In 1778, Bathsheba Spooner earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first woman executed in the newly independent country called the United States of America.
Born in 1746, Bathsheba was reportedly the favorite daughter of one of Massachusetts’s most prominent citizens, the wealthy Brigadier General Timothy Ruggles, an attorney who had served as Worcester, Massachusetts Court of Common Pleas Chief Justice from 1762 to 1764.
In 1766, Ruggles arranged Bathsheba’s marriage to Joshua Spooner. It’s unclear what the age gap was between the couple: Ann Jones in Women Who Kill describes him as a “retired merchant” while other sources state that he was born in 1741, only five years before his wife.
Bathsheba had her first child in April 1767 and gave birth three more times between 1770 and 1775. The second child died only weeks after being born. According to David Petts in Great American Trials, “In these years before the Revolution they were living in what was considered an elegant two-story house in Brookfield, Massachusetts, and were considered wealthy by their neighbors.”
However, the marriage was unhappy although the precise reasons are not known with certainty. Some sources indicate that the energetic and outgoing Bathsheba may have been contemptuous of the weak-willed Joshua while others have indicated that she feared him because he was often drunk and sometimes abusive. One article states that he may have had sexual relations with household servants. Infidelity might have easily triggered a multitude of negative emotions in his wife.
When the American Revolution broke, Timothy Ruggles was outspoken in his Loyalist sympathies. Patriots of the fledgling nation forced the Tory to flee with his sons to Nova Scotia. Bereft of close family members, Bathsheba may have felt increasingly trapped by her marriage to a man for whom she would later admit she had “an utter aversion.”
In March 1777, Ezra Ross, 16, had served for a year under General George Washington. Disease was rampant among the troops and Ezra fell ill as he was making his way through Brookfield on his way to his hometown. The Spooners took the young soldier into their household and Bathsheba nursed him back to health.
He visited the Spooners a second time in July 1777 on his way to meet up with his regiment. Ezra participated in the four month long campaign that ended with the surrender of British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga.
Then Ezra returned to the Spooner house. Joshua Spooner appeared impressed with the young man who soon accompanied Joshua on brief business trips.
He also became close to Bathsheba and may have become sexually intimate with her. She asked him to poison her husband. Just before Ezra and Joshua were to leave on a trip to Princeton, Bathsheba gave Ezra a bottle of nitric acid and urged him to murder Joshua with it. Although Ezra took the bottle, he did not poison Joshua. Ezra also did not return to the Spooner household but made his way from Princeton to his hometown.
In the period immediately following the war’s end, many former British soldiers wandered Massachusetts. While Joshua and Ezra were in Princeton in February 1778, Bathsheba invited two displaced British soldiers, James Buchanan and William Brooks, into her house. As Ann Jones writes in Women Who Kill, the two men “ate and drank well at Joshua’s expense.” She also shared with them how very unhappy she was in her marriage – and how much she wanted to become a widow.
Due to Ezra’s reluctance to poison him, Joshua returned in good health to Brookfield. However, he took a dim view of his wife’s house guests. The man named Spooner accused them of stealing a spoon and ordered them out of his house.
However, Buchanan and Brooks were back at that house two weeks later on March 1, 1778. Joshua was out drinking with buddies. On what appears to have been a bizarre coincidence, Ezra Ross had also come to the house that day.
When Joshua came home, Brooks began beating and strangling him. Ezra pulled a watch off Joshua and handed it to Buchanan. After Joshua was dead, the trio carried his corpse to the Spooner well. Buchanan pulled off Joshua’s shoes. Then they threw the body down the well.
When the three returned to the home of the very recently widowed Bathsheba, she gave them money and clothing. Then they left.
Perhaps horrified by the memory of the previous evening’s activities, all three began drinking early the next morning. In the evening, Buchanan and Brooks showed up at a tavern where their expensive clothes, especially the silver-buckled shoes on Brooks with the telltale initials J.S., immediately aroused suspicion.
In the meantime, Bathsheba had reported to authorities that her husband was “missing.” Searchers found his corpse in the well.
Interviews with neighbors soon led to the arrests of Bathsheba, Buchanan, Brooks, and Ezra.
Spectators packed the courtroom on April 24, 1777. It was held before a panel of five judges: Chief Justice William Cushing, Jedediah Foster, Nathaniel Peaslee Sargeant, David Sewall, and James Sullivan.
