“For the Moon Shone Bright” – The Purington Murders of 1806

Horrid Massacre - cover of Peter Edes 1806 pamphlet

[Please note – some of the descriptions in this article/episode are graphic. Use discretion with younger readers/listeners]

You are lying in your bed on this hot July night. It has been a long, hot summer with no rain for weeks. The ground is turning to dust and the wind is warmer than usual. Outside, the light of moon is bright as it peeks between the curtains and if you are still, you can hear the rustle of the leaves and the peepers outside in the distance. You close your eyes again and know that soon, you will drift back to sleep. There are chores to do in the morning and it will come soon enough. As you lie there drifting back to sleep, you hear a sound, something not ordinary, something not expected. You stiffen and listen more intently. Time slows down to a crawl as you attend to every single noise. What was that? Was that your mother? Your sister? And then a thump and a muffled scream bolt you to attention. Someone is in the house, someone is moving in the darkness. Another muffled sound – someone is in trouble. You jump out of bed, shouting for your father to help as you move toward the door. But it is too late. From the light peeking in at the window, for the moon shone bright, you see the glint of an ax and you see the form of a man moving toward you with dire intent. The ax falls but you are fast and it glances over your shoulder instead of into it. You are near enough to the door to make your escape into the yard, away from your assailant. As you run, your mind a whirlwind, you cannot shake the vision that fills it. That man wielding the ax, that man who is undoubtedly attacking your family as you run for help…no, it couldn’t be…because he is the one who has supported and protected you your whole life. But you know it as surely as you feel the pain in your shoulder – the man who attacked you was your own father.

Captain James Purington (Purrinton, Purrington) was born in Bowdoinham, Maine in 1760 and was from good Yankee stock. His father was a Cape Cod man and his mother was from North Yarmouth. Having married young Betsy Clifford of Bath, James came into an inheritance upon the death of his father that set him up as what we would today call a rich and independent farmer. Known for his frugality and his industrious work ethic, the people of Bowdoinham found him to be worthy of the rank of Captain of their militia. From what little we know of him in this time, he had every reason to be happy. After all, he had been blessed with a productive farmstead, a wife who had given him twelve children, four of whom died in infancy, and the respect of his community. Indeed, he seemed to possess everything a man could desire for the sum total of happiness.

But there is always more to a person than possessions or achievements, something deeper and more essential to the true character within, something that few people even suspect might be there, hiding in the dark shadows of the mind. What makes one person successful might make another person a failure, depending on such intangible things as their outlook or their point of view. James Purington was a man with a grave countenance, a man who kept his own counsel in polite company, and who, it is claimed, had trouble looking another man in the eye while he spoke. It was, perhaps, simply an idiosyncrasy, just a way of his, but add that to his way of never believing he was wrong, never admitting to an error. James Purington always had to be right. Those who knew him claim that he was ‘easily elated or depressed,’ depending on how well his finances fared. Some ideas seemed to weigh more heavily on his mind than others. For all of these qualities, he was also a tenacious worker, a man who understood what it meant to do an honest days labor. As the Captain of the Militia, he took his responsibility toward his community very seriously. Yes,if there was one word that might sum up such a man, it might be that he was responsible, for his community’s safety, and for his family’s well-being, in this world and the next.

The Ballard Neighborhood circa 1806

As prosperous as he was in Bowdoinham, he made the decision to move northward. In 1803, Maine was still the frontier of the United States. This sparsely populated area was settled mostly along her waterways and coast and whenever people of a certain disposition found the world creeping a little too closely to them, they moved north and that meant inland. Captain Purington purchased Lot#17, a hundred acre plot of land just above the established farm of Ephraim and Martha Ballard in Augusta, along what is known today as the Old Belgrade Road. The Ballard Farm was small but functional, while the Captain’s lot of land was still wild and needed clearing. Having built a shelter on the land, James Purington set to work clearing it by the toil of his own two hands while his family remained in Bowdoinham. In August of 1805, he had cleared six acres of his hundred – evidence of how hard this man worked. He had done more in two years than most men did in four. The locals in his new little neighborhood respected this quiet, sober man who had tamed his patch of wilderness. Soon, he moved his family into the sturdy house he had built for them. If they shared bedrooms, there was room for the six children, whose ages ranged from 19 years old to two years old. Everyone would have to do their part to make the new farm work. It was like a new beginning for the family. Martha Ballard, whose diary is one of the primary sources we have of life in Maine in the early 1800s, claims that the Puringtons were good neighbors who often visited her. She cooked bread for them, had tea with Mrs. Purington, and often visited with the children. Martha Ballard traveled far and wide in her role as midwife in the region and once, Captain Purington even took time to bring her to and from a delivery. This was just the kind of thing neighbors did for each other. They had to rely on each other, through the good times and the bad. The move from Bowdoinham seemed like it had been a good one.

