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Ruth Blay was hanged here
and sailors dueled to the death

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By Charles W. Brewster

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values.

Auburn street Cemetery--First training field--Cotton's burying ground--Execution of Ruth Blay--Duel by Frenchmen--Laighton's poem.

THE Auburn street Cemetery, now arranged with that good taste which places it at a far remove from the repulsive features of an antiquated grave yard, is a place of quiet resort and one of the pleasantest walks the city affords. A map readily directs any visitor to such locality as he may be desirous to visit. The fast growing trees begin to give a shade which in some parts is almost equal to that spread over it by nature two centuries ago.

It may not be generally known that this spot was designated for a burying ground about a hundred and fifty years before it was fully used for that purpose. Our town records show, that on the 5th of June, 1671, "It was agreed with Goodman William Cotton to fence the town's land that lyeth by Goodman Skates, for a trayning place, to cutt down all the trees and bushes and to clear the same from said ground by the first of April next, and for his soe doeing he and his heirs shall have the above feeding and use thereof as a pasture only, for twenty years--and the said land shall still remayne for a trayning field and to bury dead in."

It was on this spot that Capt. John Pickering's company were instructed in military tactics. What a sight would that company now be, once more marshalled in their puritan uniforms,--no modern display would be more attractive. After Goodman Cotton's twenty years expired, and a few more years had elapsed, the "trayning field" was a privilege granted to the pastor of the South Parish, where he might pasture his cows, etc.; and eventually, by a vote of the town, it became the property of that parish.

In 1711 it was voted to enclose the burying place in the common land or training field, adjoining to William Cotton's. It was also voted that the training field be enclosed. This vote was not carried into effect; for ten years after, in 1721, the town resolved that the vote respecting the fencing of the burying place at the training field be put in force this year. This was the Cotton burying place.

In 1735, the town voted to grant the use of the training field to Rev. Mr. Shurtleff for a horse pasture during his ministry. A similar vote was passed in 1752, just before Rev. Dr. Haven was settled, giving the use of the field to the next minister who should be settled over the South Parish.

In the course of Dr. Haven's ministry, the training field at the Plains was given to the Province, and the South road field was left to the undisputed occupancy of the pastor, and was called the Minister's pasture. After Dr. Haven's death, about fifty years ago, a vote was passed in town meeting, giving the field to the South Parish. About the time of building the Stone Church the land was transferred by the Society to the Trustees of the Charity Fund, who in 1830 founded what is called "The Proprietors' Burying Ground," but now more generally known by the more euphonious name of "Auburn Cemetery."

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There are two scenes connected with this spot which have a more harrowing effect than the contemplation of a hundred quiet graves.

On that most elevated spot on the north side of the Cemetery, just above the row of tombs, a gallows was once erected--and there, amid a thousand spectators, on the 30th of December, 1768, an unfortunate girl was hung--a poor, misguided girl, of better conscience than many who have marble monuments with gilded inscriptions to perpetuate their memory.

In August, 1768, Ruth Blay, of South Hampton, was indicted for concealing the death of an illegitimate child, whereby it might not be known whether it were born alive or not, or whether it was murdered or not. The English statute prescribed the penalty of death for this offence. This blood written law was not repealed even in this state till 1792, when a milder punishment was substituted for that of death. The exordium of Attorney General Clagett in the above prosecution is still remembered for its pompous solemnity. "He called heaven to witness, that he was discharging a duty that he owed his country, his King and his God."

An old lady who was present at the execution of Ruth Blay, said--as Ruth was carried through the streets, her shrieks filled the air. She was dressed in silk, and was driven under the gallows in a cart. Public sympathy was awakened for her, and her friends had procured from the Governor a reprieve, which would have soon resulted in her pardon--for circumstances afterwards showed that her child was probably still-born, and she was not a murderer. The hour for her execution arrived, and the sheriff, not wishing, it is said, to be late to his dinner, ordered the cart to be driven away, and the unfortunate woman was left hanging from the gallows, a sacrifice to misguided judgment. If we are rightly informed, she was a girl of good education for her day, having been a school-mistress. The indignation of the populace can hardly be conceived when it was ascertained that a reprieve from the governor came a few minutes after her spirit had been hastened away. They gathered that evening around the residence of Sheriff Packer, (the locality of Richard Jenness's house,) and an effigy was there erected, bearing this inscription:

Am I to lose my dinner
This woman for to hang?
Come draw away the cart, my boys--
Don't stop to say amen.
Draw away, draw away the cart!

