Friday, October 26, 2012

Tragic Tale of Ruth Blay

Portsmouth executed Ruth Blay, in 1768, for concealing the birth of her illegitimate child. A century later, a lurid version of the event became a part of Seacoast lore.

South Cemetery Looking South From Gallows Hill
On June 14, 1768, children found a deceased infant under the floorboards of a barn in South Hampton, about twenty miles south of Portsmouth. When authorities discovered the mother to be Ruth Blay, a 31-year-old unmarried seamstress and teacher, they transported her to the Portsmouth jail to await trial.

By colonial law, giving birth to an illegitimate child in secret was called “Concealment” and punishable by death if the baby did not survive. Since there were no witnesses at a Concealed birth, the dead infant was considered to have been murdered, and the mother was guilty unless proven innocent.

Imprisonment and Conviction

Ruth Blay’s dreadful imprisonment in the comfortless town jail lasted from June until December 30. Summer heat and bitterly cold fall temperatures weakened her, and a doctor had to be summoned on two occasions. During her confinement, Ruth wrote a statement admitting she hid the baby in the barn but swearing the girl was stillborn. She never revealed the father’s identity, and no one seemed to care.

Governor John Wentworth Mansion
After a short trial, an all-male jury found Ruth guilty of Concealment. On November 24, the Superior Court sentenced her to death by hanging. The Provincial Governor of New Hampshire, John Wentworth, ordered High Sheriff Thomas Packer to execute Ruth Blay between the hours of noon and two o'clock. She received three temporary reprieves before the fatal day.

The Execution of Ruth Blay

On December 30, 1768, a horse cart carried Ruth Blay from the town jail to a hill that overlooked a parcel of parish lands where a farmer grazed his cattle. Hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, spectators gathered to watch her die. In their urgency to get the best view, they damaged the stone walls that surrounded the field.

Gallows Hill, South Cemetery
After a brief ceremony that included a reproachful speech by a local minister, Sheriff Packer placed a noose around Ruth Blay’s neck as she stood on the back of the cart. Moments later, he drove the cart out from under her feet, and Ruth died a slow, agonizing death by suffocation.

These are the bare facts of the case as reported by the local newspaper and official documents at the time of the execution. Ninety years after Ruth Blay died, two local authors, Charles Brewster and Albert Laighton, published new lurid assertions about the execution.

From Tragic Tale to Halloween Horror Story

The updated version described how innocent Ruth Blay, dressed in virgin white, screamed in terror as Sheriff Packer carted her to the gallows. As the lawman hastily prepared for the execution, her friends begged him to wait for a reprieve from the governor, which they expected to arrive at any moment. Ignoring their pleas because he did not want to be late for dinner, the hungry sheriff drove the cart away and headed for home without a backwards glance at the dying woman.

Moments after this “scene of cruel murder”, the governor’s messenger arrived with a pardon. The horrified crowd realized that if the sheriff had just waited until the time specified by the governor, the pardon would have saved Ruth Blay. That night, outraged townspeople gathered around Sheriff Packer’s house and hanged him in effigy.

Location Where Sheriff Packer's House formerly stood (foreground)
and poet Albert Laighton's House still stands (background)

How Fiction Became Fact

Modern researchers, especially Carolyn Marvin of the Portsmouth Athenaeum, have found these new assertions to be primarily false. They believe the tale probably sprang from family oral histories that were distorted by misinformation and the demonization of provincial officers during the Revolutionary War, as well as exaggerations and errors introduced over time.

For example, the governor’s original order specified an execution time between noon and two o’clock. After the third reprieve failed, the governor’s new execution order specified a time between ten o’clock and two o’clock. Ruth Blay’s death before noon led to the erroneous conclusion that the sheriff had hanged her ahead of schedule.

The effigy story likely had its roots in events that occurred a few years before Ruth Blay died. On September 12, 1765, Portsmouth patriots protested the British Parliament’s Stamp Act by hanging an effigy of the local Stamp Master in Haymarket Square. On January 9, 1766, angry townspeople congregated around the Stamp Master's house and forced him to surrender his Royal commission. Over time, these events blended with the Ruth Blay legend.

