Ruth Blay (died December 30, 1768) was
executed by hanging, having been convicted of concealing the body
of her illegitimate child in the floor of the barn next door to
the house in which she was staying in New Hampshire. She was
granted 3 reprieves before the hanging. There is no evidence that
a pardon was forthcoming. Blay was the last female executed in New
The Tragic History of Ruth
Town Portsmouth, NH
Date December 31, 1768
Author Pamela & Melanie Keene with Kevin Auger
On December 31, 1768, a tragic event
took place that would never be forgotten. On this day, nearly 250
years years ago, 25-year-old Ruth Blay of South Hampton was hanged
for allegedly killing her child, who was later found to be
stillborn. The crime was one of 600 that were required to be
punished with the death penalty. Though Ruth Blay was sentenced on
November 24, 1768, she was hanged on December 31 after many
fruitless reprieves. When the unfortunate day came and the fatal
hour tolled, high noon, the High Sheriff Thomas Packer, against
the crying protests of the crowd, slipped the noose neatly around
the neck of Ruth Blay, and the cart was drawn out from under her
feet. Ruth Blay, who was dressed in silks and satins, departed
this world that day a bride to death.
Though Ms. Blay's friends were
reportedly hurrying to the scene with another reprieve which would
have later resulted in a pardon, the High Sheriff, as the tale
goes, did not want to be late for, his dinner. As a result, only
minutes after Ruth Blay was swinging, the air was filled with the
unmistakable sound of a horse's clattering feet, and the pardon
arrived for Ruth Blay, who by that time had joined a more
peaceable world than that of which she had departed. Many
residents were so angry, that on that night, and effigy was
erected before the High Sheriff's house, and beneath the hanging
figure was a placard reading:
"Am I to lose my dinner
This woman for to hang?
Come draw away the cart, my boys-
Don't stop to say amen."
Ruth Blay's hanging was the last hanging
of Portsmouth, though the death penalty for such a crime was not
lifted until 1792. She was buried in an unmarked grave, which lies
about 300 feet north of the pond in Proprietors Burial Ground. '
Those who think that High Sheriff Thomas Packer suffered for his
crimes, he did not. He died in bed a wealthy man at an old age.
His body was interred at the North Union Cemetery, where still he
rests. Or does he?'
The last woman hanged in
NH: Ruth Blay went to the gallows for secretly having a baby
By Roni Reino - Fosters.com
October 30, 2011
PORTSMOUTH — It was probably
chilly on that December day in 1768 as a 31-year-old Ruth Blay
stood at the gallows and gazed out across the harbor, taking in
the last moments of her life.
Accused of killing and then
hiding the birth of a child out of wedlock, Blay, of South
Hampton, was subject to hanging, ending her life before a crowd of
thousands. No television and little entertainment at that time,
families most likely flocked to what is now the Old South Cemetery
in Portsmouth for what some might describe as a morbid afternoon
"They brought their children
with them," said Carolyn Marvin, who has written a book on Blay's
hanging. "It was cautionary theater."
She was the last woman to be
hung in New Hampshire, sentenced by an all-male jury and condemned
for her "evil ways."
Blay had been a
schoolteacher. Her classes would have been held at area homes,
since no permanent schoolhouse existed at the time. She traveled
between what was then the towns of Sandown, Chester and Hawk. She
was the youngest daughter for five, and was put to work as soon as
she could. Her mother a tailor, Blay probably had sewing skills.
She is believed to have
taught until February or March of 1768, before her death.
Over the summer, Marvin said
it is likely people knew of Blay's pregnancy. She had probably let
out her dresses from the back, making room for her ever growing
The law at the time stated
that concealment of a bastard child, whether or not it survived
birth, was a capital crime, punishable by hanging. To prove there
was no concealment, Blay would have had to provide information she
had prepared for the birth, perhaps by having contacted a midwife,
something she had not been able to bring forward.
She found herself on the
floor of the barn on her 31st birthday, giving birth to a
stillborn baby girl, alone.
"Imagine giving birth in a
barn at night by yourself," Marvin said. "She's 31 years old.
She's not a spring chicken. She's probably terrified."
