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First Women Executed in NH

Hanged in Portsmouth, NHDecember 27, 1739

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

A Revolutionary era hangingOn 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)



The Baby in the Well

Rev. Arthur Browne of Portsmouthm, NH / SeacoastNH.comBut only three years later, Reverend Fitch and his community were visited by another “affliction,” when the dead body of a female newborn was found floating in a well in Portsmouth on August 11, 1739. (11 ) Warrants were issued and “a Widow woman named Sarah Simpson who had been suspected some time before to have been with child, was apprehended and charged with being the mother of the child found in the well.” (12 )  Simpson was “about 27 years [born] in ye parish of Oyster River,” in Durham, and she was “put out young, and serv’d her apprenticeship in Portsmouth.”  (13)  She denied that the infant in the well was hers, but admitted she had recently given birth, and then shocked officials by leading them to a shallow grave where an infant’s body had been “buried about four inches underground by the riverside.”

Events took an unexpected twist the next day when Penelope Kenny, a twenty-year-old Irish servant in the household of Dr. Joseph Franklin, was interrogated by provincial officials who suspected her of being the mother of the baby in the well. (14 )  Not satisfied with her answers, they forced her to be physically examined by “four or five skillful Women,” very likely midwives, “who reported that according to their Judgment she had been delivered of a Child within a week.” But Kenny still “would not give direct Answers to questions put to her,” and only after spending a night in jail, she finally confessed that she “alone delivered of a Male-Child alive the Wednesday Morning before,” and “put it alive into a tub in her Master’s Cellar and then left it, till Friday-Night following, when she threw it into the River.” (15 )

Women Driven to Infanticide

What might have driven colonial women like Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson to abandon or even murder their own children? In provincial New Hampshire, as was common across colonial America, the punishment of fornication and bastardy was harsh, and the stigma that followed could cost a working class woman her livelihood. (16 ) When Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson gave birth in August 1739, they both knew that the physical product of their sexual improprieties must be concealed.  It was an awful decision to have to make, but in their minds “infanticide might have seemed a matter of survival.”  (17 ) The discarding of illegitimate children, however, seems to have been an issue in New Hampshire long before 1739. In 1714, the General Assembly passed  “An Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children,” which declared

Whereas many lewd women that have been delivered of Bastard children, to avoid shame and escape punishment, do secretly bury or conceal the death of their children…Be it therefore enacted…that if any woman be delivered of any Issue of her body, male or female, which if it were born alive should by law be a Bastard; and that she endeavor privately either by drowning or secret burying thereof…so to conceal the death thereof that it may not come to light, whether it were born alive or not but be concealed. In every such case the Mother soe offending shall suffer Death…except such Mother cann make proof by one witness at least, the Child whose death was by her so intended to be concealed was born dead.  (18 )



Death, Reprieve & Condemnation

Death of a child in folkloreThis law sealed the fate of Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson, who were convicted by a jury of  “twelve good and lawful men” of  “feloniously concealing the death of a…infant bastard child” on August 30, 1739. (19 )  Presiding over the proceedings were four Justices of the Superior Court, including Henry and Joseph Sherburne, Ellis Huske, and Nicholas Gilman, who all played an intimate role in Governor Belcher’s controversial administration during the 1730s. (20 )  

The trials were “long, tedious and attended with much trouble and difficulty,” and over thirty witnesses were summoned to testify. (21 ) There was some uncertainty, however, concerning the extent of Simpson’s and Kenny’s crimes. Jabez Fitch remarked that both women “deny’d that they laid violent hands on their children…one affirming that her child was dead born…and the other, that hers dy’d soon after it was born.” But there were no witnesses to confirm their stories, and for Reverend Fitch this was irrelevant because “both seem’d sensible of their neglect of taking due care to preserve the life of their children.” (22)  Indeed, authorities recognized their actions not only as irrefutable evidence of sexually deviant behavior, but also as an affront to the existing social order that could not go unpunished. ( 23) And it is also possible that memories of the “awful Calamity” that claimed the lives of so many innocent children three years earlier made the crimes of Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenny even more appalling, and ultimately convinced Chief Justice Henry Sherburne and his colleagues to sentence both women to be “hanged up by the Neck until her body be dead” on November 21, 1739. (24 )

But in the days that followed this unprecedented judgment, Simpson and Kenny were “persuaded by some indiscreet persons who came to visit them, that their sentence was rigorous and unjust, and…they might obtain a reprieve so as to be finally executed from suffering.” (25 ) A petition was sent to Governor Belcher, and on November 12, he signed an order that postponed the executions until December 27. Exactly why he granted their request is unclear, but that the two condemned women “expressed a sorrowful & penitent sense of their crime” may have helped their case. (26 )