But why did he move in the first place? What would make a prosperous and respected member of the community move to a much more difficult lifestyle in the wilderness, we do not know. To give up the relative comfort of an established farm for the grind of a new one must have required a push from some direction. We do not know why James Purington moved his family. Perhaps it had something to do with his standing in the faith.

Most Christian circles adhere to the idea that souls are saved only if they find redemption in their faith in Jesus Christ. Those who do not find salvation or who are not ‘born again’ will not enter the Kingdom and will ultimately find their souls in some other place, a place of torment, a place away from God’s mercy. Early New England was a fruitful field for those who believed we were all sinners in the hands of an angry God. But as the years went on, many Christians who had been brought up with such doctrine began to doubt it, and other ideas began to form.

It is possible that his beliefs contrasted with those of his peers in Bowdoinham and perhaps the move was instigated as a way to practice his new faith away from the judgment of old friends and acquaintances. Many New England towns at the time were split on the grounds of religious dogma. Free-Will Baptists believed that sinners could choose to accept or reject Christ’s offer of salvation. The new Universalists believed in a benevolent God and free grace for all believers. Both of these new beliefs rejected the Calvinist idea that only a few predestined souls would enter Heaven. Purington rejected that idea, as well and to that extent, it separated him from the community that had previously embraced him.

James Purington was a man who must have moved from this idea of special salvation to a new one at the time, circulating quietly throughout the land. The Universalist movement was only just beginning and how Purington first heard of the doctrine, we will never know. We do know from a pamphlet published shortly after his death by local Augusta printer Peter Edes that Purington believed in the idea of universal salvation. According to this doctrine, the divine love and mercy of God was such that anyone, any sinful human soul, no matter what they believed in life or what they had done, will be granted salvation. They don’t even have to want it – it will simply happen. God’s love and mercy must be stronger, better and deeper than that of human love and mercy, according to these precepts. Jesus, the adherents believed, died for everyone’s sins, not just for those who want to be saved. We know that James Purington believed this. In Ede’s tract on Purington, he states, “He was obstinately tenacious of his opinion and it was very difficult to convince him that he was in error. He has frequently, however, voluntarily changed his religious sentiments; and he died a firm believer in the doctrine of universal salvation. When surrounded by his family, he has been often heard to express his fond anticipation of the moment when they would all be happy; and has sometimes added, how greatly it would enhance his happiness if they could all die at once.”

The summer of 1806 saw precious little rain, a reason for grave concern for the subsistence farmers of Maine at the time. In his pamphlet, Peter Edes claims that Purington seemed ‘greatly depressed’ and when speaking with his neighbors, spoke of his concern that his family would suffer for want of bread and that his cattle would starve. His tendency to suffer from depression when things were going poorly made him dread the consequences of a drought. His brooding was something his family knew about, but they also must have assumed that it would pass as soon as the next heavy rain. The first suspicion that something was terribly askew occurred on Sunday, July 6. While his wife and eldest daughter went to prayer meeting, James remained at home with the other children. His daughter Martha noticed her father writing a letter. When he perceived that she had seen him in the act of writing, he quickly concealed the letter from her sight. She asked him what he was doing and he replied, “Nothing.” Then, he asked her for his butcher knife, claiming it needed to be sharpened. She brought it to him and he spent some time sharpening it. Later, daughter Martha witnessed him standing quietly before the mirror, moving his left hand over and over his throat. This singular act caused Martha to exclaim, “Dada, what are you doing?” Again, his answer was “Nothing,” as he laid the knife solemnly down on the table.

When Betsy returned from church meeting, Martha told her what had transpired. A clandestine search for the letter he had been writing was made, which was found among his papers. It read as follows:

“Dear Brother,

These lines is to let you know that I am going on a long journey, and I would have you sell what I have, and put it out to interest, and put out my boys to trades, or send them to sea.

I cannot see the distress of my family – God only knows my distress. -I would have you put Nathaniel to uncle Purrinton, to a tanner’s trade – I want James to go to school, until sufficient to attend in a store – Benjamin to a blacksmith’s trade, or to what you think best – But to be sure to give them learning, if it takes all – Divide what is left, for I am no more.”

Betsy confronted her husband with the contents of the letter. What could they mean but suicide? What journey other than the long journey from one world to another? James Purington tried to console his distraught wife. He told her that he had no intention of committing suicide, that instead, he had a premonition that his death was near and he was merely taking precautions, just in case. According to Peter Edes, nothing could console Mrs. Purington. It was simply too terrible to contemplate.

