First Woman Executed in the New United States
Bathseba Ruggles was born February 13, 1745, to Timothy Ruggles, a very wealthy man who had held some of the most prominent positions in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Bathsheba was said to be her father’s favorite child, was educated well and had everything money could buy. Joshua Spooner was born in 1741.
Ruggles, a lawyer and chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas in Worcester, Massachusetts, was a strong-willed and determined man and an avowed Loyalist (British supporter). Under public censure for his refusal to sign the Stamp Act protest as a Massachusetts delegate to the 1765 Stamp Act Congress, Ruggles may have arranged the marriage of his daughter Bathsheba to Joshua Spooner.
At any rate, on January 15, 1766, Bathsheba Ruggles married Joshua Spooner, twenty-five. The son of a wealthy Boston merchant, Spooner was a well-to-do and well-connected farmer in Brookfield, Massachusetts. They had their first child, Elizabeth, on April 8, 1767; three more followed between 1770 and 1775, but one died in infancy.
At a time when class distinctions were important and social status was determined by family lineage, both Bathsheba and her husband were scions of prominent families of the colonial aristocracy, raised to a life of wealth and privilege. In these years immediately before the Revolution they were living in what was considered an elegant two-story house in Brookfield, and were considered wealthy by their neighbors.
When the American Revolution began, Timothy Ruggles remained a Loyalist and was ultimately banished from Massachusetts, and the hatred generated by this extended to members of his family. He was forced to flee to Canada in 1774 and his massive estates were confiscated.
Joshua Spooner supported the Patriots, while Bathsheba shared her father’s views. This caused much dissention in the Spooner marriage, and when Bathsheba wanted to see her father in Canada, Joshua forbade it.
It was becoming common knowledge that the Spooner marriage was not a happy one, and that Bathsheba had developed what she was to characterize as an “utter aversion” towards her husband. The reasons for the rift are not fully known, but records indicate that Joshua Spooner was frequently drunk and sometimes physically abused his wife. Bathsheba, on the other hand was independent, strongwilled, and impetuous.
When thirty-two-year-old Bathsheba Spooner met Ezra Ross in the spring of 1777, he was a sixteen-year-old soldier in the Continental Army, who had served under General George Washington for a year. Ross was walking home from Washington’s winter camp in Morristown, New Jersey, when he fell ill with fever and was nursed back to health by Bathsheba Spooner.
As his strength returned Ross began accompanying Bathsheba on rides in the country. Major Benjamin Russel would later recall:
…seeing Ross and Mrs. Spooner riding on horseback together, the former was a fine looking youth, and the beauty of the latter, who was a remarkable horsewoman, has not been exaggerated in the least by traditional accounts.
Ross visited the Spooner home again on his way back to rejoin the army in July 1777, and again after the campaign that ended with the surrender of British General John Burgoyne and his army at Saratoga, New York, on October 17, 1777. Ross stayed on through Christmas and into the new year, travelling with Joshua Spooner on business trips, as well as carrying on an illicit affair with Bathsheba Spooner.
Bathsheba Spooner became pregnant and began urging Ross to dispose of her husband before her condition would prove that she had committed adultery. Divorces were all but impossible for women at that time and adulteresses were stripped to the waist and publicly whipped. Bathsheba was desperate and devised a series of plots to murder her husband.
In February 1778, Ross once again traveled with Joshua Spooner, this time on an extended trip to Princeton, Massachusetts, where Spooner owned a potash business. Bathsheba secured a bottle of aquafortis, or nitric acid, with which Ross was to spike Joshua’s bedtime toddy. Ross backed out of the plan and returned to his home at the end of the trip.
Apparently Bathsheba did not have complete faith in young Ross because in his absence she invited James Buchanan and William Brooks, two British deserters from General Burgoyne’s defeated army into her home. She discussed ideas for killing her husband with the pair. Despite these conversations, Buchanan and Brooks remained at the house and continued to enjoy her hospitality and the practically unlimited food and drink she offered them.
She asked the two soldiers to stay with her to see whether or not her husband would indeed return. After ten or eleven days, Spooner returned alone. He was naturally suspicious of the two unexpected guests staying in his house and asked them to leave in the morning.
Buchanan and Brooks left the house, but with Bathsheba’s support they continued to stay in the neighborhood. Through the time of their stay, she attempted to involve Buchanan and Brooks in several schemes to murder her husband by offering them $1,000 and some clothing, but the plans never materialized. Bathsheba also wrote to Ezra Ross to inform him of the developments, and he returned to Brookfield on February 28.
On March 1, 1778, Buchanan and Brooks came to Bathsheba’s house, where Ross was already waiting. Bathsheba served the three men supper and some rum while they waited for Joshua to return from a tavern down the road.
When Spooner returned, Brooks knocked Spooner down and began beating him to death. While this was happening, Ross took out Spooner’s watch and gave it to Buchanan. Once Spooner was dead, the three men carried him into the yard, and stuffed his body down the well.
