The Story of Bathsheba Spooner

I am delighted to welcome, author, Andrew Noone, whose book, ‘Bathsheba Spooner, A Revolutionary Murder Conspiracy’ makes for a fascinating read. Bathsheba was was the first woman in American history to be executed following the Declaration of Independence. Today Andrew is going to share with us a little about Bathsheba, followed by some questions and answers.

Bathsheba Spooner was the next-to-last of seven children born to Timothy Ruggles and Bathsheba Bourne Newcomb; Mrs. Ruggles had birthed eight children from her first marriage. Her mother’s roots were firmly planted in one of Cape Cod’s oldest families, her father’s from Roxbury. Timothy was born in 1711, descendant of a family long involved in Massachusetts politics, but none enjoyed the status to which he would rise.

A Brigadier General in the French and Indian War, he had also served as Speaker of the House for two years. His reputation suffered dramatically when, as delegate to the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 in New York, he refused to join those protesting the actions of Parliament and King George III. Now firmly placed in the camp of those loyal to the king, he freely accepted the position of mandamus councillor, one of the men who were appointed by the king’s governor to the upper Massachusetts house,
to do the king’s bidding.

Few men were as loathed in Massachusetts in the year 1774. That year, he was banished from his new hometown of Hardwick, a town his ancestors had
founded and he himself nurtured. He remained in British controlled Boston until Evacuation Day, March 17, 1776, when he was removed with most Tories to Staten Island.

In the meantime, daughter Bathsheba had married Joshua Spooner of Boston, a
businessman/land speculator/lumber salesman.

The couple settled in Brookfield, not far from nearby Hardwick; the marriage may have been an arranged one, a marriage which gossipers usually characterized as inharmonious.

Sixteen- year- old militiaman Ezra Ross of Topsfield (a native of Ipswich) left his hospital camp in 1777 in Peekskill, NY to venture home. En route, he was taken in by Bathsheba in Brookfield, and nursed back to health. He returned to Topsfield, then headed west again that fall to join what would become the Battle of Saratoga. The British had hoped to cut New England off from the remaining nine colonies, General Burgoyne’s troops heading south to meet up with General Howe’s troops heading north. It was not to be; Howe instead focused on Philadelphia, leaving
Burgoyne to fend off the increasing masses of American troops north of Albany. His entire army surrendered to American General Gates. Marched to Boston, the British prisoners of war were quartered in Cambridge and Charlestown.

Both Sgt. James Buchanan and Private William Brooks managed to escape (not a difficult task), and likely met each other in Worcester for the first time. Now February 1778, the men were apparently headed to Springfield for work when during a fierce snowstorm, they were called in to the Spooner home.

They remained there for the next few weeks, Bathsheba plotting her husband’s
murder with them. In the meantime, young Ezra Ross, just having attempted to poison Mr. Spooner, left with him to prepare his Princeton property, soon to be handed over to Spooner’s brother.

Ross never made it to Princeton, apparently, borrowing Spooner’s horse to return to Topsfield. All rendezvoused in Brookfield the evening of March 1, 1778; it is unclear if their meeting was coincidental or arranged. Having dined with a friend and his wife, Joshua returned home alone through the snow, and was assaulted at his well, beaten to death, and thrown in while his wife finished eating her dinner.
The clothes he wore and those from his chamber, along with his cash, were distributed among the three men, who fled on horseback and foot.

All were arrested the next day. The trial took place in late April, Abraham Lincoln’s distant cousin as defence attorney, Robert Treat Paine, a signer of the Declaration as prosecutor, in a trial organized by Gov. John Hancock. With a trial lasting just over a day plus, all were found guilty.

Courtesy of Historic Ipswich
Courtesy of Historic Ipswich

The date of execution was originally set for early June, but the four received a stay until July 2.

Bathsheba claimed pregnancy; the officials in Boston allowed an exam to be done, proving that she was not with child. She insisted; a second exam, not authorized, instead confirmed her pregnancy, but the Boston authorities would not relent.

Despite an informal third exam proving her right, her execution date was not changed.

On June 10, Abigail Adams wrote to her son John Quincy, with his father in Paris:

… the Modern History of our own times furnishes as black a list of crimes as can be paralleled in ancient time, even if going back to Nero, Caligula, or Cesare Borgia.

All four accomplices were hanged July 2; an autopsy requested by Bathsheba confirmed her pregnancy of five months, with a male child.

