...in 1778, an intelligent and high-spirited beauty from Brookfield became the first woman to be executed in the new American republic. The 32-year-old's crime was indeed horrific: she had arranged for the cold-blooded murder of her husband by three soldiers who fell under her spell. But Bathsheba Spooner was also a victim. She was trapped by social mores that allowed no escape from an abusive husband. Condemned for her Loyalist sympathies, she was rushed to judgment by a community fearful of civil disorder. On the scaffold she declared that "she justly died; that she hoped to see her Christian friends she left behind her, in Heaven, but that none of them might go there in the ignominious manner that she did."
In January of 1778, a proud and independent-minded Bathsheba Spooner found herself in a desperate situation. She was locked in a loveless marriage to Joshua Spooner, an abusive man to whom she had "an utter aversion," and she was pregnant with her fifth child. The child she was carrying this time was not her husband's.
It was well known in the small Worcester County town that the Spooners were estranged; soon Bathsheba's swelling belly would testify to her adultery. It would not take long for people to connect her pregnancy with the 17-year-old Continental soldier she had housed and nursed when he fell ill on his way home from the front.
Bathsheba knew she would find few allies in Brookfield. She was the daughter of Timothy Ruggles, one of the wealthiest men in the neighboring town of Hardwick. Her father's favorite child, she enjoyed a more sumptuous life than her neighbors. In addition to his wealth, Timothy had passed on his strong-will and determined spirit qualities that were admired in a man but considered unbecoming in a woman. Bathsheba also seems to have shared her father's feelings of social superiority; his neighbors deferred to him until the day they ran him out of town for his Tory sympathies.
Seeing trouble brewing in the colonies, Timothy Ruggles sought to secure his daughter's social position by urging her to marry Joshua Spooner, a wealthy Brookfield farmer. After their marriage in 1766, the couple built a substantial home and lived a life, according to contemporaries, of "elegant accommodations" and "gaiety of dress." But Joshua Spooner was not Timothy Ruggles. In court depositions, he was described as a weak man, easily intimidated, unable to sustain "a manly importance as the head of the family." Others claimed that he was an abusive drunk, and several suggested that he seduced family servants when his wife turned him away.
Into this troubled scene came Ezra Ross, a young soldier who passed through Brookfield on his way home to the coastal town of Ipswich. When he fell ill, Bathsheba took him into her home and to her bed. Once he recovered, Ezra continued on to Ipswich and later returned to the front, but he managed to visit Brookfield several times over the next year. By January of 1778, Bathsheba's pregnancy threatened to reveal her unfaithfulness.
Bathsheba left no record of her feelings, but she must have been panicked. Her cuckolded husband would no doubt humiliate her (or worse), and the courts would back him up by publicly stripping and flogging her. Her Loyalist sympathies made her unpopular with the local people, and she had likely heard stories of Loyalist women who had been shamed, tarred, and feathered for less serious offenses than adultery.
With disaster looming, she hatched a plan. First, she persuaded her young lover to poison her husband. When Ezra lost his nerve, she lured two British deserters into her home and entertained them with rum, suggestions of sexual favors, and promises of payment. On a moonless night in March, she sat in her kitchen waiting for her drunken husband to return home. When he approached the house, one of the British soldiers attacked and beat him to death; then Ezra Ross helped the other one dump Joshua's body down the well.
It was a poorly planned crime. Within 24 hours authorities had discovered the murder and apprehended the perpetrators. They all implicated Bathsheba. In April she and the three men were tried for the murder of Joshua Spooner.
The year 1778 was a transitional time in Massachusetts. The new state had cast off British rule but had not yet adopted a constitution. Town officials and local courts struggled to maintain a semblance of order; there was a pervasive fear of lawlessness. The murder of Joshua Spooner was the first capital case to come to trial since the Revolution. Anxious to preserve order, the jurors acted quickly and decisively. It took them only one day to convict all four defendants and sentence them to death by hanging.
Afterwards, the three men made full confessions; Bathsheba refused to confess but she did appeal for a stay of execution until she could deliver her baby. With Massachusetts government in disarray, a Patriot-appointed council heard her appeal. Bathsheba Spooner did not have a chance. Not only were she and her father known for their Loyalist sympathies, but the deputy secretary of the council was her murdered husband's stepbrother. The appeal was denied. Bathsheba Spooner, five months pregnant, was hanged from the gallows along with her three co-conspirators.
Murdered by His Wife, by Deborah Navas (University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).