Podcast 206 – The Trial of Bathsheba Spooner

On March 1, 1778, Bathsheba Spooner of Brookfield, Massachusetts, had her husband murdered and his body dumped in the family well.


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In Episode 206, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger head to Brookfield, Massachusetts, to examine the crime scene and trial of Bathsheba Spooner — the first woman hanged in the United States for a capital crime. On March 1, 1778, the body of Bathsheba’s husband was dumped in the family’s well. It didn’t take long for authorities to unravel a murderous plot hatched by the victim’s wife and her lover.

Read the episode transcript.

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Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Theme Music by: John Judd

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The Hanging of Bathsheba Spooner in Worcester, Massachusetts, July 2, 1778.

The Hanging of Bathsheba Spooner in Worcester, Massachusetts, July 2, 1778.

Joshua Spooner's murder site is marked by this stone monument just off of East Main Street in Brookfield, Massachusetts.

Joshua Spooner’s murder site is marked by this stone monument just off of East Main Street in Brookfield, Massachusetts.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

[SUMMER SOUNDS/CICADAS]

RAY: Man, it’s a hot one here in Brookfield, Massachusetts!

JEFF: This is your old stomping ground, right Ray?

RAY: Yeah, I was born and raised in East Brookfield.

JEFF: So this may be a story you’ve heard before.

RAY: Maybe… We’ve been walking down East Main Street for a while in this heat. Before we get too far into this one, maybe we can stop and find some water?

JEFF: Then I have good news and bad news for you Ray.

RAY: What’s the good news?

JEFF: There’s a well coming up here on our left.

RAY: What’s the bad news?

JEFF: A murdered body was once dumped down this well… and now… it’s only a macabre landmark.

[INTRO]

JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger.

RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to Episode 206 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about 15 minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.

JEFF: We appreciate you joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We’re a community of legend seekers who are always exploring haunts, odd history, UFO encounters, monsters, cryptids, roadside oddities, and any other story that makes New England unique. So many of our story leads come from you. Like this one. Thanks to Justin Margadonna for emailing us with the lead.

RAY: Before we jump into this haunted well…

JEFF: Metaphorically speaking, of course.

RAY: Of course. We’d like to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!

JEFF: To truly appreciate Nuwati Herbals, we’re going to need some water.

RAY: Right! They have so many great teas to choose from. Now that it’s summer, and the weather is hot, I’ve been taking some of their flavored teas, like Nuwati Herbals Lemon Sun, or their Strawberry Moon, their RootBerry Tea, and their Honey and Spice tea, and turning them into iced sweet teas.

JEFF: That sounds delicious!

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RAY: Mmmm that sounds good.

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JEFF: Okay, Ray, the well we’re looking for is right over here, just off the side of East Main Street here in Brookfield.

RAY: I don’t see a well, but I see what looks like a cemetery headstone.

JEFF: Go ahead and give it a read.

RAY: It says: Spooner Well. Joshua Spooner, murdered and thrown down this well March 1, 1778, by three Revolutionary soldiers at the urging of his wife Bathsheba….

JEFF: And now this spot on East Main Street near the intersection of North Brookfield Road gives everybody the willies!

RAY: Bathsheba Spooner! NOW that’s ringing a bell.

JEFF: Didn’t you two used to date back in high school?

RAY: She graduated a few years ahead of me.

JEFF: Got it. To find out what happened, let’s head back to 1777 and meet the suspects.

[TRANSITION]

RAY: It’s the Spring of 1777 here in Brookfield, Massachusetts. We’re smack dab in the middle of something big.

[CANNONS AND MUSKETS]

RAY: The Revolutionary War is all that anyone talks about around here. The Continental Army is at war with the British. It seems that everyone is embroiled in it in some way. At the Spooner House, the married couple are divided, though not about the war.

JEFF: No, you could say the couple have been divided since the day they were married.

RAY: That doesn’t sound good!

JEFF: No it’s not. Bathsheba was born in 1746 in Sandwich, Massachusetts. She’s the daughter of Brigadier General Timothy Ruggles. A British officer and lawyer and a Tory—a British loyalist. The Ruggles have money, and Bathsheba grew up enjoying the good life. This is an old school family. When Bathsheba was 19 years-old, her father arranged her marriage to a wealthy farmer and retired lumberman from Brookfield named Joshua Spooner. Bathsheba is young, smart, and beautiful. “High spirited” is a term used to describe her.