May this last execution in Portsmouth, which occurred ninety years ago, long remain the last on our annals.

Ruth was buried a rod or two from the north side of where the pond now is,--and was the first one for whom the soil of that Cemetery was broken, ninety-seven years after it was designated as "a place to bury the dead in."

It is a remarkable incident that this spot so early selected for the repose of the dead, should, before being appropriated to that purpose, be made the scene of a public execution and of the only fatal duel of which we have any record.

Ruth Blay was the last, but not the only individual who has been executed in Portsmouth. In 1739, Dec. 27, Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenney were executed for the murder of a child. In 1755, Eliphaz Dow of Hampton Falls, was executed for murder. Thomas Packer was the High Sheriff at the three executions--in 1739, 1755 and 1768.

Albert Laighton has devoted a few pages in his valuable volume of poems, just published, to the remembrance of the Ruth Blay tragedy:

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By Albert Laighton (1859)

IN the worn and dusty annals
Of our old and quiet town,
With its streets of leafy beauty.
And its houses quaint and brown,--

With its dear associations,
Hallowed by the touch of time,--
You may read this thrilling legend,
This sad tale of wrong and crime.

In the drear month of December,
Ninety years ago to-day,
Hundreds of the village people
Saw the hanging of Ruth Blay;--

Saw her clothed in silk and satin,
Borne beneath the gallows-tree,
Dressed as in her wedding garments,
Soon the bride of Death to be;--

Saw her tears of shame and anguish,
Heard her shrieks of wild despair,
Echo thro' the neighboring woodlands,
Thrill the clear and frosty air.

When at last, in tones of warning,
>From its high and airy tower,
Slowly with its tongue of iron,
Tolled the bell the fatal hour;--

Like the sound of distant billows,
When the storm is wild and loud,
Breaking on the rocky headland,
Ran a murmur through the crowd.

And a voice among them shouted,
"Pause before the deed is done:
We have asked reprieve and pardon
For the poor misguided one."

But these words of Sheriff Packer
Rang above the swelling noise:
"Must I wait and lose my dinner?
Draw away the cart, my boys!"

Fold thy hands in prayer, O woman!
Take thy last look of the sea;
Take thy last look of the landscape;
God be merciful to thee!

Stifled groans, a gasp, a shudder,
And the guilty deed was done;
On a scene of cruel murder
Coldly looked the Winter sun.

Then the people, pale with horror,
Looked with sudden awe behind,
As a field of grain in Autumn
Turns before a passing wind;

For distinctly in the distance,
In the long and frozen street,
They could hear the ringing echoes
Of a horse's sounding feet.

Nearer came the sound and louder,
Till a steed with panting breath,
>From its sides the white foam dripping,
Halted at the scene of death;

And a messenger alighted,
Crying to the crowd, "Make way!
This I bear to Sheriff Packer;
'Tis a pardon for Ruth Blay!"

But they answered not nor heeded,
For the last fond hope had fled;
In their deep and speechless sorrow,
Pointing only to the dead.

And that night, with burning bosoms,
Muttering curses fierce and loud,
At the house of Sheriff Packer
Gathered the indignant crowd,--

Shouting, as upon a gallows
A grim effigy they bore,
"Be the name of Thomas Packer
A reproach forevermore!"

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The other tragedy occurred fourteen years after. We find it nowhere recorded, but have it as it was related by a man who said his father was the witness referred to. In 1782, when the French fleet was lying in our harbor, a man from Little Harbor was crossing the path which led through this field, when he saw a boat with several men row up the cove,--the men came on shore and up into the field. He was about leaving, but they beckoned him to remain. He did so. Two men dressed like officers were soon engaged in combat with swords, and one of them fell mortally wounded and soon expired. A piece of gold was given to the witness by the duellists, whether to keep him silent or to reward him for standing by to see fair play, does not appear. The corpse was taken on board, and the boat was soon in the stream.

These are the melancholy legends of the Auburn street Cemetery.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Thomas Bailey Aldrich also relates the Ruth Blay story in his book "Old Town by the Sea" (1895) and quotes the same Laighton poem. Aldrich takes all his information from Brewster, adding nothing new. The story also appeared in "Adams Annals of Portsmouth" (1823) but his version makes no mention of the reprieve or the public outcry after the execution. -- JDR

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
Design © 1999

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