October 17th, 2011
On this date in 1859, five to six hundred folks braved a dreary Portland morning to witness the first execution in the state of Oregon — Oregon having graduated into statehood just that very year, as it says on the flag.
Danford Balch, who would surely merit an entry in these pages for his name alone, had staked out a 345-acre land claim near the small settlement of Portland, but all that money couldn’t buy his daughter’s love.
Anna, the eldest of nine kids at a blossoming 15, was amenable to a suit by the farmhand, one Mortimer Stump — this is a Dickensian roster of characters — and in the face of Papa Balch’s opposition, eloped with him over the Columbia River to Vancouver, Wash.
So Danford Balch stewed, and drank, and was allegedly incited by his shrewish wife Mary Jane — this one has an ironically innocent moniker — until, encountering the Stumps in town for supplies one day, Danford Balch tried to retrieve his daughter and ended up shotgunning his unwanted son-in-law, right in the face.
Bystanders tackled Balch immediately, though it took nine more months to bring the killer to trial: in these sparsely-populated frontier precincts justice was being administered on the old “assize” model of wandering judges who dropped in for a spell to try everything at one go. It was enough time for Balch to bust out of a rain-rotted jail cell once and get recaptured (once on the lam, he returned to his own home).
When court was finally in session, conviction was a mere formality. He’d done the deed in public, after all. But the offended father seemed genuinely bewildered by the outcome: apart from the shooting being accidental (so he said), he clearly expected that a court would uphold the dominion of the family patriarch over his wayward progeny.
Heaven knows what fumes he was fuming by the time he climbed the scaffold and beheld that naughty daughter Anna turned up to witness his hanging — sitting in the front row with the [rest of the] Stump family in what you have to think was a somewhat uncomfortable party for all concerned.
Little more affectionate was the post-mortem behavior of the allegedly un-alienated part of the Balch clan.
That widow Mary Jane, whom Danford hinted gave him quite a goading over their wanton daughter, shafted the remaining rugrats out of inheriting their chunks of the family land and instead routed most of it to her next husand.
Balch Creek in Lower Macleay State Park. (cc) image
from Brad Reber.
Though pretty difficult to admire by the yardstick of human decency, that behavior turned out to be Danford Balch’s redeeming legacy.
Having passed through several hands, the lion’s share of his former land was in 1897 donated to the city by its then-owner Donald Macleay, who was sick of paying taxes on the unprofitable parcel. That was the time the famously green PDX received its first land gift designated by the donor for parkland: Macleay Park. (Including a Balch Creek.)
Today, it’s all part of the larger Forest Park, and it’s a lovely hiking space for a city that grooves on its outdoor rec … complete with a gorgeously ruined Depression-era stone ranger station that’s popularly believed to be haunted, maybe by the spirit of poor old Danford Balch himself.
There’s a Balchipedia for chronicling Balch family notables, so you know the first guy executed in Oregon is going to rate a mention.
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Oregon,Public Executions,The Supernatural,USA
Tags: 1850s, 1859, balch creek, danford balch, family, forest river park, october 17, portland, recreation
June 25th, 2011
This date in 1790 saw the first federal execution under the auspices of the recently ratified U.S. Constitution, when English mariner Thomas Bird hanged in Portland, Maine. (At the time, still part of Massachusetts.)
Today, we’re pleased to interview author Jerry Genesio, whose Portland Neck: The Hanging of Thomas Bird compellingly reconstructs this once-forgotten story — a small British slave ship making landfall in a North American city only recently torched by the British, where it is found that its violent captain has been murdered at sea in unclear circumstances.
In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the one man to pay life for John Connor’s life was the one British sailor aboard the ship.
Besides a captivating account of an 18th century American capital trial, Portland Neck features biographies of all the principal characters. Portlanders will also especially enjoy a 25-page appendix on the topography of the town at the dawn of the American Republic.
This was a British subject who killed a British victim on a British ship in international waters. Was there any question of whether a U.S. court had jurisdiction?
The people who were on the vessel when it was captured — one was British, one was Norwegian, one was American, and there was a 12- or 14-year-old African boy named Cuffey.
