Bathsheba Spooner

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Bathsheba Ruggles Spooner
Born (1746-02-15)February 15, 1746
Sandwich, Massachusetts
Died July 2, 1778(1778-07-02) (aged 32)
Worcester, Massachusetts
Criminal penalty
Death by hanging
Criminal status Deceased
Spouse(s) Joshua Spooner
Parents Timothy Ruggles, father
Conviction(s) Inciting, abetting, and procuring the manner and form of murder

Bathsheba Ruggles Spooner (February 15, 1746 – July 2, 1778)[1] was the first woman to be executed in the United States by Americans rather than the British.

The daughter of a prominent Colonial American lawyer, justice and military officer, Bathsheba Ruggles had an arranged marriage to a wealthy farmer, Joshua Spooner, prior to her father's banishment from Massachusetts in 1774, due to his British Loyalist stance. Reportedly growing unhappy in the marriage, she confessed to an "aversion" to her husband. After meeting and becoming lovers with a young soldier from the Continental Army, Ezra Ross, Spooner became pregnant and attempted to involve her reluctant lover and two servants in a plan to murder her husband. Finally she enlisted the assistance of two British soldiers escaped from General Burgoyne's captive troops. On the night of March 1, 1778, one of the soldiers beat Joshua Spooner to death in his dooryard, and the body was put in the Spooner well. Bathsheba Spooner and the three men were tried and convicted of the crime and sentenced to death.

Subsequent issues arose concerning Spooner's petition for a delay in sentence because of her pregnancy, which was first denied and then supported by some members of a group of "examiners." The four were executed anyway, and a post-mortem examination requested by Spooner revealed that she was, indeed, five months pregnant. Historians have pointed out that the trial and speedy execution may have been hastened by anti-Loyalist sentiment, and also that the person who signed Spooner's death warrant was Joshua Spooner's stepbrother.

Background[edit]

Bathsheba Ruggles Spooner was the daughter of Brigadier General Timothy Ruggles, a lawyer who had served as chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas in Worcester, Massachusetts, from 1762 to 1764,[2] and founder and most eminent citizen of the town of Hardwick, Massachusetts.[3] He married Bathsheba Bourne of Sandwich, Massachusetts on September 18, 1736.[1] Timothy Ruggles was a strong-willed and determined man, qualities he shared with his daughter, although such were considered unbecoming in a woman.[3] Timothy Ruggles was an avowed Loyalist or Tory, who threatened to raise an army to protect his and other Loyalist farms and livestock against Patriot attacks. He was ultimately banished from Massachusetts for joining forces with the British Army in Boston and ultimately Staten Island, New York. After the war he was given a stipend and extensive land grant in Wilmot, Nova Scotia by King George III.[4]

Under public censure for his refusal to sign the Stamp Act protest as Massachusetts representative to the 1765 Stamp Act Congress, Ruggles might have arranged the marriage on January 15, 1766, for his daughter to Joshua Spooner, but no documentation has yet turned up to explain why Bathsheba Ruggles married a man she very soon came to hate. The son of a wealthy Boston merchant, Spooner was a well-to-do Brookfield farmer, later described as an abusive man for whom his wife, Bathsheba developed "an utter aversion."[3] The Spooners had their first child, Elizabeth, on April 8, 1767[1] Three more followed between 1770 and 1775; Joshua (February 21, 1770 – September 18, 1801), who died in London, England and daughter Bathsheba Spooner (January 17, 1775 – 1858).[1] A second son, John, was born on February 26, 1773 and died on March 19, 1773.[1] The Spooners lived in relative affluence in a two-story house in Brookfield.[2]

Plotting murder[edit]

When Ezra Ross first met Bathsheba Spooner in the Spring of 1777, he was a sixteen-year-old soldier in the Continental Army, who had already served in the American Revolution under George Washington for a year.[5] Ross was walking north from Washington's winter camp in Morristown, New Jersey, on his way home to Linebrook, Massachusetts, when he fell ill and was nursed to health by Bathsheba Spooner before heading on to his home.[5] He visited the Spooner home on his way back to rejoin the northern army in July 1777, and again in December after the four-month campaign that ended with the surrender of the British under General Burgoyne and his entire army at Saratoga, New York on October 17, 1777.[5]

Ross stayed on at the Spooner house through Christmas and into the new year, travelling with Joshua Spooner on business trips, as well as carrying on an illicit affair with Bathsheba Spooner.[5] Bathsheba Spooner became pregnant mid-January and began urging Ross to dispose of her husband[5] before her condition would prove that she had committed adultery.[3] In February, 1778, Ross once again accompanied Joshua Spooner, this time on an extended trip to Princeton, Massachusetts, where Spooner owned a potash business. Ross brought along a bottle of nitric acid, given to him by Bathsheba, which he planned to use to poison Spooner.[5] Ross backed out of the plan and returned to his home in Linebrook at the end of the trip rather than accompany Spooner to Brookfield.[5]

While Ross and Joshua Spooner were in Princeton, Bathsheba Spooner had invited two runaway British prisoners of war, Private Williams Brooks and Sergeant James Buchanan, to stay at the Spooner home.[5] She discussed ideas for killing her husband with the pair, and when Joshua Spooner returned home, alive, well and without Ross, she recruited them to assist her.[5] She also wrote to Ross to inform him of the developments, and he returned to Brookfield on Saturday February 28.[5] When Spooner walked home from a local tavern the following evening, March 1, 1778, Brooks committed the murder and Buchanan and Ross helped hide the body down the well. Bathsheba Spooner distributed paper money from her husband's lock box and articles of his clothing to the three men, who then took one of the Spooner horses to Worcester, 14 miles distant[3][6]