Attorney Levi Lincoln, who would later serve as United States Attorney General under President Thomas Jefferson, was appointed to defend all four accused. He argued that Ezra was very young, that he had not participated in the killing itself, and that his even being there at the time of the crime was an unfortunate accident. He also argued that the poor planning of the crime was “the best evidence of a disordered mind” for Bathsheba.
The main part of the trial began at 8:00 a.m. and ended at midnight. The next day the jury came back with its verdict. All four were guilty of murder and sentenced to be executed.
Their execution was scheduled for June 4, 1777. Bathsheba “pleaded her belly,” in the phrase of the time period. She said she was pregnant and that she was “quick with child” meaning that the fetus was moving inside her. The rule at the time was that a pregnant woman could be executed in the very early stages of pregnancy but if it was advanced enough that the unborn was moving, or “quick,” her execution had to be delayed until she gave birth. Since condemned women often falsely claimed to be “quick with child” in order to save themselves, this claim always first resulted in an examination to see if it was likely she was telling the truth.
Bathsheba’s first petition in May for such an examination led to her own and her co-defendants’ executions being initially postponed. On June 11, a panel examined Bathsheba. All signed a document stating she was not “quick with child.”
Bathsheba then wrote the following letter requesting a second examination.
May it please Your Honors
With unfeigned gratitude I acknowledge the favor you lately granted me of a reprieve. I must beg leave, once more, humbly to lie at your feet, and to represent to you that, though the jury of matrons that were appointed to examine into my case have not brought in my favor, yet that I am absolutely certain of being in a pregnant state, and above four months advanced in it, and the infant I bear was lawfully begotten. I am earnestly desirous of being spared till I shall be delivered of it. I must Humbly desire your honors, not withstanding my great unworthiness, to take my deplorable case into your compassionate consideration. What I bear, and clearly perceive to be animated, is innocent of the faults of her who bears it, and has, I beg leave to say, a right to the existence which God has begun to give it. Your honors’ humane Christian principles, I am very certain, must lead you to desire to preserve life, even in this miniature state, rather than destroy it. Suffer me, therefore, with all Earnestness, to beseech your honors to grant me such a further length of time, at least, as that there may be the fairest and fullest opportunity to have the matter fully ascertained; and as in duty bound, shall, during my Short Continuance, pray.
She signed the letter and dated it June 16, 1778
On June 27, a second panel examined her. Some of the examiners stated that she was indeed “quick with child.” Others insisted she was not.
Despite the mixed opinion, Bathsheba received no further reprieve. Author Deborah Navas, who wrote a book on the case entitled Murdered by His Wife, believes that bias may have been behind the haste to execute Bathsheba because the Council of Massachusetts Deputy Secretary who signed the final warrant for the executions was Joshua Spooner’s stepbrother. That Deputy Secretary was also thought to harbor a strong antipathy toward Bathsheba’s Tory father.
The parents of Ezra Ross turned in a lengthy petition for clemency for their son but it was also rejected.
The hanging of all four was scheduled for July 2, 1777.
A crowd of approximately five thousand gathered to watch the malefactors put to death. They stood watching even though a thunderstorm broke out.
Bathsheba appeared calm but very weak. She could not walk and was carried to the place of execution in a chaise. She crawled up the steps to the gallows on her hands and knees. Her last words were, “I justly die. I hope to see my Christian friends that I am leaving behind in Heaven but hope that none of them go there in the ignominious manner that I do.”
In keeping with her last request, an autopsy was performed. A five-month male fetus was found in her womb. Much of the public was suddenly sympathetic to the murderer who had told the truth about her pregnancy. Commenting on the case in 1844, Peleg W. Chandler wrote that such sympathy appeared to lead some to forget “how deeply her hands were stained with blood.”
Gregory J. Roden commented in 2011 in the Human Life Review, a journal dedicated largely to the cause of outlawing abortion, that Bathsheba’s plea for a second reprieve constitutes “a moving and persuasive discourse on the sanctity of life in the womb.” He also notes the “irony” that what he regards as an “insightful moral lesson” was written by a brutal murderer.
Well over two hundred years after her death, the story of the murderer who begged to be spared long enough to deliver a baby remains oddly haunting.
Sources on following page.