The “mournful spectacle” that unfolded in Portsmouth in December 1739 reflected a public ritual of execution that was practiced in New England from the early colonial era well into the nineteenth-century. (27 )  That morning, Sarah Simpson was brought from the jail to the South Church, where Reverend William Shurtleff preached an “execution” sermon. (28 ) Penelope Kenny also spent the dwindling hours of her life at Queen’s Chapel across town listening to Reverend Arthur Browne, who “had privately visited and assisted” her during the days leading up to her execution. (29 )

Two prominent, but conflicting, themes emerge from their sermons. The ministers were quick to use the example of the doomed women to remind their listeners of the spiritual ignorance and sins of the flesh that could damn any soul. “May her untimely End influence you all,” warned Arthur Browne, “to lay fast hold on Instruction; may her Example and Sufferings answer the Intention of Law, and deter all viciously and wickedly disposed persons among you from incurring the like condemnation.”(30)  William Shurtleff also took the opportunity to remind his congregation that the “neglect and abuse of God’s Sabbaths (which the condemned person here present reflects upon with so much regret)…very often lead to Capital Crimes.”

But just as Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson were portrayed as criminals, they also became objects of empathy, pitiful sinners who acknowledged the terrible nature of their crimes, and were eager to repent. William Shurtleff discussed the case of the “poor Prisoner” with “the tenderest Bowels of Compassion, and the deepest Concern of Soul,” and Arthur Browne asked, “But why should I…upbraid or insult this poor Malefactor! She is convinced I trust of the heinousness of her Sins, and may her Preparation and Repentance avail her in the Day of the Lord.” (31) But when the sermons had ended, the final chapter of this historical tragedy was just beginning.



The gallows were often part of towns from the early days

The Day of Execution

Accompanied by the ministers of Portsmouth, Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenny were then led about a mile to the place of execution, a gallows erected in a field between the homes of William Cotton and Edward Cates in 1718. (32) Although a fresh blanket of snow had shrouded the landscape the day before, “the execution of the said women drew together a vast concourse of people” and the “numerous spectators seem’d earnestly concern’d for them.” (33) In the crowd was Samuel Lane, a young cordwainer who traveled from Hampton to see “two women Hanged at the Bank.” (34) But Lane’s terse entry does not reveal how he felt as he watched Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenny climb the gallows and utter their final statements before Sherriff Eleazar Russell carried out his grisly task. (35)

Simpson handed one of the ministers “a Writing…said to be of her dictating” that was “publickly read at her desire.” She confessed  “in a very moving manner,” that she “pass’d away her early days in light and wicked Company” and mentioned “with regret, that when she entered into the Marriage State, it was not with one that took care to maintain the exercise of Family Religion,” and advised her listeners “that when they marry, to make it their great Care to marry in the Lord.” (36) When given her chance, Penelope Kenny also spoke “ a few words by the way of Warning to others, and the Rev. Mr. Fitch having then commended them both to the Mercy of God in Christ, she and the other were executed…and left us not without hopes of their being delivered from the second Death.”(37)

Shrouded in Mystery

But even after the executions faded into memory, a couple of mysteries refused to die. If Sarah Simpson buried her infant and Penelope Kenny cast hers into the churning waters of the Piscataqua River, who was the mother of the dead baby found in the well in August 1739?

A surprising archaeological discovery made during the 1970s revealed that women in other regions of colonial America practiced this manner of disposing unwanted offspring. (38)  In Portsmouth, William Shurtleff was convinced “that there has been one among us…that is equally & it may be more heinously guilty in the sight of God…and could I suppose the Person to be within Hearing, I would say…Be assur’d that though you are as yet concealed from Men, both you and your Crime are known to God.”  (39)

But the identity of that third guilty person, who may also have been a servant in Portsmouth, was apparently never discovered. And who were the fathers of Sarah Simpson’s and Penelope Kenny’s illegitimate children? A 1702 law dictated, “he that is accused by any woman to be the father of a Bastard Child begotten of her body, she continuing constant in her accusation being exam’d upon Oath…he shall be adjudged the reputed father of such child notwithstanding his denial and stand charged with the maintenance thereof.” (40) But there is nothing to indicate that the two women attempted this legal recourse. It seems that Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenny took these secrets with them to their unmarked graves. (41)

A Warning to All Others

What is clear, however, is that the events of 1739 made a profound impression on all who witnessed them. Jabez Fitch was confident that “the sad end of these women may be a Warning to all others, to take heed of the Sin of Uncleanness,” echoing sentiments expressed by Cotton Mather more than forty years earlier. (42) William Shurtleff fervently hoped that, “nothing of the like Nature might again happen among us!”

