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Early American Criminals: Stephen Smith on the Common

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Stephen Smith was born a slave in 1769 in Virginia. His last name was originally Allen, but he changed it to Smith in order to escape from the master who owned him, William Allen. Smith’s father was a religious man, but his mother encouraged him to steal. With her prompting, Smith committed several small thefts until he stole some leather from Allen, who consequently sent Smith to the West Indies to be sold.

In the Woods

After arriving in the Caribbean, Smith concealed himself in the very vessel that carried him south and returned back on it to Virginia. He snuck off the ship undetected and onto an island, where he lived in the woods until he almost starved. In desperation, he broke into a house to find something to eat and stole some shirts and shoes. After living in the woods for two days more, he approached another house to ask for some food, but he did not receive the cordial welcome he expected. The inhabitants of the house instead tried to capture him, and when Smith ran back into the woods they shot at him and wounded his leg.

Smith lasted in the woods with his wound for a few days, but he was eventually caught and taken back to his master. Allen relinquished his responsibility for Smith by giving him to his son, who sent Smith back to the West Indies. Once again Smith managed to escape the islands and traveled back north. This time he ended up in Nova Scotia, first in St. John’s and then in St. Ann’s, where he was arrested for breaking into a house and a store.

Smith pleaded not guilty to the burglaries and was cleared of both, although later he confessed that he was guilty of breaking into the house. But Smith faced two other indictments that he incurred while in custody: one for striking a lawyer and another for assaulting the gaol-keeper. He pleaded guilty to these two offenses, but was pardoned by the governor in exchange for leaving the province.

Boston

In August 1796, Smith complied with the terms of his pardon and traveled south to Boston. After living there for seven months he was once again arrested and indicted on four charges. This time he faced two counts of house-breaking and two of arson.

While in Boston, Smith had worked as a servant for Samuel Goldsbury and William Turner. After Smith left their employ, both of their houses were burglarized and then set on fire, which partly damaged Goldsbury’s house, but completely destroyed Turner’s. Suspicion fell on Smith, who was traced to the residence of another black man named Kimball who lived on Devonshire Street. Upon searching Kimball’s house, the authorities found a bag that contained some plate and a few other items belonging to Goldsbury and a pair of silver buckles belonging to Turner.

The Boston Gazette reported that while living in Boston, Smith had proved himself to be “an abusive bad fellow.” Even though he regularly paid for his board while living with Kimball, he did so “without any visible means of procuring money.” Smith spent most of his nights out and was not at home on the nights when the burglaries and arsons occurred. Smith tried to convince his girlfriend to give evidence that he was with her on the night of one of the burglaries, but she turned out to be “too honest” to do so.

Smith pleaded not guilty to all of the charges against him. In court, he was first tried on the burglary of Goldsbury’s house. The trial lasted throughout the day, but in the end he was found guilty of the charge, which itself was enough to sentence him to die. As Smith received his death sentence, tears welled up in his eyes, but he did not allow any of them to trickle down his face. He later admitted in his Life, Last Words, and Dying Speech that even though he originally pleaded not guilty to the four charges, he was indeed “guilty of the whole.” He also admitted to shoplifting, stealing wine and porter from two men with whom he lived, associating with “bad Women,” and breaking the Sabbath.

The Bottom of the Common

On October 12, 1797, a large crowd gathered at the bottom of the Boston Common near the Central Burying Ground to see Smith’s execution, which was preceded with a public whipping at the post of “several Culprits, convicted of inferior crimes.” At about 1:45 p.m., Smith was led out of jail and escorted on foot to the scene.

After the usual prayers and speeches were concluded, a halter was placed around Smith’s neck and a white cap drawn over his eyes. It was reported that “after an instant’s pause which HE appeared to devote to fervent though silent prayer, HE was led to the scaffold, the supporting line unfastened and the malefactor launched into ETERNITY.” Smith was 28 years old at the time and was the last person hanged on the Boston Common for burglary.

After hanging for a half hour, Smith’s body was cut down, placed in a coffin, and buried. But Smith had not reached his final resting place. Soon after his coffin was covered with dirt, his body was dug up and taken for dissection.

Sources

  • [“Albert Gardner”]. Impartial Herald (Newburyport, MA). September 19, 1797, vol. V, issue 369, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • [“At the Supreme Court”]. Western Star (Stockbridge, MA). September 18, 1797, vol. VIII, issue 44, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, Monday, March 27.” Boston Gazette. March 27, 1797, issue 2215, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “By Mail. Boston, Oct. 14.” Commercial Advertiser (New York, NY). October 18, 1797, vol. I, issue 15, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “October 13. Execution.” New-Hampshire Gazette. October 17, 1797, vol. XLI, issue 2134, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Rogers, Alan. Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts. Amherst, MA: Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2008.
  • Smith, Stephen. Life, Last Words, and Dying Speech of Stephen Smith. [Boston: 1797]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank. Documenting the American South version: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/smithste/smithste.html.

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