour like that of one distracted,” giving “crazy answers to some ensaring questions.” The court actually explored this possibility as well by empaneling a group of medical men to explore Glover’s competency. They found her compos mentis.

It’s too bad that we don’t have Goodwife Glover’s own account of herself. Instead we read her through axe-grinding interlocutors.

Mather wearied his victim with demands to convert, along with an interpreter since “she entertained me [in her cell] with nothing but Irish.” (He didn’t mean whiskey.) It was only “against her will” that Mather prayed with her — or maybe more like “at her” — although he also claimed to have extracted an admission that other witches were operating who would continue to afflict the Goodwin children.

She was drawn on this date to the gallows at Boston Neck — coincidentally almost the very spot where Boston’s Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Cross stands today.

There’s a precious alleged† first-person account of her execution:

There was a great concourse of people to see if the Papist would relent … Her one cat was there, fearsome to see. They would to destroy the cat, but Mr. Calef would not [permit the cat to be killed]. Before her execution she was bold and impudent, making to forgive her accusers and those who put her off … She predicted that her death would not relieve the children, saying it was not she afflicted them.

November 16 is now, by a 1988 tricentennial resolution of Boston’s considerably more Catholic-friendly city council, Goody Glover Day in that city. What better spot to celebrate than at Goody Glover’s Irish pub?

* Such deportees were said to be “Barbadosed”.

** This is not the only link between those Massachusetts witch-hunts; Rebecca Nurse, one of the women hanged at Salem, might have visited Ann Glover in jail.

† So far as I have been able to determine this widely-reproduced quote sources entirely to a 1905 Journal of the American Irish Historical Society piece. This was itself reproduced from a strongly partisan article titled “A Forgotten Heroine” and published in a devotional Catholic magazine, The Ave Maria. It was written by Harold Dijon, an instructor at a Baltimore Catholic school, without primary footnotes — only a general citation that it has “been gleaned from Cotton Mather, Upham, Drake, Moore, Owens, Calef, Cartrie, and papers of the Massachusetts Historical Society.” I have not been able to locate the document Dijon quotes here.

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1648: Alice Bishop

Add comment October 4th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1648, 32-year-old Alice Bishop was hanged on the gallows in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts for the murder of her young daughter — an apparently motiveless crime which must have shocked her fellow settlers.

Almost nothing is known about Alice’s early life. She probably, although not definitely, came over on the Mayflower. The prevailing theory is that her parents were Mayflower passengers Christopher Martin and Marie Prower. They died within a week of each other in January 1621, before the actual settlement of Plymouth even began.

If that’s the case, Alice had been an orphan for the better part of a year by the time the first Thanksgiving rolled around. She was presumably raised by one of the other families. She would marry twice and have three daughters: Abigail, Martha and Damaris.

By 1648, Alice was living with her second husband, the Plymouth newcomer Richard Bishop, who was Damaris’s father. The family seems to have been unexceptional, just another household trying to eke out a living in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

Somewhere along the line, something went very wrong.

On July 22, 1648, while Richard Bishop was away from home, family friend Rachel Ramsden dropped by the Bishops’ residence and spent some time with Alice. Alice’s four-year-old middle child, Martha Clark, was asleep in bed in the loft, which was accessible by ladder. (Where the other two children were has not been recorded.)

At some point, Alice gave Rachel a kettle and asked her to go fetch some buttermilk from a neighbor’s house.

When Rachel returned, she noticed blood on the floor beneath the ladder. Alice was “sad and dumpish,” and when Rachel asked her what was going on, she wordlessly pointed up at the loft.

Rachel climbed up to have a look: there was blood everywhere; Martha’s mattress was drenched in it.

Rachel fled the house in a panic, found her parents and told them she thought Alice had murdered her daughter. Her father rushed to find the colonial governor. A posse of twelve armed men assembled and went to the Bishop house. By the time the men arrived, Alice was in hysterics.

Ascending to the loft, they found Martha’s body. The child was lying on her left side, “with her throat cut with divers gashes crose wayes, the wind pipe cut and stuke into the throat downward, and the bloody knife lying by the side.” Nothing could be done for her.

Alice freely admitted she had murdered her daughter and said she was sorry for it, but she claimed she had no recollection of the crime. When they asked her why she’d done it, she had no answer for them.

She was the fifth person hanged in the Plymouth Colony, and the first woman.

We will never know why Alice Bishop killed her daughter Martha, and why she did it in such a ferocious manner. One of her descendants has a website about her that attempts to answer that question.

