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et al. Trial of Bathsheba Spooner: 1778

Bathsheba Plots To Kill Her Husband, The Soldiers Are Arrested And Confess

Names of Defendants: Bathsheba Ruggles Spooner, William Brooks, James Buchanan, Ezra Ross.
Crimes Charged: Murder, accomplice before the fact.
Chief Defense Lawyer: Levi Lincoln
Chief Prosecutor: Robert Treat Paine
Judges: William Cushing, Jedediah Foster, Nathaniel Peaslee Sargeant, David Sewall, James Sullivan
Place: Worcester, Massachusetts
Date of Trial: April 24, 1778
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Execution by hanging.

SIGNIFICANCE: Set against the background of the social disruption of the American Revolutionary War, this murder was sensational in its day, and has continued to intrigue historians and writers because of several unresolved elements in the characters and motivations of Bathsheba Spooner and her accomplices.

At a time when class distinctions were important and social status was determined by family lineage, both Bathsheba Ruggles Spooner and her husband, Joshua Spooner, were scions of prominent families of the colonial aristocracy, raised to a life of wealth and privilege. The Declaration of Independence and the ensuing war, however, caused family rifts and animosities that quite possibly affected the course of events that culminated in Bathsheba's execution. Her father, Brigadier General Timothy Ruggles, a lawyer, and himself chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas in Worcester, Massachusetts, from 1762 to 1764, remained a Loyalist, and the hatred generated by this extended to members of his family. Joshua Spooner's father, John Spooner, had immigrated from England and became a wealthy Boston commodities merchant. Although the bulk of his estate was inherited by his eldest son John, Joshua Spooner, the third son, was a wealthy and well-connected young man when he married.

Joshua Spooner was born in 1741; Bathsheba Ruggles in February 1746. They were married on January 15, 1766, and had their first child in April 1767. Three more children were born between 1770 and 1775, although the second son, John, died a few weeks after his birth. In these years immediately before the Revolution they were living in what was considered an elegant two-story house in Brookfield, Massachusetts, and were considered wealthy by their neighbors. However, it was becoming common knowledge that the marriage was not happy, 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 abusive of his wife, and was also a weak manager of his household and affairs. Bathsheba, on the other hand was independent, strongwilled, and impetuous.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832