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Bathsheba Ruggles SPOONER





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: March 1, 1778
Date of arrest: Next day
Date of birth: February 15, 1746
Victim profile: Joshua Spooner (her husband)
Method of murder: Beating
Location: Brookfield, Worcester County, Massachusetts, USA
Status: Executed by hanging on July 2, 1778

Bathsheba Ruggles Spooner (February 15, 1746 – July 2, 1778) was the first woman to be executed in the United States by Americans rather than the British. She was the daughter of Brigadier General Timothy Ruggles.

Spooner had become involved with a sixteen year-old soldier in the Continental Army, Ezra Ross, whom she was nursing from injury. She became pregnant by him and convinced him and two escaped British prisoners of war, Williams Brooks, James Buchanan, to kill her husband, a wealthy gentleman farmer in Brookfield, Massachusetts.

The three men ambushed him in his front yard as he returned home. After beating him to death, they dumped his body down a well.

Spooner and the three men were convicted in April 1778 and sentenced to death. Spooner pleaded extenuating circumstances due to her pregnancy, but her plea was rejected and she was hanged alongside Ross, Brooks and Buchanan on July 2. An autopsy revealed that she had indeed been pregnant.


Bathsheba Ruggles Spooner (February 15, 1746 – July 2, 1778) was the first woman to be executed in the United States by Americans rather than the British.

The daughter of a prominent Colonial American lawyer, justice and military officer, Bathsheba Ruggles had an arranged marriage to a wealthy farmer, Joshua Spooner, prior to her father's banishment from Massachusetts in 1774, due to his British Loyalist stance. Reportedly growing unhappy in the marriage, she confessed to an "aversion" to her husband.

After meeting and becoming lovers with a young soldier from the Continental Army, Ezra Ross, Spooner became pregnant and attempted to involve her reluctant lover and two servants in a plan to murder her husband. Finally she enlisted the assistance of two British soldiers escaped from General Burgoyne's captive troops. On the night of March 1, 1778, one of the soldiers beat Joshua Spooner to death in his dooryard, and the body was put in the Spooner well. Bathsheba Spooner and the three men were tried and convicted of the crime and sentenced to death.

Subsequent issues arose concerning Spooner's petition for a delay in sentence because of her pregnancy, which was first denied and then supported by some members of a group of "examiners." The four were executed anyway, and a post-mortem examination requested by Spooner revealed that she was, indeed, five months pregnant. Historians have pointed out that the trial and speedy execution may have been hastened by anti-Loyalist sentiment, and also that the person who signed Spooner's death warrant was Joshua Spooner's stepbrother.


Bathsheba Ruggles Spooner was the daughter of Brigadier General Timothy Ruggles, a lawyer who had served as chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas in Worcester, Massachusetts, from 1762 to 1764, and founder and most eminent citizen of the town of Hardwick, Massachusetts. He married Bathsheba Bourne of Sandwich, Massachusetts on September 18, 1736.

Timothy Ruggles was a strong-willed and determined man, qualities he shared with his daughter, although such were considered unbecoming in a woman. Timothy Ruggles was an avowed Loyalist or Tory, who threatened to raise an army to protect his and other Loyalist farms and livestock against Patriot attacks. He was ultimately banished from Massachusetts for joining forces with the British Army in Boston and ultimately Staten Island, New York. After the war he was given a stipend and extensive land grant in Wilmot, Nova Scotia by King George III.

Under public censure for his refusal to sign the Stamp Act protest as Massachusetts representative to the 1765 Stamp Act Congress, Ruggles might have arranged the marriage on January 15, 1766, for his daughter to Joshua Spooner, but no documentation has yet turned up to explain why Bathsheba Ruggles married a man she very soon came to hate. The son of a wealthy Boston merchant, Spooner was a well-to-do Brookfield farmer, later described as an abusive man for whom his wife, Bathsheba developed "an utter aversion."

