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et al. Trial of Bathsheba Spooner: 1778 - The Soldiers Are Arrested And Confess

murder ross worcester joshua

Brooks, Buchanan, and Ross were arrested the next day in Worcester. They apparently had made no plans for escaping, and had called attention to themselves by, in the case of Brooks and Buchanan, getting very drunk, and being in possession of Joshua Spooner's silver shoe buckles, and in the case of Ezra Ross, trying to hide himself in the attic of the tavern. They immediately confessed, implicating Bathsheba and two servants in the household, Sarah Stratton and Alexander Cummings. On April 21 a grand jury returned an indictment charging Brooks with assaulting Joshua Spooner and inflicting the wounds from which he died, Buchanan and Ross with aiding and abetting in the murder, and Bathsheba Spooner with inciting, abetting, and procuring the manner and form of the murder. They were arraigned and pleaded not guilty. Twelve male freeholders of Worcester were impaneled as jurors and the trial was set for the following Friday, April 24, before a panel of five judges, Jedediah Foster, Nathaniel Peaslee Sargeant, David Sewall, James Sullivan, and Chief Justice William Cushing. The trial was held in the Old South meeting house, before a packed courtroom. It lasted only one day, but began at 8:00 A.M. and ended at midnight.

The prosecution presented many neighbors and acquaintances who testified both to the family relationships between Joshua Spooner and his wife, and to events on the night of the murder. Sarah Stratton and Alexander Cummings, who, it is thought, must have been aware of the plan, and may have assisted in it, testified for the prosecution, presumably in return for a grant of immunity. Levi Lincoln, a young Worcester attorney who would later become U.S. attorney general under Thomas Jefferson, was assigned to defend the four accused. He had a difficult task, as the three men had signed written confessions. He apparently presented no witnesses. There was little he could do for Brooks or Buchanan, but he was more eloquent on behalf of Ezra Ross and Bathsheba Spooner. Ross, he tried to persuade the jury, had had no design to harm Joshua Spooner, and was unaware of the plan until a few hours before it was carried out. He had not physically assisted in the murder, and had appeared to favor it in order "to keep on terms" with his lover. Of Bathsheba he said that, "There is the best evidence of a disordered mind that the nature of the thing will admit of." Many of her actions before and after the murder were irrational. No plan had been formed for the murder itself, or to conceal it, or for the perpetrators to escape.

The following day the jury returned a verdict of guilty for all four prisoners and they were sentenced to death by hanging. The execution was set for June 4, but in May it was postponed. Bathsheba petitioned for delay on the grounds of her pregnancy. Common law generally protected the life of a fetus which had "quickened"—that is, begun to move independently. Before that stage its existence was not recognized in the law. A panel of 12 women examined Bathsheba on June 11, and they all signed a sworn statement that they did not find her "quick with child." Bathsheba protested the finding, and a second examination was made on June 27. This time four of the examiners supported Bathsheba's claim, but no action was taken on this finding. Ezra Ross's parents submitted a long and eloquent petition for clemency for their young son, but this also was ineffective. On July 2 all four were executed by hanging in Worcester before a crowd estimated at five thousand. Bathsheba Spooner never signed a confession or indicated remorse, but went calmly and peacefully to her death.

A post-mortem autopsy, which Bathsheba had requested, showed that she was carrying a well-formed male fetus of approximately five months. Historians have therefore questioned the veracity and motivations of the examiners who found her not to be quick with child, as well as the motivation of the Council of Massachusetts in its intransigence over the execution. It has been argued that she bore the brunt of the community's hostility towards her father for his devotion to the Loyalist cause. In her book Murdered by His Wife, Deborah Navas points out that the deputy secretary of the Council of Massachusetts, who signed the final warrant for the execution, was not only Joshua Spooner's stepbrother, but also a member of a small group of patriots who all pursued a vendetta against Brigadier General Timothy Ruggles. Also unresolved are the issues of Bathsheba's personality and motivation. It can probably never be known whether she was a cold-blooded murderer or whether circumstances not fully understood caused her to become mentally deranged. Nor is it known how she was able to persuade others to assist her in such a foolish and doomed scheme.

David I. Petts

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bullock, Chandler. The Bathsheba Spooner Murder Case. Worcester, Mass: American Antiquarian Society, 1939.

Chandler, Peleg W. "Trial of Mrs. Spooner and Others." In American Criminal Trials. Vol. 2. Boston: T. H. Carter, 1844.

Navas, Deborah. Murdered by His Wife. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

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