The bucolic image of central Massachusetts belies a dark and sometimes deadly past. Grisly crimes and grim misdeeds reach back to colonial settlement in Worcester County, from an escaped slave hanged for rape in 1768 at the Worcester jail to the Sutton choir singer convicted of drowning his wife in 1935. Henry Hammond's 1899 suicide and the others that followed shook Spencer residents to their cores. Some crimes still grip the imaginations of residents, while others have faded from collective memory. Author Rachel Faugno investigates this sinister history.
About the Author
Rachel Faugno is a writer and English instructor at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts.
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FROM SLAVERY TO THE GALLOWS
As he sat in the Worcester jail awaiting execution in October 1768, escaped slave Arthur Toby produced a vivid account of his crime-filled life.
I would solemnly warn those of my Color, as they regard their own souls, to avoid Desertion from their Masters, Drunkenness and Lewdness; which three Crimes was the Source from which have flowed the many Evils and Miseries of my short Life. Short indeed!
So declared twenty-one-year-old Arthur Toby in his "dying speech" from the Worcester jail on October 18, 1768 — two days before he was hanged "for a rape committed on the body of one Deborah Metcalfe." The execution was the final act of a crime-filled life in which Arthur gained notoriety as one of colonial New England's most incorrigible miscreants.
His firsthand account, which was printed in Boston and sold to an eager audience, paints a complex picture of daily life in Massachusetts before the Revolution. In Arthur's world, slaves were bought and sold, Native Americans lived in separate settlements, farming was the primary occupation, whaling was a thriving industry, taverns and inns were common gathering places, husking bees were important social events and justice was swift.
Born a Slave
Arthur Toby entered the world as the child of a slave in the household of Richard Godfrey, Esq., of Taunton, Massachusetts, on January 15, 1747. He was taught to read and write and, in his own words, was "treated very kindly by my Master." But he was often in conflict with Mrs. Godfrey, and at the age of fourteen he ran away. This, he says, "was the beginning of my many notorious Crimes, of which I have been guilty."
He headed for Sandwich, a Cape Cod town about forty miles away. There, he confesses, he spent his time in "Drunkenness and Fornication; for which crimes I have been since famous." After stealing a shirt and paying restitution of twenty schillings, and concerned that his "Character being now known," he decided to ship out on a whaling sloop with Captain Coffin of Nantucket. (The Coffins were a prominent whaling family for almost two hundred years.)
Eight months at sea did little to reform Arthur's behavior. When he returned to Nantucket, he embarked on a six-week crime spree. At one point, he broke into a store and stole rum, a pair of trousers, a jacket and some calico. He was drunk the next day, "and by wearing the Jacket, was detected, for which Offence I was whip'd with fifteen Stripes, and committed to Gaol, for the Payment of Cost." He escaped a half hour later by breaking the lock.
After another burglary, he attempted to escape on a ship but was discovered, taken on shore and whipped "sixteen Stripes." He was set free and returned to Taunton, "where my Master received me kindly, whom I served three Years." During that time, he "followed the Seas," sailing from Nantucket and Newport to the West Indies, "where I whored and drank, to great Excess."
In October 1764, he again returned to live with "my Master in Taunton, where I behaved well for six Weeks." But he was soon in trouble again. One day while intoxicated, he entered a house "where were several Women only" and offered "Indecencies" to them. He was discovered by James Williams, Esq., who with the assistance of Job Smith placed him in the Taunton jail. The next day, he was tried before the same Mr. Williams and whipped "thirtynine Stripes for abusing him, uttering three profane Oaths, and threatening to fire Mr. Smith's House."
A New Master
Out of patience with his troublesome slave, Richard Godfrey, "being now determined, by the Advice of his Friends, to send me out of the Country," sold Arthur to John Hill of Brookfield. After only a week, he was sold to "my last Master, Capt. Clarke of Rutland District [now Barre], where I behaved well for two Months, and was very kindly treated by my Master and Mistress."
