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Early American Criminals: Bathsheba Spooner, Accessory to the Murder of Joshua Spooner; and James Buchanan, William Brooks, and Ezra Ross for Said Murder

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As part of the 150th anniversary of the Massachusetts Superior Court, the trial of Bathsheba Spooner will be reenacted on June 4, 2009 at the Worcester Trial Court on 225 Main St. in Worcester, MA. The original trial took place at Worcester’s Old South meetinghouse on April 24, 1778 and lasted all day. It was the first capital trial to be held under the newly formed United States government in Massachusetts, and it passed judgment on what was considered to be one of the most extraordinary crimes to be committed in New England.

The Daughter of a Tory

Bathsheba Spooner was the daughter of Timothy Ruggles, a British Loyalist who lost his large estate when he was driven out of the country to Canada for his Tory sympathies. Bathsheba’s parents had lived unhappily together, so when Ruggles left the country, her mother stayed behind and married another man. The relationship between Bathsheba’s parents was apparently so bad, rumors circulated that her mother once served Ruggles his favorite dog for dinner.

In 1766 at the age of 20, Bathsheba married Joshua Spooner, a retired trader. Their marriage was not a happy one either. Joshua was a feeble man, and Bathsheba was young, attractive, and full of energy. She often entertained visitors at her house in Brookfield, MA, and she particularly seemed to enjoy the company of young men. At one point, she nursed back to health a teenage American soldier, Ezra Ross, and the two likely developed an intimate relationship without the knowledge of Joshua.

The Desperate Housewife

By the winter of 1778, Bathsheba had had enough of her marriage and began to entertain thoughts about how to end it. While her husband and Ezra Ross were away on an extended trip in February, she solicited two former British soldiers from General Burgoyne’s army, who happened to be passing by on their way to Springfield, to join her in her home. Bathsheba served James Buchanan and William Brooks breakfast in her sitting room–a formal move that took the two ex-soldiers by surprise–and then invited them to stay with her on account of bad weather.

After a day or two had passed, Bathsheba confessed to Buchanan that she and her husband did not get along. Later, she told him that she did not expect her husband to return, as Ross had taken with him on the trip an ounce of poison that he promised to give to Joshua. She asked the two soldiers to stay with her to see whether or not her husband would indeed return. Despite these odd conversations, Buchanan and Brooks remained at the house and continued to enjoy her hospitality and the practically unlimited food and drink she offered them. After ten or eleven days, Ross and Bathsheba’s husband returned from their travels. Evidently, Ross never found the chance to slip Joshua the poison.

Joshua was naturally suspicious of the two unexpected guests staying in his house and asked them to leave in the morning. Buchanan and Brooks left the house the next day, but with the support of Bathsheba they continued to stay in the neighborhood. They slept in the barn, drank the liquor she continued to buy for them, and slipped back into the house at her invitation during times when Joshua was away.

The Crime

Through the time of their stay, Bathsheba attempted to involve Buchanan and Brooks in several schemes to murder her husband by offering them $1,000 and some clothing, but the plans never materialized. On Sunday, March 1, however, Buchanan and Brooks came to Bathsheba’s house, where Ross was already waiting with some pistols. Bathsheba told the two that they were going to kill her husband that night, but the two ex-soldiers talked her and Ross out of using the guns, because their sound would attract too much attention from the neighbors.

Bathsheba served the three men supper and some rum while they waited for Joshua to return from a tavern down the road. As soon as Joshua arrived home, Brooks knocked him down and began to beat and strangle him. While this was happening, Ross took out Joshua’s watch and handed it to Buchanan. Once Joshua was dead, the three men carried his body to the well, but before dumping it in head first, Buchanan pulled off Joshua’s shoes. The three then went back into the house, where Bathsheba distributed money and clothing to the group, and they all departed into the night.

Brookfield - Spooner Well Site
Image by bunkosquad via Flickr

The next day, the men started drinking early in the morning in an attempt to erase the memory of what they had done. That night, Brooks showed up intoxicated at Mr. Brown’s tavern wearing silver buckles and exhibiting Joshua’s watch. His display brought immediate suspicion. By this time, news of the murder had spread throughout the area, and the three men involved were quickly apprehended. Newspapers throughout the Northeast carried the story of the murder and filled in details about the case that almost everyone had already heard about.

