On the night of March 22, 1715, Jeremiah Meacham was troubled, as usual. He had secluded himself on the second story of his home in Newport, R.I. fearful that someone planned to harm him. He often expressed that fear to his neighbors. Meacham would quiz them, did they know who was scheming to get him? They always answered “no one.”
Jeremiah’s wife Patience and her sister Content Garsey crept up the stairs and approached Jeremiah. He had assembled a complete arsenal for his defense – an ax and a knife, and he had loaded his gun.
What happened next shocked Newporters. Jeremiah Meacham had openly talked of being tired of living. His family and neighbors had feared he would hurt himself. But no one thought him capable of violence. However, he lashed out against his wife, slashing her throat with his knife and bludgeoning her with the ax. He then turned the ax on his sister-in-law.
Both women lay dead and Jeremiah Meacham was in a frenzy. He plucked coals from the fireplace and scattered them around the house, touching off fires.
He slashed at his throat with his knife and hunkered down while the heat from the burning house intensified.
Outside, neighbors gathered. They had heard screams from within the house, but they couldn’t get near Jeremiah. He batted them away with his ax.
With the heat growing unbearable, Jeremiah Meacham flung himself, ax in hand, out of a second story window. He crashed to the ground and the crowd pounced on him. Meacham struck one man with the ax and injured him. The neighbors caught him, though, and hustled him to jail. The crowd retrieved the bodies of Patience and Content.
Nathaniel Clap, a Congregational minister in Newport, chose the murders as a focus for his sermon just five days later. Quoting from the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament, he exhorted the congregation. If a man should smite any person with an instrument of Iron, (so that he Dye) he is a Murderer and the Murderer shall surely be put to Death.
Rev. Clap urged a quick punishment, and he urged Jeremiah Meacham to make his peace with God.
Meacham was born in Salem, Mass., and came to Newport when he was about 20 years old. A weaver by trade, he married and lived in Rhode Island for about 20 years before the murders.
Those who knew him as a younger man described him as highly religious. They said he spoke constantly of God when he first arrived in Rhode Island and attended church regularly. But over time, his attendance at church grew erratic. Though he spoke about religion often, he was not known for keeping the Sabbath.
Though conscientious about keeping his word and honorable in his business affairs, his friends described him as, “a poor man having been for some time exercised with grievous hurries of the mind,” Clap said in his sermon.
As a younger man, he had been advised: “… to drink away his troubles; To kill his troubles of mind by drinking of Strong Drink to excess: And he owned, that he had tried several times, what this way would do; but he found by sad experience, that this was not the right way to get ease, for the troubles of his mind returned as the spirits of the drink removed.”
He told friends he’d grown weary of life, as his agitation came and went. Leading up to the murders, Meacham asked his neighbors again who plotted against him. He was also seen talking to himself more than usual. And then he snapped.
For several days in jail, Jeremiah Meacham could not remember what had happened. He did not deny the murders, but he could recall nothing.
Eventually Meacham admitted he had profaned the Sabbath and misspent an “abundance of precious time with ungodly company.”
Several Dreadful Stroaks
On April 12, Jeremiah Meacham was hanged. His body was placed in a metal “crow cage” and left suspended from a post on a hillside in Newport.
Rev. Clap preached and published a final sermon on the murders. He told his congregation that the “several dreadful stroaks” he rained down upon his family were evidence of what could befall a man who strayed from keeping the Sabbath.
Thanks to: Sinners directed to hear & fear, and do no more so wickedly. Being an impartial account of the inhumane and barbarbous murder, committed by Jeremiah Meacham, on his wife and her sister, at Newport on Rhode-Island, March 22d. 1715, by Nathaniel Clap and Legal Executions in New England by Daniel Allen Hearn. This story was updated in 2022.