Timothy Ruggles eventually found his way to Nova Scotia, where as a loyal servant to the Crown he was granted a multi-hundred acre estate which he fostered as he had his legendary estate in Hardwick; his wife chose to stay behind in Massachusetts with their son. Timothy died in 1795, and was buried near his home in Nova Scotia.

Timothy Ruggles. Library of Congress
Timothy Ruggles. Library of Congress

To this day, the burial site in Green Hill Park of Bathsheba and her unborn son has never been located; it remains Worcester County’s favourite mystery.

What inspired you to write this book?
When my family bought our first home across the street from Green Hill Park, a friend came by for dinner a few weeks later. He reminded me of the infamous tale of Bathsheba Spooner. A lifelong devotee of Worcester’s history, especially as a village during the Revolution, I wanted to learn more. This being the late 90’s, besides a mid-19th c. essay and the odd article or two, no full scale study had ever been done. I decided that my first book would tackle the notorious episode. While in the middle of research, and with the book about a third written, Deborah Navas’ book appeared in 1999. Well written and scholarly, I admired her contribution, yet I still
hungered for a less academic approach, one which would comprehensively relate the details of the case; while nonfiction, I wanted to tell the story more like a novel. And I wanted to do more than just relate a true-to-life melodrama. Since the early 19th century, historians, poets and other writers from eastern Massachusetts have been Boston-centric in their retelling of the colony’s role in the Revolution, to the neglect of many other towns. Worcester’s contribution to the conflict and the events leading up to the opening gunshot looms dramatically larger than the mere 1,800 residents of 1778. I chose the tale of Bathsheba and her murderous lovers as the frame upon which to re-construct Worcester’s significant role in the rebellion.

Was Bathsheba insane?
Playing armchair psychologist from nearly two-and-a-half centuries away is tenuous for a professional; for me, impossible. We can only speculate, and the facts might lend themselves to characterizing Ms. Spooner as imbalanced. She had a sharp temper, and was involved sexually with at least two, and more likely five men, none of whom were her husband. She freely welcomed two enemy prisoners of war into her home, and on occasion, a handsome teenager, in her husband’s presence. Her actions were often erratic. She allowed her two-year-old daughter to touch her husband’s corpse. She jeopardized the future lives of her three surviving children. She lied incessantly. Would we be safe in assuming that she at least exhibited signs of a disordered personality? Although her attorney suggested insanity during the trial, it would take many more decades before such a defence would be admissible in a court of law.

Was teenager Ezra Ross truly guilty? And of what?
This is one of the hardest to answer, and the overall situation perhaps the most poignant of the saga. Age wise, the eighteenth-century freely condemned teenagers. But what exactly was his role? It appears that he had no knowledge of the murderous March 1 plot before that date. He had spent many days before at his Topsfield home (had Bathsheba sent him any letters while there? Given the slow pace of mail, it’s unlikely). He turned up in Brookfield only hours before
the murder, which he did discuss with the two British men, and Bathsheba. And keeping in mind that weeks earlier he had tried to poison Spooner, and had planned to try again before leaving for Topsfield, his background certainly did not incline the jury to consider his role more leniently.

To read the whole story Andrew’s book is available via the link at the beginning of the story.

Featured Image

Homestead of General Timothy Ruggles, Hardwick, Massachusetts Worcester Art Museum

‘An Unnatural Rebellion’: How the British Perceived the American Revolution

Today I’d like to welcome a new guest to All Things Georgian – Jordan Baker. Jordan holds a BA and MA in History from North Carolina State University. He is a lover of all things historical and concentrates his research and writing on the history of the Atlantic World. He also blogs about history and can be found at eastindiabloggingco.com.

The coming of the American revolution was a matter of great interest for the people back home in Britain. And, as with anything that proves interesting, the revolution was the subject of many different opinions. Across the country, the British weighed in on economics, military success and failures, the morality of the revolution, and more, through the press and private correspondence. As the British enjoyed one of the freest press systems in the world, not everyone felt obliged to speak out on behalf of His Majesty or the policies of Parliament. Mix all these ingredients together and you get some colourful, eighteenth-century commentary.