But something was horribly, terribly wrong in the mind of Captain James Purington. Perhaps he was considering suicide, except now his wife and family knew of his plan – therefore, he had to change it. If he killed himself, would not his family grieve terribly? Would not that sorrow go on for the rest of their lives? Was there a way to minimize their distress and bring the family back together again to perfect and never-ending happiness?

We are presented with three contemporary documents that detail what happened in the Purington house on the night of Wednesday, July 9th, 1806. The first is the pamphlet written immediately after the events of that evening, printed and sold by Peter Edes, an Augusta area printer from Boston famous for, among other things, filling the punch bowl several times for the patriots who threw tea into Boston Harbor just before the Tea Party, and being jailed by the British for 107 days for watching the Battle of Bunker Hill from a distance and rooting for the patriots. Edes was a shrewd salesman and he knew a good story when he heard one. He moved quickly to print the details of the night, though we do not know his sources. Like the good businessman he was, he made sure that any good detail was fleshed out to become a lurid one.

The other document we have is the one we must believe to be the most reliable and valid source: Martha Ballard’s diary. Martha was the Purington’s next door neighbor. She knew the family and she was one of the first to visit the Purington home. Her diary entry is very short, almost too brief, to describe the events. It is almost as if it was too much for her poor heart to bear.

The final source is the verdict of the jury of inquiry, a succinct document that lays out the details of the crime. Together, these three documents, accompanied by the statements of the two surviving children, paint the terrible sequence of events of that fateful evening.

Martha Ballard and her husband Ephraim were sound asleep when a commotion at their front door awoke them at three in the morning. Two neighbors greeted them at the door with grave news – Captain Purington had just murdered all of this family with the exception of his seventeen year old son, James, who had been wounded by his father with an ax as he fled the murder house. James had showed up at another neighbor’s house in only his shirt, his shoulder covered with blood. Martha’s son Jonathan accompanied Mr. Wiman, the neighbor, to the Purington house. Upon returning to his mother’s, he described what he saw as he went from room to room with nothing more than the light of a single candle.

Peter Ede’s pamphlet is entitled, “Horrid Massacre!! Sketches of the Life of Captain James Purrinton, the night of the 8th of July, 1806. murdering his wife, six children and himself.” In it, we can read his red prose.

“In the outer room lay prostrate on his face and weltering in his gore, the perpetrator of the dreadful deed; his throat cut in the most shocking manner, and the bloody razor lying on a table by his side – In an adjoining bed-room lay Mrs. Purrinton in her bed, her head almost severed from her body; and near her on the floor, a little daughter about ten years old, who probably hearing the cries of distress, alarmed and terrified, ran to her mother for relief, and was murdered by her bedside. In another apartment was found in one bed, the two oldest and youngest daughters; the first most dreadfully butchered; the second desperately wounded, and reclining her head on the body of the dead infant and in a state of indescribable horror and almost total insensibility. In the room with the father, lay in bed with their throats cut, the two youngest sons. And in another room was found on the hearth, most dreadfully mangled, the second son; he had fallen with his trousers under one arm, with which he had attempted to escape. On the breastwork over the fireplace, was the distinct impression of a bloody hand, where the unhappy victim had probably supported himself before he fell.”

As grisly as Edes description is, there is also Martha Ballard’s description of what her son saw that night.

“They two went to (the) house where the horrid scene was perpetrated. My son went in and found a candle, which he lit and to his great surprise (saw) Purington, his wife & six children’s’ corpses. Martha he perceived had life remaining who was removed to his house. Surgical aid was immediately called and she remains alive as yet. My husband went and returned before sunrise when after taking a little food he and I went on to the house there to behold the most shocking scene that was even seen in this part of the world. May an infinitely good God grant that we may all take suitable notice of this horrid deed, learn wisdom therefrom. The corpses were removed to his barn where they were washed and laid out side by side. A horrid spectacle which many hundred persons came to behold. I was there till near night when son Jonathan conducted me to his house and gave me refreshment. The coffins were brought and the corpses carried in a wagon and deposited in the Augusta meeting house.”

James Purington, on hearing the cries of his mother, arose from his bed and shouted to her to see what was amiss. He was able to throw his shirt on and run toward the door when his father appeared and struck at him with an ax. The ax passed over his shoulder, glancing off, making only a superficial wound. At this point 12 year old Benjamin awoke and began to run when his father prevented him from doing so with mortal consequences. James Purington later said that this was all done in utter silence. Everything was done efficiently and with a coolness colder than death.

Martha also survived, but her wounds would soon prove fatal. She recalled that as the family retired to bed that evening, her father was still awake, reading the Bible. She awoke in the darkness of her room as her sister was murdered next to her. She was hit three times, but rolled away, feigning death. Within days, she perished from her wounds.

