Trial of Bathsheba Spooner, et al.: 1778

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Trial of Bathsheba Spooner, et al.: 1778

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.

Bathsheba Plots to Kill Her Husband

In March 1777 Ezra Ross came to Brookfield. He was only 16, but had already served for a year in the Revolutionary War in a regiment under George Washington. He was making his way home, on foot, to Linebrook, Massachusetts, a distance of some 240 miles from Washington's encampment. Disease was rampant among the troops and it was a severe winter. Ross was ill, and Bathsheba Spooner took him into her household for several weeks and nursed him back to health. He then continued on his way home. He visited the Spooner household again in July 1777 when on his way back to rejoin the army, and he came back to Brookfield in December after participating in the four-month campaign that culminated with the surrender of the British under General Burgoyne at Saratoga.

During the following two months Ezra Ross came to be on good terms with Joshua Spooner, and began to accompany him on short business trips. He also became Bathsheba's lover, and she apparently began to urge him to poison her husband. In early February when Ezra Ross left with Joshua Spooner on an extended trip to Princeton, he had with him a bottle of nitric acid for that purpose; but he did not use it. Instead of coming back to Brookfield at the conclusion of business in Princeton, he returned home to Linebrook.

From subsequent events it has been inferred that it must have been around the end of January 1778, that Bathsheba Spooner realized she was pregnant, and her behavior became increasingly irrational. It has been generally assumed that Ezra Ross was the father, but this cannot be known with certainty; there are suggestions in the records that she may have had other lovers. In the months following the British surrender, there were many displaced British soldiers at large in the Massachusetts countryside. In mid-February, while her husband and Ezra Ross were in Princeton, Bathsheba invited two, Sergeant James Buchanan (spelled "Buchannon" in some records) and William Brooks, into her house, and according to servants and neighbors, entertained them lavishly. According to their subsequent confessions, Bathsheba discussed her plans for killing her husband with them, and, when he returned, not having been poisoned by Ezra, she began to try to recruit them to assist her. She also wrote to Ezra informing him of these developments, and he returned quickly to Brook-field, arriving on Saturday February 28, the same day that Bathsheba returned from spending two days in Worcester. In the late evening of the following day the three men waited at the house for Joshua Spooner to return home from an evening spent drinking with friends. As he entered the garden William Brooks attacked, beat, and strangled him. When he was either dead or unconscious Buchanan and Ross helped to push him, head down, into the well.

The Soldiers Are Arrested and Confess

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.