Severe mental illness, perhaps post-partum psychosis, is an obvious answer, but not the only one. The site notes another potentially significant fact: both of Alice’s parents died when she was four years old, and she killed her daughter at the same age.

Richard Bishop survived his wife by nearly a quarter-century. As for the children: youngest child Damaris Bishop grew up, married and had three sons, but Abigail Clark, Alice’s oldest child, vanishes from history after her mother’s execution.

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1801: Jason Fairbanks, lackadaisical escapee

Add comment September 10th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1801, Jason Fairbanks was hanged for murder in Massachusetts.

Fairbanks, hailed from one of the oldest families in Anglo North America; the house where he whiled away his pre-homicide idleness is today the Dedham museum Fairbanks House.

A youth of about twenty-one, weak, sickly, with a stiff right arm,” Jason had a thing for 18-year-old “neighbor” (they lived more than a mile apart) Elizabeth Fales and she for him, but the Fales family opposed the romance.

So one day in May 1801, Fairbanks “told two of his friends, that he should meet [Fales] in the pasture on Monday, and endeavour to induce her to go off with him, and marry him; and that if she refused to do so he would attempt her chastity.”*

Evidently she just wasn’t that into him, because later that day of their rendezvous, Jason weirdly showed up at the Fales house covered in blood with a cock-and-bull story about how Eliza had committed suicide and he, Jason, had tried and failed to follow suit. Jason Fairbanks was indeed seriously injured (he convalesced in his victim’s family’s house), but Eliza’s wounds were the more interesting: her throat was slashed — she was still breathing faintly through her gashed windpipe when found — and she had stab wounds in her arms and between her shoulder blades.

It’s an atypical suicide who stabs herself in the back.

There was, of course, the matter of Fairbanks’s crippled arm (so did he really overpower Eliza?) and his own injuries (so was it a fight, or what?) — sufficient ambiguity for dueling attorneys to spin every manner of hypothetical to account for the maximum or minimum villainy of the suspect.

But when a dude says he’s off to attempt the chastity of a virtuous young woman and she emerges from the encounter with a stab in the back and a slash through the throat, he’s going to have a hard time repelling the charge. Fairbanks was easily convicted of murder on August 8.

Nine days later, or rather nights, this young-love tragedy took an even more amazing turn: Fairbanks’s friends broke him out of prison. Newspapers all over America were soon raising the hue and cry

STOP THE MURDERER
1000 Dollars Reward

The absconding of Jason Fairbanks from the jail of Dedham has excited much interest in the breasts of every one who regard the peace of society and the security of life; it will be the duty of the citizens of the United States to exert themselves in securing the condemned criminal without pecuniary reward, but as that may be the means of stimulating many who would otherwise be inactive, a large gratuity is now offered. Every newspaper printed in the U.S. it is hoped will publish the advertisement of the Sheriff … and by other means extend the hue and cry against him. (Quoted here)

Despite the bulletins, Fairbanks made it all the way to Whitehall on the southern tip of Lake Champlain, where a hired boat waited to carry him to freedom in Canada. Instead of boarding ASAP, Fairbanks and his escort paused for a parting breakfast on the very morning of the prospective embarkation — it’s the most important meal of the day, you know — and the fugitive was there apprehended addressing his table, steps away from safety.

* 1801 murder pamphlet, “A Correct and Concise Account of the Interesting Trial of Jason Fairbanks”

** We couldn’t help but enjoy this explanation for the murder published in the Philadelphia Gazette of the United States as part of an unsigned “Letter from Dedham”: “Fairbanks had been seduced previous to his becoming a murderer, by some European travellers; and joined with a society of Jacobin Deists, who held their meetings in this town. Among other of their tenets, they avowed that a rigid observance of chastity in man or woman was ridiculous; being contrary to natural impulse.” Dedham was to Federalists of 1801 sort of what San Francisco is to the present-day Tea Party, thanks in large measure to a ridiculous case recently charging a so-called “Jacobin” under the ridiculous Alien and Sedition Acts; there was an abortive attempt in the Federalist press to ascribe Fairbanks’s jailbreak to a revolutionary mob.

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1876: Jesse Pomeroy’s sentence commuted

Add comment August 31st, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1876, serial killer Jesse Pomeroy was reprieved by a 5-3 vote of the Governor’s Council of Massachusetts. Rather than hanging him, they elected to bury him alive instead.

With a “mere” two deaths to his name, at first glance Jesse Pomeroy may not seem like much of a serial killer. In fact, according to some definitions that require a higher body count, he wasn’t a serial killer at all. But give the kid some credit: he was only fourteen years old when he was caught. What’s more, his two murders were committed in a most brutal, sadistic manner.

