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Early American Criminals: The Execution of Levi Ames

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Note: This post continues “The Life of Levi Ames in Print.”

On October 21, 1773 at around two o’clock in the afternoon, Levi Ames, who was convicted of burglary, emerged from the prison yard. With his arms bound and a halter looped around his neck, he followed the cart carrying his coffin to the gallows set up in Boston Neck, where many other criminals had been executed over the years. Today, it was Ames’s turn.

The Journey

The Rev. Samuel Stillman, a Baptist minister, accompanied Ames on his journey to the gallows. Stillman had spent more time with Ames during his confinement than any other person, and he continued to give Ames spiritual counsel during these final hours.

Throngs of people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of this now-famous criminal. At one point along the way, the halter Ames was carrying slipped from his arm, but he managed to catch it up again. As the procession continued, Stillman kept tabs on the state of Ames’s mind, but as they approached the site of his execution, the noise from the crowd that had gathered kept the two from conversing. By one estimate, seven or eight thousand people had shown up to witness the spectacle, and all of them clamored to get as close to Ames as possible.

Upon reaching the gallows, Ames was ordered to climb onto the cart and stand while the warrant of execution was read aloud to him. Once read, he sat down on his coffin. Stillman parted his company, and Ames was given a few moments to compose his final thoughts. He placed his head on his coffin for a time and then kneeled down beside it and prayed softly.

Dying Speech

With his end drawing near, Ames was told to stand up on his coffin while the other end of the halter circled around his neck was tied to the gallows. While these preparations took place, Ames used the opportunity to address the crowd:

Look at me, a sight enough to melt a heart of stone; I am going to die for my wickedness: But the death I am to die, is nothing compared with the death of JESUS CHRIST on the cross, for they pierced his hands and his side with a spear. O take warning by me—If you were my own brethren, near to me as my own soul, I could only tell you to beware of stealing, swearing, [and] drinking.

Ames made some private prayers and looked wistfully at the four o’clock sun. He pulled his cap over his eyes just before the cart drove out from under him. He died “without scarce a struggle” at the age of 21. By all accounts, he was a penitent thief.

Detail from “The Dying Groans of Levi Ames” – Library of Congress

Detail from “The Dying Groans of Levi Ames” – Library of Congress

Battle for the Body

After Ames was pronounced dead, the sheriff delivered his body to someone waiting in a cart, who drove it to the water and quickly transferred it into a boat. Twelve men manning the vessel then rowed the body across to Dorchester Point. These men were evidently hired by Stillman to protect Ames’s body and keep it from a group of Harvard-educated surgeons from who were eager to dissect it.

Before Ames’s execution, the surgeons had applied to Governor Thomas Hutchinson for a warrant to take control of Ames’s body after his death. The Governor informed them that they were too late; he had already promised the body to another group just fifteen minutes ago. Back when Ames was being held in prison, he had told Stillman that he did not want his body to go to the surgeons for dissection, and Stillman promised that he would not let that happen. Luckily for Ames and Stillman, they were able to reach the Governor before the surgeons did.

The doctors, however, were not to be denied. Once they saw the boat carrying Ames’s body land at Dorchester Point, they raced by land to the spot in an attempt to intercept the party. The route took them longer than they thought it would. They didn’t arrive at the point of landing until eleven o’clock at night. By then, the group carrying the body had disappeared. The surgeons searched in vain, but they eventually retired to the Punch Bowl Tavern in Brookline to drink away their disappointment.

The next day, the surgeons learned that the group carrying Ames’s body rowed back to Boston Neck, where they buried Ames in an undisclosed location. With this knowledge, a few of the surgeons continued the search but were again unsuccessful in their attempt to locate the body.

Presumably, the penitent thief continues to this day to rest in peace.

Note: The story of Levi Ames will continue with “Advice from a Condemned Burglar.”

Sources

  • Bell, J. L. “The Difficulties of Medical Training in 1773.” Boston 1775. http://boston1775.blogspot.com/. Accessed: 29 March 2010.
  • Mather, Samuel. Christ Sent to Heal the Broken Hearted . . . To Which is Added, His Life [Ames] Written by Himself. Boston: William M’Alpine, 1773. Database: Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800), Readex/Newsbank.
  • Stillman, Samuel. Two Sermons . . . Delivered the Lord’s Day Before the Execution of Levi Ames . . . to Which is Added, at the Request of Many, an Account of the Exercise of his Mind, from the Time of his Condemnation, until He Left the World. Second ed. Boston: E. Russell, 1773. Database: Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800), Readex/Newsbank.
  • Warren, Edward. The Life of John Warren, M.D. Boston: Noyles, Holmes, and Company, 1874, pp. 228-229.
  • West, Bill. “Levi Ames,” Parts 1, 2, and 3. West in New England. http://westinnewengland.blogspot.com/search/label/Ames%20Levi. Accessed: 29 March 2010.

Read more about burglary in Early American Crime.

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