The Spooners had their first child, Elizabeth, on April 8, 1767. Three more followed between 1770 and 1775; Joshua (February 21, 1770-September 18, 1801), who died in London, England and daughter Bathsheba Spooner (January 17, 1775–1858). A second son, John, was born on February 26, 1773 and died on March 19, 1773. The Spooners lived in relative affluence in a two-story house in Brookfield.

Plotting murder

When Ezra Ross first met Bathsheba Spooner in the Spring of 1777, he was a sixteen-year-old soldier in the Continental Army, who had already served in the American Revolution under George Washington for a year. Ross was walking north from Washington's winter camp in Morristown, New Jersey, on his way home to Linebrook, Massachusetts, when he fell ill and was nursed to health by Bathsheba Spooner before heading on to his home. He visited the Spooner home on his way back to rejoin the northern army in July 1777, and again in December after the four-month campaign that ended with the surrender of the British under General Burgoyne and his entire army at Saratoga, New York on October 17, 1777.

Ross stayed on at the Spooner house through Christmas and into the new year, travelling with Joshua Spooner on business trips, as well as carrying on an illicit affair with Bathsheba Spooner. Bathsheba Spooner became pregnant mid-January and began urging Ross to dispose of her husband before her condition would prove that she had committed adultery.

In February, 1778, Ross once again accompanied Joshua Spooner, this time on an extended trip to Princeton, Massachusetts, where Spooner owned a potash business. Ross brought along a bottle of nitric acid, given to him by Bathsheba, which he planned to use to poison Spooner. Ross backed out of the plan and returned to his home in Linebrook at the end of the trip rather than accompany Spooner to Brookfield.

While Ross and Joshua Spooner were in Princeton, Bathsheba Spooner had invited two runaway British prisoners of war, Private Williams Brooks and Sergeant James Buchanan, to stay at the Spooner home. She discussed ideas for killing her husband with the pair, and when Joshua Spooner returned home, alive, well and without Ross, she recruited them to assist her. She also wrote to Ross to inform him of the developments, and he returned to Brookfield on Saturday February 28.

When Spooner walked home from a local tavern the following evening, March 1, 1778, Brooks committed the murder and Buchanan and Ross helped hide the body down the well. Bathsheba Spooner distributed paper money from her husband's lock box and articles of his clothing to the three men, who then took one of the Spooner horses to Worcester, 14 miles distant.

The murder was discovered and the group was arrested in Worcester within 24 hours. Brooks and Buchanan had spent the remainder of the night drinking, and next morning Brooks showed off Joshua Spooner's silver shoe buckles that were engraved with Spooner’s initials. Ezra Ross was discovered hiding in the attic of the same tavern and immediately asked for a confessor.

The trio implicated Bathsheba Spooner and three of her household servants, Sarah Stratton, her son Jesse Parker, and Alexander Cummings. Brooks was charged with the assault on Joshua Spooner, Buchanan and Ross were charged with aiding and abetting in the murder, and Bathsheba Spooner was charged with inciting, abetting, and procuring the manner and form of the murder. All were arraigned and pleaded not guilty.

Trial and execution

During the trial, which took place on April 24, 1778, the household servants, Sarah Stratton, Jesse Parker, and Alexander Cummings, testified for the prosecution, conducted by Robert Treat Paine (later to become Massachusetts' first Attorney General). Levi Lincoln, who would become the United States Attorney General under Thomas Jefferson, was assigned to defend the accused.

There was little Lincoln could do to defend Brooks or Buchanan because they (with Ezra Ross) had dictated and signed a lengthy written confession to the crime, but Lincoln did mount a credible defence in support of Ezra Ross and Bathsheba Spooner.

He argued that Ross had no intention of harming Joshua Spooner and was not aware of the plan until a few hours before the murder, had not assisted in the murder, and pretended to support it to stay on good terms with his lover. He argued that Bathsheba Spooner had a "disordered mind," her actions were irrational, that the plan was poorly conceived with no plans for the perpetrators to escape.