Jesse was born in Massachusetts in 1860, the son of a violent and abusive father and a doting mother. He’d always been considered a “difficult” child and had tortured the family pets, but his known criminal career didn’t begin until he was twelve years old.

Over the course of nine months, he lured eight young boys between five and eight years old to remote areas and attacked them, beating them badly with a stick, a belt or his hands. In his later attacks he took to biting, and started using a knife as well. He tried to stick a needle into one child’s eyes, another boy, age six, was stabbed between the shoulders and had his penis nearly half cut off. Eventually Jesse would let his victims go, leaving them physically and mentally scarred for life.

Each attack was worse than the last, and each time the intervals between them got shorter. There were three months between the first assault and the second, and only five days between the seventh incident and the eighth (which was the last).

In his biography of Pomeroy, Fiend: The Shocking True Story of America’s Youngest Serial Killer, Harold Schechter described the assaults vividly:

The seventh attack occurred … on Wednesday, September 11. This time the “boy torturer” lured a seven-year-old named Joseph Kennedy to a vacant boathouse near the salt marshes of South Boston bay. Once inside the building, he slammed his victim’s head against the wall, stripped him naked, and administered a ferocious beating, breaking the little boy’s nose and knocking out several of his teeth. Then, pulling out his pocketknife, he forced the seven-year-old to kneel and ordered him to recite a profane travesty of the Lord’s Prayer, in which obscenities were substituted for Scripture.

When young Joseph refused to commit this blasphemy, his tormentor slashed him on his face, his back, his thighs. Then he dragged the bleeding child down to the marsh and — laughing delightedly at the little boy’s suffering — doused his wounds with salt water.

Most serial killers have a basically normal appearance, and some are downright handsome.

Jesse, however, actually did look pretty creepy. His head was too large for his body, he was blind in his right eye and the eyeball was covered by a whitish film that was deeply unsettling to look at. One of the boys he attacked said the eye looked like a “milkie,” a white marble. After that, the press often referred to the unknown assailant as “The Boy with the Marble Eye.”

On the day of his arrest on September 20, 1872, the police brought Joseph Kennedy, one of Pomeroy’s victims, around to various local schools to see if the child could find his attacker in the classrooms.

When little Joseph entered Jesse’s classroom, Jesse lifted his head when the teacher told him to but kept his gaze directed down at his desk. Joseph couldn’t see his deformed eye and didn’t recognize him. That afternoon, however, for some reason Jesse decided to pop in to the local police station on the way home from school. The boy was there and this time he recognized him.

Arrested and subjected to several hours of grilling, Jesse quickly confessed to his crimes, saying he “could not help himself” and wasn’t sure why he’d done such terrible things.

His victims identified him as the boy who had hurt them, and five of them testified against him in juvenile court. Jesse was sent off to the Lyman School for Boys, a juvenile reformatory.

The authorities were supposed to keep him locked up until he turned 18, but Pomeroy, who was no fool, read the fine print in his sentencing and discovered that if he “reformed,” he would be released early.

He immediately set about becoming an absolutely angelic inmate. He obeyed all the rules, did all the work assigned to him and didn’t talk back to the staff. When the other boys tried to bully him, he ignored them.

Before long, he was awarded the coveted position of dormitory monitor, with some responsibility over the other boys. On the outside, his devoted mom, who never believed in his guilt, kept up a letter-writing campaign, asking anyone with influence to help get her son released.

Jesse’s good behavior was rewarded and he was paroled to his mother’s custody in February 1874. He had been in custody for less than a year and a half. By then, his mother had left his father and was running a small store in South Boston.

On March 18 that year, six weeks after Jesse was released from the reformatory, ten-year-old Katie Curran disappeared. She was last seen when she went into the Pomeroy family’s store to buy a notebook for school. A neighbor boy saw her go into the store, where Jesse was manning the counter, but no one ever saw her come out.

Shockingly, in spite of his antecedents, the police at the time didn’t consider him a suspect in Katie’s disappearance, didn’t thoroughly search the store, and accepted his story that he hadn’t seen Katie at all that day.

This may have been because Jesse had never been known to attack little girls. In any case, over the ensuing six weeks the search instead concentrated on the Boston Wharf, on the theory that she’d accidentally fallen off a dock and drowned. Another theory was that she had been kidnapped.

The investigation went nowhere.

On April 22, Jesse accosted four-year-old Horace Millen while the child was on the way to the bakery with a few pennies to buy a sweet. Numerous witnesses saw them together, hand in hand, walking to the harbor; most of them assumed they were brothers out for an adventure.

