Hanging Ruth Blay: An Eighteenth-Century New Hampshire Tragedy

Hanging Ruth Blay: An Eighteenth-Century New Hampshire Tragedy

by Carolyn Marvin


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On a cold December morning in 1768, thirty-one-year-old Ruth Blay approached the gallows erected for her execution. Standing on the high ground in the northwest corner of what is now Portsmouth's old South Cemetery, she would have had a clear view across the pasture to the harbor and open sea. The eighteenth-century hanging of a schoolteacher for concealing the birth of a child out of wedlock has appeared in local legend over the last few centuries, but the full account of Ruth's story has never been told. Drawing on over two years of investigative research, author Carolyn Marvin brings to light the dramatic details of Ruth's life and the cruel injustice of colonial Portsmouth's moral code. As Marvin uncovers the real flesh-and-blood woman who suffered the ultimate punishment, her readers come to understand Ruth as an individual and a woman of her time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781596298279
Publisher: History Press, The
Publication date: 07/06/2010
Series: True Crime Series
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 1,207,549
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Carolyn Marvin currently works as a research librarian at the Portsmouth Athenaeum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she first came upon the story of Ruth Blay. Previously, she worked in both public and school libraries. Ms. Marvin lives in a tiny ivy-covered brick house in the Atlantic Heights Historic District of Portsmouth with her granddaughter Makenzie, three cats, Dante the Westie, three hamsters and two fish.

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I live in a cottage & yonder it stands And while I can work with these two honest hands I'm as happy as those that have houses and lands.


Eighteenth-century provincial New Hampshire was a sprawling frontier wilderness run by British governors and magistrates. It was founded as a business venture rather than a haven for religious dissenters, and the population was originally clustered in the coastal centers of Portsmouth, Dover Point and Gosport at the Isles of Shoals. Captain John Smith's early explorations in the 1620s produced maps that clearly showed the Isles of Shoals and Portsmouth, and by 1623 a fishing community existed at the Shoals.

Unlike the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies, where land was granted to a corporation, the area comprising Maine and New Hampshire was granted to individuals. In 1622, the British Council for New England granted the land between the Kennebec River in Maine and the Merrimac and sixty miles inland from their headwaters to Captain John Mason and Sir Ferdinando Gorges. They, in turn, "sub-granted" parts of this vast territory to others. Another man, David Thomson, had also secured a smaller grant of six thousand acres and, in 1623, sailed from Plymouth, England, with the backing of three Plymouth merchants to find a suitable site for settlement. Thomson and others sailed on the ship Jonathan and founded the first settlement in New Hampshire at Odiorne's Point, at the mouth of the Piscataqua River.

Following the Piscataqua and its branches, the Cocheco and Lamprey, settlers moved inland from the southeastern coast to found the towns of Dover, Durham, Exeter and others. Along the border with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, other settlers followed the Merrimac River inland, and New Hampshire's population grew with a continuous migration of Massachusetts families seeking land, religious freedom or both.

A good example of the latter was the arrival in 1638 of John Wheelwright's group of Puritan dissenters, the Antinomians, who founded the town of Exeter. John, a minister in Quincy and the brother-in-law of Anne Hutchinson, took issue with the Puritan leadership's stand on his sister-in-law, was banished from Boston and then moved to Exeter.

Governing an area of many individual land grants proved difficult, and New Hampshire came under the governing body of the Massachusetts Bay Colony until 1680. From that date on, it had its own assembly and an appointed royal governor and/or lieutenant governor. By 1730, the provincial seat in Portsmouth was becoming wealthy from active trading in lumber, masts and fish. Those exports bought imports to sell, and the small coastal town grew and became home to many successful merchants, including members of the Wentworth family. The court system, too, was centralized in Portsmouth. New Hampshire was ready to be declared a political entity in its own right. When the boundary dispute between New Hampshire and Massachusetts was finally settled in 1741, Benning Wentworth was appointed the first royal governor of the new province of New Hampshire. Benning and his nephew, John Wentworth, who succeeded his uncle, remained in power until the outbreak of the American Revolution.

