Introduction to Chauncy Village
When Chauncy Village was established as Westborough, the 100th town of Colonial Massachusetts, in 1717, there were fewer than 100 residents living in the area west of Marlborough, which included the north precinct (now Northborough). In 1720, the first meetinghouse was built on Powder Hill, and in 1724 Reverend Ebenezer Parkman became Westborough’s first ordained minister. But Reverend Parkman was more than the inspirational leader of the community. He also provided guidance and was the intellectual leader for the residents of the fledgling town.
Throughout his ministry, Reverend Parkman kept two diaries, a daily diary of family and town activities and a church diary. The daily diary became a significant work and a historical treasure that recorded the events of town matters, birth, deaths, baptisms, fires, barn raisings, and even the weather. Although there are months and years missing, the diary remains the foremost reference for historians and research into the life situations of Puritan Massachusetts.
By 1737, Westborough was experiencing a growing population, and a movement of the northern precinct to separate from the southern precinct was underway. The area was primarily wilderness, with farms and taverns offering food and lodging for travelers and serving as gathering places for residents. This historical nonfiction takes place at the Blue Anchor Tavern in 1737 and is about Hugh Henderson, the first person to be executed in Worcester County.
Revered Parkman’s diary entries were transcribed, researched, and clarified regarding the people, places, and events that he experienced during this time. This extremely important work was accomplished by Harriet M. Forbes. Forbes was a historian, author, and a member of the Westborough Historical Society.
The following piece contains a number of direct quotes in italics, many of which are taken directly from Reverend Parkman’s Diary. The names of those mentioned and the locations are factual and accurate; however I have taken liberties with the remaining story line.
Glenn R. Parker
The Story of Hugh Henderson, alias John Hamilton
This is the unfortunate story of the untimely demise of one Hugh Henderson, alias John Hamilton, who was the first person to be hanged in Worcester County. He was born in Armagh, the ancient capitol of Ulster, Northern Ireland, in 1709, where he was baptized in the manner of the Presbyterian Church. As a teenager, Henderson was sent to live with his uncle when his parents died. Under the less than watchful eye of the uncle, Henderson became a petty thief, a night walker, and was generally uncontrollable. At age 20, he left his uncle’s home as an experienced thief.
He came to America as a stowaway around 1729 during the great migration. Because his name was not on the ship’s manifest as a paid passenger, when he was discovered, he was flogged, and instead of being put ashore in Bermuda, he was kept on board and put to work as a ship’s hand doing the worst imaginable jobs as compensation for his passage.
Upon landing in Newport, RI, Henderson wasted no time in going ashore and continuing his criminal pursuit. As he wandered about the seaport town in search of a job, he was quickly discovered and immediately chased away when caught by a store owner with a loaf of stolen bread and some cheese from a barrel. He slowly began his vagabond’s trek north, then west following the King’s Highway into Sudbury, where he paused long enough to work for a few days as a farmhand and harvest firewood for the winter season at the Howe Tavern. Howe Tavern was a very busy inn located on the Post Road, the middle road leading west from Boston to Worcester.
Henderson had learned his trade well, never staying long enough to be detected or held to accountability, always staying one step ahead of the only means of communication of the day, the spoken word. Henderson wandered into Westborough in early September 1737, not knowing it would be the last town he would victimize. He first stopped at the Gale Tavern near the Southborough line for a few days where he found food and shelter in return for a day’s work harvesting firewood. The next day he was discovered sleeping in the big horse barn across the road from the Forbush Tavern and was chased off. He made his way up the hill, past the meetinghouse and parsonage of Reverend Parkman, before heading south to another populated area of town.
He made his way to a part of town where years prior there were a number of homes in the area built by the first settlers of Chauncy Village, one being the home and tavern of Abner Newton, formerly the Thomas Rice garrison. It later became known as the Blue Anchor Tavern.
