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Ruth Blay Hanged Here in 1768

gallows

 

HISTORY MATTERS 

Researcher Carolyn Marvin is possessed by the story of the last woman executed in the state of New Hampshire. Among three NH women hanged for "concealment", Ruth Blay has largely been lost to history – until now. Marvin offers us an exclusive look at her ongoing study.

 

Killed for concealing illegitimate birth

The last woman executed in New Hampshire was hanged in a slow gruesome public spectacle as a thousand citizens of Portsmouth watched. After numerous delays, Ruth Blay of South Hampton was driven by horsecart to the highest point on South Street, now South Cemetery in Portsmouth. On December 30, 1768 the executioner threw a rope over a newly constructed gallows, placed a noose around Blay’s neck, and withdrew the cart from under her feet.

Ruth Blay did not die instantly. The "short drop" method of hanging usually failed to break the prisoner’s neck, causing a slow death by strangulation. Criminals hanged in this fashion reportedly struggled for up to three minutes and could exhibit a heartbeat for half an hour. Friends or relatives sometimes clung to the victim’s legs to put an end to the suffering. Ruth Blay was not convicted of murder or infanticide, as many still believe, or of "bastardy". She was, technically, the third and final NH woman executed for "concealment" of her illegitimate child, even though most believe that the child was stillborn.

A woman lost to history

Researcher Carol Marvin wants to know Ruth Blay. For two years Marvin has mined the state archives and town records, traced Blay’s genealogy and sifted through historical collections in Worcester and Salem. What began as a hobby has become a quest, perhaps an obsession. When not working at the Portsmouth Athenaeum or caring for her granddaughter, Marvin is digging into the life, trial and execution of Ruth Blay. She is polishing a scholarly paper on Blay, and plans to begin writing a book.

"When I started this," Marvin says, "I was so filled with anger and sorrow about what had happened to this woman."

Nineteen century historian Charles Brewster refers to Blay simply as "a poor, misguided girl" although the former schoolteacher was 31 years old at her death. Brewster recounts the popular legend that Thomas Packer, Portsmouth’s High Sheriff, executed Blay just moments before a messenger arrived with a pardon from the provincial governor of New Hampshire. Packer ignored calls from the crowd to delay the hanging, the story goes, because he wanted to get home in time for dinner. That night a mob surrounded the sheriff’s house and burned him in effigy.

The legend is largely false, Marvin says. Blay did receive three brief reprieves during five months in Portsmouth jail. But there was no last minute pardon from Royal Governor John Wentworth who lived only blocks away from the South Street gallows. The legend is not really focused on Blay, Marvin points out, but on Sheriff Packer. It is an expression of troubled times, just prior to the American Revolution, when the public was up in arms against repressive British laws. Two years earlier, in 1766, a Portsmouth mob burned the local tax collector in effigy while protesting the hated Stamp Act, then drove him out of town. Seven years after Blay’s execution, even Gov. Wentworth was forced to flee the city under penalty of death.

"Ruth was the central character in this drama," Marvin says, "and yet no one seemed to know who she was... just another woman lost in time."

Finding the victim’s voice

Slowly, through painstaking research, Marvin is reanimating the ill-fated schoolteacher. We believe, for example, that from August to December Blay suffered both extreme heat and extreme cold in the dreary jail on Prison Lane, near the site of the Music Hall today. Twice she became so ill that authorities had her examined by Dr. Josiah Bartlett, who years later would sign the Declaration of Independence.

Marvin knows the names of Blay’s jurors, her judges, her relatives, her friends and employer.. Blay was from a middleclass family that valued education. While awaiting her execution, Blay wrote an impassioned declaration of her innocence. She admits to having hidden her stillborn infant under the floorboards of a barn in South Hampton out of shame and desperation. The body wrapped in a quilt was discovered three days later by children playing in the barn. A quilt, reported to have belonged to Ruth Blay is part of the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society.

"I felt very drawn to Ruth after reading the Declaration & Confession," Marvin says. "Curiously, in my research, I find her 18th century relatives living in several Vermont towns where I either have family or have lived myself. So maybe, I was meant to tell her story. I'd like to think so."

Although Blay refused to name the father of her child, Marvin suspects that he may have been a local minister. In her dying declaration, Blay insists she would never have harmed her child, had it lived, and was given poor consul at her trial. Marvin believes she may have been the victim of jealousy and revenge by a small group that resented her education and social status.

"Ruth got some bad advice," Marvin says. "And there were women who bore false witness against her. I’m pretty sure I know who and why."

 

Death to the underclass

The more she studies the tragic story, Marvin says, the more she realizes that Ruth Blay was a victim of her times. Like Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenney who were also executed in Portsmouth, Blay lived in a society that ostracized unmarried mothers and hanged women who concealed an illegitimate birth. (The death penalty for concealment was abolished soon after the American Revolution.) She was sentenced by an all-male jury. At her execution, a sanctimonious pastor publicly condemned Blay for her evil ways. She was buried in unhallowed ground.

To date New Hampshire has executed 20 men for murder and three women for concealment of an illegitimate child. One additional man, Thomas Powers was hanged in 1796, the only man in NH history executed for rape, and the only African American, so far, executed in this state. Michael Addison, currently on death row for murdering a police officer, is also African American.

Carolyn Marvin sees a place for Ruth Blay in the state debate over capital punishment now revived by the Addison conviction. NH has not executed anyone since 1939.

"A majority of those who are sentenced to suffer the death penalty are society's marginalized persons," she says, "either economically, socially, racially, or by gender. Ruth was educated, but relatively poor, and female. The laws of the time discriminated against women and she suffered for those biases."

© 2008 by J. Dennis Robinson and SeacaostNH.com. All rights reserved.

 

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