In the deep darkness of the early morning, a young woman lies on the floor of the house near her schoolroom, her brow is beaded with sweat and her body is with pain. Her brow is wrinkled with fatigue and she is frightened. The yellow light of a single lamp casts long shadows on the floor and walls as she labors in the throes of childbirth. She should not be alone, but perhaps she is justified in not telling a single soul her of tribulations. In her world of South Hampton, New Hampshire in the year of 1768, less than a decade before the American War of Independence, adultery is still a crime. School mistresses are held to a high standard and therefore are judged more harshly if they stray from the path of righteousness and redemption. Young Ruth Blay finds herself in the untenable situation of being the mother of a fatherless child, for his name is never revealed in the stories that are told of her along the narrow lanes of Portsmouth or the salty air of Strawberry Banke.
What is told is a sad tale, almost too unbelievable to be anything but the lines of a maudlin ballad written to cause the listeners to weep, a broadsheet sold for a few pennies near the taverns at dusk. Ruth Blay, it seems, delivered a stillborn child that night, alone in rooms given to the teacher of the children. With what courage she moved forward, modern readers may never understand. How much will did it take to clean the child and place it lovingly in a blanket, never to see it again? How much fortitude did she muster to remove a floorboard or two from the barn floor nearby and then dig a shallow grave below, so that no one might know of her sin or the birth of her child? And then to replace the floorboards and move forward into a world that would never know of her pain and her loss? Ruth Blay might have moved forward with her life, somehow. She might have asked herself how she had ever fallen so low, a smart girl from Haverhill, Massachusetts, a teacher and a well-respected member of the community? She had lived a spotless life, and then…
But she wasn’t alone that night. One of her pupils, perhaps suspicious of her loose garments and strange gait, watched her as she gave birth and then witnessed the burial of the stillborn babe. What happened next is a matter of record. Ruth Blay was indicted for concealing the death of an illegitimate child in August, 1768. According to the indictment, it was not known if the child was alive or dead at the time of burial. There was no way to prove if the child was unwanted and might have been murdered to avoid the reprisals of public ridicule, scorn and prosecution. New Hampshire was still a colony of Great Britain at the time and this crime demanded a life for a life. Attorney General Clagett in his passionate prosecution of Ruth Blay called Heaven to witness that he was discharging a duty ‘that he owed his country , his King and his God.’
But the residents of South Hampton were not without pity. They knew Ruth Blay. She had taught their children, eaten their food, slept in their houses. She was a member of the community and the high words of the prosecutor did not sway their hearts to anger. She had broken the law, but there were higher laws. Almost immediately after she was sentenced to hang, public sympathy for her cause began to grow. If such a thing could happen to Ruth Blay, might it not also happen to one of their own, to a beloved daughter or niece? She had friends and it was not long before she was granted a reprieve to halt her execution. They bought her more time, but also the ire of Sheriff Packer, who had to arrange and then cancel her execution several times. Packer had seen his share of executions and believed in their efficacy. Packer had been High Sheriff for a long time and had presided at the executions of Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenney in 1739, both child murderers. Nearly thirty years later, he was still in the King’s service. At the time, well over six hundred crimes were punishable by death.
Ruth Blay was again sentenced to hang after yet another reprieve failed to stay her execution. Sheriff Packer had been notified that the new reprieve from the governor would arrive soon. The governor had sympathy for her plight. However, one too many stays of execution and the hardened heart of a harsh man happened to coincide with the strange date of the scheduled hanging – December 31st, New Year’s Eve. According to “The Ballad of Ruth Blay”, Sheriff Packer planned on having his dinner precisely at noon and that meant the execution must take place before noon and before the rider carrying the reprieve had time to arrive from the governor.
Sheriff Packer could have waited. Perhaps the excuse that he did not wish to be late for dinner was simply fabricated by someone who had reason to hate the executioner of a young woman they felt did not truly deserve to die. Ruth was carried publicly through the streets and it was remembered for many years to come how her shrieks of innocence filled the air. When the cart reached the gallows, she was led up the steps in her garments of silk and satin, the rope placed over her neck and justice was quickly dispatched in plenty of time for the Sheriff to make it home to his New Year’s repast. The governor’s reprieve arrived by exhausted rider shortly after the throng departed with the body of Ruth Blay still hanging from the gallows in the chilly wind of winter. It was too late.
That night, the angered citizens of Portsmouth gathered around Sheriff Packer’s house, leaving no doubt as to their indignation. The idea that a few moments of prudence might have saved this young woman’s life and that it would have truly cost the Sheriff nothing more than a late meal made the populace burn him in effigy on his own lawn. They shouted epithets and made their anger known. One might think that would be his end of public life, but not so. The office of sheriff was not an elected position and his appointment lasted for a few more years, long enough to grow even more wealthy in the service of the Crown.
Ruth Blay was buried in an unmarked grave near the pond in South Cemetery in Portsmouth.
BALLAD OF RUTH BLAY
By Albert Laighton (1859)
IN the worn and dusty annals
Of our old and quiet town,
With its streets of leafy beauty.
And its houses quaint and brown,–
With its dear associations,
Hallowed by the touch of time,–
You may read this thrilling legend,
This sad tale of wrong and crime.
In the drear month of December,
Ninety years ago to-day,
Hundreds of the village people
Saw the hanging of Ruth Blay;–
Saw her clothed in silk and satin,
Borne beneath the gallows-tree,
Dressed as in her wedding garments,
Soon the bride of Death to be;–
Saw her tears of shame and anguish,
Heard her shrieks of wild despair,
Echo thro’ the neighboring woodlands,
Thrill the clear and frosty air.
When at last, in tones of warning,
>From its high and airy tower,
Slowly with its tongue of iron,
Tolled the bell the fatal hour;–
Like the sound of distant billows,
When the storm is wild and loud,
Breaking on the rocky headland,
Ran a murmur through the crowd.
And a voice among them shouted,
“Pause before the deed is done:
We have asked reprieve and pardon
For the poor misguided one.”
But these words of Sheriff Packer
Rang above the swelling noise:
“Must I wait and lose my dinner?
Draw away the cart, my boys!”
Fold thy hands in prayer, O woman!
Take thy last look of the sea;
Take thy last look of the landscape;
God be merciful to thee!
Stifled groans, a gasp, a shudder,
And the guilty deed was done;
On a scene of cruel murder
Coldly looked the Winter sun.
Then the people, pale with horror,
Looked with sudden awe behind,
As a field of grain in Autumn
Turns before a passing wind;
For distinctly in the distance,
In the long and frozen street,
They could hear the ringing echoes
Of a horse’s sounding feet.
Nearer came the sound and louder,
Till a steed with panting breath,
>From its sides the white foam dripping,
Halted at the scene of death;
And a messenger alighted,
Crying to the crowd, “Make way!
This I bear to Sheriff Packer;
‘Tis a pardon for Ruth Blay!”
But they answered not nor heeded,
For the last fond hope had fled;
In their deep and speechless sorrow,
Pointing only to the dead.
And that night, with burning bosoms,
Muttering curses fierce and loud,
At the house of Sheriff Packer
Gathered the indignant crowd,–
Shouting, as upon a gallows
A grim effigy they bore,
“Be the name of Thomas Packer
A reproach forevermore!”
One of Portsmouth’s great sons, poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich, whom Mark Twain called “the sincerest man that walks,” described her unfortunate tale in his book An Old Town by the Sea in 1893.
Zwicker, Roxie, Haunted Portsmouth: Spirits and Shadows of the Past, Haunted America, 2007
Photo Credit: Walk Portsmouth