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December 27, 1739
EXECUTION IN PORTSMOUTH
Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenny were hanged in Portsmouth for murdering their infants. Their public execution, the first in the state, began the long unresolved debate over capital punishment in New Hampshire. Historian Christopher Benedetto digs into the story of two women victimized by the law and asks -- Who was the baby discovered in the well?
"A Warning to All Others"
The Story of the First Executions in NH History
By Christopher Benedetto
Reprinted by permission of the New England Historic Genealogical Society
Click here for Author Footnotes
On December 27, 1739, the residents of Portsmouth, New Hampshire and surrounding towns gathered to witness the hanging of Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenny, who had committed what Reverend Arthur Browne classified as “the most unnatural murder.” ( 1) Between 1623 and 1800, twenty-nine women in all, most of them white servants or Afro-American slaves, were executed for the crime of infanticide across New England. ( 2) While no historical markers commemorate where they lived or where they died, Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenny were also the first individuals to suffer capital punishment in New Hampshire’s history, and their executions ignited an intense debate over the death penalty in the Granite State that continues over two centuries later.( 3) It is appropriate, then, to revisit this haunting tragedy, and return to a dark and tumultuous period in New England’s past.
Mixing Sexual Politics, Medicine and Religion
At the end of the 1720s, there were signs of trouble on the horizon in the province of New Hampshire. A violent earthquake shattered the tranquil night of October 29, 1727, which ministers across New England, including Jabez Fitch of Portsmouth, interpreted as a divine omen of the “Wrath to come” if the populace did not engage in a “universal and constant Reformation.” (4 ) Then in September 1729, Governor William Burnet died suddenly, and Jonathan Belcher, a well-connected merchant from Massachusetts, was appointed by King George II to be Burnet’s successor. (5 ) It soon became clear that Belcher’s administration would be fraught with controversy. New Hampshire had already been involved in a heated border dispute with Massachusetts for decades, and the new governor only added fuel to the fire. Belcher also made enemies when he broke with custom by denying lieutenant governor John Wentworth, a prominent figure in provincial politics, a share of his substantial salary.(6 ) This snub was the first salvo in a decade-long battle between Belcher and his allies and the Wentworth family who were determined to drive him out of office.
In addition to this political discord, New Hampshire experienced widespread social turmoil during the 1730s. The colony’s population swelled to nearly 25,000, buoyed by an influx of English and Scots-Irish immigrants. (7 ) Among those to relocate to New Hampshire was Reverend Arthur Browne, a native of Ireland who had served as the rector of King’s Chapel in Providence, Rhode Island for six years before moving to Queen’s Chapel, the first Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, in 1736. (8 ) But when he arrived, communities across New Hampshire were still reeling from an epidemic that had raged since May 1735.
This “Distemper in the throat,” which was probably diphtheria, resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 people, taking a particularly devastating toll on children. In Portsmouth alone, over eighty children under the age of ten perished, and Jabez Fitch wrote that the “loss of so many children…ought…to be lookt upon as a Frown of Providence upon the Land in general, as well as a sore Affliction to the Parents in particular.” ( 9) Only with “unfeigned Repentance and humble Supplication,” Fitch once again argued, would the people of Portsmouth be sheltered in the future “from the fierceness of his Anger.” ( 10)
CONTINUE with A WARNING TO ALL OTHERS