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Classification: Infanticide?
Characteristics: 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
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: August 1768
Date of birth: 1737
Victim profile: Her illegitimate child
Method of murder: ???
Location: Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA
Status: Executed by hanging on December 30, 1768

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 Hampshire.


The Tragic History of Ruth Blay

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 -

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 picnic.

"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 belly.

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 desperation.

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 school teacher.

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 misinformation alive."

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.

The Auburn 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.

On that 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.

In August, 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."

An old 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.

The hour 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 school-mistress.

The 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 this inscription:

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!

May this last execution in Portsmouth, which occurred ninety years ago, long remain the last on our annals.

Ruth was 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.

Ruth Blay 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.

Albert Laighton has devoted a few pages in his valuable volume of poems, just published, to the remembrance of the Ruth Blay tragedy:

By Albert Laighton (1859)

IN the worn and dusty annals
Of our old and quiet town,
With its streets of leafy beauty.
And its houses quaint and brown,--

With its dear associations,
Hallowed by the touch of time,--
You may read this thrilling legend,
This sad tale of wrong and crime.

In the drear month of December,
Ninety years ago to-day,
Hundreds of the village people
Saw the hanging of Ruth Blay;--

Saw her clothed in silk and satin,
Borne beneath the gallows-tree,
Dressed as in her wedding garments,
Soon the bride of Death to be;--

Saw her tears of shame and anguish,
Heard her shrieks of wild despair,
Echo thro' the neighboring woodlands,
Thrill the clear and frosty air.

When at last, in tones of warning,
>From its high and airy tower,
Slowly with its tongue of iron,
Tolled the bell the fatal hour;--

Like the sound of distant billows,
When the storm is wild and loud,
Breaking on the rocky headland,
Ran a murmur through the crowd.

And a voice among them shouted,
"Pause before the deed is done:
We have asked reprieve and pardon
For the poor misguided one."

But these words of Sheriff Packer
Rang above the swelling noise:
"Must I wait and lose my dinner?
Draw away the cart, my boys!"

Fold thy hands in prayer, O woman!
Take thy last look of the sea;
Take thy last look of the landscape;
God be merciful to thee!

Stifled groans, a gasp, a shudder,
And the guilty deed was done;
On a scene of cruel murder
Coldly looked the Winter sun.

Then the people, pale with horror,
Looked with sudden awe behind,
As a field of grain in Autumn
Turns before a passing wind;

For distinctly in the distance,
In the long and frozen street,
They could hear the ringing echoes
Of a horse's sounding feet.

Nearer came the sound and louder,
Till a steed with panting breath,
>From its sides the white foam dripping,
Halted at the scene of death;

And a messenger alighted,
Crying to the crowd, "Make way!
This I bear to Sheriff Packer;
'Tis a pardon for Ruth Blay!"

But they answered not nor heeded,
For the last fond hope had fled;
In their deep and speechless sorrow,
Pointing only to the dead.

And that night, with burning bosoms,
Muttering curses fierce and loud,
At the house of Sheriff Packer
Gathered the indignant crowd,--

Shouting, as upon a gallows
A grim effigy they bore,
"Be the name of Thomas Packer
A reproach forevermore!"




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