But the events of 1739 ushered in a new era of crime and punishment in New Hampshire. Four more individuals were executed there during the eighteenth-century, including Ruth Blay, who was infamously hanged in Portsmouth for infanticide on December 30, 1768, nearly twenty-nine years to the day that Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenny met their demise at the end of a rope. (43) But there is evidence that after the American Revolution, prevailing attitudes towards bastardy and infanticide had begun to shift in New England. (44) In the early 1790s, the 1714 statute that brought about the first executions in New Hampshire’s history was repealed, replaced by a form of “symbolic” execution in which “the Mother so offending” could “be set on the Gallows for the space of one hour,” forced to suffer public humiliation but not death. (45)   

Copyright © 2006 by Christopher Benedetto

Reprinted by permission of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Christopher Benedetto, "'A Warning to All Others': The Story of the First Executions in New Hampshire's History." New England Ancestors vol. 6, no. 5-6 (Holiday 2005): 24-27, 55. For more information about New England Ancestors magazine and the New England Historic Genealogical Society, please visit their web site here.




 (1) Religious Education of Children Recommended, In a Sermon Preach’d in the Church of Portsmouth December 27th 1739…by Arthur Browne, A.M. (Boston: 1740), 13.

(2 ) Daniel Allen Hearn, Legal Executions in New England: A Comprehensive Reference 1623-1960 (London: McFarland & Company, 1999) 12-13, 41-44, 56-57, 102-103, 104-105, 107, 110-113, 116-177, 122, 124-125, 127-135, 137-138, 140, 151, 169, 174.

(3 ) The Faith and Prayer of a Dying Malefactor: A Sermon Preach’d December 27, 1739…by William Shurtleff…to which is annexed a brief narrative concerning the said criminals and a Preface by the Reverence Mr. Fitch (Boston: J. Draper, 1740) i. Along with Connecticut, New Hampshire is the only other state in New England that currently has the death penalty. For a perspective on the recent debate over this issue, see, website of the New Hampshire Coalition Against The Death Penalty.

(4)  A Discourse Shewing What regard we ought to have to the Awful Work of Divine Providence in the Earthquake, which happen’d the Night ofr the 29th of October, 1727 By Jabez Fitch…(Boston: B. Green, 1728) 8. For a first-hand account of this earthquake, see the Register 15 (1861): 316-317.
(5) At this time, the Governor of Massachusetts also had jurisdiction over New Hampshire. The definitive biography of Belcher is by Michael C. Batinski, Jonathan Belcher: Colonial Governor (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996).

(6) Jere Daniell, Colonial New Hampshire: A History (Millwood, NY: KTO Press, 1981) 196, 201-202.

(7) Daniel, 140-141. 

(8) Mary Cochrane Rogers, Glimpses of An Old Social Capital…As Illustrated By The Life of The Reverend Arthur Browne And His Circle (Boston: 1923) 4-10.
(9) For a biographical sketch of Fitch see, Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, Volume IV, 1690-1700  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1933) 201-205.

(10) An Account of the numbers that have died of the Distemper in the Throat, Within the Province of New Hampshire…July 26, 1736 (Boston: 1736) 13, and also Jeremy Belknap, The History of New Hampshire…Volume II (Dover: 1812) 97.

(11) New Hampshire Province Court Records, Microfilm Series, Case No. 20062.

(12) Boston News-Letter, 17 August 1739.

(13) See The Faith and Prayer of a Dying Malefactor, 20, and also  “The Diary of Master Joseph Tate of Somersworth, New Hampshire” Register 74 (1920): 130.

(14)  Boston News-Letter, 17 August 1739. Penelope Kenny’s Irish origins are also mentioned in the diary of Joseph Tate, who described her as “a servant girl about 20 years of age [born] in or near Limerick in Ireland,” Register 74 (1920): 130. When Kenny immigrated to New Hampshire is not known, despite extensive research by the author.

(15) Boston News-Letter, 17 August 1739. This body of water would be the Piscataqua River.

