1778: Bathsheba Spooner, the first woman hanged in the USA

Add comment July 2nd, 2020 Headsman

Bathsheba Spooner, the first woman executed* in the post-Declaration of Independence (i.e., post-July 4, 1776) United States.

The daughter of one of Massachusetts’s most prominent Tory loyalists — the latter fled to Nova Scotia during the events comprising this post, owing to the ongoing American Revolution — Spooner was married to a wealthy Brookfield gentleman whom she utterly despised.

From late 1777 into 1778, Bathsheba beguiled three young would-be Davids — Ezra Ross, a wounded former Continental Army soldier whom she nursed back to health; and James Buchanan and William Brooks, two redcoat deserters — into getting rid of Mr. Joshua Spooner.

Ross she sent on February 1778 business trip with her hubby and instructions to dose him with nitric acid. The youth chickened out and didn’t do it — but neither did he warn his proposed victim what was afoot.

A couple of weeks later, the Brits achieved by main force what their American opposite dared not attempt by stealth, and “on the evening of the first of March, about 9 o’clock, being returning home from his neighbors, near by his own door was feloniously assaulted by one or more ruffians, knocked down by a club, beat and bruised, and thrown into his well with water in it.” Ross, importantly, had been invited by his lover/sponsor to return and he helped to dispose of the body.

They had not a day’s liberty after this shocking crime, evidently having thought little beyond the deed; the very young Ross especially stands out for his naivete — certainly mingled with lust and cupidity as he contemplated the prospect of attaining a frolicsome, wealthy widow — when the wife went to work on him.

As She was going to Hardwick She asked me the Reason of my being so low Spirited?  I made answer It was my long absence from home.  She replyed that her Opinion was, I wanted some one to lodge with — I told her it would be agreeable.  She asked me if Such an One as her self would do?  I made answer If She was agreeable I was.  [Marginal notation: The Dialect was so.]  Upon which She said “After She came off her Journey she would See.”
 
N.B. After her Return She Gave me an Invitation to Defile her Marriage Bed; which I Expected. [accepted] And after that she proposed constantly every sheam [scheme] for her Husbands Death.  [Marginal notation: The spelling is so.]
 
Ezra Ross

The above is a written account given in jail to the preacher Ebenezer Parkman, who preached a thundering sermon three days after the executions titled “The Adultress Shall Hunt for the Precious Life””

a woman who … allows her loose imagination to range and wander after Others, nay not a few, & rove from [her husband] to pollute & defile the marriage bed [indulging] her own wanton salacious desires … How loathsome are all such, and how directly opposite the pure & holy Nature, Law, and Will of God.

So keep thee from the Evil woman, from the flattery of the tongue of a strange woman. Neither let her take thee with her eyelids. There are a thousand dangers, that poor young wretches are in by reason of the snres & traps which are everywhere laid … particularly the poor beardless youth not quite 18. (As quoted in Deborah Navas’s book about the affair, Murdered by his Wife)

Mrs. Spooner, whose Loyalist family ties did her no favors in this moment, sought a reprieve on grounds of pregnancy. Many condemned women in those days made such requests; more often than not they were temporizing devices that bought no more than the time needed for a panel of matrons to examine them and dismiss the claim. In her case, four examiners submitted a dissenting opinion to the effect “that we have reason to think that she is now quick with child.” Although overruled, they were correct: after the dramatic quadruple execution under a thunderstorm at Worcester’s Washington Square, an autopsy found that Spooner was about five months along with what would have been her fifth child.

According to an early 20th century Chicago Chronicle retrospective (retrieved here via a reprint in the Charleston News and Courier, Jan. 24, 1904) her grave can be located on a manor at Worcester that formerly belonged to the great New York City planner Andrew Haswell Green: Bathsheba Spooner’s sister was Green’s grandmother.

A full original record of the proceedings does not survive for us, but this public domain volume has a lengthy chapter about events, with an appendix preserving some of the original documents.

* We’re at the mercy of uncertain documentation in this context, of course, but there are at least none whose executions can be established that predate Spooner’s within the infant republic. Per the Espy file, a woman named Ann Wyley was hanged in Detroit in 1777, but at the time that city was under British administration as part of the province of Quebec.

