Pregnant, Poisonous, Pleading, and Placed in the Noose

Either the Council of Massachusetts Deputy Secretary operated under its own agenda in the hanging of Bathsheba Ruggles Spooner or they believed the cold-hearted woman wasn’t pregnant, but merely trying to postpone the inevitable. Born in 1746, Bathsheba, a beautiful and intelligent woman, was reportedly the favorite daughter of one of Massachusetts’s most prominent citizens, the wealthy Brigadier General bathsheba-spoonerTimothy Ruggles from 1762 to 1764. Ruggles arranged the marriage of his daughter to Joshua Spooner. The son of a wealthy Boston merchant, Joshua was a well-to-do Brookfield farmer. There seems to have been an age gap between the Bathsheba and Joshua.. Joshua may have been a “retired merchant” while other sources state that he was born in 1741, only five years before his wife. Bathsheba had her first child in April 1767 and gave birth three more times between 1770 and 1775. Reportedly, the marriage was unhappy although the precise reasons are not known. The energetic and outgoing Bathsheba may have been contemptuous of the weak-willed Joshua, while other sources stated that she feared him because he was often drunk and abusive. Further, he may have had sexual relations with household servants. Infidelity might have easily triggered a multitude of negative emotions in his wife.

Bereft of close family members, Bathsheba may have felt increasingly trapped by her marriage to a courtman for whom she would later admit she had “an utter aversion.” In March 1777, the Spooners took Ezra Ross, 16, a wounded soldier into their household and Bathsheba nursed him back to health. He became close to Bathsheba and was sexually intimate with her, resulting in a pregnancy. She asked Ezra to poison her husband so he wouldn’t discover her act of adultery. Bathsheba gave Ezra a bottle of nitric acid and urged him to murder Joshua with it. Although Ezra took the bottle, he did not poison Joshua. While Joshua and Ezra were in Princeton in February 1778, Bathsheba invited two British soldiers, James Buchanan and William Brooks, into her house. The two men ate and drank at Joshua’s expense. Barthsheba shared with them how unhappy she was in her marriage and how much she wanted to become a widow.

Joshua returned in good health to Brookfield and took a dim view of his wife’s house guests. Joshua ordered them out of his house. Buchanan and Brooks returned to Joshua’s house two weeks later on March 1, 1778. Joshua was out drinking. Ezra Ross had also visited the house that spoonerwell2aday. When Joshua came home, Brooks beat and strangled him. Ezra pulled a watch off Joshua and gave it to Buchanan. After Joshua was dead, the threw his corpse to the Spooner well. Buchanan pulled off Joshua’s shoes. When the three returned to Bathsheba, she gave them money and clothing and they left. Perhaps disturbed by the memory of the previous evening all three began drinking early the next morning. Buchanan and Brooks showed up at a tavern where their expensive clothes, and Brooks flashed the silver-buckled shoes and the telltale initials J.S., Bathsheba reported to authorities that her husband was “missing.” Searchers found his corpse in the well. Soon Bathsheba, Buchanan, Brooks, and Ezra were under arrest. The three men implicated Bathsheba Spooner and three of her household servants, Sarah Stratton, her son Jesse Parker, and Alexander Cummings but nothing came of the false accusations about the servants.

Spectators packed the courtroom on April 24, 1777. All four were found guilty and their execution was scheduled for June 4, 1777. Bathsheba “pleaded her belly,” in the phrase of the time period. She said she was pregnant and that she was “quick with child” meaning thetrial fetus was moving inside her. The rule at the time was that a pregnant woman could be executed in the very early stages of pregnancy but if it was advanced enough that the unborn was moving, or “quick,” her execution had to be delayed until the birth. Since condemned women often falsely claimed to be “quick with child”, this claim always first resulted in an examination to see if it was likely she was telling the truth. Bathsheba’s first petition led to her own and her co-defendants’ executions being initially postponed. On June 11, a panel examined Bathsheba. All signed a document stating she was not “quick with child.”Bathsheba requested a second examination and on June 27, a second panel examined her. Some of the examiners stated that she was indeed “quick with child.” Either way, Bathsheba received no further reprieve.  Quite possible bias may have been behind the haste to execute Bathsheba because the Deputy Secretary who signed the final warrant for the executions was Joshua Spooner’s stepbrother. Also, Bathsheba’s father had been banished from Brookfield for being a British Loyalist, influencing the committee’s decision.

A crowd of five thousand gathered to watch the malefactors put to death even though a thunderstocriminal-profiles-2rm broke out. Bathsheba appeared calm but very weak. She could not walk and was carried to the place of execution in a chaise. She crawled up the steps to the gallows on her hands and knees. Her last words were, “I justly die. I hope to see my Christian friends that I am leaving behind in Heaven but hope that none of them go there in the ignominious manner that I do.”  An autopsy revealed a five-month male fetus in her womb. The public was suddenly sympathetic to the murderer who had told the truth about her pregnancy. Commenting on the case in 1844, Peleg W. Chandler wrote that such sympathy appeared to lead some to forget “how deeply her hands were stained with blood.”

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