What happened next is unprintable.

Suffice it to say that at 4:00 p.m., Horace’s body was found beyond a hill in a remote area near the shore. He’d been stabbed eighteen times in the chest, his throat was cut, and his face and genitals were mutilated. His fists were still clenched, the nails biting into his palms, indicating he’d been conscious during the attack and died in considerable pain.

As the police began their murder investigation, someone remarked that Horace’s injuries were remarkably similar to the attacks Jesse Pomeroy had committed before he was locked up two years ago.

As soon as the cops discovered Jesse was in fact on parole, they rushed to his house and took him into custody. His boots were caked with mud and grass was stuck to the soles, his face was scratched and his pocketknife was bloodstained.

At first, Jesse denied having done anything wrong. But when he was confronted with Horace Millen’s corpse, he cracked and started sobbing. “Please don’t tell my mother,” he pleaded. “Put me somewhere, so I can’t do such things.”

Unaccountably, more than a month passed from the time Jesse was arrested until Katie Curran’s body was found, and it was located by accident. Jesse’s mother and brother had to move out of their store in the wake of the murders. A new tenant moved in to the building and decided to refurbish the basement. Workers found Katie’s body. Her throat had been cut and her genitals mutilated.

When confronted with the news about Katie, Jesse denied any knowledge of her death and seemed indignant. “After all,” Harold Schechter noted, “aside from the fact that he was already in custody for child-murder and the little girl’s decomposed corpse had been found in the cellar of his family’s store, there was no reason in the world suspect him.”

Jesse ultimately confessed to killing the girl as well. He said he’d lured Katie down into the basement by saying there were some notebooks down there for her to look at. As soon as they reached the bottom of the steps, he took hold of her and cut her throat. He hadn’t even concealed her body very well, just tossing it in the ash heap.

The police search of the Pomeroys’ store must have been perfunctory indeed to have missed it.

(Jesse would later retract both confessions and claimed, to the end of his days, that he had never harmed a child in his life and was the victim of circumstances, coercive tactics by the police and a deliberate frame up.)

At his trial, his defense was one of insanity.

Three psychiatrists, or “alienists” as they were known in those days, examined him, one for the defense and two for the prosecution. Jesse told them he would get “a sudden feeling” that prompted his violence to small children and “I could not help doing it.”


Jesse Pomeroy, young and old.

The doctors noted his lack of remorse or any sympathy for his victims. They believed Jesse would always be dangerous to society. His attorney argued that he should be found not guilty by reason of insanity and then locked away in a mental institution for good.

In the end, the jury convicted him of first-degree murder, for which the mandatory penalty was hanging. However, they issued a recommendation of mercy on account of his youth.

Although juveniles had been executed in the United States before and would be again, the state of Massachusetts had never hanged a boy of fourteen. On the other hand, Jesse had committed no ordinary crimes. By any standard he was a monster. His case was extremely controversial and the governor, William Gaston, was besieged with petitions both for and against clemency.

Gaston didn’t want to hang Jesse Pomeroy and stalled on the issue for as long as he could. It may well have cost him re-election. But his successor, Alexander Rice, didn’t want to hang Jesse either, campaign promises to the contrary.

So in August 1876, two years after Jesse’s murder conviction, by which time the furor in the press had died down, Rice commuted the now-sixteen-year-old’s sentence to life in prison. But there was a catch: the sentence had to be served in solitary confinement.

He would spend 41 years in a tiny cell, isolated from the world. His mother visited him once a month until her death. The only other people he saw were the guards. He was allowed to exercise alone in the prison yard and was allowed to read books. He wrote some bad poetry. Most of his efforts, however, were concentrated on escape. Schechter records:

Nothing — no amount of time locked in a dungeon, no beatings administered with a brass-tipped cane, no efforts at reinforcing his cell — discouraged Jesse for long. When plates of boiler-iron were bolted to his walls to keep him from digging at the stones, he set to work prying loose the bolts. When the walls were painted with a white preparation that would make even a pin-scratch conspicuous, he turned his attention to the floor, cutting loose one of the heavy boards, then digging at the ground underneath … Over the course of fifty years, virtually everything that fell into his hands became a potential implement of escape … He managed, over the decades, to fashion an amazing assortment of tools: awls, chisels, saws, drills, files, pry bars.

He never even came close to breaching the prison walls and his escape attempts mainly just made him a pain in the prison’s collective ass. Then again, a man needs a hobby.