The baby was probably born
with bruises typical of a difficult birth. She hid the child
beneath the floorboards of the South Hampton barn out of shame and
When men come to perform an
autopsy on the body, it had been three days. She was not accused
of killing the baby, but for hiding the premature birth.
"No, she did not kill the
child, or have any intent to kill the child," Marvin said. "She
had made preparations for the child's birth."
The father of the child is
unknown, Blay took that to the grave. It was likely the father
could have been a prominent man, a married man or even another
Her trial took place over the
summer of 1768 and she was sentenced to be hung on Nov. 24. She
was given three reprieves. They were probably given to allow her
to "come to terms with her maker," Marvin said.
On Dec. 23 she got the final
reprieve, which set her hanging date for Dec. 30.
Blay spent her last night
writing a statement in the presence of three witnesses, most
likely sitting shackled in the prison where she was kept for the
previous five months. She stated her innocence until the end.
The next morning, she was
taken from the jail on Prison Lane, now Chestnut Street. By
horse-drawn carriage, she was driven to the hill, probably with
her wooden casket beside her.
Frequently women who were
sentenced to be hung would wear fine attire, hoping to please God
upon entrance to what they hoped would be heaven.
"You would probably wear
whatever is nice — silks, satins," Marvin said.
However, there is no recorded
information indicating what Blay wore that day, despite other
accounts of her death.
Today, standing atop the high
ground where Blay was most likely hung, the view is of gravestones
and trees. No longer is there a clear view to the open sea, as
Marvin believes Blay would have had that fateful day.
It's unknown what Blay looked
like, as information about her features wasn't available. She was
most likely in distress before she was hung, and newspaper
clippings state she was begging for a few more moments to live.
Many renditions of Blay's
death have been flourished with information that Marvin, a
volunteer at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, said can't be proven. In
one account, Blay is said to have seen the ghost of her dead baby
sitting on the windowsill of the home she was in during her house
arrest before being moved to a jail cell.
Another says the sheriff hung
her early so he could go home and have dinner.
"That is false," Marvin said.
"The good thing is it keeps the story alive, but it also keeps the
Marvin said it is unlikely
Blay's ghost can be found wandering the Old South Cemetery at
night. Her ghost, she said, has much more important things
to do than walk among the gravestones.
Her body is buried somewhere
not far from the hill where she was hung, but there is no marker
for the site. At the time of her death, the area was not a
cemetery, but a military training area.
Blay's story continues to be
told and Marvin said she wants to keep the truth alive, so people
know the truth about an 18th century society that had unfair laws.
She said she believes the law was written in such a fashion to
discourage these births from happening. What wasn't in place was a
means to help women cope with them.
"I don't think there are
villains, necessarily. I think there are only humans," she said.
"I think the authorities whom I originally felt anger toward, were
simply doing their jobs at a time like this."
Ruth Blay was executed on December 30, 1768,
having been convicted of concealing the body of her illegitimate
child in the floor of her classroom in New Hampshire.
A stay of execution was granted by the state
Governor but arrived minutes after Ruth's hanging. Miss Blay was
the last female executed in New Hampshire.
street Cemetery, now arranged with that good taste which places it
at a far remove from the repulsive features of an antiquated grave
yard, is a place of quiet resort and one of the pleasantest walks
the city affords. A map readily directs any visitor to such
locality as he may be desirous to visit. The fast growing trees
begin to give a shade which in some parts is almost equal to that
spread over it by nature two centuries ago.
most elevated spot on the north side of the Cemetery, just above
the row of tombs, a gallows was once erected--and there, amid a
thousand spectators, on the 30th of December, 1768, an unfortunate
girl was hung--a poor, misguided girl, of better conscience than
many who have marble monuments with gilded inscriptions to
perpetuate their memory.
1768, Ruth Blay, of South Hampton, was indicted for concealing the
death of an illegitimate child, whereby it might not be known
whether it were born alive or not, or whether it was murdered or
not. The English statute prescribed the penalty of death for this
offence. This blood written law was not repealed even in this
state till 1792, when a milder punishment was substituted for that
of death. The exordium of Attorney General Clagett in the above
prosecution is still remembered for its pompous solemnity. "He
called heaven to witness, that he was discharging a duty that he
owed his country, his King and his God."
lady who was present at the execution of Ruth Blay, said--as Ruth
was carried through the streets, her shrieks filled the air. She
was dressed in silk, and was driven under the gallows in a cart.
