January 20, 2009 — This is the story of a fetus that was hanged for murder. And as much as that might be my favorite opening sentence of any OTIS entry so far, the rest of this article sleds rapidly downhill until it finally crashes into a simple, unimpressive, tombstone-like monument.
In 1778 in the town of Brookfield, MA, back when the U.S. was in its terrible twos and more than a few people’s loyalties were still on the rebound after breaking up with England, a woman named Bathsheba Spooner hired a trio of soldiers to kill her husband, Joshua Spooner.
Various motivations for the crime have been thrown around like handfuls of confetti, none of which are particularly imaginative and all of which make me think that the job of criminal profiler is an over-rated one. Ideas include Joshua being abusive, Bathsheba cheating with one of the aforementioned soldiers, political disagreement between the two, Bathsheba wanting more access to Joshua’s sizeable estate, etc. Plus I’ve always just assumed that every wife has multiple, less easily articulated reasons to kill her husband.
Anyway, one night the three men hired by Bathsheba, two of whom were British soldiers and the third a continental soldier who was probably involved with Bathsheba, beat Joshua to death and then dumped him down his own well.
Despite how elegantly contrived that plan seems to appear on paper, beat-and-dump is a surprisingly sloppy operation, and all the conspirators were soon caught. The trial took place in nearby Worchester, and was, of course, a great time for all not involved, with the whole state apparently enrapt by the spectacle and the media touting it as “the most extraordinary crime ever perpetrated in New England.” We’ve topped it many times since then, of course, so yay us.
Speaking of great times for all not involved, the conspirators were all hanged with the usual barbaric but fun fanfare, including Bathsheba, despite the fact that she claimed to be pregnant. After a pre-mortem examination by midwives, she was deemed to be not with child; however, a post-mortem reveled that she was, in fact, five months pregnant, so autopsiest 1, midwives 0.
And that’s the end of the story. No secret suspects, no late-breaking evidence, no twist ending…except for the bodies twisting on the end of a rope. Just three newly orphaned Spooner children, and the hangover and possible morning-after regret of a populace who’d exulted too much in justice.
But some murders need markers, and that’s where it gets odd (and visitable) to me. Somewhere along the line, somebody decided to mark the location of the actual murder scene, that round hole of a well where Joshua’s square peg of a corpse was shoved.
The Spooner Well marker is located on East Main St., outside the center of the town of Brookfield. It’s a few feet off the side of the road and back-dropped by an overgrown field. Across the street from it are a couple of houses whose front windows seem to give the impression of ignoring the memento mori that is their neighbor.
The marker is a simple, white, rectangular slab bearing the text: “Spooner Well—Joshua Spooner murdered and thrown down this well March 1, 1778, by three Revolutionary soldiers at the urging of his wife Bathsheba. All four were executed at Worcester, July 2, 1778.” I searched around the marker a bit, but couldn’t find a well or hole or anything like that, and I’d forgotten my dowsing rods. I assume it’s either been covered up in the hundreds of years since its unholy use or I suck at finding wells.
I’m not sure if the marker was planted for historic reasons or for the same purpose that roadside crosses are, but I really hope the former because the latter kind of annoy me. Graveyards are the officially sanctioned place for honoring the dead, so why would somebody also commemorate the spot of an untimely, and probably violent, demise?
This might sound callous, but, like the Spooner Well neighbors, I happen to have a graveside cross right across the street from my house. It gets seasonally decorated by family members of the deceased, and it leers at me with its promise of my eventual and inevitable death (and, if that gypsy fortuneteller was right, dismemberment), probably on that same stretch of road. I hate pulling into my neighborhood.
Joshua Spooner’s actual grave can also be found in Brookfield, this time in the 300-year-old Brookfield Cemetery on West Main Street, not too far from Spooner Well. It's in the northwestern part of the graveyard, right up against the stone wall that parallels the road. Nobody really knows the location of the graves of Bathsheba and her accomplices, and by nobody, of course, I mean me.
And that sound you hear is a sled crashing into a stone slab at the bottom of a hill. Non-caloric, silicon-based kitchen-lubricant, indeed.