Meanwhile, north and west of Portsmouth, the bitter French and Indian Wars had introduced the colonists, albeit at a terrible cost, to the central and northern areas of New Hampshire and Vermont as they cut roads through to the Canadian border in pursuit of the enemy. The Peace of Paris in 1763 finally brought a close to the last of the French and Indian Wars. In another twelve years, alliances would alter, and the French would side with America in the revolt against British rule. Between the earlier wars, as each ensuing peace lessened the danger of Indian attacks, many colonists revisited, laid claim to and settled in these areas.

New generations of long-standing families who had settled in the parent towns along the coast and mouth of the Merrimac River acquired new property in the hills just a few miles inland, and family members ventured forth to establish these new townships, build meetinghouses in which to worship and raise new families to farm the land and create new communities. The land was hilly with rocky soil, the weather unpredictable and life a constant struggle lived under strict religious tenets as unforgiving as the land. Hard winters and summer droughts added to the homesteaders' trials. In Joshua Coffin's History of Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury — towns a short distance away from where Ruth grew up in the second parish of Amesbury (now Merrimac) — earthquakes and aftershocks are reported almost every year from the great one of 1727 through 1755 and thereafter.

Order and status were established as leaders in each community emerged, were elected to responsible posts and fulfilled their elected or appointed duties. Families also brought with them the status of their birth families. As with all frontiers, migration north of the coastal communities brought hardworking persons of great esteem, as well as its share of those who were marginalized by reputation, bad luck, poverty or temperament. Despite the best efforts of church, town and Crown, there had always been those who could not or would not conform to accepted social mores or legal constraints.

The high mobility of our New Hampshire forefathers and foremothers often makes tracking these families a genealogical nightmare. Women like Ruth Blay, who didn't marry, had no brothers and whose sisters became absorbed into the families of their spouses, become even more difficult to track. Their surname effectively disappears.

Ruth began life in one of the Massachusetts border towns and later moved inland to live and work in today's New Hampshire towns including South Hampton, Danville and Sandown.

Fortunately, Ruth had grandparents who were among the earliest and most respected settlers of Newbury, Amesbury and Salisbury. Ruth's grandfather was John Chase, a son of Aquila Chase, one of the original proprietors of Newbury. Ruth's great-grandfather on her mother's side was Philip Watson-Challis, another well-respected early settler in Salisbury and Amesbury. Her great-grandmother, Mary Challis, an apparently educated and independent woman for her time, administered Philip's estate upon his death, and her name appears on a number of land transactions in her role as both family matron and executrix. It was Phillip and Mary Watson-Challis's daughter, Lydia Challis, who would become Ruth's grandmother. Lydia Challis and John Chase were married in 1687 in what must have seemed a most auspicious marriage, merging two of the most prominent family names in the area. In time, they became the parents of nine children whose births are recorded in the Newbury church records.

One of these children was Ruth's mother, also named Lydia, who was born in 1700. Unlike her brothers and sisters, who married cousins or persons with surnames common to the area, Lydia seems to have chosen a relative "outsider" as her spouse, one William Blay of Haverhill, Massachusetts. Certainly he plied a respectable enough trade as a cordwainer (shoemaker), but he would have been of a lower economic class than Lydia, whose parents, while not wealthy, had certainly accumulated land, position and some material wealth, which can be ascertained from her father John Chase's itemized will proved in 1739: "Item I give unto my daughter Lydia five shillings to be paid by my executor out of my estate after my Decease (the Reason why I give her no more is because she hath had her Portion already."

We can surmise that Lydia probably received the greater part of her "Portion," whatever that may have been, at the time of her marriage to William in 1724, perhaps allowing them to establish their homestead in the eastern part of Haverhill known as Rocks Village. Seven children, all girls, were born to the couple, their births duly recorded in church records.