RAY: Ohhh her marriage was arranged? That’s tough.

JEFF: Though arranged marriages are getting less common these days, they still happen.

RAY: And it’s not like she’s moving from a wealthy family to a poor one.

JEFF: Right, but Joshua Spooner is frugal for one. He doesn’t allow Bathsheba to live an extravagant life. So that’s an adjustment for the young bride. Over the next nine years, Bathsheba is kept pretty busy with the couple’s four children. But as more time passes, Bathsheba wants nothing to do with her husband. And the feeling is mutual, because now Joshua is turning abusive toward his wife.

RAY: Plus, being the spring of 1777, everyone is distracted with war Revolutionary War. When a war shows up literally at your doorstep, it’s difficult to think about anything else. Enter 16-year-old Ezra Ross. He’s a soldier in the Continental Army.

[SOLDIERS MARCHING]

JEFF: Young Ezra is traveling back to his home in Ipswich, Massachusetts, when he falls ill around Brookfield. Bathsheba Spooner takes the young soldier into her home and nurses him back to health. Ezra is a strapping young man. He’s funny and charming far beyond his years. When he starts feeling better from his illness, he and Bathsheba talk quite a bit. And soon, Bathsheba is taken with Ezra.

RAY: But soon enough, Ezra is back on his way home, then back to his wartime duties. Still, he’s grateful to the Spooners. It’s July of 1777 when he stops by for a visit while passing through town, and Bathsheba is more than excited to see the young man.

JEFF: Ezra is visiting just to show his gratitude, of course… but he seems to like the attention of Mrs. Spooner too. So… he comes by again in December, and this time he spends a few weeks with the Spooners. He even travels with Joshua Spooner on a business trip. He gets close with Mr. and Mrs. Spooner…. Especially Mrs. Spooner…

RAY: Too close, you could say. It’s now January of 1778, and Bathsheba is pregnant. Considering Bathsheba and Joshua Spooner are hardly talking to each other, let alone any physical contact, Bathsheba knows she has a problem. Well… really two problems. Her biggest problem is Joshua Spooner. And that’s a problem she’d like to remove.

JEFF: So Bathsheba hatches a plot. A dark, dastardly plan to dispatch her husband…. Bathsheba slips a bottle of nitric acid to Ezra Ross. She tells her young lover that he needs to poison Mr. Spooner on their upcoming trip to Princeton, Massachusetts. Ezra immediately gets cold feet and backs out of the plan. He heads home to Ipswich.

RAY: But this isn’t the end of the murderous plot. Back at the Spooner house, two British prisoners of war have escaped their captors, and Bathsheba takes them into her home. Private William Brooks and Sgt. James Buchanan are now guests of the Spooners. And they’re nervous. But Bathsheba is flirty… she puts them at ease and alludes to all kinds of things she wants to do for them if they can do this one little thing for her.

JEFF: This one little thing being: murder her husband.

RAY: Exactly. After a few weeks of this flirting, plus the promise of money, the soldiers are on board with the plot, so Bathsheba writes to Ezra to tell him he needs to come to Brookfield right away.

JEFF: It’s February 28th when Ezra returns to the Spooner home. Bathsheba is pregnant and knows it’s a matter of time before she won’t be able to hide it. The following evening, Joshua Spooner heads off to the local tavern to have some drinks with the locals. Meanwhile… Brooks, Buchanan, Ezra Ross wait inside the Spooner house… hours go by. But then.

[DOOR CREAK OPEN / FOOTSTEPS]

JEFF: Joshua Spooner returns home from the tavern.

[FIGHT]

JEFF: William Brooks pounces on the unsuspecting Mr. Spooner, and in a moment… he’s dead.

RAY: Ezra and James Buchanan drag Joshua’s body outside…

[DRAGGING SOUND]

RAY: And push him into the Spooner’s well.

[SPLASH]

RAY: With the deed done, Bathsheba divides up some of her husband’s paper money, and pieces of his clothing and jewelry among the three men, who take off for Worcester on one of the Spooner’s horses.