They came under U.S. jurisdiction because in the constitutional convention (article 3, section 2), the federal courts were given jurisdiction of admiralty and maritime cases.
The Supreme judicial court in Massachusetts — Maine was part of Massachusetts then — apparently considered bringing the case before its judges, but then the constitution overruled that when it was ratified.
And then they had to wait for the federal courts to be organized, because they didn’t exist yet. They languished in jail for almost a year while the courts were being organized.
In Chapter II, you describe Thomas Bird’s ship, the Mary, operating on the Guinea coast. It’s a small ship basically working the coast and rivers, making small sales of one or two slaves to the large slavers waiting to cross the Atlantic. There must have been whole niches of the slavery industry occupied by these sorts of small-timers.
Oh, yes. The large slave ships that carried several hundred, three, four hundred in their hold — they were too large to get too close to the coast of Africa. So they would anchor perhaps a mile offshore, and they would wait for these smaller ships, like the sloop Mary — Captain Connor was in business with people in London who sent him down there just to go up the rivers to various villages where they knew there were wars going on, and when there were wars, the captives would be sold to slavers. (They also traded ivory and gold.)
When they got slaves, crews like the Mary‘s would go to the ships who had been there the longest, because they knew they would get the best price. They were known to have been there as long as a year trying to fill their cargo, and the slaves they held were liable to die while they waited. Slave ships couldn’t even allow the slaves topside because they would jump overboard if they could and try to swim for shore.
Incidentally, the Google book project has many slave captain logs online. I was able to read about the ports that Captain Connor and Thomas Bird actually visited, and it gave me such a wealth of information, and I could practically see where they were.
Ed. note: here are a few from Genesio’s bibliography, all free at Google books:
You’ve compiled this book despite a paucity of primary trial data, and there are some spots where you’re clearly reading between the lines. How difficult was the historiography on Portland Neck?
There’s not a complete trial record. Even the examination before the court — the scribe tried, apparently, to write down all of their answers, but he did not write down the questions.
My concern is more around the scribe. Was the scribe hearing these answers properly? Was the scribe hard of hearing? One of them was replaced in the process. Was the scribe able to keep up? He was writing with a quill pen, after all.
And then, on top of all of that, they did not indicate on the court record who was the scribe, who did the questioning, and who wrote the answers down. And the prisoner never signed it!
And you felt that at some level, they targeted the Englishman out of this multinational crew.
I believe that people are so influenced by the events of their times — look at World War II and how we viewed the Japanese and the Germans, or the people involved in the war in Vietnam.
These people on the jury, the foreman on the grand jury, many of them were Portland residents whose homes had been burned by the British just 14 years earlier. The war had just ended seven years earlier.
Every one of the court officials on the prosecutors’ side were all officers in the Revolutionary War. [Notably, the U.S. marshal who actually carried out Bird's hanging, Henry Dearborn. He took part in the decisive Battle of Yorktown and would go on to become Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of War, as well as the namesake of the city of Dearborn, Michigan. -ed.]
All of these things influence what was going on. And the fact that they acquitted the Norwegian kid and executed the Englishman makes me feel, certainly, that there was a strong influence there that was hostile to Thomas Bird. But what actually happened and how people felt, we’re just too far away — but I suspect that played a role.
Thomas Bird claimed in his dying statement, knowing that he was to be hung in a couple of hours, that he did not kill John Connor. The lawyers desperately tried to get then-President Washington to give him a commutation, and Washington refused to do it.
Information wants to be free, y’all. The newspaper editor tried to sell a broadside with the condemned man’s final narrative, but public pressure eventually forced him to put it in the July 26, 1790 Cumberland Gazette.
How did you come by this story?
When I was working at Portland Public Library and I ran into a couple of lines referring to a Thomas Bird in books by William Willis and William Goold.
In Goold’s book, Portland in the Past, he actually interviewed a fellow named Charles Motley who was in his 90s, and this interview took place in the 1880s. Motley was the youngest child of the jailer who held Thomas Bird, and Charles Motley, and he describes being five years old and being allowed into the cell where Thomas Bird would carve them little toy boats. With a knife! Then when Thomas Bird was executed, there was a note about the jailer’s wife, Emma Motley, taking all seven children away, to the other side of the land from Portland, so that they wouldn’t know what was going on. They were probably playing with Thomas’s boats as he was being hanged. So it was obvious that the Motley family held this Thomas Bird in high regard, and I got to thinking, I want to know more about this guy.