Public sympathy was awakened for her, and her friends had procured
from the Governor a reprieve, which would have soon resulted in
her pardon--for circumstances afterwards showed that her child was
probably still-born, and she was not a murderer.
for her execution arrived, and the sheriff, not wishing, it is
said, to be late to his dinner, ordered the cart to be driven
away, and the unfortunate woman was left hanging from the gallows,
a sacrifice to misguided judgment. If we are rightly informed, she
was a girl of good education for her day, having been a
indignation of the populace can hardly be conceived when it was
ascertained that a reprieve from the governor came a few minutes
after her spirit had been hastened away. They gathered that
evening around the residence of Sheriff Packer, (the locality of
Richard Jenness's house,) and an effigy was there erected, bearing
Am I to
lose my dinner
This woman for to hang?
Come draw away the cart, my boys--
Don't stop to say amen.
Draw away, draw away the cart!
last execution in Portsmouth, which occurred ninety years ago,
long remain the last on our annals.
buried a rod or two from the north side of where the pond now
is,--and was the first one for whom the soil of that Cemetery was
broken, ninety-seven years after it was designated as "a place to
bury the dead in."
It is a
remarkable incident that this spot so early selected for the
repose of the dead, should, before being appropriated to that
purpose, be made the scene of a public execution and of the only
fatal duel of which we have any record.
was the last, but not the only individual who has been executed in
Portsmouth. In 1739, Dec. 27, Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenney
were executed for the murder of a child. In 1755, Eliphaz Dow of
Hampton Falls, was executed for murder. Thomas Packer was the High
Sheriff at the three executions--in 1739, 1755 and 1768.
Laighton has devoted a few pages in his valuable volume of poems,
just published, to the remembrance of the Ruth Blay tragedy:
OF RUTH BLAY
By Albert Laighton (1859)
worn and dusty annals
Of our old and quiet town,
With its streets of leafy beauty.
And its houses quaint and brown,--
Hallowed by the touch of time,--
You may read this thrilling legend,
This sad tale of wrong and crime.
drear month of December,
Ninety years ago to-day,
Hundreds of the village people
Saw the hanging of Ruth Blay;--
clothed in silk and satin,
Borne beneath the gallows-tree,
Dressed as in her wedding garments,
Soon the bride of Death to be;--
tears of shame and anguish,
Heard her shrieks of wild despair,
Echo thro' the neighboring woodlands,
Thrill the clear and frosty air.
last, in tones of warning,
>From its high and airy tower,
Slowly with its tongue of iron,
Tolled the bell the fatal hour;--
sound of distant billows,
When the storm is wild and loud,
Breaking on the rocky headland,
Ran a murmur through the crowd.
voice among them shouted,
"Pause before the deed is done:
We have asked reprieve and pardon
For the poor misguided one."
words of Sheriff Packer
Rang above the swelling noise:
"Must I wait and lose my dinner?
Draw away the cart, my boys!"
hands in prayer, O woman!
Take thy last look of the sea;
Take thy last look of the landscape;
God be merciful to thee!
groans, a gasp, a shudder,
And the guilty deed was done;
On a scene of cruel murder
Coldly looked the Winter sun.
people, pale with horror,
Looked with sudden awe behind,
As a field of grain in Autumn
Turns before a passing wind;
distinctly in the distance,
In the long and frozen street,
They could hear the ringing echoes
Of a horse's sounding feet.
came the sound and louder,
Till a steed with panting breath,
>From its sides the white foam dripping,
Halted at the scene of death;
Crying to the crowd, "Make way!
This I bear to Sheriff Packer;
'Tis a pardon for Ruth Blay!"
answered not nor heeded,
For the last fond hope had fled;
In their deep and speechless sorrow,
Pointing only to the dead.
night, with burning bosoms,
Shouting, as upon
Muttering curses fierce and loud,
At the house of Sheriff Packer
Gathered the indignant crowd,--
A grim effigy they bore,
"Be the name of Thomas Packer
A reproach forevermore!"