Monday, 30 December 2013

The Tragic Execution of Ruth Blay

Ruth Blay (Haverhill, Massachusetts, America, 10th June 1737 - Portsmouth, New Hampshire, America, 30th December 1768) 

Today's story is a sad one; it serves as a reminder of the harsh punishments our 18th century courts handed down for occurrences which, sometimes, weren't really even crimes at all.  


Rural New Hampshire
Rural New Hampshire

In June 1768, children playing in a barn in South Hampton near Portsmouth, New Hampshire, made a grisly and disturbing discovery beneath the floorboards when they found the body of newborn baby girl.  The authorities were duly summoned and an autopsy on the unfortunate infant was carried out, that found no suggestion of foul play in the child's death. However, the very act of secretly delivering an illegitimate child was a crime known as concealment and it was punishable by death. If the infant did not live and no eye witnesses were present to attest that the death was a natural one, then the matter automatically became one of murder.

Whispers spread throughout the town that the mother of the unfortunate babe was a 31 year old unmarried schoolteacher named Ruth Blay, who was rooming in a house beside the barn. Within a week of the discovery, the terrified woman was imprisoned and on trial for her life. She readily admitted to being the child's mother but swore that the death was a natural one and refused to name the father. Incarcerated through a blistering summer, Ruth mourned her lost child and sorry circumstances bitterly, her health slowly but surely declining.

An all male jury found Ruth guilty and on 24th November 1768, she was sentenced to death by hanging. Usually the sentence would be carried out swiftly but Ruth received three reprieves before the day of her death, each of them serving only to prolong her torment. The stifling summer turned to autumn and a bitter winter descended until finally, the sorry day could be put off no longer.

On the last night of her life, Ruth sat in her freezing cell in what must have been utter desperation, reflecting on the sad events that had brought her to this place. She composed a final statement in which she once again confessed to giving birth to the child but utterly refuted any claims that she was responsible for the death of her daughter. 

The following day  she was transported by cart to the place of execution where hundreds of locals gathered to watch her die. When the cart pulled away Ruth did not die quickly in the noose but instead was left to a slow, agonising strangulation. Her body was placed in an unmarked grave, the exact location now lost to history. 

Ruth Blay was the last woman to be executed in New Hampshire and today, her name lives on as a symbol of a cruel law, albeit one that would remain in place for almost a quarter of a century after her own execution.

19 comments:

  1. What an awful story. Poor woman must have been desperate to have disposed of her child in such a way.
    Liz

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    1. Sadly the legal system saw punishment as the best deterrent; a misguided approach if ever there was one!

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    2. Unfortunately, many still see the death penalty as a deterrent and even morally justified. We hear about mentally challenged people being put to death. Awful. Wish we had developed further by now.

      Thank goodness that women have voices on juries and pretty much everywhere else, now. Imagine all the other women who looked on and wanted to help this woman but couldn't.

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    3. It's such a tragic story. Even with the distance of centuries, my heart goes out to her.

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  2. Thanks for the post. So few Americans know our past history, its injustices especially against women. Isn't it great the father was never named? The push for family limitation in the early 20th century led to contraception methods and better health for women, but that is often threatened today. Interestingly, my ancestor was a prominent member of Portsmouth, NH at that time. He surely would have known this sad case.

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    1. I accidentally deleted my response to your comment - my apologies! I wonder what the father made of it, and his feelings once Ruth's fate was decided - clearly though, he decided it was better to keep his part in the sorry tale to himself!

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  3. A tragic story, made all the worse by her loyalty to a man who showed no concern for her in return. How people were prepared to live with such an unjust law is beyond me.

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    1. Thank you for your comment; this is one of the most tragic stories I've shared, made all the worse by the fact that it was utterly avoidable, a tragedy brought about by the judiciary.

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  4. Such a tragic story and it could be that one of the men in the jury may even have been the father of her child.

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    1. Carol, that thought hadn't even occurred to me; it's chilling!

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  5. A lesson in fanaticism: Women have suffered unjustly, at the hands of men, and continue today in far eastern and African countries. However, the ancient Israelites did not see it that way. Both offenders where put to death.

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  6. My region and it did lack compassion.

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    1. There are so many sad stories of this type!

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  7. That's so terrible. I'd say, I hope the shag was worth it, but I'm guessing it wasn't. Mind you, in those days she might have been forced into it by the man of the house, who knows. Makes me want to know more about her, but this is probably all there is. What Carol Cork said is interesting!

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    1. That almost sounds like the start of a novel!

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  8. According to some sources, many of the villagers tried to stop this, and might have been successful had it not been for the actions of the High Sheriff, who was at least in part, ostracized for his behavior and character displayed throughout this event. See: http://www.seacoastnh.com/dead/blay.html

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    1. Thank you for the post. I live nearby and have always been fascinated by this story. As I understand it, she is in an unmarked grave about 300 feet from the pond in what is now the Proprietors Burying Ground, which is a lovely old cemetery to see in Portsmouth.

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