He (Motley) was five years old at the time, and, with his older brother Edward, at the request of Bird, was often admitted by his father to the cell and spent much time there. The prisoner made them toy ships and boats … At the time of the execution, Mrs. Motley, the mother of the boys, took them over back of the Neck to be out of sight of the gallows, as the whole family had become interested in the fate of Bird.
For a couple of years, I couldn’t find much of anything. Finally, I took the time to go down to the federal archives in Waltham, Mass., I found a little manila folder that was like a bar of gold. It had 12 little sheets written in quill, and it’s as much of a record of the trial as exists.
The other question in my mind is, why has nobody written about this before? I think maybe it’s because it’s something of an embarrassment, which reinforces my belief that maybe this hanging should not have taken place.
Thomas Bird, if they really suspected he was a participant, should have been punished, but probably shouldn’t have been hung. Unfortunately in those days, captains were like gods on their little wooden worlds. Even though, based on the testimony, [the victim] John Connor was a brutal drunk who beat his men mercilessly. Connor murdered his first mate on that voyage.
It’s sad because Bird probably saw America as some sort of refuge — he probably didn’t expect that he might be hanged for this crime. He’d been at sea since age eight, and all through the [American] Revolution he had been on both American and British ships. The British navy kept impressing him and making him serve on British warships, and he kept deserting and signing up for American ships instead.
One other interesting aspect of this story is that when Thomas Bird was looking for a ship to sign on with and signed on with the Mary, he might just have signed up on the HMS Bounty, because the Bounty was tied up at Wapping before its voyage to Tahiti. Had he signed on with the Bounty, he wouldn’t have fallen into American hands, but he might not have fared any better.
How thick on the ground were slaves and slavers in New England at this time?
There were a lot of slave captains, a lot of owners. Their home ports were in Boston or in Portland. Normally, when they came back to their home port, the product they were carrying was rum and molasses. Slaves would be delivered in the South or in the West Indies, separate legs in the triangle trade.
What’s your next project?
I’m working on a family genealogy.
After that, maybe something about Captain John Lovewell. He was a bounty hunter who went hunting for Indian scalps. In 1725 he was living in Massachusetts, and he got the court to authorize 10 pounds per scalp, and he recruited a small army and took off looking for Indians and found the Pequawket here in Fryeburg, Maine. They were not warriors, they were farmers.
Lovewell and a Scaticook named Paugus ended up killing each other at a battle at a pond now called Lovewell’s Pond.
Lovewell is the namesake of the town of Lovell. A couple of people have written Lovewell’s story, but I wanted to write it from the perspective of the Indians. And not only the Indians, but the true perspective — because John Lovewell was a bounty hunter, not a hero. He was willing to kill farmers who hadn’t killed anyone for their scalps.
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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Maine,Massachusetts,Milestones,Murder,Mutiny,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Other Voices,Public Executions,U.S. Federal,USA
Tags: 1790, 1790s, american revolution, falmouth, george washington, henry dearborn, hms bounty, jerry genesio, john connor, john lovewell, june 25, lowell, paugus, portland, slave trade, slavery, thomas bird, trade, united states constitution
March 18th, 2011
From Portland in the Past: With Historical Notes of Old Falmouth, by William Goold.