In 1887, his ninth year in the solitary cell, he caused an explosion that blasted a hole in the ceiling and temporarily blinded him but didn’t get him anywhere. Only in 1912 was he ever able to actually make it out of the cell, something that took three years of work to accomplish — and he was caught within minutes. By then he was fifty-two.

His sentence was relaxed in 1917 and he was allowed into the general population. By then, Jesse’s health was failing, and his crimes were passing out of local memory. New inmates to the prison no longer recognized his name, something that deeply upset him. In 1929, he was transferred to the prison farm at Bridgewater. He took a car to get there, his very first automobile ride, but didn’t he didn’t seem interested in his surroundings. One reporter described him as “a deadened creature gazing with lusterless eyes upon a world that means nothing to him.”

He died at the Bridgewater Prison Farm on September 29, 1932, having spent sixty of his seventy-two years behind bars.

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1835: Captain Pedro Gilbert and the Spanish Pirates

Add comment June 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1835, four Spanish pirates — it was supposed to be more — were put to death at Boston.

Their captain, the Catalan Pedro Gilbert, was chief among them in death as he was in life. Three years previous, he had commanded the buccaneer schooner with the deceptively cuddly name Panda out of Havana. It’s for Gilbert that “Gilbert’s Bar” is named, a historic sandbar off Stuart, Florida where the man reputedly liked to lure ships aground.*

Gilbert and his crew of forty or so souls — Spaniards, Portuguese, South Americans, half-castes, and at least one west African — waylaid the Salem, Mass. brig Mexican.

After hours ransacking the ship, relieving it of $20,000 in silver, the raiders locked the crew of their prize below decks and put the Mexican to the torch. After the Panda departed, those imprisoned unfortunates managed to break out of the death trap in time to control the blaze and return to port.

The incident thereby reported, the Panda would in due time be cornered off the African coast and sunk by a British ship. A dozen of the salty brigands fished out of the sea were eventually extradited to the U.S. for an eventful fourteen-day trial.


One of the crew of the Mexican, called upon to identify a member of the pirate crew who tried to drown him in a burning ship, strikes the accused corsair.

A defense lawyer laboring mightily in a half-lost cause managed to procure not-guilty verdicts for five of the crew on grounds of superior orders. The cabin boy (15 at the time of the raid) and the aforementioned west African were among these men spared.

The four who hanged today — Pedro Gilbert, Juan Montenegro, Manuel Castillo, and Angel Garcia — were meant to have been seven. Two of the seven received stays of execution; we’ll return to them in a moment.

The other man in the condemned party, Manuel Boyga, cheated his executioner, kind of, by exploiting a guard’s momentary inattentiveness to slash open his own carotid artery with a sharp bit of tin. He bled out too quickly for his executioners to “help” him, but because this efficient (near-?)suicide occurred immediately before the hanging, Boyga’s unconscious form was still borne in a chair to the scaffold and hung along with his four quick mates, just to make sure. Boyga might well have been dead already; if not, the hanging only hastened his demise by moments.

As to the other two: the ship’s carpenter Francisco Ruiz, it was thought, might have been crazy. But the Spanish-speaking physicians who eventually examined him would pronounce his ravings a simulation; he was accordingly hanged in a follow-up execution on September 11, 1835.

The last man was Bernardo de Soto, the first mate and the owner of the Panda.

De Soto’s pretty black-eyed wife back home caught wind of her man’s fate and made the Atlantic crossing to comfort her husband in prison … and to prostrate herself before the U.S. president Andrew Jackson who had the final say for clemency in this federal case. Duly smitten by this pleasing romantic flourish, Jackson did better than merely sparing de Soto’s life: he gave the condemned pirate a free pardon on July 6, 1835.

* Gilbert’s Bar today has the last remaining “House of Refuge”, once one of several standing 19th century encampments built to shelter any wayfarer who shipwrecked in the vicinity.

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1721: Joseph Hanno, “miserable African”

Add comment May 25th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1721, Joseph Hanno was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts for the murder of his wife, Nanny.

He’d killed her “in a very barbarous manner” on November 10 the previous year: while she was getting ready for bed, he struck her twice in the head with the blunt end of an ax and then slit her throat. He made a feeble attempt to pass the murder off as a suicide, but the coroner’s jury was not fooled.

“Could Hanno expect a fair trial in a Massachusetts court?” asks Mark S. Weiner in his book Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste.

