Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Ruth Blay and the Crime of Concealing the Birth of a "Bastard" Child

Ruth Blay (executed 30 December 1768)

Time for one more woman executed for a crime before the year ends. We've already looked at a number of women who were sentenced to death--a variety of saints and "sinners," witches and heretics, a parricide, politically threatening or inconvenient women, even a queen or two.  

Gallows Hill, site of Ruth Blay's execution,
today located in South Cemetery, Portsmouth
Today's post, about Ruth Blay, reminds us of yet another "crime" for which many women have been condemned and shamed, if not prosecuted or executed.

On 30 December 1768, Ruth Blay was hanged for having concealed the birth of an illegitimate child. While her baby may or may not have been stillborn, as Blay claimed, her crime was not infanticide. Rather, according to the law, her capital offense was "concealment of a bastard child." What was at issue was not whether the child had been born alive, but the fact that the birth of a "bastard" child had been kept secret. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that was a capital crime.

There are many uncertainties about the story. Although some versions emphasize Blay's youth and beauty (of course--because only young and beautiful women are interesting? Or are worthy of sympathy?), the few more sober accounts of her death indicate that she was thirty-one years old at the time of her execution, and there are no contemporary descriptions of her to indicate whether she was beautiful or not. 

Again, romantic accounts claim she went to her death wearing silks and satins. But there is no contemporary evidence that indicates how she was appareled on this momentous occasion--while she may indeed have been dressed in her best clothing, knowing her body would go from the gallows to the coffin, silks and satins aren't likely since Blay wasn't a wealthy woman.

Nor was she a long-time resident of the community, having been born in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Relocated to New Hampshire, she was an itinerant schoolteacher in a variety of communities where there was no permanent schoolhouse; she traveled between South Hampton, Sandown, Chester, and Hawke, small towns now in the county of Rockingham (Hawke was renamed in the nineteenth century), teaching children in a variety of settings.

Historian Carolyn Marvin indicates that Blay continued teaching until February or March of 1768. She gave birth, alone, on her thirty-first birthday, 10 June 1768, in a barn belonging to Benjamin Clough--a barn being used as makeshift school for the children of South Hampton.

Blay would later claim that the baby, a little girl, had been stillborn. Alone and afraid, Blay admitted that she had placed the baby's body under the floorboards of the barn where, four days later, several of her students discovered it. Although Blay then admitted that she had given birth to the child, she was nevertheless examined by several women in order to verify that she had, in fact, recently given birth.

The coroner, Samuel Folsom, would dispute Blay's account of the birth--he claimed the baby died as a result of an act "of violence." Infanticide was certainly a capital offense, and "concealment" was an important factor in such cases--concealing a pregnancy or birth was taken as evidence that a baby's death was the result of murder, while making a variety of arrangements for the birth of a child, such as contacting a midwife, acquiring necessary supplies, and preparing clothing, was taken as evidence that the death was not a deliberate act of murder. But the charge against Blay was not infanticide.

Blay's trial took place on 3 September 1768. She was convicted of a crime for which the punishment was hanging, and her execution date was set for 24 November. 

Blay defended herself in a published appeal, and while women convicted of infanticide usually expressed repentance and asked forgiveness, Bray did not. "I never had a single thought of murdering the infant," she claimed, adding:
Therefore I made preparation for its birth, and could now produce the Cloaths and Woman in whose keeping they are; but alas it is too late;–and on that unhappy Day when I was delivered, I knew it had not been eight months from the Time I was with Child, therefore had not thoughts of being delivered at that Time; but an unhappy Fall which I then received, brought on the Birth instantly.
A copy of Blay's broadside appeal,
"Declaration & Confession of Ruth Blay,"
published on the day of her execution by Daniel Fowle,
publisher of the New Hampshire Gazette,
made available by the Portsmouth Athenaeum

She said she had friends who could support her assertions and added that witnesses against her had lied--two women, in particular, she claimed, were her "enemies." But clearly her friends had not come forward at the time of her trial, and even in her newspaper appeal, Blay gave no indication of which witnesses against her had lied or what their lies were. 

She received four reprieves before her sentence was carried out, and she was hanged in in Portsmouth. Hundreds had gathered to enjoy the spectacle.

Ruth Blay never named the father of her child, nor did he step forward to identify himself.

Blay was the last woman executed in New Hampshire. Twenty-five years after her death, the law was changed, and the crime of concealment was no longer punishable by death.

Nearly a hundred years later, in 1859, the Portsmouth poet Albert Leighton composed "The Ballad of Ruth Blay," a poem that perpetuates many of the romanticized elements of Blay's story (not only the silk and satin, but she's dressed like it's her wedding day, and a ruthless sheriff, anxious to get home to eat his lunch, refuses to wait for the arrival or a horseman who's delivering a pardon for Blay from the governor . . . )

In his 1878 Rambles about Portsmouth, local historian Charles Brewster also related Blay's story, calling the concealment statute a "blood law" and referring to the thirty-one-year-old Ruth Blay as "a girl." He included the bit about her being dressed in satin (no mention of silk) and indicated that "her friends had secured from the Governor a reprieve, which would soon have resulted in her pardon"--except for that sheriff who wanted to get home to his meal. He gave the order for her hanging to begin and left while she was still "hanging on the gallows," her reprieve arriving just a few minutes after her death.

There is a good anthology of material on Blay at the online Murderpedia, and Ron Campbell's essay at Walk Portsmouth is excellent, with great photos of relevant locations. Carolyn Marvin's account, to which I've referred here, is Hanging Ruth Blay: An Eighteenth-Century New Hampshire Tragedy. You may also appreciate J. Dennis Robinson's 2008 piece for Seacoast New Hampshire, which includes a great deal of information about Blay, her case, and Carolyn Marvin's archival work to retrieve Blay's story.