For its part, Massachusetts hanged several more women in the 1780s, but has not executed any other women since the George Washington presidential administration. It’s presently a death penalty abolitionist jurisdiction.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Sex,Soldiers,USA,Wartime Executions,Women

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1859: Ormond Chase, casus belli not quite

2 comments August 7th, 2009 Headsman

Every foreign policy adventure needs its pretexts, even adventures that never happen.

Quite marvelously, this illustration appeared in the same issue of Harper’s as Sydney Carton’s beheading in the last installment of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities serial.

On this date in 1859, forces of Mexican General Miguel Miramon provided the United States such a pretext by executing American Ormond Chase in Tepic during the Mexican War of Reform.

This incident, said to have ensnared the luckless Portland (Me.)-born sawyer “for reasons entirely unknown,”* became elevated into the foreign policy calculation of U.S. President James Buchanan.

Buchanan rates as one of America’s worst chief executives for fiddling as the conflagration of Civil War began, but he kept himself busy eyeballing other dark-skinned folk in the hemisphere over whom America ought to claim suzerainty.**

So, in December of 1859, Ormond Chase was name-checked in a State of the Union address further to pressing Buchanan’s case for Mexico as a (to use a modern coinage) failed state — “a wreck upon the ocean, drifting about as she is impelled by different factions.”

“Little less shocking,” the Chief Executive intoned, crowning a litany of injuries “upon persons and property,” “was the recent fate of Ormond Chase, who was shot in Tepic, on the 7th August … not only without a trial, but without any conjecture by his friends of the cause of his arrest.”

And, of course, we know what happens to failed states.

Mexico ought to be a rich and prosperous and powerful Republic. She possesses an extensive territory, a fertile soil, and an incalculable store of mineral wealth. She occupies an important position between the Gulf and the ocean for transit routes and for commerce. … Can the United States especially, which ought to share most largely in its commercial intercourse, allow their immediate neighbor thus to destroy itself and injure them? Yet without support from some quarter it is impossible to perceive how Mexico can resume her position among nations and enter upon a career which promises any good results. The aid which she requires, and which the interests of all commercial countries require that she should have, it belongs to this Government to render, not only by virtue of our neighborhood to Mexico, along whose territory we have a continuous frontier of nearly a thousand miles, but by virtue also of our established policy, which is inconsistent with the intervention of any European power in the domestic concerns of that Republic.

The wrongs which we have suffered from Mexico are before the world and must deeply impress every American citizen. A government which is either unable or unwilling to redress such wrongs is derelict to its highest duties.

I recommend to Congress to pass a law authorizing the President under such conditions as they may deem expedient, to employ a sufficient military force to enter Mexico for the purpose of obtaining indemnity for the past and security for the future.

“The meaning of all this is clear enough,” observed the London Times, an ocean away and correspondingly less euphemistic.†

Before long another Mexican war will sever new provinces from the unhappy Spanish Republic, and give them to the Anglo-Saxon race. In one sense this is a gain to humanity. Beautiful and fertile regions, now desert, will pass under the hands of the cultivator, mines will be worked, harbours will be filled with shipping, and a new life will animate that vast region. It is not likely, however, that the Americans will seek to annex the whole Republic. The Mexicans are not the stuff to make citizens of, and another generation of discord and decay must elapse before their time comes to be improved off the face of the earth. Although we have not the slightest wish to interfere with the Americans, it is but right that an adequate force should be at hand to protect British interests in those quarters.

In the event, Congress actually turned down Buchanan’s use-of-force request — that actually used to happen! — and with Abraham Lincoln’s election the next year, poor Ormond Chase’s purchase on historical significance was dashed by the fierce urgency of the Civil War. His death was a wasted root of an intervention that never was.

As it happens, and as the London Times article’s closing allusion suggests, Buchanan’s suspicion of European interference in the New World was not without foundation. The Mexican Civil War that Buchanan here proposed to join evolved — while the Yankees were busy shooting one another — into a badly botched French‡ attempt to establish a foothold in Mexico.

We have met the most famous casualty of that affair in these pages before: imported Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I.

Shot along with him were two of his loyal generals: one of them was Miguel Miramon, whose men had put Ormond Chase to death eight years before.

* Per a deposition in the U.S. Consul’s investigation.

** More on Buchanan’s Mexican project in this 1883 biography.

† January 11, 1860

‡ Spain and Britain had made the initial foray with France to collect their own debts as well, but soon thought better of the project.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Lynching,Mexico,Shot,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions

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