[Michael Mitton] came from England … in 1637 … [and] lived near the Cape Elizabeth landing of Portland bridge … “One Mr. Mitton related of a triton, or mere-man which he saw in Casco bay. The gentleman was a great fowler, and used to go out with a small boat or canoe, and fetching a compass about a small Island for the advantage of a shot, was encountered with a triton, who laying his hands upon the side of the canoe, had one of them chopped off with a hatchet by Mr. Mitton, which was in all respects like the hand of a man. The triton presently sunk, dying the water with his purple blood, and was no more seen.” …
There is one indelible blot on the character of Mitton. In 1640, Winter wrote to Trelawney from Richmond’s island this: “Mr. Francis Martin is here with us, and is not settled in any place as yet to remain. This next week I shall go up to Casco with him to seat him in some place there. I know not how he will lie here well, except he have brought money with himself, and here is nothing to be gotten without hard labor.” Martin was evidently a decayed gentleman, or he would not have been styled Mister by Winter. This was an honorable title then. Two years later Winter again mentions Martin to his principal: “Also herein goes a bill upon Mr. John Martin for his uncle Francis Martin. Also he was with us five months and spent upon our provision, and cannot pay for anything. He is in a bad way of living here with his two children. He plants a little Indian corn and that is all he hath to live upon. He hath neither goat nor pig, nor any thing else. He is old and cannot labor, and his children are not brought up to work, so I know not what shift he will make to live.”
These “two children” were daughters. The fate of the eldest is given by Willis, being the substance of her history as written in Winthrop’s journal. Willis says: “Martin, an early inhabitant of Casco, was the father of two daughters, whom, being about to return to England to arrange his affairs, he left in the family of Michael Mitton. During their residence of several months with him in 1646, he insinuated himself into the favor of the eldest, named Mary, whom he seduced. She afterwards went to Boston and was delivered of a bastard child, of which she confessed Mitton to be the father. Overcome with shame, she endeavored to conceal her first crime by the commission of a more heinous one in the murder of her infant; for this she perished on the scaffold at the early age of twenty-two years, in March, 1647.” Cotton Mather says of her trial: “When she touched the face of the child before the jury, the blood came fresh into it, so she confessed the whole truth concerning it.” He also says: “Her carriage in her imprisonment and at her execution was very penitent. But there was this remarkable at her execution. She acknowledged her twice essaying to kill the child, and now through the unskilfulness of the executioner she was turned off the ladder twice, before she died.”
The York records give the date of Mitton’s death to be in 1660.
From the Journal of John Winthrop (also available on Google books):
finding herself to be with child, and not able to bear the shame of it, she concealed it, and though divers did suspect it, and some told her mistress their fears, yet her behavior was so modest, and so faithful she was in her service, as her mistress would not give ear to any such report, but blamed such as told her of it. But, her time being come, she was delivered of a woman child in a back room by herself upon the 13 (10) (December 13) in the night, and the child was born alive, but she kneeled upon the head of it, till she thought it had been dead, and having laid it by, the child, being strong, recovered, and cried again. Then she took it again, and used violence to it till it was quite dead. Then she put it into her chest, and having cleansed the room, she went to bed, and arose again the next day about noon, and went about her business, and so continued till the nineteenth day, that her master and mistress went on shipboard to go for England.
They being gone, and she removed to another house, a midwife in the town, having formerly suspected her, and now coming to her again, found she had been delivered of a child, which, upon examination, she confessed, but said it was still-born, and so she put it into the fire. But, search being made, it was found in her chest, and when she was brought before the jury, they caused her to touch the face of it, whereupon the blood came fresh into it. Whereupon she confessed the whole truth, and a surgeon, being called to search the body of the child, found a fracture in the skull. Before she was condemned, she confessed, that she had prostituted her body to another also, one Sears. She behaved herself very penitently while she was in prison, and at her death, 18 (1,) (March 18) complaining much of the hardness of her heart. She confessed, that the first and second time she committed fornication, she prayed for pardon, and promised to commit it no more; and the third time she prayed God, that if she did fall into it again, he would make her an example, and therein she justified God, as she did in the rest. Yet all the comfort God would afford her, was only trust (as she said) in his mercy through Christ. After she was turned off and had hung a space, she spake, and asked what they did mean to do. Then some stepped up, and turned the knot of the rope backward, and then she soon died.
Cotton Mather’s father Increase Mather favored the occasion with a sermon on Ezekiel 16:20-21 — “‘is this of thy whoredoms a small matter, that thou hast slain my children?’” Whereof great notice was taken.”
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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Public Executions,USA,Women
Tags: 1640s, 1647, boston, casco bay, cotton mather, increase mather, march 18, mary martin, michael mitton, portland