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First Women Executed in NH


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 )


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Friday, December 15, 2017 
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