When Native American, Joseph Quasson, learned that he would spend eight or nine months in prison before he could face trial for murder, he secretly believed that he could properly repent in a quarter of the time. After all, he had once regularly attended church when he was young. But as the time for his inevitable execution drew near, he began to “Wonder that any graceless Soul should hope to do any thing, before Conversion, that might, in the least, recommend such an one [as him] to the Favour of God.”
Repentance, it turns out, was much more difficult than he first thought.
Quasson was born on March 28, 1698 in what is now Chatham on Cape Cod. When he was six years old, his father died with five pounds of outstanding debt to Samuel Sturges of Yarmouth, which left his mother little choice but to bound Quasson to Sturges as a servant.
Sturges got his money’s worth, so to speak, because Quasson remained in his service for twelve years. While living with the Sturges family, Quasson learned to read, studied catechism, and attended church. His mistress instilled a fear of sin in him, so at the age of thirteen when he was put in charge of his master’s warehouse and some apprentices tried to talk him into stealing some gunpowder for them, he refused. But he encouraged them to perform the act themselves, which he later regretted.
Quasson received his freedom when he turned eighteen, and Sturges made sure that when Quasson left him he was dressed well, and he presented him with a new Bible as a going-away present. Quasson worked a little, but it was not long before he became idle, fell into bad company, and started drinking. He soon ran out of money, so he sold his clothes and his Bible to fuel his drunkenness. Due to his shabby appearance, he no longer could attend English church services, so instead he went to Indian meetings, where he could not understand the language.
Quasson volunteered to serve in the English militia to fight in Father Rale’s War (1722-1725)–otherwise known as Drummer’s War, the 4th Indian War, and several other names–which was the result of a border disagreement between France and England in what is now southern Maine. On August 28, 1725 during what was likely a drunken fight, Quasson shot in the upper thigh a fellow Native-American soldier, John Peter, who was also from Yarmouth. Quasson was immediately arrested and put in prison in York, ME. Three or four days later, Peter died, so Quasson faced murder charges for his impulsive act.
Because the two Native Americans were living in the white community, Quasson’s case fell under the jurisdiction of the English courts. But the Superior Court, which was to try Quasson, was not scheduled to meet until May, so Quasson had plenty of time to repent for his crime.
”Heart-work is hard work”
While in prison, Quasson discovered that “Heart-work, is hard work.” He later said that when he entered prison, he believed that “being a poor Indian and in a strange Place, especially in a Time of War; People would be little concerned about me.” But he sent for the minister in town, who began the work of attending to Quasson’s soul. For two months Quasson read the Scriptures and attended services to the point where he felt “mightily affected” and his “Heart seemed to relent.” At other times, however, his “Heart seemed hard and senseless.”
Despite his efforts, Quasson’s progress returned to square one when in February another prisoner joined him in his cell. When his cellmate was not singing, he was “full of vain or profane Talk,” and under his influence, Quasson lost his desire to pray and stopped attending church.
After the prisoner left, Quasson returned to his daily struggle. People from the town regularly visited him and brought him religious books, which he read several times over. He was particularly affected by the story of Esther Rogers and her conversion after she committed repeated murders.
Yet Quasson continued to struggle with the idea of God forgiving someone who had committed such a horrible crime as he had. When Rev. Samuel Moody visited Quasson a few days before his execution to record his story, the prisoner responded, “To tell the World . . . what a stupid hardned [sic] Creature I have been! What will they say? There’s a wicked Wretch gone to Hell!” But when Moody explained that giving an account of his life for publication would serve “the Glory of God and good of Souls” and could help his cause with God, Quasson relented.
“A very remarkable Alteration”
Quasson’s guilt was never in doubt, and he did nothing to contest his conviction. But the question of the state of his soul remained. Finally, after he attended his last Sabbath meeting before his execution, “a very remarkable Alteration was observed in him.” As Quasson prayed, Moody reported, he now “seemed much more affected, and even melted,” This time, his repentance appeared to stick.
Quasson was accompanied by most of the ministers of the county during his mile-long walk to the gallows, which was erected in a valley so that the three thousand spectators could easily see the proceedings while standing on the sides of the surrounding hills. After he climbed the ladder of the scaffold, Quasson turned to the people and shouted,
I would have you all take Warning by me, I am come here to die a shameful Death; and I acknowledge the Justice of God in it, ‘tis Drunkenness that has brought me to it. I would have you all to leave off your Drunkenness; for if you don’t leave it off, it will certainly bring you to some dreadful End.
No one was able to write down the prayer that Quasson recited after this short speech, but Moody assures us that “he prayed so freely, so distinctly, & so pertinently, that it was to the Admiration of the Wisest and Best.”
Moody used the conversion story of Esther Rogers as inspiration in writing up his account of Quasson, but he saw in Quasson an opportunity to take the lesson one step further: namely, to demonstrate that if even someone as low as “a poor Indian and Malefactor” can repent and save his soul, then so can we all.
When Samuel Moody’s Account of the Indian Executed at York, June 29, 1726 appeared, it was the first criminal conversion narrative that was published as a separate work. Until that point, conversion narratives were normally included at the end of a published sermon that was given by a minister on the occasion of the criminal’s execution. Moody’s work marks the beginning of a publishing trend where the life of the criminal, rather than the words of the ministers, began to command the attention of the reading public.
- Calloway, Colin G. Dawnland Encounters: Indians and Europeans in Northern New England. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1991.
- Cohen, Daniel A. Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature And the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860. Boston: The University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.
- Moody, Samuel. Samuel Moody’s Account of the Indian Executed at York, June 29, 1726. Boston: S. Gerrish, 1726. Database: America’s Historical Imprints: Readex/Newsbank.