The daughter of a prominent Colonial American lawyer, justice and military officer, Bathsheba Ruggles had an arranged marriage to a wealthy farmer, Joshua Spooner. She then became lovers with a young soldier from the Continental Army, Ezra Ross, and became pregnant. She enlisted the assistance of Ross and two others to murder her husband. On the night of March 1, 1778, one of them beat Joshua Spooner to death and they put his body in the Spooner well. Bathsheba Spooner and the three men were soon arrested, tried for and convicted of Spooner's murder and sentenced to death.
Spooner petitioned to have her execution delayed because of her pregnancy, which was first denied and then supported by some members of a group charged with examining her to verify the pregnancy. After the four were executed, a post-mortem examination revealed that she was five months pregnant. Historians have pointed out that the trial and execution may have been hastened by anti-Loyalist sentiment.
Bathsheba Ruggles Spooner was the daughter of Brig. Gen. Timothy Ruggles, a lawyer who had served as chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas in Worcester, Massachusetts, from 1762-64. Ruggles refused to sign the Stamp Act protest when serving as Massachusetts representative to the Stamp Act Congress in 1765. He was an avowed Loyalist. or Tory, who threatened to raise an army to protect his and other Loyalist farms and livestock against attacks by revolutionary forces. In 1775 he joined forces with the British Army in Boston.
Bathsheba Ruggles married Joshua Spooner on January 15, 1766. He was a well-to-do Brookfield farmer, the son of a wealthy Boston merchant. The couple lived in relative affluence in a two-story house in Brookfield. The Spooners had their first child on April 8, 1767, and three more followed between 1770-75. He was later described as an abusive man for whom his wife developed "an utter aversion."
In the spring of 1777 16-year-old Ezra Ross, a soldier in the Continental Army, fell ill en route to his home in Linebrook, a village in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Bathsheba nursed him back to health. On his travels to and from army service, he visited the Spooner home in July and December 1777. On the latter occasion he stayed into the new year, traveled with Joshua Spooner on business trips and had an affair with Bathsheba. She became pregnant mid-January and began urging Ross to kill her husband. In February 1778 Ross accompanied Joshua Spooner on an extended trip to Princeton, Massachusetts. He brought along a bottle of nitric acid, given to him by Bathsheba, which he planned to use to poison Spooner. Ross backed out of the plan and returned directly to his Linebrook home.
While Ross and Joshua Spooner were in Princeton, Bathsheba invited two runaway British soldiers—escaped prisoners of war Pvt. Williams Brooks and Sgt. James Buchanan—to stay at the Spooner home and discussed ideas for killing her husband with them. When Joshua Spooner returned home, she recruited them to assist her. She also wrote to Ross to inform him of these developments, and he returned to Brookfield on February 28. When Spooner returned home from a local tavern the following evening, Brooks committed the murder and Buchanan and Ross helped hide the body in the Spooners' well. Bathsheba distributed paper money from her husband's lockbox and articles of his clothing to the three men, who then took one of the Spooner horses to Worcester, 14 miles away.
Brooks and Buchanan spent the remainder of the night drinking, and the next morning Brooks showed off Joshua Spooner's silver shoe buckles engraved with his initials. Once the murder was discovered, the three men were arrested in Worcester within 24 hours. When Ross was discovered hiding in the attic of a tavern, he asked for a confessor. The trio implicated Bathsheba Spooner and three of her household servants in the crime. Brooks was charged with the assault on Joshua Spooner, Buchanan and Ross with aiding and abetting in the murder and Bathsheba Spooner with inciting, abetting and procuring the manner and form of the murder. All were arraigned and pleaded not guilty.
This was the first capital case in the United States. Robert Treat Paine, later the first Attorney General of Massachusetts, prosecuted the case. At the trial on April 24, 1778, the household servants testified for the prosecution. Levi Lincoln, later U.S. Attorney General under Jefferson, defended the accused. Brooks and Buchanan had no defense to offer, having signed lengthy confessions. Though Ross had signed a similar confession, Lincoln argued that he had no intention of harming the deceased, was not aware of the plan until a few hours before the murder, had not assisted in the murder and pretended to support it to maintain his affair with Bathsheba. He argued that Bathsheba Spooner had a "disordered mind," that her actions were irrational as evidenced by the lack of a getaway plan.
All were found guilty the next day and sentenced to death, with the executions set for June 4, 1778. Spooner petitioned for a postponement, citing her pregnancy, based on common law principle that protected the life of a fetus if it had quickened. Spooner was examined by a panel of 12 women and two male midwives. All swore that she was not "quick with child." When Spooner and her confessor, the Rev. Thaddeus Maccarty, protested the report, four of the examiners joined by another midwife and Spooner's brother-in-law, Dr. John Green, conducted a second examination and supported the claim of pregnancy. The court did not accept those findings and Bathsheba Spooner was hanged alongside Ross, Brooks and Buchanan on July 2 in Worcester's Washington Square before a crowd of 5000 spectators. A post-mortem examination, performed at Spooner's request, showed that she was pregnant with "a perfect male fetus of the growth of five months."
Shortly after the executions, on July 5, Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, the minister of the nearby town of Westborough, delivered a sermon entitled The Adultress Shall Hunt for the Precious Life in which he said:
So keep thee from the Evil woman, from the flattery of the tongue of a strange woman. Neither let her take thee with her eyelids. There are a thousand dangers, that poor young wretches are in by reason of the snares & traps which are everywhere laid ... particularly the poor beardless youth not quite 18.
One historian says the judgment of the first panel that examined Spooner–"they refused to acknowledge what must have been obvious"–and blames "vindictiveness". Others question the motivation of the Massachusetts Executive Council. Some suggest Spooner was executed because the community opposed her father's British Loyalist stance. John Avery Jr., the deputy secretary and leader of the Massachusetts Executive Council, who signed Spooner's death warrant, belonged to a group of Patriots called the Loyal Nine, who formed the innermost circle of the Sons of Liberty, and a relative of the murder victim. He was step-brother to the murder victim.
The CBS radio program Crime Classics dramatized the case in an episode entitled "The Crime of Bathsheba Spooner" that aired on June 15, 1953.