[BUSY TAVERN]

JEFF: Brooks and Buchanan spend most of the following night drinking up their ill-gotten wealth. After a few drinks, they’re showing off some fancy shoe buckles with the initials J.S. on them. It doesn’t take long for folks to get suspicious.

RAY: No. It only takes about 24 more hours for the body of Joshua Spooner to be discovered. Brooks and Buchanan are arrested immediately, but Ezra Ross hides out in the attic of a tavern. Once he’s discovered, he asks to speak to a confessor, where he spills everything after his affair and the murder plot he was dragged into.

JEFF: Brooks and Buchanan also implicate Bathsheba Spooner. And now all four are arrested and facing serious charges.

[JUDGES GAVEL]

RAY: It’s April 24th when the case goes to trial. For Brooks and Buchanan, their goose is cooked. They have already signed lengthy confessions. The murder was premeditated, they did it for money, and Brooks carried out the deed. Though Ezra also signed a similar confession, his attorney claims he shouldn’t be held bound to it. He had the chance to kill Joshua Spooner once, and refused. And only found out about the second plot hours before. He’s a victim of circumstance.

JEFF: But the judge doesn’t see it that way. Ezra Ross, James Buchanan, and William Brooks are all sentenced to hang.

RAY: But Bathsheba Spooner is a different case. This one is complicated. This is the first woman on trial for a capital crime in these brand-new United States. Plus… Bathsheba confesses to the court that she’s with child.

[CROWD GASPS]

RAY: The court assigns a group of midwives to examine Bathsheba… however, they swear they see no evidence that she is pregnant.

JEFF: It’s important to know that there’s another factor in play here.

RAY: What’s that?

JEFF: The scuttlebutt around the courtroom is the fact that Bathsheba’s father is a noted British loyalist. That isn’t winning her any sympathy here.

RAY: Do you think the midwives are lying about their findings?

JEFF: I’m not sure. Still, Bathsheba’s family provides medical experts who conduct their own examination who determine that she is in fact a few months pregnant.

[JUDGES GAVEL]

RAY: But the court won’t hear it. Bathsheba, like her co-conspirators is also sentenced to death. Though the judge is a little uncomfortable sentencing the first woman to death in the United States, justice must be served. The victim was a well-connected local man, and the murderess is the daughter of a Tory.

JEFF: Ezra’s parents make multiple appeals to the courts that their son is a veteran in the Continental Army. That he was young and seduced, but nothing works.

Executioner: …and so you are hereby sentenced to hang for your crimes…

JEFF: It’s July 2nd, 1778 when all four are executed in Worcester in front of a watching crowd of 5000 people.

RAY: Once Bathsheba’s body is retrieved by her sister, a post-mortem examination of the body reveals she was indeed about five months pregnant at the time of her death. And that brings us back to today.

[TRANSITION]

JEFF: Bathsheba was buried in an unmarked grave at her sister’s home, which today is Green Hill Park in Worcester. Ezra Ross was buried in an unmarked grave at the Leslie Roads Burying Ground in Rowley, Massachusetts, right next to Ipswich. And we don’t know where the bodies of Brooks and Buchanan wound up.

RAY: But we DO know this marker is still here by the side of the road in Brookfield. This murder and event left a mark. Bathsheba Spooner was the first woman executed for a capital crime in these new United States.

JEFF: And we know that though Bathsheba and her husband were not getting along, divorce would have been impossible for her. She was stuck in a bad relationship with a man who revolted her. This is a tragic tale all around. And now it’s commemorated with this headstone-looking monument that marks the location where a murdered local man’s body was dumped in his own well.

[OUTTRO]

JEFF: Right nearby where you grew up, Ray!

RAY: Yeah, this wasn’t something they taught us about in school.

JEFF: We’d like to thank our patreon patrons who get behind everything we do. These folks get early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. If you can help us continue to grow and bring you new legends each week, please head over to Patreon.com/NewEnglandLegends to sign up.

RAY: Also, if you’d like to visit this historic Spooner monument in Brookfield, Massachusetts, you should download our free New England Legends app for your smart phone! It’s got an interactive map with a pin in every location we’ve covered in our podcast, plus you can get driving directions to all of them. Check it out.

JEFF: Please also tell a friend or two about our show. And of course our theme music is by John Judd.

RAY: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.

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