So many people died on the gallows in New England that you may well have walked over a spot where someone met his or her maker.
With hanging as the primary form of execution in the United States until the 1890s, more than 400 people in New England have been hanged by the neck until they were dead.
Hangings used to serve as public spectacles back when film and video weren’t around to provide violent entertainment.
Typically, crowds would gather to watch as the prisoner was taken to the gallows, usually in a horse-drawn wagon. The hangman bound the prisoner’s hands and feet, tied a blindfold around the head and placed a noose around the neck. Then a trap door would open, the prisoner would fall through and, theoretically at least, the weight of the prisoner’s body would snap his or her neck.
Often that didn’t happen, and the prisoner died a slow gruesome death. Sometimes the prisoner had strong neck muscles, sometimes the prisoner didn’t weigh enough, sometimes the rope was too short and sometimes the hangman put the noose in the wrong position. In that case, the prisoner would die of slow strangulation, eyes popping, tongue protruding, limbs thrashing violently and bowels loosening.
Here are six places where people were hanged, one in each state. If you know of an interesting place where someone was hanged, please share it in the comments section.
New London, Conn.
Connecticut authorities hanged Hannah Occuish in New London on Dec. 20, 1786, the last female executed in the state. She was only 12 years old.
Hannah had murdered six-year-old Eunice Bolles after Eunice accused her of stealing strawberries she’d picked in New London. The colonial court didn’t recognize extenuating circumstances. Hannah’s mother was a Pequot Indian, her father African-American. Both parents died, and she may have suffered a mental disability. Shuttled among foster homes as a child, she had been forced to work as an indentured servant by the age of 12.
On July 21, 1786, Eunice was walking to school when Hannah lured her into the woods with the promise of a piece of calico. Hannah then beat and strangled her to death, and tried to cover her body with large stones.
A passerby soon discovered Eunice’s body, and Hannah confessed to the crime. Officials charged her with murder and, after a swift trial, she was convicted and sentenced to hang.
She cried during much of the day of her hanging, which took place on a gallows built behind the old meeting house, near the corner of what is now Granite Street.
The Rev. Henry Channing from Yale College gave a long sermon before the hanging, at Hannah’s request. It was called “God Admonishing His People of Their Duty, As Parents and Masters.”
“She seemed greatly afraid when at the gallows, and said but little to anyone,” according to The Courant on Dec. 25, 1786. “She thanked the Sheriff for his kindness, and launched into the eternal world.”
Fort George, Castine, Maine
Maine has executed 21 people by hanging. Hanging, in fact, has been the only way Maine executed anyone.
In the summer of 1811, a Deer Isle counterfeiter named Ebenezer Ball met his maker before a crowd of people in the center of Fort George in Castine, Maine. Ball had shot to death a sheriff’s deputy, John Tileston Downes, who tried to arrest him.
After a jury found Ball guilty, he appealed the case, claiming he didn’t intend to shoot the sheriff’s deputy.
Officials erected the gallows in the center of Fort George. A large crowd followed the criminal as he was escorted from the jail to the gallows. Parson Fisher sold copies of his ballad to the crowd:
But oh! The sight — the shocking sight
This day our eyes did see,
A sinful and a harden’d wretch–
Launch’d in eternity.
Proctor’s Ledge, Salem, Mass.
You might think the 19 people hanged for witchcraft in the Salem witch hysteria of 1692-3 met their maker on Gallows Hill. But you’d be only partly right. They were hanged on Proctor’s Ledge, a city-owned wooded spot on Gallows Hill.
Sidney Perley identified the spot as the site of the hangings around the turn of the 20th century. The scholars merely confirmed his research.
In 2016, a group of seven scholars who called themselves the Gallows Hill Project identified Proctor’s Ledge as the site of the hanging after five years of research. They used court records, maps, ground-penetrating radar and aerial photos. The city marked the spot with a memorial.
South Cemetery, Portsmouth, N.H.
Ruth Blay died a slow painful death before a thousand spectators in Portsmouth, N.H. On Dec. 30, 1768, a horsecart took her to the highest point on South Street, now South Cemetery, and an executioner placed a noose around her neck.
She stood on the wagon under a newly built gallows, and the horse pulled the cart from under her feet. It probably took her several minutes to die of slow strangulation.
Ruth Blay was hanged because she concealed her illegitimate child. A 31-year-old schoolteacher, she ultimately admitted to wrapping her stillborn baby in a quilt and hiding it under the floorboards of a barn in South Hampton, N.H. Children playing in the barn discovered the baby’s body three days later.
Ruth received three reprieves before she finally lost her life on the gallows. She was the last of three New Hampshire women hanged for concealment. After the American Revolution, New Hampshire abolished the death penalty for concealment.
Gravelly Point, Newport, R.I.
Gravelly Point in Newport, R.I. is the place where Rhode Island hanged 26 pirates in a violent spectacle on July 19, 1723.
A British warship had captured 35 pirates under the command of the notoriously cruel Edward Low. The British took most of them to Newport, R.I., where 26 of them were sentenced to death by hanging.
Rhode Island authorities attached their captured pirate flag onto the gallows at Gravelly Point. A large crowd watched – and celebrated.
“Never was there a more doleful sight in all this land than while they were standing on the stage, waiting for the stopping of their breath and the flying of their souls into the eternal world,” wrote one witness. “And oh! How awful the noise of their dying moans!”
Catamount Tavern, Old Bennington, Vt.
On June 11, 1778, the Republic of Vermont hanged David Redding, but didn’t bury his bones properly for another 198 years.
During the American Revolution, David Redding made the mistake of choosing the Loyalist side. He joined the Queens Loyal Rangers, and while out of uniform tried to steal muskets stored in a barn. Locals caught him and put him in a temporary cell in the Catamount Tavern barn. Redding escaped, but got caught in Hoosick Falls, N.Y.
A jury found him guilty of treason.
He almost died on a temporary gallows in front of the Catamount Tavern, but won a week-long reprieve. Only six jurors had heard his case; under English law, there should have been 12.
The crowd gathered around the gallows was disappointed by Redding’s reprieve. A clamor arose and the crowd threatened violence.
But then Ethan Allen arrived, mounted a stump and spoke. “You shall see somebody hung at all events, for if Redding is not then hung, I will be hung myself.” The crowd, satisfied with Allen’s words if not his grammar, then dispersed.
A jury of 12 quickly re-convicted Redding, and he was hanged on June 11, 1778. A local doctor took possession of his body, which ended up as a teaching tool until the doctor died. The bones passed to his son, who stored them in his attic. Then the Vermont Historical Society got wind of the bones in the attic and took them, only to put them in a drawer. Finally in 1976, the people of Vermont gave David Redding a proper burial in the cemetery of Bennington’s Old First Church.
A statue of a catamount marks the site of the Catamount Tavern, which burned in 1871.
Images: Fort George By Billy Hathorn – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34096704; Gravelly Point, By The original uploader was Swampyank at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5872173; Catamount Tavern Monument by Doug Kerr via flickr. This story was updated in 2021.