This was the first capital case in the newly created United States and the verdict came in the next day. All were sentenced to death and execution was set for June 4, 1778. Spooner petitioned for a postponement citing the extenuating circumstances of her pregnancy, based on common law which protected the life of a fetus if it had quickened. Spooner was examined by a panel of 12 women and two male midwives, who all swore that she was not "quick with child."

A second examination occurred after Spooner and her confessor, the Reverend Thaddeus Maccarty, protested the midwives’ report, and four of the examiners joined by another midwife and Spooner’s brother-in-law, Dr. John Green, conducted a second examination and supported the claim of pregnancy. The findings were not accepted and Spooner was hanged alongside Ross, Brooks and Buchanan on July 2, before a crowd of 5000 spectators in Worcester's Washington Square.


A post-mortem examination, done at Spooner's request, showed that she was in fact pregnant, with "a perfect male fetus of the growth of five months." Historians have questioned the motivation and validity of the opinions of the panel who examined Spooner for pregnancy, as well as the motivation of the Massachusetts Executive Council, suggesting that Spooner was executed based on the hostility in the community against her father's British Loyalist stance.

Further, the deputy secretary and leader of the Massachusetts Executive Council, who signed Spooner's death warrant, John Avery Jr., was part of a group of Patriots called “The Loyal Nine” (the innermost circle of the Sons of Liberty) who opposed Timothy Ruggles and all Loyalists. John Avery, Jr. was a close relation of the murder victim, Joshua Spooner's stepbrother.


Bathsheba Spooner

One dark night in March 1778, thirty-seven-year-old Joshua Spooner of Brookfield, in Worcester County, Massachusetts, strolled home to his wife Bathsheba and three young children after a friendly evening of drink and conversation at a nearby tavern. Entering his front yard, Spooner was suddenly accosted by three men, who beat him to death and dumped his body down a well.

The victim, a wealthy farmer and businessman, was intimately connected to what had been one of the leading families in the ancien régime of provincial Massachusetts. Twelve years earlier, Spooner had married the daughter of Brigadier General Timothy Ruggles, soon to become one of the most prominent and detested loyalists in revolutionary New England.

An imposing giant of a man, General Ruggles was finally forced to flee Massachusetts with the British army that evacuated Boston in 1776, leaving his favorite daughter behind enemy lines and trapped in an unhappy marriage. Bathsheba Ruggles Spooner, it seems, had developed an "utter aversion" (p. 29) to her husband, who reportedly failed to maintain an appropriate aura of "manly importance as head of his family" (pp. 33, 155). Even their eight-year-old son may have imbibed Bathsheba's contempt, referring to his father as "Old Bogus" (pp. 33, 136).

The immediate impetus to murder seems to have been provided by another man—actually, little more than a boy. During the fall or winter of 1777–1778, Bathsheba Spooner had engaged in an amorous relationship with Ezra Ross, a sixteen-year-old soldier who paused to convalesce in Brookfield after being discharged from the Continental army.

In late January or February (probably upon realizing that she was pregnant), Bathsheba urged the pliable youth to murder her husband, promising to marry him afterward. When young Ross failed to dispatch Joshua in a timely manner, Bathsheba tried to seduce, cajole, and bribe several other men to do the job, including two of her household servants and two escaped British prisoners-of-war, James Buchanan and William Brooks, whom she invited into her home. Following weeks of ineffectual scheming, Ross, Buchanan, and Brooks finally rose to Bathsheba's challenge and fatally assaulted her hapless husband. Bathsheba quickly distributed Joshua's cash and clothes to his assassins and sent them on their way.

By the following evening, however, the three soldiers, Bathsheba Spooner, and three household servants (at least tangentially involved) had been apprehended and either confessed or implicated each other in the ill-conceived plot. Bathsheba and the three soldiers were all convicted on capital charges in April 1778 and hanged in early July, despite Bathsheba's plea that her execution be stayed pending the delivery of her unborn child.