The three then went back into the house, where Bathsheba distributed money from her husband’s lock box and articles of his clothing to the men and they left.
The next day, Buchanan and Brooks went drinking in a tavern in Worcester, 14 miles away, where Brooks showed off his new silver shoe buckles, which were engraved with Joshua Spooner’s initials. Since they were wearing belongings of the deceased, the murder was soon discovered and the two men were arrested. Ezra Ross was discovered hiding in the attic of the same tavern.
The trio implicated Bathsheba Spooner and three of her household servants, Sarah Stratton, Jesse Parker and Alexander Cummings. Brooks was charged with the assault on Joshua Spooner, Buchanan and Ross were charged with aiding and abetting in the murder, and Bathsheba was charged with inciting, abetting and procuring the manner of the murder. All were arraigned and pleaded not guilty.
The trial took place at Worcester’s Old South meetinghouse on April 24, 1778, and lasted all day. It was the first capital trial to be held under the newly formed United States government in Massachusetts, and it passed judgment on what was considered to be one of the most extraordinary crimes to be committed in New England.
During the trial, Spooner household servants Sarah Stratton, Jesse Parker and Alexander Cummings, testified for the prosecution, conducted by Robert Treat Paine, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Levi Lincoln, who would become the United States under Thomas Jefferson, was assigned to defend the accused. There was little Lincoln could do to defend Brooks or Buchanan, because they had dictated and signed a written confession to the crime.
Lincoln did, however, mount a credible defense in support of Ezra Ross and Bathsheba Spooner. Lincoln argued that Ross had no intention of harming Joshua Spooner and was not aware of the plan until a few hours before the murder, had not assisted in the murder and pretended to support it to stay on good terms with his lover.
The trial was the first in American jurisprudence in which a plea of insanity was made. Bathsheba, her lawyer claimed, was clearly mad. He argued that she had a “disordered mind,” her actions were irrational, that the plan was poorly conceived with no plans for the perpetrators to escape.
Buchanan, Brooks and Ross were all found guilty of murdering Joshua Spooner, and Bathsheba was found guilty of being an accessory to it. All four were sentenced to death and execution was set for June 4, 1778.
After sentencing, Bathsheba sought a stay of execution by claiming she was pregnant. The common law at that time protected the life of a fetus if it had quickened – the moment of quickening refers to the first movement of the fetus in the uterus as it is perceived or felt by the pregnant woman. Spooner was examined by a panel of 12 women and two male midwives, who all swore that she was not “with child.”
After the trial, an elderly minister, Reverend Thaddeus Maccarty, often visited Bathsheba Spooner in her cell. A second examination of her body occurred after Spooner and Maccarty protested the midwives’ report, and four of the examiners joined by another midwife and Spooner’s brother-in-law, Dr. John Green, conducted a second examination and supported the claim of pregnancy.
Since no agreement had been reached by the expert witnesses, the court ruled that the executions would go forward, but Bathsheba would be allowed to ride to the event. Bathsheba desperately asked to be examined one more time, but this time her request was refused. She took the news of the rejection in stride, but she asked that her body be examined after her death to prove the truth of her claim.
Note about Thaddeus Maccarty
Thaddeus Maccarty, the son of a Boston sea captain, graduated from Harvard College in 1739. In 1747, he became the minister of the First Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he remained for the rest of his life. Because Worcester was the county seat, Maccarty was often called upon to preach at public events, such as the 1778 execution of Bathsheba Spooner and her three accomplices.
Bathsheba Spooner surprised the citizens of Worcester with her calm acceptance of her fate. Reverend Maccarty recalled:
I accompanied her in a carriage to the place of execution; she appeared undismayed and unaffrightened… At length we came in sight of the gallows. I asked her if the sight did not strike her? She answered not at all any more than any other subject. Her constitutional politeness remained.
Four people were hanged on July 2, 1878, before a crowd of 5000 spectators in Worcester’s Washington Square: Bathsheba Spooner, Ross, Brooks and Buchanan. She was thirty-three years old. Newspapers described the case as “the most extraordinary crime ever perpetrated in New England.”
On the evening of her execution Bathsheba Spooner was autopsied by a team of surgeons as she had requested, and she was indeed found to be pregnant with a 5 month-old male fetus.
Historians have questioned the motivation and validity of the opinions of the panel who examined Spooner for pregnancy, as well as the motivation of the Massachusetts Executive Council, suggesting that Spooner was executed based on the hostility in the community against her father’s support of the British cause.
Also, the deputy secretary and leader of the Massachusetts Executive Council, who signed Spooner’s death warrant, John Avery Jr., was part of a group of Patriots called ‘The Loyal Nine’ (the innermost circle of the Sons of Liberty) who opposed Timothy Ruggles and all Loyalists. Avery was also a close relative of Joshua Spooner’s stepbrother.
The infamous well which served as Joshua Spooner’s temporary coffin is identified by a granite marker. In summer, the stone is so richly covered by poison ivy that it is difficult to approach.