ON A MOONLESS March night in 1778, Joshua Spooner of Brookfield, Massachusetts, was murdered in his dooryard and his body stuffed down his well. The next day in Worcester, his murderers were caught, identified because they were wearing Spooner’s clothes and silver shoe buckles. The three men, who were Revolutionary War soldiers, quickly confessed their guilt and implicated Spooner’s wife, Bathsheba, as the instigator of the crime. All four were tried and found guilty. Four months later, the three soldiers and Bathsheba Spooner were hanged together in Worcester, Massachusetts, despite repeated appeals to the state for a stay of execution.
Supported by her prison confessor, Bathsheba Spooner had asked to be given time to deliver the child he was carrying, but the state denied her. A post-execution autopsy revealed she was indeed pregnant with a five-month male fetus; the State of Massachusetts was guilty of committing a murder while in the act of punishing a murder. This grim discovery might ordinarily have brought the curtain down on what was a sad and shameful episode of Massachusetts’s revolutionary history.
But the story refused a decent burial. Accounts of it appeared in diary entries and letters, and it lived on in memory and local legend, told and retold around hearths in earlier days. The year 1844 saw the story’s first published appearance among two volumes of famous murder cases by a noted Worcester lawyer, Peleg W. Chandler. A century later the story was fictionalized as The General’s Lady by Esther Forbes, and it has also been recapitulated in enumerable monographs and newspaper and magazine articles published over two centuries.
This 220-year-old murder remains one of New England’s most enduring mysteries, though it has never been a mystery in the whodunit sense. We know who did it: two British soldiers, Sergeant James Buchanan and Private William Brooks, and a young Continental soldier named Ezra Ross wrote a full confession of the crime. They freely admitted their guilt and were deeply penitent. And there is little doubt that Bathsheba Spooner, Joshua Spooner’s wife, was the chief perpetrator, though she made no public confession or act of contrition. Neither is there a great deal of mystery surrounding the facts. A detailed account of events can be reconstructed from the prisoners’ confession, trial notes, court records, and other documents, all of which are published in the appendixes.
In its own time the murder of Joshua Spooner was characterized as “the most extraordinary crime ever perpetrated in New England. But if the murder were all, the story would have been long forgotten. It is also a love story with tragic consequences and timeless implications.
From the records we know that Bathsheba Ruggles Spooner was beautiful, intelligent, high spirited, and witty. She was thirty-two years old at the time of the murder, a mother of three young children and extremely unhappy in her marriage. In her own words she felt “an utter aversion” to her husband. And, as the favorite daughter of Massachusetts’s most despised Loyalist, Brig. Gen. Timothy Ruggles, she was on the wrong side of the political fence in patriotic Massachusetts, caught up in the midst of the Revolution.
A year before the murder, in March 1777, fate intervened by delivering Ezra Ross to Bathsheba Spooner’s care. At sixteen, Ross had just finished his first year’s enlistment fighting with the Continental Army under General Washington. He was ill, walking home to Ipswich from Washington’s winter encampment in Morristown, New Jersey by way of the great post road. Ross passed through Brookfield within a few feet of the Spooner gate, and Bathsheba took him in and nursed him back to health. Ezra Ross returned to visit the Spooners in July of the following summer and again in December. Evidence strongly suggests that Ezra and Bathsheba became lovers and conceived a child and that Bathsheba’s pregnancy ultimately led to the ill-conceived murder.
The real mystery at the heart of this story is Bathsheba Spooner herself. Was she a cold-blooded murderess or the victim of a misogynist culture and justice system? Because she refused to repent publicly or explain herself, her silence has invited two centuries of reading between the lines.
“The past is always changing,” the writer May Sarton once observed, meaning that one’s perception of the past is changeable, reshaped by new information and new insights. Accordingly, Bathsheba Spooner has changed over two hundred years. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries most often vilified her. To Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, who visited her in prison and delivered a sermon after her execution, she was an evil woman, an adulteress guilty of “cruel. unnatural, loathsome murder … detestable uncleanness …. multiplied acts of unfaithfulness to the conjugal bonds and defiling the marriage bed.” In the nineteenth century, Peleg Chandler spoke of her “obdurate wickedness” and made the observation based on his reading of her character: “no criminals are so hardened … or endure a death of shame with more calmness or apparent innocence than women.”
It took an early feminist—a leader of the women suffrage movement—to view Bathsheba’s story with sympathy. In 1899, Elizabeth Cady Stanton published an article in the New York World entitled “The Fatal Mistake that Stopped the Hanging of Women in Massachusetts,” and started a revisionist trend. Twentieth-century writers have followed suit, sometimes lavishing sympathy to the point of ignoring altogether troublesome facts about the murder. Esther Forbes’s Bathsheba Spooner did not plot to murder her husband. Nor did she cuckold him, as the flesh-and-blood Bathsheba surely did. To be fair to Esther Forbes, reader in 1938 (when The General’s Lady was written) would have been no more sympathetic to wayward female sexual behavior than their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century forebears.
Along with changing perceptions of women in general, the historical record itself has been altered by new information recently come to light. Traditional accounts perpetuated a number of erroneous assumptions, passing them down over time as fact. One such inaccurate but widely held belief is that Joshua Spooner was much older than his wife. This misunderstanding was perhaps based on the prisoner’s confession, in which Sgt. Buchanan refers to Joshua as “the old fellow” and Bathsheba is quoted as calling him “Old Bogus.” But the Spooner genealogy lists Joshua Spooner’s birth date as 1741, making him only five years older than Bathsheba, who was born on 15 February 1746.
However, it is very possible that Joshua looked and acted much older than his chronological age. One source—apparently quoting Bathsheba—accuses him of being unmanly, and his behavior is represented as fearful and prissy in others. These unappealing traits present a far more complex and interesting ground for ill will between husband and wife, compared to his simply being an old man (with the cold-blooded implication made by some writers that his advanced age was reason enough to murder him).
In addition, two accounts of the Spooner trial that were not generally known before add significantly to the little we know of Joshua Spooner’s character. According to one witness whose testimony was recorded in notes written by prosecutor Robert Treat Paine, Spooner was “a bad man, bad to his wife, [and] … got himself drunk.” Another set of trial notes written by Associate Justice Nathaniel Peaslee Sargeant suggests that he may have kept a mistress.
Most important, there is new evidence that points to a truly reprehensible conflict of interest within the Massachusetts Council, upon whose judgment the life of Bathsheba’s unborn baby depended. The decision against a delay of execution until the child could be delivered appears to have been prompted by personal vengeance on the part of the state’s second highest legislative official, who was the murdered man’s stepbrother.
It seems time, then, to reexamine this old story of love, betrayal, and murder by the light of the present day and to make the record as accurate as possible. Bathsheba Spooner will continue to intrigue readers and writers well on into the twenty-first century and perhaps as long as there are readers and writers. But one must first do justice to the empirical truth in facts, as they come to be known, in order to intuit the far more profound, disturbing, and mysterious truths of the heart.
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