THE NATURAL darkness of an eighteenth-century night is hard to imagine in our highly illuminated present day. The night of 1 March 1778 in Brookfield, Massachusetts, was darker yet, for the moon had set early. Nearly new, its thin crescent had slipped below the horizon at 8:32 P.M., leaving only the infinitesimal, cold light of stars—if they were visible at all—to lend the snow-covered ground definition. In the utter darkness of that long-ago Sabbath evening, a man was about to be murdered in his dooryard.
That it was a moonless night must have seemed pure good luck to the murderer who, crouching beside the kitchen garden gate, would have been invisible to his victim. It is likely that no light was given off from the house’s windows. Interior shutters would have been carefully closed and latched to contain the soft glow from the kitchen fire as well as to shut out the brutal event soon to take place outside.
The victim’s name was Joshua Spooner, a thirtv-seven-vear-old well-to-do farmer and businessman. As the murderer kept watch awaiting his coming, Spooner was walking up the mild incline where the great road, as the post road was commonly called, ran alongside the front of his house. It was something after nine o’clock and most of Brookfield’s residents had banked their fires and retired to the warmth of their goose down bedding on that cold late-winter night.
The road would have been treacherous with frozen ruts at that time of year, and so Joshua Spooner probably carried a hand lantern with an enclosed candle to light his wav in the near pitch-darkness. It may have been the flicker of light that signaled Spooner’s approach to his murderer, who then ran through the house and out to the back dooryard to wait by the kitchen garden gate.
Spooner had just spent several hours drinking at his neighbor Ephraim Cooley’s tavern, accompanied by his friends, Dr. and Mrs. Jonathan King, who, like himself, were among Brookfield’s most prominent citizens. His thoughts were apt to be happily engaged with the conversation just passed rather than with any anticipated pleasures at home. He and his wife, Bathsheba, did not get along. Lately she had been keeping two disreputable-looking British soldiers in the house, and they had taken advantage of his hospitality by eating from his stores, drinking his rum, and running up bills for grog at the local taverns. They were escaped prisoners-of-war, among the hundreds of Gen. Burgoyne’s captured troops who were notorious for committing highway robberies and other crimes throughout Massachusetts at that time. He had not liked their looks, and he had asked his wife to get rid of them.
On the night of his murder, Joshua Spooner probably assumed that the British soldiers were long gone. In the two weeks following his ultimatum, the soldiers had been kept out of his sight. Bathsheba Spooner had put them up in the barn, fed them and brought them drink, and invited them into the house when her husband was asleep or gone from home. During those two weeks she had been furiously engaged with them concocting improbable schemes for murdering her husband. On the moonless Sabbath evening when Joshua Spooner walked home from Cooley’s tavern, he had no idea of her deadly intentions.
William Brooks was the murderer who crouched by the kitchen garden gate awaiting Joshua Spooner. Very soon Brooks would hear Spooner’s footsteps ascend the four granite steps that led from the road to the dooryard and then the unmistakable sound of the front gate’s latch. Following the homely rattle of the latch would come the damp thunk of fist hitting flesh and a cry for help that went unanswered.
Bathsheba in the sitting room—separated from the murderous beating by only a few short feet, a wooden louvered shutter, and the thickness of a pane of glass—surely caught her husband’s dying call. When William Brooks was finished and the body pushed down into the well, he and his two cohorts went inside the house to find Bathsheba stunned and in a state of confusion.
Later, her neighbors insisted that she view the corpse, against her wishes. When she saw the reality of what her plotting had wrought, she touched her husband’s bruised forehead and exclaimed, “Poor little man.” It was a cry of the heart that rings true two hundred and twenty years later, expressing shock and perhaps some sympathy, if not grief.
Joshua Spooner’s murder was a brutal, poorly planned, and senseless act, which three of its perpetrators would go on record as regretting profoundly. All four would pay for it with their lives. It caused the death of a child in utero and orphaned at least four others. And it so easily might never have happened, if the moon had been out on 1 March 1778 or if Joshua Spooner had not carried a light.
Or if divorce had been an option for eighteenth-century women.
That it was thought to be “the most extraordinary crime ever perpetrated in New England” is a measure of the profound fear and horror excited throughout the infant nation—in the midst of a war to throw off the yoke of oppression—by the murder of a man by his wife.