Perhaps surprisingly, Weiner believes the answer is yes:

In general, free black men received rather even treatment in the New England judicial system, at least at this period … They were entitled to the full range of legal rights, with the important exception of the ability to serve on juries. There also was no marked inequality between the punishments they received and those of white convicts. And though Hanno, in particular, certainly faced hostility and anger in the courtroom, in [Judge Samuel] Sewall, he was facing no irredeemably biased magistrate; in fact, years earlier, Sewall had written the first antislavery pamphlet published in the American Northeast.

Weiner notes that Hanno “had no defense counsel, for at the time the institution was almost unknown.” He may have hoped to beat the rap because there were no witnesses to the murder. But the jury convicted him and the judge pronounced the sentence of death.

Ultimately, Hanno himself admitted his guilt.

Other than her name, nothing is known about the victim in this case. But we know something about the perpetrator because of a sermon preached at the time of his execution and distributed in pamphlet form under the bombastic title of “TREMENDA: The DREADFUL SOUND with which the WICKED are to be THUNDERSTRUCK, Delivered upon the Execution of a MISERABLE AFRICAN for a most inhumane and uncommon MURDER.”

The sermon was promulgated by none other than Cotton Mather, the Puritan minister noted for his role in the Salem witchcraft trials. (Old Cotton really got around the gallows back in his day.)

Hanno had been brought over from Africa on a slave ship as a child and grew up in slavery. He was freed in 1707, when he was about forty years old, and then settled down in Boston with his wife.

He was literate and his masters brought him up as a Christian, and he enjoyed “vain gloriously Quoting of Sentences” from the Bible. Indeed, when Cotton Mather offered spiritual counsel to the condemned, Hanno boasted, “I have a great deal of knowledge. Nobody of my color, in old England or new, has so much.”

Replied the minister (without apparent irony), “I wish you were less puffed up with it.”

Hanno himself seems to have subscribed to the “slippery slope” theory of criminality. A newspaper account of his execution says he

hoped that all Mankind would take warning by him to keep themselves from committing such Sin & Wickedness as he was guilty of, particularly, Sabbath-breaking and willful Murder, the one being the Ringleader to the other, for which last he was justly Condemned, which had he not been guilty of the first he might probably have never committed the second.

An aside: although he may have been the only person executed that day, Joseph Hanno didn’t stand alone on the gallows.

At the same time a white woman did public penance on the same gallows. Her crime: giving birth to a child of mixed race. This being considered the lowest depth of self-degradation (especially if the father was a Negro), the woman was made to sit on the gallows with a noose around her neck — a sign of extreme disgrace. Then she was whipped through the streets until her back was raw. (Source)

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1898: Alfred C. Williams

Add comment October 7th, 2012 Robert Wilhelm

(Thanks for the guest post to Robert Wilhelm, author of the Murder By Gaslight historic crime blog, and author of the book Murder And Mayhem in Essex County. Executed Today readers are sure to enjoy Wilhelm’s detailed investigations into long-lost historic crime. -ed.)

When Alfred C. Williams was arrested for the murder of John Gallo, his conviction seemed highly unlikely. There appeared to be no direct link between Williams and Gallo. There was no absolute proof that Gallo had been murdered, or even that he was dead. But in this case, circumstantial evidence, rather than increasing doubt, actually succeeded in dispelling doubt, bringing investigators closer to the truth and drawing the noose ever tighter around Alfred Williams’s neck.

John Gallo was a young Italian immigrant who worked on a farm in Lynnfield, Massachusetts. He was industrious and popular with the other workers, but kept to himself and very seldom left the farm. Gallo lived alone in a small shack in the rear of the farm. In the early hours of July 28, 1897, the shack caught fire and burned with flames so high they could be seen in neighboring towns. The shack was leveled, leaving nothing but ashes and the charred remains of a body, so badly burned that it could not be identified.

The body was so charred that it took two examinations to verify that it was, in fact, the body of a human. The head and neck were gone, both arms and both legs had been completely consumed, bone and all, by the fire. The spinal column remained with some back muscle attached; the heart, liver, kidneys, and bladders remained, but were badly burned. Everything else was completely gone. The medical examiner could state that the body was that of an adult human being, but nothing more.

With the destruction so complete, it appeared to investigators that nothing could be learned to explain what had happened that night. But as the investigation progressed, details began to emerge, like an image developing on a photographic plate. The fact that there was too little information became a clue in itself, and soon investigators were able to compile a list of facts that pointed to foul play:

  1. The body had been destroyed to a greater extent than would be expected from a fire in such a small building.
  2. The deceased had not been burned in bed. The bedsprings had survived the blaze but the body was found several feet away.
  3. The victim had not been dressed. Some buckles, metal buttons, a few coins and the clasp of a pocketbook were found by the side of the bedsprings, none were found near the body.
  4. The body lay in the doorway between rooms with the head back in the room toward the bed, not falling forward as a person naturally would if trying to escape from a burning room.
  5. A kerosene-oil can, which was usually kept near the stove, was found in the middle of the floor
    next to the body.