But Arthur soon struck up an acquaintance with "a young Squaw, with whom (having stole Six Shillings from one of my Master's Sons)" he ran away. His companion — who "like the rest of her Sex, was of a very fruitful Invention" — helped him disguise himself as a Native American woman carrying a papoose. Together, they made their way to Hadley, about forty miles away. There, he spent the night with an Indian family before being discovered in the morning by "by one Mr. Shurtleff, a Person who had been sent after me; with him I went to Springfield, where I met my Master, who took me down to Middletown with a Drove of Horses, where he sold me to a Dutch Gentleman, whose Name I have since forgot."
Soon after his arrival in Middletown, he stole five pounds from the keeper of a public house, a "Widow Sherley," and spent the money on liquor. His theft was discovered and he was taken into custody, but he escaped to Farmington, where he was apprehended and returned to his former master, Captain Clarke. The reunion was short-lived: "My Master being now wearied by my repeated Crimes, was determined to part with me: And accordingly we set off for Boston, at which Time I took two Dollars from my Master's desk."
The journey to Boston was not without incident. Arthur "tarried" in Waltham and joined in a husking bee in Little Cambridge. There, he was introduced to "a white Woman of that Place: And as our Behaviour was such, as we have both Reason to be ashamed of, I shall for her sake pass it over in Silence."
He set out for Boston the next day — with the lady's husband in hot pursuit. Eventually, the two "came to Blows, and I coming off Conqueror, put on for Cambridge." But the matter was not settled. After stealing a horse, saddle and bridle to spend the day with "the Squaw, with whom I formerly made my Tour to Hadley," Arthur was sentenced "to receive fifteen Stripes, or pay four Dollars." Captain Clarke paid the fine, and upon learning that the injured husband had obtained a warrant for Arthur's arrest, he went ahead to Boston to secure his slave a berth on a ship. Arthur explained that Clarke "order'd me to come in the Night: In Pursuance of which Order, I set off, but having a natural Aversion to walking, for my own Ease, and that I might make the greater Dispatch, I took a Horse from the Stable of one Mr. Cutting, rode to Roxbury, and let him go."
He eventually met up with Clarke, who advised him "to tarry 'till the next Day, when I should be taken on board a Vessel bound for Maryland." But Arthur failed to follow through. He stole another horse, this time to visit his parents, who "insisted on my returning to my Master." Instead, he made his way to Sandwich, visiting "an Indian House, where I had been formerly acquainted, and with the Squaws there, spent my Time in a manner which may be easily guessed."
He was apprehended and held for trial but quickly escaped and returned to the Indian village, "spending my Time in drinking and whoreing with the Squaws." Then he went to Falmouth and stole shoes from a shoemaker's shop and some clothes from a private home. He stole a horse for the return trip to Sandwich and spent another week in the Indian village before being apprehended and committed to Barnstable jail.
He was tried and "sentenced to receiving twenty Stripes." But Arthur was ill, and taking pity on him, the man whose horse he had stolen took him out of jail, "so that I again got off unpunished; With him I lived about three Weeks, and behaved well." Characteristically, Arthur's good behavior was short-lived.
Captain Clarke was sent for and once more took the young man home, perhaps hoping that he had changed his ways. But when an acquaintance informed Arthur that "the young Squaw, so often mentioned, was desirous of seeing me," he "stole some Rum from my Master, got pretty handsomely drunk, took one of his Horses, and made the best of my way to her usual Place of Abode."
A Fateful Decision
To his great disappointment, the woman was not home. Drunk, reckless and itching for female companionship, Arthur made the fateful decision that would lead to the gallows: "The Devil put it into my Head to pay a Visit to the Widow Deborah Metcalfe, whom I, in a most inhumane manner, ravished: The Particulars of which are so notorious, that it is needless for me here to relate them."
The next morning, the distraught woman told Clarke what had happened. He immediately tied Arthur up to prevent him from escaping and advised the woman to obtain a warrant. But she was reluctant to see him hanged and suggested that Clarke should instead send him out of the country. Clarke agreed, and the two set off for Albany.
They were overtaken by Nathaniel Jennison, who had obtained a warrant for Arthur's arrest. On the return to Rutland, he said:
We stop'd at a Tavern in Hardwick, where after I had warmed myself, Jennison was Fool enough to bid me put along, and he would overtake me; accordingly I went out of the Door, and seeing his Horse stand handily, what should I do, but mount him, and rode off as fast as I could, leaving Jennison to pursue me on Foot.