What followed was perhaps the largest public funeral that Augusta had known. President Washington had died six years earlier and that event had brought the people together to publicly mourn his passing, but this even rivaled such a spectacle. Leading the funeral procession were the men who had been part of the jury of inquest, along with the coroner. Behind them were the victims in their coffins, followed by family members and citizens from all walks of life, from clergy to militia, magistrates and workmen. Each family member’s coffin was carried by their neighbors and friends. James Purington’s body was placed on a wagon and was the last in the procession. Strangely, someone had placed the bloody ax and razor on the top of his coffin. The bodies of Mrs. Purington and her children were ceremoniously buried together in an unmarked mass grave in the common burying ground in Augusta. Captain Purington was ‘interred without the wall,’ which can be taken to mean that he was put into a hole by the side of the road in an unmarked grave, forever separated from his family.

Why did James Purington kill his family and then himself? It is clear that he had a large enough estate and money enough to see them through the harshest of droughts. He had made it clear to neighbors that he worried that his family would starve. For that, we can turn to the words of Timothy Merritt in a sermon he preached at Bowdoinham not ten days after the tragedy. Merritt knew Captain Purington. He had been his minster before the Captain shifted his family north and he understood what was in the heart and mind of his old congregate. It is clear that Merritt pointed to Purington’s belief in universal salvation as the cause of this heinous and violent act. In fact, with a little imagination, one might picture Merritt speaking with Purington about his wrong belief in which he persisted. Remember, Captain Purington liked to be right, all the time. How well would he take it when a man of the cloth perhaps upbraided him for straying from church doctrine, imagining that everyone, no matter how sinful, could be saved? Might he have suggested to Purington that he could no longer be a part of that congregation if he persisted in this belief. Did Purington anticipate such a thing might happen and move his family to a place where they could escape the watchful eyes of the minister?

What actually happened, we cannot know, but we can read Merritt’s words concerning Purington and his reasons. He writes, “You all know, that for some years past, he has professed to believe firmly that all mankind, immediately upon leaving the body, go to a state of the most perfect rest and enjoyment: and to my own certain knowledge he denied the doctrine of a day of judgment and retribution. Of course, it was no question with him whether his family were regenerate, or born again, or in other words, whether they were prepared for so sudden a remove from this world. It was, therefore, natural, and what any one would do under the same circumstances, to endeavor to prevent the anticipated trouble of his family, and make them all forever happy. There is every reason to believe that this was his real motive.”

If the next world is guaranteed to be better than this one, no matter what, claims Merritt, then Purrington was only taking care of his family by slaying them in the bright moonlit night of July 9th. They were to be together forever in a blissful state. No matter how good this world is, the next one is immeasurably better, so why not hasten towards it? But Merrill made sure to drive the point home to his congregation, to the same congregation that Purrington had once belonged, that the Captain’s beliefs had been in error. You don’t get into Heaven that easily. Murder is a sin. Hell is real. Not everyone is saved.

What James Purington believed will never be known. It must remain inexplicable and unknown. They did live in the isolation of an early Maine farm, with only a few neighbors for company. His life had radically changed with the move from an established farm to a new hardscrabble farm. With a lot of time on his hands and few people to challenge his perspectives, James Purington may have fallen victim to his own peculiar view of the world. Perhaps it was a kind of religious fervor that caused him to become the Angel of Death in his own house that night. Perhaps he was what we would today call depressed, or worse, psychotic. What we do know is that on the night of the massacre, the family Bible was open to the ninth chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, which reads,

“He cried also into mine ears with a loud voice, saying, Cause them that have charge over the city to draw near, even every man with his destroying weapon in his hand. …let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity: Slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women: but come not near any man upon whom is the mark.”

  • Elizabeth Purrington (-1806)
  • Polly Purrington (1787 – 1806)
  • Martha Purrington (1791 – 1806)
  • Benjamin Purrington (1794 – 1806)
  • Anna Purrington (1796 – 1806)
  • Nathaniel Purrington (1798 – 1806)
  • Nathan Purrington (1800 – 1806)
  • Louisa Purrington (1804 – 1806)
Purington Memorial, Augusta, Maine
FINIS

SOURCES

Edes, Peter, Horrid Massacre!!: Sketches of the Life of Captain James Purrinton, who on the Night of the Eighth of July, 1806, Murdered His Wife, Six Children, and Himself: with a Particular Account of that shocking Catastrophe: to which are Subjoined, Remarks on the Fatal Tendency of Erroneous Principles, and Motives for Receiving and Obeying the Pure and Salutary Precepts of the Gospel, Augusta, 1806.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher, A Midwife’s Tale, Vintage, 1991.


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