Money Problems

One of the most nagging questions for people in Britain during the American Revolution was what would happen to their investments and trade deals in the colonies. Merchants, nobility, and other well-to-do British subjects had millions of pounds invested in land holdings and trade deals in the colonies that now claimed independence. And, what was worse for these titans of finance, the revolutionary governments had seized all lands and property owned by loyalists.

As the Oxford Gazette put it in 1774,

The consequences of an American War to England will be estates in houses selling for nothing; in land high; money very scarce, and public credit low; no debts paying; no trade stirring.

This rather foreboding view of the war’s potential to wreak havoc on the British economy caused some to side with the Americans. In 1775, a group of merchants from Bristol wrote to the king, expressing their desire for an end to the conflict, lest trade be irrevocably damaged.

We can foresee no good effects to the commerce or revenues of this kingdom at a future period from any victories which may be obtained by your majesty’s army over desolated provinces and […] people.’

While some merchants felt that British trade could continue to prosper even if the rebelling colonies were given independence, others within the realm felt defeat would spell the beginning of the end for the empire. In 1776, one pamphlet writer, fortuitously forgetting about Britain’s holdings in Canada, the Caribbean, and India, insisted that losing America would be tantamount to “inclosing [sic] us within the confined seas of England, Ireland, and Scotland.”

Reynolds, Joshua; Doctor Samuel Johnson; Tate

Samuel Johnson and the Political Argument Against the Revolution

A leading voice of the opposition, British writer and political philosopher Samuel Johnson published his scathing opinions in his 1774 treatise, Taxation no Tyranny. To begin this work, Johnson gave a nod to the economic arguments that dominated the early days of the revolution, weighing in with his opinion:

‘That our commerce with America is profitable, however less than ostentatious or deceitful estimates have made it, and that it is our interest to preserve it, has never been denied; but, surely, it will most effectually be preserved, by being kept always in our own power. Concessions may promote it for a moment, but superiority only can ensure its continuance.’

The crux of Johnson’s argument, though, was the American colonies had no right to rebel and that their protests over taxation and lack of representation were unfounded. When Americans, or their ancestors, had left the island of Britain where they enjoyed representation in Parliament to seek land ownership or other opportunities in the New World they had given up their representation in the government of the empire.

Or, as Johnson stated,

he who goes voluntarily to America, cannot complain of losing what he leaves in Europe.

Additionally, since the British government protected these colonists, most recently during the French and Indian War, it had the right to tax them in order to afford to offer such protection.

Finally, as the final point in his argument, Johnson delved into the moral questions of the revolution. Penning one of the most scathing retorts to the American Revolution, a sentiment that still gets brought during discussion of the revolution, Johnson argued:

We are told, that the subjection of Americans may tend to the diminution of our own liberties; an event, which none but very perspicacious politicians are able to foresee. If slavery be thus fatally contagious, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?

Hot off the Press

Much of what we know regarding how British citizens across the Atlantic viewed and thought of the American Revolution comes from the copious amounts of coverage it received in the British press, between both newspapers and more editorialized pamphlets. Given that the revolution was the biggest news of the day, newspapers felt obliged to print articles on the happenings in America, lest they lose their readership and their profits.

While some publishers sympathized with the Americans, calling them the “chosen people” of the New World and proclaiming George Washington “a man of sense and great integrity,” most publications took a more negative view of the revolution. Indeed, in Britain many viewed the American Revolution as a civil war with their American cousins. Throughout the war, many newspapers throughout Britain stoked the flames of this opinion. “It is very melancholy to think that we must sacrifice so many brave lives, in order to put an end, to such an unnatural Rebellion,” G.B Brunell, a citizen of London, wrote in December 1776.

During the last few years of the war, the British press became flooded with stories of how Loyalists suffered at the hands of Patriots, prompting them to flee to Canada and the Floridas, and articles claiming that a dissatisfaction with the new state governments widely existed in  

America. Such stories led many Britons to doubt the ability of the United States to properly govern its own people, let alone do business with other nations. If a nation was born of the “criminal enterprise” of rebellion, could it ever really be trusted?

Conclusion

While Britons expressed a wide array of opinions on the American Revolution, a general sentiment of imperial anxiety runs through most of these thoughts. Whether those in Britain opposed or sympathized with the revolution, most of the thoughts written on the subject dealt with the effects on the empire’s economy, the morality of rebelling against one’s sovereign, and fears of the empire’s collapse.

Featured Image

John Trumbull, American, 1756–1843 Yale University Art Gallery