Back at home, Arthur spent the night in Clarke's barn, "where I had a Bottle of Cherry-Rum (which I found in Mr. Jennison's Baggs) to refresh myself with."
The next day, March 30, 1767, Arthur was discovered and committed to the Worcester jail. One of his cellmates was Isaac Frasier, known as the "Notorious Frasier," a young man from Connecticut whose criminal career closely matched Arthur's own. They and another inmate broke out on April 20 and set off for Boston. For several months, they traveled on foot, living in the woods and stealing food, clothes and other items along the way, including a comb, a razor and a "quantity of flour" from a Worcester barbershop.
"At Waltham," Arthur continued, "we broke into a House belonging to one Mr. Fisk, from whom we took a small Sum of Money, some Chocolate and Rum. At Watertown we stole a Brass Kettle from one Mrs. White of that Place."
For reasons he doesn't explain, Arthur and his companions eventually parted company. He decided to return to "Mr. Fisk's in Waltham, who knew me," perhaps hoping the man would help him escape prosecution. He did not. Fisk secured him and returned him to the Worcester jail. Within a year, he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death.
To the Gallows
Arthur Toby went to the gallows on October 18, 1768. A large and boisterous crowd was on hand to watch the twenty-one-year-old die. One month earlier, his companion, the Notorious Frasier, had been hanged at Fairfield, Connecticut, for multiple burglaries.
What drove young Arthur Toby to a life of crime? Was it rebellion against the inherent injustice of being a slave? Did the political unrest and economic instability of the times come into play? Was he constitutionally incapable of learning from his mistakes? Or, like many criminals, was he drawn to the excitement of living outside the boundaries of conventional behavior?
We'll never know. But we do know that near the end of his life, his thoughts turned to redemption. His narrative concludes with words of gratitude to Reverend Thaddeus Mccarty — minister of Worcester's First Church for nearly forty years — for his "unwearied Pains, Exhortations, and most fervent Prayers," and with a plea for forgiveness:
I freely acknowledge I have been better treated by Mankind in general, than I deserved: Yet some Injuries I have received, which I now freely forgive. I also humbly ask Forgiveness of all whom I have injured, and desire that they would pray that I may receive the Forgiveness of God, whom I have most of all offended; and on whose Pardon and Grace depends my eternal Happiness or Misery.
Worcester Gaol Oct. 18, 1768 ArthurCHAPTER 2
Bathsheba Spooner of Brookfield became the first woman executed in the United States when she and three accomplices were found guilty of murdering her husband in 1778.
Around nine o'clock on the wintery Sunday night of March 1, 1778, Joshua Spooner, a prosperous thirty-seven-year-old businessman living in Brookfield, Massachusetts, left Ephraim Cooley's tavern and walked the quarter mile to his home.
The tavern was a congenial place where neighbors regularly met to share gossip and news of the day. The war with England, now in its fourth year, was undoubtedly at the forefront of everyone's mind. A good many of Brookfield's finest young men were fighting for the cause, and the Continental army had proved its mettle yet again. Last October, General Horatio Gage had won a stunning victory over General John Burgoyne at Saratoga. The battle was a turning point, emboldening France to pledge its support for the Patriots' struggle for independence.
Veterans of the battle, both Redcoats and Patriots, were a common sight as they traveled along the New York to Boston Post Road, which ran through Brookfield. Spooner's house, a substantial two-story dwelling, lay on that road.
As he approached his house that night, Spooner's thoughts may have turned to an unsettling incident that had occurred about two weeks earlier. Upon his return home from a trip to Princeton, Massachusetts, where he owned a potash business, he had found two British soldiers enjoying his wife's hospitality. As the daughter of a notorious Loyalist, she may have felt no qualms about welcoming them into her home. But Spooner was suspicious. He had ordered them to leave first thing in the morning and threatened to summon town authorities if they didn't comply.
To be on the safe side, he had slept with his lockbox under his head and asked a visiting friend to stay with him through the night. In the morning, the soldiers were gone, but rumor said they were still in the neighborhood. Did he think of those soldiers as he approached the gate that night? Did he feel a prickle of unease that might have caused him to hesitate? We'll never know.