Ruth Blay’s Legacy
Area Where Ruth Blay is Buried

Workers buried Ruth Blay’s body in an unmarked grave at the bottom of Gallows Hill. The exact location is unknown. Today, the field holds four graveyards known collectively as the South Cemetery. Not surprisingly, many locals believe it to be haunted.

Ruth Blay was the last woman executed in the state of New Hampshire. Twenty-five years after her death, American lawmakers ruled that Concealment should no longer be punishable by death.


  • Adams, Nathaniel, Annals of Portsmouth, (C. Norris: Exeter, NH, 1825),
  • Brewster, Charles W., Rambles About Portsmouth, (C. W. Brewster: Portsmouth, NH, 1859),
  • Foster, Sarah Haven, The Portsmouth Guide Book, (Joseph H. Foster: Portsmouth, NH, 1876),
  • Laighton, Albert, Poems, (Brown, Taggard, & Chase: Boston, MA, 1859),
  • Marvin, Carolyn, Hanging Ruth Blay: An Eighteenth-Century New Hampshire Tragedy, (History Press: Charleston, SC, 2010)
  • Robinson, Dennis, “Ruth Blay Hanged Here in 1768”,, 2008,

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Lowd House

The Lowd House is on the property of Strawbery Banke Museum, on the northwest corner of Puddle Lane (formerly Charles Street) and Horse Lane.

James Drisco was a prosperous Portsmouth merchant mariner who owned a wharf with warehouses and shops on the east side of Marcy Street. He lived on Puddle Lane across the street from his waterfront property, in another Strawbery Banke building, the Shapley-Drisco House. His holdings around Puddle Dock included a nearby shop on the west side of Horse Lane and three rental properties.

One of his rentals is now known as the Lowd House, which he built around 1810. James Drisco died in 1812, and in 1824, his widow sold this building to Peter Lowd, a Portsmouth cooper – a barrel maker. Lowd lived here with his wife and five children until his death just thirteen years later, in 1837.

Peter Lowd was not important enough to be in any of the usual Portsmouth reference books. Just a man who lived, had a family, worked hard to support them, and died young.

When C. S. Gurney published my favorite resource, Portsmouth . . . Historic and Picturesque in 1902, the Lowd House was not included. For years during the late 1800s and early 20th Century, this area of the city had been a marine and industrial area filled with warehouses, wharves, rundown tenement houses, pubs, and brothels. There were very few buildings around Puddle Dock worthy of inclusion in a photographic record of Portsmouth.

The archival photograph above is included in an Historic American Building Survey (HABS) from 1961.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Joshua Jones House

The Joshua Jones House, also known as the Jones House, is located on the property of Strawbery Banke Museum, on the northwest corner of Atkinson Street and Puddle Lane (formerly Charles Street).

Joshua Jones was a common man. He was born near Little Harbor to a family of boat builders and purchased this home in 1796, a few years after it was constructed. Standing on the banks of the old Puddle Dock inlet, the large house was at the perfect location for a boat builder; however, he never took up the trade.

Joshua Jones became a jack-of-all-trades. His job descriptions included farmer, trader, truckman, grain weigher, and yeoman. He was not a rich man but apparently provided well for his wife and their ten children. He lived in this home for the remainder of his life and died in 1843. Afterwards, the house became a rental property.

Joshua Jones and his family have been mostly forgotten by history. All of the information for this short article came from Strawbery Banke Museum’s online article, “Jones House”.

I downloaded these vintage photographs from the Library of Congress and an Historic American Building Survey (HABS) of 1961. Hard to believe (for us old folks), but 1961 was over fifty years ago!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Captain Titus Salter House

The Captain Titus Salter House, also known simply as the old Salter House, is located on the northeast corner of Salter and Marcy Streets.

Captain Titus Salter build this mansion around 1745, the year he married Elizabeth ‘Eliza’ Bickford. They had ten children here, and the property remained in the family for over a century. 