The murder was discovered and the group was arrested in Worcester within 24 hours.[3][7] Brooks and Buchanan had spent the remainder of the night drinking, and next morning Brooks showed off Joshua Spooner's silver shoe buckles that were engraved with Spooner’s initials. Ezra Ross was discovered hiding in the attic of the same tavern and immediately asked for a confessor.[7] The trio implicated Bathsheba Spooner and three of her household servants, Sarah Stratton, her son Jesse Parker, and Alexander Cummings.[7] Brooks was charged with the assault on Joshua Spooner, Buchanan and Ross were charged with aiding and abetting in the murder, and Bathsheba Spooner was charged with inciting, abetting, and procuring the manner and form of the murder.[7] All were arraigned and pleaded not guilty.

Trial and execution[edit]

During the trial, which took place on April 24, 1778, the household servants, Sarah Stratton, Jesse Parker, and Alexander Cummings, testified for the prosecution, conducted by Robert Treat Paine (later to become Massachusetts' first Attorney General).[7] Levi Lincoln, who would become the United States Attorney General under Thomas Jefferson, was assigned to defend the accused.[7] There was little Lincoln could do to defend Brooks or Buchanan because they (with Ezra Ross) had dictated and signed a lengthy written confession to the crime, but Lincoln did mount a credible defence in support of Ezra Ross and Bathsheba Spooner.[7] He argued that Ross had no intention of harming Joshua Spooner and was not aware of the plan until a few hours before the murder, had not assisted in the murder, and pretended to support it to stay on good terms with his lover.[7] He argued that Bathsheba Spooner had a "disordered mind," her actions were irrational, that the plan was poorly conceived with no plans for the perpetrators to escape.[7]

This was the first capital case in the newly created United States and the verdict came in the next day.[3] All were sentenced to death and execution was set for June 4, 1778.[7] Spooner petitioned for a postponement citing the extenuating circumstances of her pregnancy, based on common law which protected the life of a fetus if it had quickened.[7] Spooner was examined by a panel of 12 women and two male midwives,[8] who all swore that she was not "quick with child." [7] A second examination occurred after Spooner and her confessor, the Reverend Thaddeus Maccarty, protested the midwives’ report, and four of the examiners joined by another midwife and Spooner’s brother-in-law, Dr. John Green, conducted a second examination and supported the claim of pregnancy.[7] The findings were not accepted and Spooner was hanged alongside Ross, Brooks and Buchanan on July 2, before a crowd of 5000 spectators in Worcester's Washington Square.[3][7]

Controversy[edit]

A post-mortem examination, done at Spooner's request, showed that she was in fact pregnant, with "a perfect male fetus of the growth of five months."[7] Historians have questioned the motivation and validity of the opinions of the panel who examined Spooner for pregnancy, as well as the motivation of the Massachusetts Executive Council, suggesting that Spooner was executed based on the hostility in the community against her father's British Loyalist stance.[4][6][7] Further, the deputy secretary and leader of the Massachusetts Executive Council, who signed Spooner's death warrant, John Avery Jr., was part of a group of Patriots called “The Loyal Nine” (the innermost circle of the Sons of Liberty) who opposed Timothy Ruggles and all Loyalists. John Avery, Jr. was a close relation of the murder victim, Joshua Spooner's stepbrother.[4][6]

In popular culture[edit]

The CBS radio program Crime Classics produced and aired an episode on June 15, 1953, entitled "The Crime of Bathsheba Spooner" [9] that dramatized the infamous murder case for its audience.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Compton, Nancy. "Ruggles & Allied Families Genealogy". Retrieved 2008-11-28. 
  2. ^ a b "Trial of Bathsheba Spooner, et al.: 1778 - Bathsheba Plots To Kill Her Husband, The Soldiers Are Arrested And Confess". Great American Trials Volume 1. Law Library - American Law and Legal Information. Retrieved 2008-11-28. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h "Brookfield Woman Put to Death - July 2, 1778". MassMovements.org. 2008-07-02. Retrieved 2008-11-28. 
  4. ^ a b c Navas, Deborah (1999). Murdered by His Wife: A History with Documentation of the Joshua Spooner Murder and Execution of His Wife, Bathsheba, Who was Hanged in Worcester, Massachusetts, 2 July 1778. University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 1-55849-334-4. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Trial of Bathsheba Spooner, et al.: 1778 - Bathsheba Plots To Kill Her Husband". Great American Trials Volume 1. Law Library - American Law and Legal Information. Retrieved 2008-11-28. 
  6. ^ a b c May, Dorothy A. (2004). Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-85109-429-6. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p "Trial of Bathsheba Spooner, et al.: 1778 - The Soldiers Are Arrested And Confess". Great American Trials Volume 1. Law Library - American Law and Legal Information. Retrieved 2008-11-28. 
  8. ^ Temple, Josiah Howard; Charles Adams (1887. Digitized August 31, 2006). History of North Brookfield, Massachusetts: Preceded by an Account of Old Quaboag, Indian and English Occupation, 1647-1676; Brookfield Records, 1686-1783. The town [Boston, printed]. Retrieved 2008-11-28. 
  9. ^ http://podbay.fm/show/201076280/e/1334638800

External links[edit]