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.

Resources:

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


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