I was reading Murdered by His Wife, an absorbing tale of real life crime and punishment in eighteenth-century Massachusetts, when it dawned on me I was related to this woman!
Bathsheba Ruggles Spooner is my 3rd cousin 8 times removed. She was found guilty of arranging the murder of her husband in Brookfield, Mass., in 1778 and was hanged for the crime, along with the men who actually killed her husband, Joshua Spooner.
The case was a sensation at the time, given how rare it was for women to be involved in murder plots and became even more of a controversy after it was found she was indeed pregnant with a five month old fetus at the time of her death. She had been examined and some said there was no indication of "quickening" which would mean a viable fetus and others said she was in fact pregnant. Usually a woman would be allowed to deliver the child before being executed, but some felt the case was rushed because of Bathsheba’s father’s standing as a Tory.
Bathsheba was born in Sandwich, Mass., on 15 February 1745/46, to Timothy Ruggles and Bathsheba Bourne. Bathesheba Bourne was the daughter of Melatiah, the wealthiest man in Sandwich at the time. They owned the Bourne-Newcomb Tavern, which was later operated by Bathsheba’s son from her first marriage to William Newcomb. The building still stands today.
|Bourne-Newcomb Tavern, Sandwich, MA (source: Sandwichmassachusetts.com|
Bathsheba the younger grew up as the favorite of her powerful father, a Harvard educated attorney, Representative to the General Court and a Brigadier General in the English army. She shared many of her father’s traits—she was confident, outspoken, strong-willed, and often disregarded the opinions of others. None of these were considered good qualities for a woman in that era.
When Bathsheba was seven, the family left Sandwich and moved to Hardwick, 20 miles northwest of Worcester. Twenty-four related families settled in the area. The Ruggles’ fine home had a deer park with hunting and riding horses, as well as prize bulls for selective breeding of a dairy herd, and a large orchard. Her father kept the hunting grounds for guests’ use only, as he was a vegetarian.
Bathsheba's privileged upbringing continued until her father refused to sign the Stamp Act protest in October 1765, which began the fall of his reputation and career. When he left Hardwick for Nova Scotia, his family was divided in their loyalties. He took two sons and his wife and eldest son stayed.
|Timothy Ruggles source: capecodhistory.us|
It is not known if Bathsheba’s marriage to Joshua Spooner was arranged, but he was from a wealthy family as well so it would have been considered a good match. She seemed to strongly dislike him early in their marriage. She seemed to view him as a weak man, and he was deemed an abusive drinker. They had four children together, one dying as an infant. During the Revolutionary War, Bathsheba took in a 16 year old boy, Ezra Ross, who was returning from a year's military service to his home in Ipswich. She nursed him back to health and apparently they had an affair. She tried to talk him into poisoning her husband, but he did not accomplish the act.
She befriended two escaped English soldiers and convinced them to help rid her of her husband. She was pregnant at the time, so if the baby was Ezra's that would explain her desperation. But she was a smart woman, so the lack of plan or covering their tracks didn't make any sense, so she may have been suffering from mental illness at that point.
When Joshua came home from a night at a tavern, William Brooks waited for him and beat him. Joshua called out, but no one in the house (several visitors, the children and the servants) came to his aid. James Buchanan and Ezra Ross went outside to help Brooks finish Joshua off and then threw his body in the family's well. Putting the body in the well made little sense as it would be found quickly and would contaminate the drinking water.
Bathsheba also gave the men money and her husband's clothing and silver shoe buckles, which they wore when they left for Worcester. They were caught quickly and confessed, implicating Bathsheba and three of her servants. The servants testified for the prosecution. Bathsheba never confessed but on the day of her hanging said she was dying justly.
Bathsheba and her three co-conspirators were hanged in Worcester on 2 July 1778. She was just 32 years of age.
|Mural at the Worcester Courthouse depicting Bathsheba|
Joshua is buried at the Brookfield Cemetery. His stone was erected 50-60 years after his death.
|Joshua Spooner's Gravestone source:findagrave.com|
The Brookfield house Bathsheba and Joshua lived in no longer stands, but the site can be seen today, located on the north side of Elm Hill Road about a mile off Route 9. The well remains, as does some rubble from a chimney and part of a barn foundation. The site of the well is marked by an engraved stone.
|Marking the spot of the Spooner well|
After her arrest, her three children were raised by their cousin, John Jones Spooner, age 21, of Roxbury. The eldest, Elizabeth, was 11 in the year of her parents' deaths. She married at age 22 to William Heath Jr., had two children and died at age 42. Joshua was 8 when his parents died. He went to sea in 1789-90 and was not heard from again. There was another Joshua Spooner in Brookfield, but he seems to be from a different family. Bathshua was just three when she was orphaned. She married twice, first to Peter Trott of Boston with whom she had two children, and then to Thomas Crocker, also of Boston. She died, according to the Spooner genealogy, "hopelessly insane for many years before her death" at age 83.
Deborah Navas, Murdered By His Wife
RA Lovell Jr., Sandwich, A Cape Cod Town by RA Lovell Jr., 1984