In March of 1778, a traveler brought strange news to Sandwich, Mass., about an unnatural murder in Brookfield. A woman had hired two Russians to kill her husband. The woman turned out to be well-known in Sandwich: Bathsheba Spooner, daughter of a notorious Loyalist.
She had moved away from the Cape Cod town with her family as eight-year-old Bathsheba Ruggles. At 20, she married a prosperous farmer in Brookfield, Joshua Spooner.
Twelve years later, her 17-year-old lover and two deserters from the British Army – Hessians, not Russians – beat Joshua Spooner to death. Then they shoved his body head-first down a well. Bathsheba Spooner went to trial for inciting the men to kill her husband.
She was sentenced to hang, along with her co-conspirators. But Bathsheba was pregnant. Which raised a question: Did her unborn child pay for the sins of his Loyalist grandfather?
She was born on Feb. 13, 1745 in the Newcomb Tavern on Grove Street.
Her father, Timothy Ruggles, had gone from guest at the tavern to landlord, as he had married the widow Newcomb. They had six children. The Newcomb Tavern became a hotbed of Loyalist sentiment, and its patrons often clashed with the patriots in town.
Timothy Ruggles then moved the family to a farm in a new town called Hardwick, Mass. There he served as chief judge of the common pleas court in Worcester. Young John Adams, who studied law in Worcester, admired him. “His honor is strict . . . People approached him with dread and terror,” wrote Adams.
At six feet tall, Ruggles had a commanding presence and an outsize personality. He graduated from Harvard, practiced law and rose to brigadier general in the French and Indian War. He also won a number of elections to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, including as speaker from 1762 to 1764.
As patriots began agitating against the Crown, Timothy Ruggles led the Loyalist cause in New England. He founded the Loyal American Association, which vowed to enforce obedience to the King. The group also pledged resistance to the rebels and to use force to retaliate if harmed.
Ruggles influenced Bathsheba, his favorite daughter, to marry Joshua Spooner. He reasoned the union would cement her social position in town. Spooner could provide for her with an elegant home and fine clothing on his large farm in nearby Brookfield, Mass.
But Bathsheba’s marriage to Joshua Spooner did not go well. She was pretty and intelligent, but “her passions had never been properly restrained.” Later in court, witnesses testified her husband was weak, easily intimidated and unable to sustain “a manly importance as the head of the family.” Others described him as an abusive drunk who slept with the servants when Bathsheba turned him away. Though they had four children, she had an “utter aversion” to him.
Meanwhile, her patriotic neighbors shunned her. They viewed her father as a leading traitor, and they suspected she agreed with him. John Adams, exaggerating a bit, wrote that the “whole continent” viewed Timothy Ruggles with “utter contempt and derision.”
In 1774, patriots attacked Ruggles’ farm and poisoned his cattle. Threatened wherever he went, Ruggles finally took refuge in British-occupied Boston. Eventually he fled to Nova Scotia, and Massachusetts confiscated his property.
Bathsheba, who adored her father, found herself isolated in Brookfield with a husband she hated. Some people thought her quite mad.
One day in March 1777, a handsome, 16-year-old Continental Army soldier, Ezra Ross, met Bathsheba while traveling home to Ipswich, Mass. He had completed his enlistment after fighting with Washington in New York and Trenton. He had suddenly taken ill in Brookfield, and Bathsheba took him in and nursed him to health.
Ross returned to Brookfield in August on his way to support the patriots at Ticonderoga. Then, after the victory at Saratoga, Ross came again to the Spooner home. People saw him out riding with Bathsheba, nearly twice his age.
When Bathseba discovered Ezra had gotten her pregnant she made plans to get rid of her husband. She gave Ezra Ross a vial of nitric acid and told him to pour it into Spooner’s grog. But he didn’t do it.
Then in February 1778, two British deserters showed up in Brookfield. Sgt. James Buchanan and Pvt. William Brooks were among the many British soldiers who left the army during its arduous trek from Saratoga to Boston. There they were to leave for Britain.
With her husband away on business, Bathsheba brought the deserters into her home, offering them food, drink and rest. Increasingly desperate to kill her husband before he detected her pregnancy, she offered the soldiers $1,000 to do the deed. They said they would.
When Spooner came home he threw the soldiers out of his house. But Bathsheba hid them in the barn and continued to feed them. On March 1, 1777, Ezra Ross suddenly reappeared, and he agreed to help the soldiers kill her husband. That night, Joshua Spooner came home from Cooley’s Tavern and William Brooks attacked him in his dooryard, aided by Buchanan and Ross. They beat him to death and then threw his body down the well.
Apprehension and Trial
Bathsheba had planned to say Joshua got up in the middle of the night and fell into the well. But she had selected three very clumsy murderers. They left such evidence as Spooner’s battered hat, blood and footprints in the snow and a snowbank next to the well.
The three murderers fled to Worcester, where authorities apprehended them the next day. They wore Joshua Spooner’s clothing and carried Bathsheba’s money.
They confessed to the crime and went to prison. So did Bathsheba, though she never confessed.
The trial began on April 27 at the Old South Meeting House in Worcester
William Cushing presided, along with John Sullivan and David Sewall – patriots all. Robert Treat Paine, who had signed the Declaration of Independence, led the prosecution on behalf of the commonwealth.
Levi Lincoln, a relative of the 16th president, defended Bathsheba on the grounds of insanity. “Many cool-headed contemporaries of Mrs. Spooner believed that she was beside herself when she committed the act for which she was tried,” wrote a distant relation, Samuel Swett Green, in 1888. Lincoln himself said he believed her insane.
Lincoln also pleaded with the jury to set aside “all political feeling.”
Bathsheba Spooner, Guilty
After 16 hours, the jury found all four guilty. Cushing set June 4 as the date for them to hang. In late May, Bathsheba begged the court to delay her execution because of her pregnancy. Cushing relented and moved the date to July 2. Then began a series of examinations to determine if the child had quickened in her womb. Panels of midwives did not agree.
Five thousand people watched the four murderers hang on July 2. John Avery, secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Council, signed the warrant of execution. Avery also happened to be Joshua Spooner’s step-brother and an ardent patriot who hated Timothy Ruggles.
With the noose around her neck, she took the sheriff’s hand and uttered her final words: “My dear Sir, I am ready. In a little time I expect to be in bliss and but a few years must elapse when I hope I shall see you and my other friends.” An autopsy revealed a five-month male fetus.
Bathsheba’s sister Martha Green buried Spooner in the Brookfield cemetery and Bathsheba on the Green estate in Worcester.
Timothy Ruggles died in Nova Scotia at the age of 82 in 1793.
Images: Monument to Timothy Ruggles By Hantsheroes – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37862735.
With thanks to The Most Extraordinary Murder, by Chaim M. Rosenberg for the Journal of the American Revolution, Sept. 20, 2018. This story was updated in 2023.