Facing death as a condemned prisoner, Mrs. Spooner resorted a second time to the common-law plea of pregnancy to spare the life of her in utero child:. With unfeigned gratitude I acknowledge the favor you lately granted me of a reprieve.
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I must beg leave, once more, humbly to lie at your feet, and to represent to you that, though the jury of matrons that were appointed to examine into my case have not brought in my favor, yet that I am absolutely certain of being in a pregnant state, and above four months advanced in it, and the infant I bear was lawfully begotten. I am earnestly desirous of being spared till I shall be delivered of it. I must HUMBLY desire your honors, not withstanding my great unworthiness, to take my deplorable case into your compassionate consideration. What I bear, and clearly perceive to be animated, is innocent of the faults of her who bears it, and has, I beg leave to say, a right to the existence which God has begun to give it.
Your honors' humane christian principles, I am very certain, must lead you to desire to preserve life, even in this miniature state, rather than destroy it. It is a moving and persuasive discourse on the sanctity of life in the womb-an unborn child, though in a "miniature state," "animated" with life; possessing an unalienable right to life bestowed by God, which no one should take away; having an independent legal status from the mother and thereby innocent of her crimes. Accepting her guilt and her fate, Bathsheba did not seek a reprieve for her own sake, but a stay of execution until she could deliver her child.
There is no little irony in that we, living in this Culture of Death, have inherited this insightful moral lesson from a murderess who penned it some two hundred years ago, immediately prior to one of our country's first executions. The plea of pregnancy existed under the common law for at least years prior to Bathsheba's case. Botsford: "The writ de ventre inspiciendo, to ascertain whether a woman convicted of a capital crime was quick with child, was allowed by the common law, in order to guard against the taking of the life of an unborn child for the crime of the mother.
Spooner was convicted of being an accessory before the fact to her husband's murder, "that she 'invited, moved, abetted, counseled and procured' the murder to be committed. In response to Bathsheba's first plea, made on her behalf by a local minister, Reverend Thaddeus Maccarty, a jury of twelve matrons and two male midwives was appointed to examine her. Thejury returned a verdict that Mrs. Spooner was "not quick with child. The Governor's Council granted Mrs. Spooner's request and a second jury was summoned. This time the jury consisted of two matrons one having been present at the first examination and the other not and four midwives the same two as in the first examination assisted by another male and one female.
You might get it! Over years ago, two large chalk drawings were discovered on the attic walls of the Bigelow Tavern in West Boylston, Massachusetts. One sketch showed a woman and some men in great detail; the other depicted a public hanging. What had been discovered were the only known images of the most infamous murderer in 18th century Massachusetts -- the loyalist, Bathsheba Spooner.
The death of Joshua Spooner at the hands of men hired by his wife was so sensational in its day that the crime became part of the folklore of Massachusetts. An anonymous year-old poem retells the story with these words:. It's aweful and dread this tale I tell, Joshua Spooner lies dead in the well, In Brookfield Town in '78, From six stout whacks across the pate. Barbara Spooner was a member of a prominent Massachusetts family, used to privilege and opulence. Her father was Timothy Ruggles, a veteran of the Seven Years War, a lawyer, and a chief justice of the court of common pleas.
During the revolution, he became a loyalist officer, serving in the British army as a brigadier general. Anxious to see that his daughter marry a member of the colonial aristocracy, Ruggles urged Bathsheba to become the wife of Joshua Spooner, a wealthy gentleman farmer who was five years her senior. The couple married in and moved into a substantial two-story house. Although the Spooners had four children over the next nine years, their marriage gradually became a prison for Bathsheba.
Spooner was not a good manager of the family finances, drank heavily, and could be physically abusive. It became common knowledge in Brookfield that Mrs. Spooner felt trapped in a loveless marriage and despised her husband. The deteriorating domestic situation only needed a spark to set off a cataclysmic series of events.
When a sixteen-year-old rebel soldier named Ezra Ross fell ill on his way home from the war, Bathsheba nursed him back to health. It wasn't long before the two became lovers. Despite the fact that Ross returned to fight in the revolution, he was able to steal back to Mrs. Spooner's bed several times over the next year. By the January of , Bathsheba discovered to her horror that she was pregnant with Ross' child. A woman found guilty of adultery in 18th century Massachusetts was publicly stripped and flogged.
Divorce was not even an option, but murder was.
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Bathsheba pleaded with her teenaged lover to poison her husband, but Ezra Ross could not find the courage. Instead, he reluctantly assisted two British deserters that Bathsheba had persuaded to murder her despised spouse. Rum, money, and promised favours were all the enticement that William Brooks and James Buchanan required. On the night of March 1, , an intoxicated Joshua Spooner staggered home. William Brooks attacked Spooner, beating him to death. Ross and Buchanan shoved Joshua's body down a nearby well. Bathsheba then gave the two British soldiers her husband's watch, coats, and silver shoe buckles.
Instead of escaping from Brookfield as quickly as possible, the two deserters went to the nearest tavern and drank themselves into a stupor. Within 24 hours all three men were arrested. The authorities found Ezra Ross hiding in an attic; Buchanan and Brooks were discovered wearing Spooner's clothes in the tavern. On Friday, April 24, the three men and Bathsheba went on trial for the murder of Joshua Spooner.
The proceedings began at eight that morning and ended at midnight. The courtroom was packed. Her defense attorney attempted to explain Bathsheba's actions as being those of a disordered mind, but he failed to sway the jury. All four defendants were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. Brooks was charged with killing Spooner while Ross and Buchanan "aided and abetted" in the murder. Bathsheba was convicted as "an accessory before the deed". The execution date was set for early June, but was later postponed until July.
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Bathsheba had made a startling confession -- she was five months pregnant. She begged the court to allow her pregnancy to go to term and that she be executed after the birth of her baby. A panel of 12 women examined Bathsheba, but they did not think that she was pregnant. When a second examination was made, four of the women declared that she was indeed "quick with child".
Nevertheless, the Council of Massachusetts would not waive the execution. The fact that the council's deputy secretary was Joshua Spooner's stepbrother may explain why Bathsheba was denied a stay of execution. Some historians believe that because she was the daughter of a much-despised loyalist and a member of the aristocracy, Bathsheba had little hope for mercy from the rebel courts.
On July 2, , 5, spectators gathered to witness the executions of Joshua Spooner's murderers. Following the hanging of her year-old lover, Bathsheba climbed up the gallows. Before the noose was put around her neck, she declared that she died justly.
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With the drop of the hatch, Bathsheba Spooner became the first woman to be executed in the new American republic. Bathsheba's last request was to have an autopsy conducted before her body was buried. To his horror, the examiner found a well-formed, 5-month-old male fetus. This was devastating news. The hanging of Bathsheba Spooner had violated one of the oldest of English laws -- one that said a pregnant woman convicted of a capital offense must have her execution staid until the birth of her baby.
An innocent child had been killed out of a desire to have a loyalist quickly hanged. Bathsheba Spooner's execution would leave a taint on female capital punishment in Massachusetts for at least a century.
Reluctant to run the risk of executing yet another innocent person, the state convicted very few women of murder in the hundred years that followed Bathsheba Spooner's hanging. Nothing starts a new year off to a good start better than great news. On the first day back to work in for some people , I received enthusiastic phone calls from two UELAC members to make sure that I had read about the recent acquisition of a vast private collection of early Canadian art known as the Peter Winkworth collection.