The tragedy of losing children touched most eighteenth-century families, and the Blay family was no exception. Two children died in infancy during the 1735 "throat distemper" (diptheria) epidemic; a third died in 1747. Three of the girls would marry. The last born was Ruth, named for an infant sister whose death preceded her birth. A not uncommon practice, it has been the bane of many a genealogist since.

Lydia Blay was thirty-seven years old at the time of Ruth's birth on June 10, 1737, an older mother by any standard. Baby Ruth's siblings were Ann, six; Abigail, seven; Lydia, twelve; and eldest sister Mary, age thirteen. In England, George II had been in power for one decade and British-born American Patriot and pamphleteer Thomas Paine was born. In America, Jonathan Edwards published A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Works of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton, a work inspired by the beginnings of what would become known as the "Great Awakening."



I Have a God in Heaven Who Care For Me Doth Take And If I to Him Constant Prove He Will Not Me Forsake.


In the middle of the eighteenth century, the faith and endurance of the Blays and others was greatly tested by renewed war against the French, culminating in the successful 1745 siege on Fort Louisburg in Cape Breton and two other major events: the outbreak of a serious contagious disease and the concurrent arrival and spread of religious fervor known as the "Great Awakening." One of these we can prove had a direct effect on the young Blay family; the other we shall have to deduce may well have influenced the parents, if not the children.

The outbreak of "throat distemper" (diphtheria) was purportedly traced to the Clough farm in Kingston, where Mr. Clough had slaughtered a diseased hog in May. It then spread like wildfire throughout the surrounding communities:

The first person who took the disease was a Mr. Clough, who, having examined the swelled throat of a dead hog, died suddenly with a swelling in his throat ... in fourteen towns in New Hampshire, nine hundred and eighty-four died between June, 1735, and July, 1736.

The highly contagious disease took a devastating toll on the towns of southern New Hampshire, causing the death of over 1,000 persons, mostly children. In Haverhill alone, 199 persons died. The New England Weekly Journal for March 28, 1738, reported:

Just Published, the Second Edition, with Some Alterations and Additions, An Account of the Number of Deaths in Haverhill, and also some comfortable Instances thereof among the CHILDREN, under the late Distemper in the Throat; With an Address to the Bereaved. By the Rev. Mr. John Brown, Minister of the Gospel there.

We can imagine that the Blay family, being among the bereaved, may have attended that sermon or at least read Reverend Brown's published remarks. Their homestead was located on the eastern boundary of Haverhill, closer to Amesbury. In 1730, William was among twelve men who successfully petitioned the Haverhill church to release them to the second church of Amesbury (now Merrimac) so they might be closer to their meetinghouse. This was common enough in the eighteenth century, when pioneers may have established homesteads miles from the nearest meetinghouse and attending Sunday service, an all-day affair, was difficult and dangerous.

Regardless of whether the Blay family heard Reverend Brown's accounting of the toll the throat distemper took, he and Lydia had suffered its devastation firsthand. A list of families who each lost two children includes the name of William Blay. The vital statistics of Newbury records their names: Ruth and Ealce. They died in 1735.

In May 1738 a pamphlet was published in Boston with verses concerning the throat distemper epidemic and the toll it took on the region:

To Newbury O go and see To Hampton and Kingston To York likewise and Kittery Behold what God hath done.
The bow of God is bent abroad Its arrows swiftly fly Young men and maids and suckling babes Are smitten down thereby.

With such clear evidence of God's displeasure with the direction in which this New World seemed to be headed, can it be any wonder that a spiritual "epidemic" would follow?



Remember time will shortly come When we a strict account must give To God the righteous Judge of all How we upon this earth do live.