It was believed that the victim had been murdered before the fire started. His body was doused with kerosene and ignited, which would account for the severe damage to the body. The flame then quickly spread to the rest of the house.

John Gallo had earned $1.50 a day at Phillips’s farm and was paid monthly, always in five dollar bills. He spent very little and at the time of his death, it was suspected that he had around one hundred dollars earned on the farm. It was also well known that Gallo always carried three twenty dollar gold pieces that he had earned on a construction job prior to coming to the farm. No trace of the gold pieces or any melted gold were found.

Another crime had allegedly been committed near Lynnfield in the early morning of July 28. That afternoon, Alfred C. Williams reported that he had been held up near his rooming house in Wakefield. He had been unable to sleep and went outside to smoke a cigar. As he stood with one foot on the rail fence by the road, someone struck him on the head from behind. He turned to fight back, striking his assailant on the nose causing it to bleed. He was knocked unconscious, robbed of his watch and a small amount of money, and then thrown down the banks of Wakefield Pond.

He told his story to the police, showing them bruises on his neck and face from the fight, and bloodstains on his clothing from the assailant’s nose. The officers were skeptical of his story and held Williams for questioning. Unlike most holdups, Williams apparently had more money in his possession after the crime than he did before. On July 27, Williams had not had enough money to buy a meal or even pay a five-cent streetcar fare. The morning of July 28, he paid his back board bill and made some purchases. The police found seventy-five dollars, in five dollar bills, on his person.

The police learned that Williams had previously worked as a laborer on Phillips farm and knew the habits of the deceased. They searched Williams’s room and under the carpet, they found two twenty dollar gold pieces. When Williams was told where they found the coins he responded, “I know, I put them there.” They also found a bloodstained coat and vest in his room. Alfred C. Williams was arrested for the murder of John Gallo.

At the trial, the prosecution presented a case against Williams that was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. While there was nothing to directly link Williams to the fire, his familiarity with Gallo’s habits, his possession of money — including gold pieces — the day after the fire, the bloody clothing, and Williams’s inconsistent stories, taken all together were incriminating.

The defense challenged the very core of the evidence. There was no proof that the body found in the ashes was John Gallo’s; it could not be proven that a murder was committed or that the fire was not started accidentally; there was no proof that Alfred Williams was anywhere near the fire that night. But Williams was sticking to the story that he was held up on the night of July 28, so his alibi was also a matter of circumstantial evidence, and no one seemed willing to believe it. The jury deliberated for six hours before returning a verdict of guilty, first degree murder.

Alfred C. Williams was hanged in the yard of Salem jail on October 7, 1898. It was not a public hanging; the sheriff issued a few invitations, but only for the purpose of providing legal witnesses. Williams’s arms and legs were bound and his head was covered as he stood on the gallows. At 10:01 a.m. the trap was sprung and Williams dropped six feet, one inch. His neck was broken and he died within seconds. Williams professed innocence to the end.

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1637: William Schooler and John Williams

Add comment September 28th, 2012 Robert Wilhelm

(Thanks for the guest post to Robert Wilhelm, author of the Murder By Gaslight historic crime blog, and of the book Murder And Mayhem in Essex County. Executed Today readers are sure to enjoy Wilhelm’s detailed investigations into long-lost historic crime. -ed.)

On September 28, 1637, two men convicted on separate counts of murder in the Puritan colony north of Boston — in what is now Essex County — were executed on the same gallows. The first was William Schooler, convicted a year earlier of killing Mary Scholy on the path to Pascataquack; the second was John Williams convicted of killing John Hoddy near Great Pond in Wenham.


Original (c) image from Murder And Mayhem in Essex County, used with permission.

In the autumn of 1636, an Agawam Indian walking through the Winnacunnet woods, north of the town of Newbury, found the body of a young white woman, lying in a thick swamp about three miles north of the Merrimack river. From the condition of the body, he could tell that the woman had been dead for several months. She lay naked, with her clothing still in a pile not far from the body. The Indian took the news to Newbury, and led the Englishmen to the spot so they could see for themselves.

The woman’s name was Mary Sholy. She was identified more by the circumstance than by appearance, since the flesh had begun to rot. Mary had left Newbury several months earlier, traveling north to her home at the English settlement at Pascataquack. The people of Newbury were also fairly certain who had killed her; they believed she had been ravished and murdered by the man she had hired to guide her journey home, an outsider named William Schooler.

