Most of Maine’s early executions were of women, American Indians and slaves

PORTLAND, Maine – In 1755, an enslaved black man named Toney killed his landlord’s daughter in Kittery. He then immediately surrendered to the authorities, confessing to the crime.

A year later, Toney was convicted of murder and hanged in York, the seventh person to be put to death by a Maine government.

Between 1644, the date of Maine’s first legal execution, and Toney’s death 110 years later, more than a dozen people here have been charged with crimes that carry the death penalty. The overwhelming majority of those accused were white men, but most of those convicted and executed were not.

Of the first seven people put to death, only two were white men.

The others were either women, slaves or Native Americans. In fact, when Tobey met the executioner’s noose in 1756, no non-white person or woman had ever been acquitted at trial in a capital case in Maine.

It’s not hard to imagine why.

At the time, slavery was legal, Native Americans and blacks were considered less than fully human, and white women could not vote. White men were a privileged class, totally controlling the government, the church, and the justice system.

Historical details of Toney’s life and crime are scarce. Most come from a one-page trial summary held in the Massachusetts State Archives and from articles in Boston newspapers.

On the night of July 15, 1755, near the head of Spruce Creek, not far from where the Kittery Trading Post now stands, Toney threw 5-year-old Mary Johnson into a well. The child was the daughter of Samuel Johnson, Toney’s owner.

Toney then walked to the nearby town of York and surrendered to the sheriff.

“He made a long, convoluted confession to his crime,” wrote Patricia Q. Wall in her book “Lives of Consequence: Blacks in Early Kittery and Berwick,” claiming that his master’s repeated beatings drove him to murder as a way to be understood. kill.”

Toney apparently viewed murder and his own eventual execution as the only way out of a miserable existence.

Johnson, his master, had a well-known temper and was once put on trial for assaulting his neighbor, Mary King. On another occasion, Johnson was fined for public swearing, and when ordered to post bail to ensure appropriate behavior in the future, he told the justice of the peace “he would be damned if he did.”

Six years before the murder, Johnson announced the return of a runaway slave. No name was given, but it could have been Toney, and it’s not hard to imagine the brutal treatment he may have endured upon his return.

In his confession, the only evidence at trial against him, Toney said he wanted to kill Johnson but couldn’t get upset. Toney was also afraid Johnson was such a bad person that he wouldn’t go to heaven if he died suddenly without a chance to repent.

That’s why he chose to kill Johnson’s baby girl instead.

“The child had far fewer sins against her, Toney reasoned, and so she would gain easy admission to heaven,” wrote Daniel Allen Hearn in his book, “Legal Executions in New England.”

In the end, the slave got his sinister and desperate wish. A year after the murder, on July 29, 1756, Toney was convicted by a court and hanged in York.

Toney was the second slave executed in Maine up to this point. The other was Native American woman Patience Boston. She also killed her master’s child to escape slavery, throwing the boy into a well 20 years earlier, in 1734.

The other two non-white men executed in Maine before Toney were George Necho and Joseph Quasson, both Native Americans. Goodwife Cornish, a white woman, was the first person put to death by a Maine government. She was found guilty of her husband’s murder with mostly supernatural evidence.

The only white men executed in Maine before Tobey were Edmund Brown and John Seymour – although at least 10 other white men had been indicted in capital cases. Most were acquitted, had their sentences and charges reduced, or were pardoned.

One of these men was Nathaniel Keen from Kittery.

Keen was charged with murder on New Years Day 1695 in the brutal death of a slave girl named Rachel, whom he legally owned. Prosecutors said they had 11 witnesses ready to testify against him.

This wasn’t Keen’s first experience in court.

He had previously been accused of chasing his neighbour’s child with a stick and then attempting to strangle their mother. During another run-in with the law, Keen and his wife threatened a city official with an axe.

Still, the murder case against him was not assured, even with so many witnesses.

“Although the killing of an enslaved slave was rare in New England, colonial law at the time was murky with respect to its criminality,” Wall writes.

Perhaps that’s why, by the time Keen’s trial took place in May, his charge had been reduced to “cruelty to his black wife by cruel beating and rough use.”

Found guilty of the lesser felony, Keen was fined five pounds. He was later ordered to pay additional court costs of five pounds. But, as Wall points out in his book, the original fine was suspended, and no record of Keen ever paid it.

Racial inequities in Maine’s capital affairs didn’t end with Toney, either.

Four years later, in 1749, near Wiscasset, an Amerindian from the Canibas band was killed in a brawl. Two others were seriously injured. Subsequently, three white men, Obadiah Albee Jr., Richard Holbrook and Benjamin Holbrook, were arrested and charged with murder in York.

Albee was acquitted. The court decided to try the Holbrooks in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, but the trial never took place. No impartial jury could be found and the men were released.

“The resentment against the Indians was so strong that no white man, even in times of deep peace, could be convicted of killing one of them,” states a summary of Maine’s legal history, published by the Maine Historical Society in 1890. .

After Toney, 16 more people were executed in non-federal death penalty cases in Maine before the penalty was banned in 1876. Of these, 11 were white men. Three were black men. Two were Italian immigrants. None were Native Americans or women.

This story is part of an ongoing series examining the historical use of the death penalty in Maine.

Comments are closed.