The second of the major events affecting the general populace, and undoubtedly the Blay family as well, was the Great Awakening, which occurred in the mid-eighteenth century. The influence of this movement was felt up and down the Atlantic coast but especially in those colonies where traditional Congregationalism was practiced. Although not the first American revival movement, the revival of 1740, commonly called the Great Awakening, had by far the most long-term consequences. Other revivals had occurred after the great earthquake of 1727 and again in 1735 during the Connecticut River Valley revival — recorded and participated in by Jonathan Edwards. These were responses to particularly troubling times and events and tapped into the communal anxiety already present in the population. In addition to the devastating throat distemper, numerous earthquakes, illness, frightening storms and extreme seasonal temperatures laid the groundwork for an even more widespread religious revival movement.

As if on cue, this commenced with the arrival of the English itinerant minister Reverend George Whitefield, who came to America in the fall of 1740 and began to electrify congregations with his passionate fundamentalist sermons. He attributed the many catastrophes that the colonists had endured of late to a falling away from the strict tenets of the Bible and implored the people to leave their evil, lazy ways, renew their covenants with God and be reborn to the straight and narrow path of their faith. Whitefield appealed to those who sensed or feared a breakdown in the institutions that defined and monitored mores: the church, the town and the family.

Preaching his way throughout England and the New World, "harvesting souls" through the ritual of conversion and rebirth, he restated the plain truths of the Bible and exhorted people to reassess their faith as measured against these. He first appeared in Newbury on September 10, 1740. Even the weather that year seemed to portend of impending doom. The summer and fall rains caused the Merrimack River to rise fifteen feet, floating off houses and washing away all the shipbuilding wood. This was followed by the most severe winter on record. Mother Nature capped the unusual year of weather extremes with a December earthquake.

Reverend Whitefield traveled throughout the northern and middle colonies preaching from meetinghouse pulpits and to larger crowds gathered outside in fields. That he possessed enormous charisma is indisputable. Listen to Nathan Cole, who left his fieldwork as soon as he heard that Whitefield was nearby, gathered up his wife and horse and hurriedly traveled the twelve miles to the outdoor revival in Middletown, Connecticut:

The land and the banks over the river looked black with people and horses all along the 12 miles ... When I see Mr. Whitefield come upon the Scaffold, he looked almost angelical — a young, slim, slender youth before some thousands of people, and with a bold, undaunted countenance. And my hearing how God was with him everywhere as he came along, it solemnized my mind, and put me in trembling fear before he began to preach, for he looked as if he was Cloathed with authority from the great God.

While Whitefield was eagerly joined by other so-called New Light ministers in spreading the message, some were not as easily swayed by his passion. Indeed, many were even disturbed by his charismatic personality and the excesses of swoonings, visions and outcries during the revivals. They were clearly threatened and fearful of the disruption to their own congregations by him and other New Light preachers, most importantly Gilbert Tennent and rabble-rouser James Davenport. The latter joined Whitefield and later went off on his own, declaring certain installed ministers "unconverted" followers of the letter but not the spirit; he was repeatedly apprehended and even kicked out of one town after another for his inflammatory sermons against the Congregationalist clergy. He was censured by the ecclesiastical council and, after a few more years of frenzied sermons and actions, settled again in his parish, where he wrote his Confession and Retractions acknowledging his excesses.


Excerpted from "Hanging Ruth Blay"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Carolyn Marvin.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface 9

Acknowledgements 11

Introduction: The End 13

Chapter 1 The Beginning 19

Chapter 2 Testing the Faith 27

Chapter 3 The Great Awakening 31

Chapter 4 Home and Family 41

Chapter 5 Semptsress and Teacher 47

Chapter 6 A Fall from Grace 53

Chapter 7 South Hampton Summer 57

Chapter 8 Portsmouth: Summer of 1768 65

Chapter 9 Politics and Penal Codes 71

Chapter 10 King v. Blay 81

Chapter 11 Hope and Despair 87

Chapter 12 The Clough Connection 95

Epilogue 99

Ruth's Story as Retold Through Time 103

Notes 113

Bibliography 121

About the Author 127

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