May 18, 1820

Newburyport Fire Leads to Execution for Arson


On this day in 1820, a barn filled with hay burned to the ground in Newburyport. Just three days later, cries of "fire" alarmed the town again. Terrified residents were convinced they had an arsonist in their midst. Sixteen-year-old Stephen Clark was arrested and charged with arson — a capital offense even when there was no personal injury or loss of life. The jury found him guilty but recommended commutation of the sentence. Nevertheless, the state hanged him on May 10, 1821. Clark's case fueled the movement in Massachusetts to reduce the number of capital crimes, if not abolish the death penalty altogether. By 1852 only murder remained on the books as a capital offense. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1984.


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