(16) A 1701 New Hampshire law stipulated that “if any man commit fornication with any single woman…they shall both be fined not exceeding fifty shillings a piece, or be…punished by whipping not exceeding ten stripes,” Laws of New Hampshire…Volume One, Province Period 1679-1702 (Manchester: John B. Clarke Co., 1904) 678-679. Also see Sharon Ann Burnston, “Babies in the Well: An Insight into Deviant Behavior in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,” In Remembrance: Archaeology and Death, David Poirier and Nicholas Bellantoni eds. (London: Bergin and Garvey, 1997) 51-65.

(17) Peter Hoffer and N.E.H. Hull, Murdering Mothers: Infanticide in England and New England 1558-1803 (New York: NYU Press, 1984) 115.

(18) Laws of New Hampshire…Volume Two, Province Period 1702-1745 (Concord: Rumford Printing Company, 1913) 127.

(19) New Hampshire Province Court Records, Case No. 20062, and Boston News-Letter, 7 September 1739.

(20) Charles H. Bell, The Bench and Bar of New Hampshire (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1894) 16-18. See Batinski, 110-114, and also Provincial Papers…Relating to the Province of New Hampshire, from 1722-1737, Volume IV (Manchester: 1870) 272, 795.
(21) Miscellaneous Provincial and State Papers, 1725-1800, Volume XVIII (Manchester: 1890) 130, 132, 133. 

(22) The Faith and Prayer of a Dying Malefactor, iii.

(23) Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750 (Vintage Books: New York, 1991) 196.
(24) New Hampshire Province Court Records, Microfilm Series, Case No. 20062.
(25) The Faith and Prayer of a Dying Malefactor, 20.

(26) New Hampshire Province Court Records, Microfilm Series, Case No. 20062.

(27) Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: An American History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) 24-52. Also see Deborah Navas, Murdered By His Wife: An absorbing tale of crime and punishment in eighteenth-century Massachusetts (Amherst: UMass Press, 1999), and Irene Q. Brown and Richard D. Brown, The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2003).

(28) Shurtleff served as the minister in nearby Newcastle from 1712 until 1732, when he moved to Portsmouth, Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, Volume V, 1701-1712 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1937) 396-402.

(29) The Faith and Prayer of a Dying Malefactor, 29.

(30) Religious Education of Children Recommended, 13.

(31) Ibid, 17, 14.

(32) Provincial Papers of New Hampshire…Volume XIX (Manchester: John B. Clarke, 1891) 124-125, also see The Faith and Prayer of a Dying Malefactor, 27.
(33) The Faith and Prayer of a Dying Malefactor, iv.

(34) Almanack or a Journal for the years 1737-1801 by Samuel Lane…(Concord: New Hampshire Historical Society, 1988).
(35) Colonial hangings were very violent affairs, and the condemned person would often slowly choke to death, see Banner, The Death Penalty, 44-48.
(36) The identity of Sarah Simpson’s deceased husband remains a mystery. On September 6, 1733 Peter Simpson “of London” and a Sarah Duley of Portsmouth were married and less than a year later their son Nicholas was born. That same year, 1734, Sarah was also “received” into the covenant of the South Church in Portsmouth, Register 25 (1871): 120, and also Register 81 (1927): 451. However, there is no conclusive way to confirm that the Sarah Simpson executed in 1739 was the same woman, since no death or probate record for Peter Simpson has been found.
(37) The Faith and Prayer of a Dying Malefactor, 29.

(38) During the 1970s, archaeologists excavating a colonial privy in Philadelphia found the skeletal remains of two infants, discussed in Burnston, Babies in the Well.
(39) The Faith and Prayer of a Dying Malefactor, 20-21.

(40) Laws of New Hampshire…Volume One, Province Period, 1679-1702 (Manchester: John B. Clarke Co., 1904) 678.
(41) It is believed that the their bodies were buried nearby the gallows, which was located in “the triangular ground formed by the junction of South and Middle Roads” in Portsmouth, see Helen Pearson, Vignettes of Portsmouth…(Boston: The Steson Press, 1913) 40.
(42) Kathleen M. Brown, “Murderous Uncleanness: The Body of Female Infanticide in Puritan New England,” A Centre of Wonders: The Body in Early America, Janet Moore Lindman and Michele Lise Tarter eds. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001) 77-94.
(43) See Hearn, 141-142, 151, 174, 184.

(44) Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Vintage Books, 1991) 147-159.
(45) Laws of New Hampshire…Volume Five, First Constitutional Period, 1784-1792 (Concord: Rumford Press, 1916) 596-597.

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