In London, England, William Schooler had been a vintner with intemperate habits. Schooler was, by his own admission, a common adulterer. After wounding a man in a duel he fled to Holland to escape the law; then, leaving his wife behind, he traveled to New England. In 1636 he was living in a shack by the Merrimack River within the limits of Newbury but outside the boundaries of sanctioned Christian behavior.

Mary Sholy, a servant girl, was looking for someone to guide her to Pascataquack, to return to her master. Pascataquack — now Portsmouth, New Hampshire — was a small settlement, about twenty-three miles north of Newbury. It is not known why Mary Sholy had come to Newbury; it is unlikely that her master would have sent her there without providing a guide back. The journey from Newbury to Pascataquack would have been too perilous for a young woman to take alone, first crossing the Merrimack River in a canoe, then following the route to Pascataquack, which was described as little more than a path through the woods. In 1636, even the well-traveled path between Ipswich and Newbury was too narrow for a horse cart. In addition to the possibility of losing her way and becoming hopelessly lost in the woods between the two settlements, there was a very real danger of being attacked by wild animals or hostile Indians.

Seeing an opportunity to make a little money, William Schooler sought out Mary and offered to guide her home for fifteen shillings. He did not tell her that he himself had never made the trip to Pascataquack before. Two days after their departure, William Schooler was back in Newbury alone. When asked why he had returned so soon Schooler replied that he had guided Mary to within two or three miles of Pascataquack, where she stopped, saying she would go no further. Schooler left her there and returned to Newbury.

The people of Newbury remained suspicious and Schooler was questioned by the magistrates in Ipswich. When he returned from the trip he had blood on his hat and a scratch on his nose the “breadth of a small nail.” He explained that the blood was from a pigeon he had killed and the scratch on his nose was from walking into some brambles. He was released, as there was no evidence then that a crime had been committed.

The following year the Pequod tribe took up arms against the English colonists and Schooler was drafted to serve in the militia. He deemed this service to be an oppression and publicly spoke out against it. His outspoken opposition was considered “mutinous and disorderly,” and the governor issued a warrant against him. When he was arrested, Schooler assumed it was about Mary Sholy and began to vehemently defend himself against the charge of her murder. Schooler;s behavior made the magistrates suspicious and, since they now knew Mary Sholy had been murdered, they decided to reopen the case.

Newbury residents who knew him came forward to volunteer information on Schooler’s character. In a Puritan court the character of the accused was as important as the physical evidence against him.

Schooler denied that he murdered Mary Sholy but the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to hang. The court and the clergy tried desperately to persuade Schooler to confess but he would not. Schooler was contrite, saying he had told many lies to excuse himself, but vehemently denied that he had killed or ravished Mary Sholy. Some ministers argued that the evidence against him was not sufficient to take away his life, but Governor Winthrop denied Scholler a reprieve, saying: “but the court held him worthy of death, in undertaking the charge of a shiftless maid, and leaving her (when he might have done otherwise) in such a place, as he knew she must needs parish, if not preserved by means unknown.”


John Williams was a ship carpenter who had recently come to America from England. In 1637, he was in prison in Boston for theft. Williams and another prisoner, John Hoddy, escaped from the jail and traveled north. They had gone beyond Salem and were on the road to Ipswich, on the east end of the Wenham Great Pond when they had a falling out. The two men had a fight that ended with the death of John Hoddy.

There are two versions of what happened next. In one story John Hoddy’s dog held Williams at bay until the noise drew the attention of enough residents of Wenham to apprehend Williams and take him to jail in Ipswich. The more likely story says that Williams took everything belonging to Hoddy, including his clothes, and buried his body under a pile of stones. Williams proceeded to Ipswich where he was apprehended, after having been recognized as a criminal. Though his clothes were bloody when arrested, he would confess to nothing until a week later, when the body of John Hoddy was found. Cows at a farm near Great Pond smelled the blood and made such a “roaring” that they got the attention of the cow keeper, who on investigation found Hoddy’s naked body under a heap of stones.

Around the same time the justice of the peace in Ipswich learned that both Williams and Hoddy were escaped prisoners. Williams was indicted for the murder of John Hoddy and tried by the Court of Assistants in Boston. Though he confessed to the murder, the court insisted on enforcing Williams’s right to due process, and tried the case before a jury. Williams was, of course, found guilty and sentenced to death.

The double hanging, on September 28, 1637, took place on Boston Common, where all executions in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were held.

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