Murdered by His Wife: A History with Documentation of the Joshua Spooner Murder and Execution of His Wife, Bathsheba, Who was Hanged in Worcester, Massachusetts, 2 July 1778. By DEBORAH NAVAS . (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999)


SPOONER, Bathsheba (USA)

A tale of a husband loyal to his new country, a wife loyal to the old country; of deserters, a lover, two generals, and an American vice-president who was imprisoned in the Tower of London; surely a scenario worthy of Hollywood itself.

The loyal husband was elderly Joshua Spooner, a fervent supporter of the revolutionary ambitions of the American colonists; his wife Bathsheba, daughter of an English general, was equally supportive of King George III. To say that their views were incompatible would have been putting it mildly, and so it was not surprising that Bathsheba looked elsewhere for more congenial company. She found it in Ezra Ross, a young man with whom she soon commenced a torrid affair. And whether inspired by feelings of patriotism, or the overwhelming wish to marry Ezra, Bathsheba decided that her husband had to die. The means whereby that might be achieved came in the unexpected shape of two English soldiers who, in February 1778, sought sanctuary at her house, without Joshua’s knowledge, of course.

The soldiers had deserted from the English forces which were then under the command of General Lord Cornwallis; that gallant officer was captured by the ‘enemy’ some months later and, as a prisoner of war, was exchanged in 1781 for Henry Laurens, the wealthy vice-president of South Carolina. Laurens had been captured on the high seas by English warships while en route to Holland, where he had hoped to persuade the Dutch to enter the conflict on the side of the Americans. Accused of high treason, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London where, on arrival, he was greeted by the Yeoman Warders (the ‘Beefeaters’) on duty whistling Yankee Doodle Dandy! Ironically, four years later, General Lord Cornwallis was appointed Constable of the Tower of London by George III!

But back to Bathsheba. Who better, she decided, to rid her of Joshua, than the two deserters? Trained to kill and decidedly bribeable, they were the obvious choice, and she also cajoled her lover to join in. However, all three, lacking any finesse, simply attacked Joshua and, after beating him up, threw his body down a well. Unfortunately for the murderers, the cadaver was later discovered by locals while drawing water. The authorities were notified and the soldiers were caught spending their ill-gotten gains: the game was up.

All four stood trial on the date most befitting to their maladroit method of committing murder, 1 April 1778. In court Bathsheba claimed to be pregnant, and had she been in England and in that condition her execution would have been postponed until after the birth. However, the reverse procedure was applied; she was hanged first and then examined, the doctors discovering that she was carrying a foetus barely six months old.

Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt reported how, in 1604, Elizabeth Puffin, a maid, attacked her employer’s brother-in-law, striking his head eleven blows and nearly severing one of his arms. Then, stealing some money, she escaped, only to be arrested soon afterwards. In prison she pleaded a respite of 32 weeks because she said she was pregnant, and the committee of sworn women visited her no fewer than 18 times. They must have finally discovered that she was lying, for Franz wrote: ‘I beheaded her with the sword – she behaved in a Christian way.’

Amazing True Stories of Female Executions by Geoffrey Abbott


The First Woman Ever Executed in the USA was Pregnant

By Denise Now -

June 14, 2013

In 1778, Bathsheba Spooner earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first woman executed in the newly independent country called the United States of America.

Born in 1746, Bathsheba was reportedly the favorite daughter of one of Massachusetts’s most prominent citizens, the wealthy Brigadier General Timothy Ruggles, an attorney who had served as Worcester, Massachusetts Court of Common Pleas Chief Justice from 1762 to 1764.

In 1766, Ruggles arranged Bathsheba’s marriage to Joshua Spooner. It’s unclear what the age gap was between the couple: Ann Jones in Women Who Kill describes him as a “retired merchant” while other sources state that he was born in 1741, only five years before his wife.

Bathsheba had her first child in April 1767 and gave birth three more times between 1770 and 1775. The second child died only weeks after being born. According to David Petts in Great American Trials, “In these years before the Revolution they were living in what was considered an elegant two-story house in Brookfield, Massachusetts, and were considered wealthy by their neighbors.”

