Ruth Blay, an unmarried teacher and seamstress, was living with her mother in Portsmouth, NH, and when she discovered that she was pregnant, she fled to the town of South Hampton, NH, to have her baby. She took up residence with the Curriers, and what she told them about her situation—that her husband was travelling, or perhaps dead—is anyone’s guess. What is known is that she delivered a baby girl on June 10, 1768—a date that happened to be her own birthday. As a novelist, it’s my job to imagine the lives of my characters—what they thought and felt, how they might have acted or reacted to any given situation. Imagining Ruth’s life at that juncture was harrowing. She labored and gave birth by herself, no mother, sister or friend to hold her hand, wipe her brow or offer a sip of the “groaning beer” that the women of her time would have prepared. Unsurprisingly, the baby, a girl, was stillborn. In her panic, Ruth wrapped the tiny body in a cloth and brought her out to the barn that was on the adjoining property, concealing it under some loose floorboards. She later said she intended to return, when the shock and trauma had subsided a bit, and give the infant a proper burial.
But the body was discovered—I don’t want to give away how or by whom—and promptly the bailiff called. Ruth was taken back to Portsmouth, where she spent the halcyon days of a New Hampshire summer languishing in a rank, dank jail. She was tried in September, maintaining her innocence, and could not be convicted of killing her child. “I never had a Single Thought of murdering the Infant,” she wrote in a letter that was published posthumously, “which makes me even shudder to think that any Mother should be guilty of such Cruelty.” She went on to mention the tiny clothes and bedding she had sewn in preparation for the birth, and to use these as proof of her intent to care for, and not to harm, her child. But even though the murder charge did not stick, she was instead convicted of the lesser offense of concealing the birth of an illegitimate child—a “crime” that was punishable by death.
I should add that, when all this was taking place, the colonies were still under British rule—if only barely. The gale winds of revolution were already blowing, and it is likely that Governor Wentworth, the man who held Ruth’s life in his hands, felt their force. The law that condemned Ruth was a British law and Wentworth, a British appointee, was sworn to uphold it, merciless as it was. It is possible that he felt some stirrings of pity for Ruth—she was given not one but two reprieves—but in the end, the law trumped compassion, and on December 31, 1768, Ruth was hanged, before a large crowd, in what is now South Cemetery in Portsmouth.
I’ve been to the grim spot and, with the exception of the newer tombstones that would not have been there at the time, the view—a small pond, some undulating hills—was the same, and these would have been the last things she saw before the noose did its cruel and efficient work.
Ruth’s life ended back in the eighteenth century, but her story did not. The man who got her pregnant was never even named, let alone charged. She bore the burden of her conviction all by herself. Then, as now, women shoulder the lion’s share of sexual blame, as many contemporary rape trials and incidents of slut shaming can all attest. And in a world in which honor killings are not just permitted but lauded, and fathers feel it is their God-given right to cut of the noses of the daughters who dare to defy them, Ruth’s tragic end does not seem so distant or far off. In fact, it feels shockingly and stunningly close.