The persistent efforts of judges and ministers to obtain and publish confessions and repentances of the guilty as they stood upon the gallows grew in part from the belief that crimes must not be hidden, even by those about to die. -Hoffer, 50
Plymouth’s first murder trial was held in 1630 with John Billington accused of murdering John Newcomen. Billington was executed the same year (Philbrick, 157). Similar to AMB’s trial, there was no lengthy investigation-trial-retrial. Cases were quickly delivered to juries, adjudicated, and if death were called for, there was no need to tarry. Ross writes,
The Massachusetts legal system was not, in the fashion of early modern European polities, a patchwork of numerous and bounded jurisdictions with overlapping responsibilities and clashing agendas. Settlers stripped away much of the complexity that they had known in England and thereby made the machinery for punishing offenders simpler and quicker (986).
With a streamlined system and only one Plymouth citizen with formal legal training (William Brewster, see Murrin 158), retributive justice was quickly determined by Plymouth citizens who had minimal functional literacy (Murrin, 158) but lived expertise in the community’s moral codes. Nonetheless, “colonial courts were not concerned with questions of motive, but of fact. The motive of the defendant does not generally appear in records” (Hoffer, 145). While English law required two witnesses to convict someone of murder, this was obviously not the case for AMB – we had Rachel Ramsden “eyewitness” account and AMB’s confession (Philbrick, 195).
About 500 women have been executed in the United States between 1608 and 1900 – with well over 200 hanging for murder, notable infanticide. In other words, a lady can commit many crimes and receive the death penalty – witchcraft, arson, even adultery.
Hanging may appear a more painless way to die (awful anticipation followed a quick snap of the neck) but early executioners were often no more than an untrained sheriff or other civil servant tasked with the grim duty. If the “correct drop” was not achieved (by scaffold height, design, knot, rope and weight of the person), the death may be caused by much slower strangulation. In AMB’s case, she may have well stood on the back of a wagon or placed side saddle onto a horse and dragged off the back by her neck to achieve the hanging.
The following is a list of early colonial women who were executed beside AMB executed:
1632: Jane Champion for an unknown offense.
1633: (June 24) Margaret Hatch in Virginia for murdering her child.
1638: (December 6) Dorothy Talby hanged in Salem, MA for infanticide of daughter, Difficulty. Talby had prior conviction and public whipping for attacking her husband.
1643: (March 21) Mary Latham James Britton was hanged in Massachusetts for adultery.
1660: (June 1) Mary Dyer hanged in Boston for refusing to stop practicing her Quaker faith.
1692: 13 women hanged including my great x8 grandmother Martha Allen Carrier in Salem, MA for practicing witchcraft.