Captain Titus owned a large shipping complex in this area, with wharves and warehouses where merchant ships loaded and unloaded cargo. He built a smaller gambrel-roofed home across the street, which may still exist, that he used as servants quarters, probably for African slaves.

Titus Salter was the son of John Salter, who immigrated to this country from Exeter, England around 1680. His older brother, also named John, built the Captain John Salter House and the Cushman House on Washington Street.

At the beginning of hostilities against Great Britain in 1775, Captain Titus Salter commanded batteries of artillery at Fort Washington on Peirce Island and at Fort Sullivan on Seavey Island. The forts guarded the Narrows, the channel between the two islands, and protected Portsmouth Harbor. You can still see some ruins from Fort Washington, which was rebuilt in 1812, on the walking trail on the east side of Peirce Island. 

Captain Titus remained the commander of these two forts until the summer of 1779, when he assumed command of an armed privateer named Hampden with twenty guns. The ship, owned by John Langdon and manned by Portsmouth seamen, sailed for Boston to aid the colonial navy.

Titus Salter died here in 1798.

The old photograph below is over a century old, from C. S. Gurney's 1902 book, Portsmouth . . . Historic and Picturesque.

The original picture was taken from a second-floor window of a Marcy Street home. For mine, I stood just below the window from where I think C. S. Gurney's photo was captured.

Captain Titus Salter's old mansion is now an apartment complex and has recently been refurbished.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Gookin House

The Gookin House, sometimes referred to as the Smalley Estate, is located at 43 Atkinson Street on the property of Strawbery Banke Museum.

Little is known about the origins of this narrow building. It was probably built around 1790.

After Leonard Cotton died in 1872, his son, William Cotton, inherited an empty lot between the Captain Reuben Shapley House and the Peacock House. After locating a building that would fit in the narrow space, he moved it here in 1878.

According to Strawbery Banke Museum, this was once some sort of utility building, perhaps a small warehouse, that might have come from the waterfront of Puddle Dock. Cotton converted the building into a rental property by adding finished walls, doors, and a stairway.
The black-and-white photograph below is from a 1961 Historic American Building Survey (HABS) posted on the Library of Congress Website.

Today, the Gookin House serves as the offices of Spead Tax Group PLLC; Tax, Insolvency, and Forensic Accountants.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Colonel Joshua Wentworth House

The Colonel Joshua Wentworth House, rarely called the Wentworth-Weinbaum House, stands at 27 Hancock Street, on the southeast corner of Hancock and Washington Streets. It is the next building west of Stoodley's Tavern. It was originally located on Hanover Street, on the north side, across from the intersection with Fleet Street.

Joshua W. Wentworth was born in 1742, the grandson of Lieutenant Governor John Wentworth. He constructed this home around 1770, which was floated down the Piscataqua River and relocated to its present location on Hancock Street in 1973. 

Colonel Wentworth married Sarah "Sally" Peirce in 1774, and they had fifteen children; however, only four of their offspring lived to adulthood. 

One of these was Ann Jaffrey Wentworth, who married Samuel Larkin in 1796. They resided in her father's former home on Middle Street until they replaced the old wooden structure with a brick mansion known as the Samuel Larkin House around 1808-1815.

Joshua Wentworth ran a counting house on the corner of Hanover and Vaughan Streets. In 1776, he received his commission as a Colonel in the first New Hampshire regiment. During the Revolutionary War, he used his skills as a businessman to serve as a New Hampshire Commissary for the state’s soldiers as well as a Navy Agent. After the War, he served as a Congressional Representative and a Councilor. He ran for President of New Hampshire in 1790 and finished second to John Langdon, then was appointed Supervisor for the United States in New Hampshire by President George Washington in 1791. He died around 1809. 

The home was later owned by Captain Thomas Brown, a shipmaster, who was the second largest contributor to the rebuilding of St. John's Church after it burned in 1806. 

These 1961 photographs were taken before the home was moved to Hancock Street to rescue it from the destruction of the North End by Urban Renewal. They are courtesy of the United States Library of Congress online Digital Collections and were part of an Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) of the mansion by the American Park Service.