The Outcome

Buchanan, Brooks, and Ross were all found guilty of murdering Joshua Spooner, and Bathsheba was found guilty of being an accessory to it. All four received a death sentence for their participation. After sentencing, Bathsheba sought a stay of execution by claiming she was pregnant, and a jury of matrons was convened to examine her. They concluded, however, that she was not with child. Bathsheba desperately asked to be examined one more time, although this time her request was refused. She took the news of the rejection in stride, but she asked that her body be examined after her death to prove the truth of her claim.

The four participants in the crime were hanged together on the same gallows on July 2, 1778 in front of an enormous crowd. Later that evening, a group of surgeons gathered to examine Bathsheba’s body, and she was indeed found to be pregnant with a 5 month-old male fetus.

Resources for this article:

  • “Boston, April 30, 1778.” New-England Chronicle, published as The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser April 30, 1778. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Newsbank/Readex.
  • Chandler, Peleg W. American Criminal Trials. Vol. 2. Boston: Timothy H. Carter and Company, 1844. Internet Archive: http://www.archive.org/details/americancriminal02chaniala.
  • The Dying Declaration of James Buchanan, Ezra Ross, and William Brooks, Who Were Executed at Worcester, July 2, 1778 for the Murder of Mr. Joshua Spooner. [Worcester?], [1778?]. Database: Early American Imprints I, Newsbank/Readex.
  • Lawson, John D., ed. American State Trials: A Collection of the Important and Interesting Criminal Trials Which Have Taken Place in the United States from the Beginning of Our Government to the Present Day. Vol. 2. St. Louis: F. H. Thomas Law Book Co., 1914. Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=7_EUAAAAYAAJ.
  • Maccarty, Thaddeus. The Guilt of Innocent Blood Put Away: A Sermon Preached at Worcester, July 2, 1778. On the Occasion of the Execution of James Buchanan, William Brooks, Ezra Ross, and Bathshua Spooner, for the Murder of Mr. Joshua Spooner. Worcester, MA: Isaiah Thomas, 1778. Database: Early American Imprints I, Newsbank/Readex.
  • Williams, Daniel E. Pillars of Salt: An Anthology of Early American Criminal Narratives. Madison, WI: Madison House Publishers, 1993.
  • “Worcester, March 5.” The Massachusetts Spy: Or, American Oracle of Liberty March 5, 1778. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Newsbank/Readex.

If you enjoyed reading this post, you may want to read Murdered by His Wife:

Don’t forget to visit the Early American Crime Bookshop for more early American crime book suggestions.

3 Comments

  1. Theodore Scott wrote:

    From what I understand, in this period of history, the law viewed pregnancy as an issue if the child had passed the point where movement can be felt. At five months, that might not have happened.

    So, I wonder what really happened with the examination. Was it that her pregnancy was not far enough along for the law to consider it? Or did they not believe that she was pregnant?

    Wednesday, May 27, 2009 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  2. You raise an interesting question, Theodore. I don’t know about the intricacies of the law regarding pregnancy at the time, but I do know that in England women regularly “pleaded their bellies” in order to receive a pardon from execution. After 1718, many of them were transported to America instead. The practice carried over to America, as we can see from Spooner’s case. I don’t think the law would have had any interest in carrying out an execution if it could be shown that a woman was pregnant at any stage.

    The sources I consulted for this case only indicated that there was a question around whether or not Bathsheba was indeed pregnant, and there appears to be some dispute among the jury of matrons after she appealed their decision. You can read more about this episode starting on page 48 in American Criminal Trials: http://www.archive.org/details/americancriminal02chaniala. Some of the documents relating to her pregnancy can be found in the Appendix as well, starting on p. 381.

    Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  3. Miles wrote:

    The “plea of pregnancy” was common and accepted under Common Law for more than 400 years prior to Bathsheba’s case. Such a plea would usually end with a de ventre inspiciendo (inspection of the abdomen, as happened in B. case). Upon finding proof of pregnancy the mother would receive a stay until birth of the child, then executed. Executing a pregnant mother was considered a miscarriage of justice.

    To answer your question: They did not believe she was pregnant.

    Monday, June 11, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] five thousand gathered to watch the malefactors put to death 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 […]

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    […] the famous newspaper printer also covered the story. [read more about Bathsheba Spooner and the brutal crime that rocked the Eastern […]

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