However, the marriage was unhappy although the precise reasons are not known with certainty. Some sources indicate that the energetic and outgoing Bathsheba may have been contemptuous of the weak-willed Joshua while others have indicated that she feared him because he was often drunk and sometimes abusive. One article states that he may have had sexual relations with household servants. Infidelity might have easily triggered a multitude of negative emotions in his wife.

When the American Revolution broke, Timothy Ruggles was outspoken in his Loyalist sympathies. Patriots of the fledgling nation forced the Tory to flee with his sons to Nova Scotia. Bereft of close family members, Bathsheba may have felt increasingly trapped by her marriage to a man for whom she would later admit she had “an utter aversion.”

In March 1777, Ezra Ross, 16, had served for a year under General George Washington. Disease was rampant among the troops and Ezra fell ill as he was making his way through Brookfield on his way to his hometown. The Spooners took the young soldier into their household and Bathsheba nursed him back to health.

He visited the Spooners a second time in July 1777 on his way to meet up with his regiment. Ezra participated in the four month long campaign that ended with the surrender of British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga.

Then Ezra returned to the Spooner house. Joshua Spooner appeared impressed with the young man who soon accompanied Joshua on brief business trips.

He also became close to Bathsheba and may have become sexually intimate with her. She asked him to poison her husband. Just before Ezra and Joshua were to leave on a trip to Princeton, Bathsheba gave Ezra a bottle of nitric acid and urged him to murder Joshua with it. Although Ezra took the bottle, he did not poison Joshua. Ezra also did not return to the Spooner household but made his way from Princeton to his hometown.

In the period immediately following the war’s end, many former British soldiers wandered Massachusetts. While Joshua and Ezra were in Princeton in February 1778, Bathsheba invited two displaced British soldiers, James Buchanan and William Brooks, into her house. As Ann Jones writes in Women Who Kill, the two men “ate and drank well at Joshua’s expense.” She also shared with them how very unhappy she was in her marriage – and how much she wanted to become a widow.

Due to Ezra’s reluctance to poison him, Joshua returned in good health to Brookfield. However, he took a dim view of his wife’s house guests. The man named Spooner accused them of stealing a spoon and ordered them out of his house.

However, Buchanan and Brooks were back at that house two weeks later on March 1, 1778. Joshua was out drinking with buddies. On what appears to have been a bizarre coincidence, Ezra Ross had also come to the house that day.

When Joshua came home, Brooks began beating and strangling him. Ezra pulled a watch off Joshua and handed it to Buchanan. After Joshua was dead, the trio carried his corpse to the Spooner well. Buchanan pulled off Joshua’s shoes. Then they threw the body down the well.

When the three returned to the home of the very recently widowed Bathsheba, she gave them money and clothing. Then they left.

Perhaps horrified by the memory of the previous evening’s activities, all three began drinking early the next morning. In the evening, Buchanan and Brooks showed up at a tavern where their expensive clothes, especially the silver-buckled shoes on Brooks with the telltale initials J.S., immediately aroused suspicion.

In the meantime, Bathsheba had reported to authorities that her husband was “missing.” Searchers found his corpse in the well.

Interviews with neighbors soon led to the arrests of Bathsheba, Buchanan, Brooks, and Ezra.

Spectators packed the courtroom on April 24, 1777. It was held before a panel of five judges: Chief Justice William Cushing, Jedediah Foster, Nathaniel Peaslee Sargeant, David Sewall, and James Sullivan.

Attorney Levi Lincoln, who would later serve as United States Attorney General under President Thomas Jefferson, was appointed to defend all four accused. He argued that Ezra was very young, that he had not participated in the killing itself, and that his even being there at the time of the crime was an unfortunate accident. He also argued that the poor planning of the crime was “the best evidence of a disordered mind” for Bathsheba.

