Thursday, October 8, 2020

In Their Footsteps: New England History - Bathsheba Spooner's 18th Century Murder for Hire


    It is October, Halloween time. It is the time of year for scary stories. Sometimes the scariest stories come from reality. Over the decades New England has seen more than its share of scary stories. Cape Cod alone has seen The Lady of the Dunes murder, Tony Costa and his killing spree, Nurse Jane Toppan and her rash of poisonings, not to mention countless stories of paranormal activities in the old homes of the Cape.

    When looking back in time though there has to be a first. A first true crime story that rocked this area. This story could have been ripped straight from tabloid headlines of the 21st century. However it happened in the infancy of the United States. During the American Revolution a wild and unbelievable crime happened. This is the story of the murder perpetrated by Bathsheba Spooner. It made her the first woman to be executed in America after the Declaration of Independence.

    Bathsheba Spooner was born Bathsheba Ruggles on February 15, 1746 in Sandwich. She was the daughter of General Timothy Ruggles and his wife also named Bathsheba. She was the sixth of seven children the couple had. Timothy was a well respected man in town, practicing law while also helping his wife run the Newcomb Tavern she inherited upon her first husband's death. However the Cape did not feel big enough for Ruggles and he moved his family to the town of Hardwick, Massachusetts, twenty miles west of Worcester, in 1753.

    Ruggles eventually became a judge in Worcester County and a representative to the General Court. Things changed though as the American Revolution drew near. Timothy was fiercely loyal to the British and even took a position in the Governor's Council opposing his former Colonial allies. In 1776 he left for New York and was eventually relocated to Canada by the British after the Revolutionary War ended.

    Despite his later efforts, Ruggles was well off. His daughter Bathsheba grew up wealthy and her attitude reflected this. She was beautiful and knew it, and developed much of her personality traits from her early years around the Newcomb Tavern. Bathsheba was married at 21 to a man more than twice her age. Joshua Spooner, a retired trader, was by all accounts a feeble man not capable of handling a far younger uninhibited wife. The union was not a happy one.

    Living in Brookfield, near Worcester, during their 12 years of marriage Bathsheba grew weary of her older husband and developed a wandering eye. She particularly liked the young soldiers. The first such interest occurred in 1775. 16-year-old Ezra Ross from Ipswich had joined the Continental Army. He was returning home on foot and ended up getting sick. Ross wound up spending some time convalescing at the Spooner home. Bathsheba treated the sick young man well and they began a secret affair.

Brookfield, Mass where the murder took place. (John Phelan)

    Young Ross returned home to Ipswich yet continued to pay visits to the Spooners. Joshua seemed blissfully ignorant of the situation though Bathsheba began to realize that would not remain the case forever. Already the mother to two daughters with Joshua Bathsheba became pregnant with a third child. However this child did not share the same father. She knew that Ezra Ross would eventually be revealed to be the father and the fallout would be massive.

    In January 1778 rather than risk losing everything, especially her wealth, should her husband find out of her affair a plan was hatched. Joshua Spooner needed to go. The first plan failed at the start as Bathsheba tried to persuade Ezra to poison Joshua. He lost his nerve. Bathsheba then knew she needed more than Ezra Ross to help her get rid of Joshua. She brazenly ordered her house servant Alex Cummings to invite inside any British soldier that might be passing by.

    Two soldiers, James Buchanan and William Brooks, were lured into the plan with a little alcohol and promises of sexual favors and money. Joshua returned from being out of town and found the British soldiers in his house and justifiably ejected them. Rather than the young men leaving they ended up stowing away in the barn for three days with Bathsheba secretly bringing them food. With three soldiers in tow, Bathsheba decided it was time to proceed with her murder-for-hire plot.

    Joshua returned home on the evening of March 1, 1778 from a night of drinking at Cooley's Tavern between 8-9pm. Buchanan and Brooks were essentially ordered to dispatch of Spooner by any means necessary quickly. The men bludgeoned Joshua to death with clubs in his own front yard. The body was tossed down a well on the property and the deed was done. Bathsheba's plan had seemingly gone off without a hitch and the hindrance to her happiness was gone. Within 24 hours though the tide shifted.

The marker for the Spooner Well (Odd Things I've

    The murder of Joshua Spooner was discovered quickly by police with Bathsheba and her three co-conspirators being arrested. Although initially pleading not guilt Ross, Buchanan, and Brooks eventually all pointed the finger at Bathsheba for the plot and begged for mercy. The trial was set to commence on April 21, 1778.

    Of the four on trial the only one with even a shred of a chance of mercy was Ezra Ross whose involvement in the actual murder was unknown. The testimony of servant Alex Cummings though put the nail in the coffin of all of them. He had heard them talking openly of the plot to kill Spooner. Immediately after the murder Cummings saw the soldiers burning bloody clothes and Bathsheba paying them off. Several other witnesses, including other house servants, testified. In the end all four were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.

    This was not the end of this story. After the sentence Ezra Ross' parents sent a letter of appeal to the court. It stated that Ross was young and had been seduced by an older woman. The appeal was rejected. A larger story developed when a plea was raised by Bathsheba that she was pregnant. She wanted a stay of execution at least long enough to deliver her baby. A jury of 12 nurses, 10 women and 2 men, was appointed to examine her. After examination it was a vote of 9-3 that Bathsheba was not pregnant.

Bathsheba Spooner waiting at the gallows. (Historic

    All of the appeals exhausted the quadruple hanging took place on July 2, 1778. The three young men went first with Bathsheba's finals moments saved for last. She calmly met her end waving gentle goodbyes to friends among the hundreds in the audience. The last shock of this shocking case came moments after Bathsheba Spooner's lifeless body was lowered from the gallows. Upon a further, more in depth evaluation, it was revealed that she in fact pregnant like she had said. Her son was delivered right there under the gallows mere moments after his mother's death.

    Bathsheba Spooner grew up wealthy, shaped by her time around strong-willed parents and a thriving tavern scene. She married young, to a man twice her age. A man she seemingly did not respect and had nothing in common with. She got involved with a younger man. To the untrained eye it appears as though the end was inevitable for Bathsheba. She became the first woman to be executed after the Declaration of Independence and the sensational details of the murder for hire plot of her husband gripped the region.

    For those looking to add to the creepiness of this legendary murder story the well where Joshua Spooner's body was dumped still exists. In Brookfield, Massachusetts it is marked with a stone denoting the fate of the former property owner at the hand of his wife and her three accomplices.


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