The Trial and Execution of Ruth Blay

Old Pleasant Street burying grounds, PortsmouthOld Pleasant Street burying grounds, Portsmouth. (Photo: from "An Old Town by the Sea", Thomas Bailey Aldrich - seacoastnh.com)

On the morning of June 14th, 1768, a group of young girls converged on Benjamin Clough’s barn, a makeshift schoolhouse in South Hampton, New Hampshire. Their teacher awaited them. Her name was Ruth Blay, a 31-year old spinster from Haverhill, Massachusetts, with seemingly no roots to her current community. Once inside the barn, the girls noticed something amiss. The barn reeked. As they searched for the stench’s source, they looked at the floor.

There, through the cracks of the floorboards, they saw the body of a dead infant.

The town’s people sprang into action. The women, including the wife and mother of Benjamin Clough, examined Blay’s body for evidence of childbirth. But they didn’t need proof: Blay confirmed the child was hers. The baby was born four days earlier, Blay said, dead upon delivery.

The coroner, Samuel Folsom, disagreed, writing that the child “came to its death by violence.” Blay was arrested and then indicted on one count of “private burial and concealment of her bastard child,” a capital crime.

On September 3rd her trial began in Portsmouth. Much of South Hampton – including the Cloughs – testified. Blay pled “not guilty,” but it didn’t matter. She was convicted that very day.

Her trial shook the town. The number of infanticide convictions had dropped across New England in the recent decades. In the seventeenth century, juries believed a concealed child proved guilt. However by the mid-eighteenth century, juries were often swayed by a number of defenses. For instance, if a mother proved she prepared for the coming child – speaking to a midwife, preparing a crib, sewing clothing – it provided doubt.

The judges set Blay’s execution for November 24, 1768. Her only chance for survival was a pardon by governor Benning Wentworth. For reason not entirely clear, Wentworth gave her one reprieve after another, four in total, delaying her execution until December 30th.

As the New Year approached, Blay mounted a public defense in the town newspaper. Although her letter was called a “confession,” Blay did not admit guilt. Instead, she argued her innocence. Whereas previous infanticide convicts confessed and begged for mercy, Blay constructed a counter narrative to the one presented in court. In the letter, she said that she was incapable of murder. “Though I was with child I never had a single thought of murdering the infant which make me even shudder to think that it is possible any mother should be guilty of such Cruelty.”

Blay wrote:

Therefore I made preparation for its birth, and could now produce the Cloaths and Woman in whose keeping they are; but alas it is too late;–and on that unhappy Day when I was delivered, I knew it had not been eight months from the Time I was with Child, therefore had not thoughts of being delivered at that Time; but an unhappy Fall which I then received, brought on the Birth instantly.

Blay explained that she hid the child in the floorboards out of shame and that she held back the truth under the advice of friends. Who these friends were is a mystery. Moreover, she believed that the witnesses “misrepresented facts,” and some of them even lied.

Blay’s declaration hinted at a larger conspiracy, insinuating that something sinister occurred in South Hampton that June. She wrote, “And tho’ I die with a forgiving Spirit as to all my Enemies, but charge the two Women in particular to examine their own Hearts, as they will answer in another Day, whether they do not come under the character of False Witnesses—And whether prejudice, jealousy or something else has not drove them, thus to bear false witness against me.”

What are we to make of Blay’s accusations? Curiously, they go against the grain of previous infanticide case narratives, where women confessed and sought forgiveness. Here, Blay attacked.

Why would two witnesses be jealous or prejudiced towards a spinster schoolteacher bearing a bastard? No one knows, but Blay’s accusation points at the unspoken question: who fathered the dead child? Although men were tried for fathering an illegitimate child, in Blay’s case, none was. Nothing breeds jealousy like illicit sex. While it is possible Blay bedded a vagabond or traveling salesman, romance tends to breed out of proximity and no man was closer than the owner of the barn, Benjamin Clough. Two of the witnesses in the Blay trial were Clough’s wife, Olive, and Clough’s mother, Rachael. If Benjamin was the father, his female relations had much to lose. In a small community, impregnating the schoolteacher would bring shame, even ostracism, upon the family.

On the morning of December 30, 1768, Sheriff Packer came for Blay. Several hundred spectators had already assembled, many of whom entreated Packer to delay execution. Packer ignored the mob. He loaded Blay into a cart and drove her to the execution ground. Dressed in a black silk dress, Blay shrieked as the cart rolled through town.

Just before noon, Packer and Blay arrived at the hanging grounds. Packer fastened a rope to a tree on the highest point of a pasture set aside as an as yet unused cemetery. Hundreds of spectators begged Packer to wait for the governor’s reprieve. Packer ignored them. He stood Blay in the cart, and then placed the noose around her neck. He tightened it. Then he gave the order.

Packer’s men moved the cart until Blay’s feet dangled in the air. She slowly strangled until she died.

They buried her there. Her grave was unmarked.

Legend has it that Packer refused to wait because his wife had already made his noon meal. That night a crowd stood outside Packer’s home, burning a figure of him in effigy. And they chanted:

Am I to lose my dinner
This woman for to hang?
Come draw away the cart, my boys—
Don’t stop to say amen.
Draw away, draw away the cart!

Blay was the last woman executed in New Hampshire. In the following decades, she became a folk legend, her innocence believed by following generations. Even Betsey Pettingill, who had been among the schoolgirls who found Blay’s child, believed Blay was not guilty. She later said that Blay was “more sinned against, than sinning.”

About the Author

Michael Keenan Gutierrez

Michael Keenan Gutierrez is the author of The Trench Angel (October 2015) and earned degrees from UCLA, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of New Hampshire. He teaches writing at the University of North Carolina.

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2 Comments

  1. Many errors here. Please correct or withdraw. Please consult my book Hanging Ruth Blay for a complete and accurate account of Ruth’s life and death.

    1. Hi Carolyn, Congratulations on your book! I did read it a few years back. If you don’t remember, we met several times when I was a graduate student at UNH and began working on the Ruth Blay story. You were very helpful for this article. If there are any specific points you’d like to address, I’d be happy to tell you where I found the information. Take care, Michael

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