The main part of the trial began at 8:00 a.m. and ended at midnight. The next day the jury came back with its verdict. All four were guilty of murder and sentenced to be executed.

Their execution was scheduled for June 4, 1777. Bathsheba “pleaded her belly,” in the phrase of the time period. She said she was pregnant and that she was “quick with child” meaning that the fetus was moving inside her. The rule at the time was that a pregnant woman could be executed in the very early stages of pregnancy but if it was advanced enough that the unborn was moving, or “quick,” her execution had to be delayed until she gave birth. Since condemned women often falsely claimed to be “quick with child” in order to save themselves, this claim always first resulted in an examination to see if it was likely she was telling the truth.

Bathsheba’s first petition in May for such an examination led to her own and her co-defendants’ executions being initially postponed. On June 11, a panel examined Bathsheba. All signed a document stating she was not “quick with child.”

Bathsheba then wrote the following letter requesting a second examination.

May it please Your Honors
With unfeigned gratitude I acknowledge the favor you lately granted me of a reprieve. I must beg leave, once more, humbly to lie at your feet, and to represent to you that, though the jury of matrons that were appointed to examine into my case have not brought in my favor, yet that I am absolutely certain of being in a pregnant state, and above four months advanced in it, and the infant I bear was lawfully begotten. I am earnestly desirous of being spared till I shall be delivered of it. I must Humbly desire your honors, not withstanding my great unworthiness, to take my deplorable case into your compassionate consideration. What I bear, and clearly perceive to be animated, is innocent of the faults of her who bears it, and has, I beg leave to say, a right to the existence which God has begun to give it. Your honors’ humane Christian principles, I am very certain, must lead you to desire to preserve life, even in this miniature state, rather than destroy it. Suffer me, therefore, with all Earnestness, to beseech your honors to grant me such a further length of time, at least, as that there may be the fairest and fullest opportunity to have the matter fully ascertained; and as in duty bound, shall, during my Short Continuance, pray.

She signed the letter and dated it June 16, 1778.

On June 27, a second panel examined her. Some of the examiners stated that she was indeed “quick with child.” Others insisted she was not.

Despite the mixed opinion, Bathsheba received no further reprieve. Author Deborah Navas, who wrote a book on the case entitled Murdered by His Wife, believes that bias may have been behind the haste to execute Bathsheba because the Council of Massachusetts Deputy Secretary who signed the final warrant for the executions was Joshua Spooner’s stepbrother. That Deputy Secretary was also thought to harbor a strong antipathy toward Bathsheba’s Tory father.

The parents of Ezra Ross turned in a lengthy petition for clemency for their son but it was also rejected.

The hanging of all four was scheduled for July 2, 1777.

A crowd of approximately five thousand gathered to watch the malefactors put to death. They stood watching even though a thunderstorm broke out.

Bathsheba appeared calm but very weak. She could not walk and was carried to the place of execution in a chaise. She crawled up the steps to the gallows on her hands and knees. Her last words were, “I justly die. I hope to see my Christian friends that I am leaving behind in Heaven but hope that none of them go there in the ignominious manner that I do.”

In keeping with her last request, an autopsy was performed. A five-month male fetus was found in her womb. Much of the public was suddenly sympathetic to the murderer who had told the truth about her pregnancy. Commenting on the case in 1844, Peleg W. Chandler wrote that such sympathy appeared to lead some to forget “how deeply her hands were stained with blood.”

Gregory J. Roden commented in 2011 in the Human Life Review, a journal dedicated largely to the cause of outlawing abortion, that Bathsheba’s plea for a second reprieve constitutes “a moving and persuasive discourse on the sanctity of life in the womb.” He also notes the “irony” that what he regards as an “insightful moral lesson” was written by a brutal murderer.

Well over two hundred years after her death, the story of the murderer who begged to be spared long enough to deliver a baby remains oddly haunting.


Bathsheba Spooner at the gallows, seen in a mural displayed at the Worcester courthouse.



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