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Early American Criminals: The Cuckolded Soldier

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Around 1764 or 1765, Bryan Sheehen returned home to his wife in Casco Bay, ME after serving in the regular army for a long six and a half years. But the joy of his homecoming turned into rage when he learned that his wife had remarried during his absence to a Frenchman. Sheehen made preparations to kill the man by sharpening the end of a hanger, but his anger subsided before the two met and cooler heads prevailed when they agreed that their wife should choose which husband she wanted.

She chose Sheehen.

But her choice did not save the marriage. Sheehen could not stomach the thought of the Frenchman’s child living with them, and so even though he had subsequently had three or four children by his wife (all of whom died except one), he abandoned her and moved to Marblehead, MA.

Carelessness and Reluctance

Sheehen was born in Ireland in 1732 to a mixed religious household. His father was Catholic and his mother Anglican, so he and his brothers attended Catholic services and his sisters accompanied their mother to the English church. At the age of 20, he went to Newfoundland to work in the fishing industry before moving to Charlestown, MA to work as a truckman. From there, he bound himself as a servant to the shipbuilder Benjamin Hollowell in Boston.

While Sheehen lived with Hollowell, he was required to attend religious services with the family, and his master occasionally quizzed him on the text of the gospel and the content of the sermon. Since Sheehen was not used to the Protestant service, he performed these duties “with carelessness and reluctance.”

After he finished his term and left Hollowell, he met another person who got him drunk and tricked him into signing yet another indentured servant contract. Sheehen left no details as to who this person was or what work he was required to perform, but after he satisfied the terms of the contract he moved to Casco Bay and got married.


After Sheehen abandoned his family in 1768 and moved to Marblehead, he worked once again in the fishing business as a sailor. But when he was not out at sea, he hung around the streets and developed “the character of a wicked, profligate person.” During the winter of 1770-1771, a shop owner accused Sheehen and another man of planning to burglarize his store when he spotted them loitering in front of his establishment. In response, Sheehen violently threatened and abused the shop owner, and as punishment he was confined to the jail in Salem and then publicly whipped. During his imprisonment, Sheehen learned that his wife had died, which deeply affected him.

That July, Sheehen was in the tavern of a Mrs. Poor when a woman struck his fancy. When she left the room he enquired about her, and when she returned he ordered her a drink. She refused it. He offered her money, but she declined to take that as well. Frustrated, he left Mrs. Poor’s house, and when he returned and asked about her again, he was informed that she was married.

The woman turned out to be Abial Hollowell, wife of Benjamin Hollowell. This Benjamin was not the shipbuilder, Benjamin Hallowell, who had owned Sheehen as an indentured servant back in Boston, but Sheehen must have at least had some recognition that she shared a similar sounding last name as his former master.


The knowledge that Abial Hollowell was married did nothing to detract Sheehen from pursuing her, and the women in town did their best to hide and protect her from his advances. But they could not save her one night when Sheehen broke into her house and entered her room with a lighted candle. When Hollowell woke up and saw Sheehen in her room, she asked him in a fright what he wanted and pleaded for him to leave. Sheehen offered her money, which she again refused. Then he blew out the candle.

Sheehen leaped onto Hollowell’s bed, covered her mouth with his hand, threatened that if she made any noise he would kill her, and raped her. Afterward, in an attempt to prevent her from becoming pregnant, he abused “her with his other hand in so shocking a manner that she had little hope or expectation of her life.” As a result, she was unable to get out of bed without help for 10 days afterward.

Sheehen was arrested on September 13 and charged with the crime. Hollowell testified against him in court, and a physician who examined her corroborated her account. Sheehen, though, claimed that she had consented to lying in bed with him.


Rape was a capital offense in Massachusetts at the time, so Sheehan was sentenced to execution. He steadfastly maintained until the end that he was not guilty, and his stubborn refusal to confess the crime garnered sympathy from some members of the public who consequently believed that he should not have been hanged. But the attorney general at his trial asserted “that he had been at a number of trials of the like kind, but never knew one so plain, and the evidence so full against the prisoner.”

Essex Gazette - March 31, 1772 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.)

James Dimon, Pastor of the Second Church in Salem, published the sermon he gave on January 16, 1772, the day of Sheehen’s execution. He also added a brief account of Sheehen’s life at the end of the publication in which he accused Sheehen of committing a similar crime while living in Casco Bay.

In his account, Dimon describes in shocking detail a similar crime suffered by another woman, except that, unlike Hollowell, this woman died. After boasting to his companions what he had done, the man was arrested and held in a private home for lack of a jail, but after 2 or 3 days he escaped. This man fit the description of Sheehen, and the informants who told Dimon about this case were fairly certain that Sheehen was the one who committed the crime. Dimon contends that these events were the real reason Sheehen abandoned his wife and son in Casco Bay.


Before his execution, Sheehen sold his body to a Dr. Kast of Salem for dissection, and in his last words he informed the hangman of this fact. But a March report in the Massachusetts Spy assures the public that Kast never obtained Sheehen’s body, because “between thirty and forty persons last Friday se’nnight opened his grave, where they found [Sheehen] lying nearly in the same state he was buried in, the afternoon he was executed.”


  • An Account of the Life of Bryan Sheehen. [Salem, MA: Samuel and Ebenezer Hall, 1772]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Banner, Stuart. The Death Penalty: An American History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • Dimon, James. A Sermon Preached at Salem, January 16, 1772. Salem, MA: Samuel and Ebenezer Hall, 1772. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Extract of a Letter from Chatham, September 15.” Connecticut Courant, November 19, 1771, issue 360, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Kellow, Margaret. “Bryan Sheehan: Servant, Soldier, Fisherman.” The Human Condition in Colonial America. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1999.
  • “Salem, March 3.” Massaschusetts Spy, March 5, 1772, vol. II, issue 53, p. 211. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Salem, September 24.” Boston News-Letter, September 26, 1771, issue 3546, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Salem, March 3.” Massaschusetts Spy, March 5, 1772, vol. II, issue 53, p. 211. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Thursday, January 23. Boston.” Massachusetts Spy, January 23, 1771, vol. I, issue 47, p. 187. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.