What we do know is that Joshua Spooner lifted the latch and entered his yard. His house was dark except for a few narrow windows dimly lit by the hearth's yellow glow. Snow blanketed the ground. A deep silence lay all around. Then, from out of the darkness, villains fell upon him, reigning blows on his head and shoulders, knocking him to the ground, kicking him with their boots and choking the life from him. He struggled to escape or cry out for help. But there were three of them, and he was not a vigorous man.
In the morning, neighbors found his battered lifeless body where his assailants had flung it — headfirst in his own well.
A Quick Arrest
The first person to raise the alarm was Alexander Cumings, a servant in the Spooner household. Bathsheba Spooner, Joshua's wife, informed him that her husband had not come home last night and ordered him to inquire at Cooley's tavern. Upon hearing the news, Ephraim Cooley immediately organized a search party of seven men, including himself.
The searchers came upon a disturbing scene. The snow in Spooner's yard was heavily trampled, as if some violent activity had occurred there. In the heap of snow near the gate, they found Spooner's hat. They then spotted two splotches of blood on the rim of the nearby well. When they peered inside, they saw a body undoubtedly belonging to Joshua Spooner.
Cooley set off to alert the coroner and an officer while the others raised the body from the well. The coroner, Dr. John King, and his wife had spent the previous evening with Spooner and other friends at Cooley's tavern. When he arrived at the Spooner home that morning, he found the victim on the ground with severe bruising about the face and a cut on the scalp. The men carried the body into the house and placed it in the east room to await burial. It was a somber business, and Bathsheba was visibly upset.
The household was large: two daughters aged ten and three, an eightyear-old son, three servants and several visitors. The family, with the exception of Spooner's younger daughter, at first refused to look at the body. Eventually, Dr. King persuaded Bathsheba to view her dead husband. After a long silence, she placed her hand on his forehead and murmured, "Poor little man."
News of the crime swept through the region. The brutal murder of a prominent citizen at his own doorstep raised considerable alarm. Town officials quickly formed a jury to conduct an inquest. On March 3, the jury reported that Joshua Spooner "was feloniously assaulted by one or more ruffians and thrown into his own well with water in it, by persons to the jury unknown."
Suspicion fell on the two British soldiers who were known to have been at Spooner's house not long before his death — twenty-seven-year-old William Brooks, an Englishman, and thirty-year-old James Buchanan, a Scotchman. Both had served with Burgoyne at Saratoga. Under the terms of surrender, British officers had been allowed to return home, while the enlisted men were marched to Cambridge to await being shipped back to Europe. Billeted in crude barracks and private homes, about 1,300 of the 5,900 captives escaped. Buchanan and Brooks were among them.
They were found at Brown's tavern in Worcester, where Brooks was wearing Spooner's silver buckles and showing off his watch. The two were immediately arrested, along with seventeen-year-old Ezra Ross, an American soldier and known intimate of the Spooner household. He was found hiding in the tavern loft.
All three were questioned. Their statements, along with the circumstances of the murder, aroused strong suspicions that members of Spooner's household were also involved. Bathsheba was arrested — as were three servants who were later used as witnesses — and taken to Brown's for questioning. There, she wept as she talked of the matter and said openly that she was responsible for the murder being committed.
Brooks, Buchanan, Ross and Bathsheba Spooner were detained until the next session of the Superior Court of Judicature, set to commence on April 21, 1778. On that day, a grand jury indicted all four for murder. The trial was scheduled for April 24. Robert Treat Paine, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the attorney for the state. Levi Lincoln, who would later serve as attorney general under Thomas Jefferson, was appointed counsel for the prisoners. During the trial, which was completed in one day, twenty-two witnesses testified for the prosecution. No witnesses were called for the defense.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder & Mayhem in Central Massachusetts"
Copyright © 2016 Rachel Faugno.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 From Slavery to the Gallows 17
2 Fatal Aversion 25
3 A Gambler's Demise 39
4 Gentleman George's Last Hurrah 47
5 Axe Murderer on the Loose 53
6 Triple Suicide or Sinister Plot? 63
7 Major League Nightmare 75
8 Slaughter of Innocents 85
9 "American Tragedy" on Lake Singletary 97
About the Author 121