By now, Henderson was running out of opportunities to find day work and keep his belly from grumbling from lack of sustenance. It was getting late in the year, the nights were getting cold, and he was becoming weary of his situation. So he again resorted to his old ways of taking that to which he was not entitled. The Newton Tavern, being easily accessible and appearing to be better off than most, seemed a likely target. Henderson watched the tavern from across the road, out of sight behind a large stone wall. When the time seemed right, after the residents and travelers had gone to bed, he forced the latch on the back door and entered the tavern. By the glow of the embers in the large fireplace that served to heat the room and cook the tavern meals, Henderson scrounged for food but took only enough to satisfy his immediate need and yet not enough to be noticed missing. He was a shrewd thief, only taking food so as not to be caught with personal property.
The following day, after the noon meal and when no one was about, he again entered the tavern and once again took only what he would immediately eat. But this time he never got across the road to his hideout. This time Newton caught him before he could consume the evidence. As he had done so many times before, Henderson pleaded for forgiveness and promised to work off the debt. But Newton was unwilling to barter with the crook. Henderson, still not admitting to the previous night’s theft, was brought back into the tavern. But this time, rather than agree to a severe lashing, a customary punishment dealt by the aggrieved victim, he thought to himself about the impending winter.
He would rather spend the winter months in goal rather than receive another flogging. The jailer would feed him and keep him warm for the winter months, and if he tried to escape, his sentence may be further extended into the early spring. This plan, he thought, would get him through the winter months ahead.
Newton then called for his neighbor Jonas Rice, the town constable, to take charge of the crook and bring him to justice. Rice then questioned the thief about his activities in Westborough and was given a full confession to the crimes at the tavern. Henderson then showed Rice the chicken carcasses from the night before. However, unbeknownst to Henderson, the General Court of Massachusetts in 1715 imposed the death penalty for burglary of a dwelling house at night.
Because the alleged housebreaker was considered a pauper and had no known address or means by which to support himself, he was unceremoniously detained by Constable Rice. As there was no lockup and the stocks built by Daniel Warren years before at the meetinghouse had fallen into disrepair from lack of use, the only alternative was to walk Henderson to the town pound, a stone enclosure 30-foot square and four-feet high with a wooden gate designed to keep stray cattle until the owner could claim such. The area had been donated by David Maynard, on land just south of the meetinghouse on Powder Hill.
Henderson languished here for days tethered hand and foot to a hitching post while under the watchful eyes of the town elders. But this time he did not have to work or steal his next meal. For the brief time of his incarceration, he was brought fine noontime meals better than he had ever had. Nor did he know these meals would be the finest of his remaining time of life.
Finally, an indictment for the crimes committed at the tavern was handed down from the September session of the Court being held at the new courthouse in Worcester. When Sheriff Daniel Gookin, the first Sheriff of Worcester County, got the orders to bring Henderson in to answer the indictment, he rode to Westborough to serve the process. Gookin met Constable Rice at the meetinghouse, and together they traveled the short distance to the pound to take Henderson into custody.
Henderson was then taken to the Worcester Goal some 10 miles west. Henderson ran alongside the lawmen, his hands bound to hinder a possible escape. They traveled the road toward the north precinct past the Broader and Cobb houses, crossed the Assabet River, then headed westerly along the lilac road to Shrewsbury while stopping briefly at the Pease Taver (later a scheduled stop for stagecoaches and the post riders from Boston to Hartford). Although Henderson began to complain about the pace, Constable Rice would not hear it. He was in no mood to give the house breaker rest. It was harvest time, and Rice was losing a full day in the field. Besides, Henderson had just spent the last several years making his way to Westborough in similar conditions. But Henderson would soon get his rest as the three approached the great pond and now had to wait for the ferry to take them across Quinsigamond before heading up Wigwam Hill on the other side.
The goal where Hugh Henderson was confined stood on the west side of the new courthouse. It was a building forty one by eighteen feet. The prison part was eighteen square feet, made of white oak timber set with studs, four inches thick and five inches broad. The floor, roof, and ceiling were two-inch planks spiked together. A stone dungeon was underneath. The door was three planks of heavy oak bound together with iron braces, with a metal grate as a window and a wrought-iron latch lock. The north end of the structure, finished as a dwelling, became the residence of the jailer (Luke Brown, History of Worcester).
Rev. Ebenezer Parkman’s Diary Entries
Reverend Parkman did not make any entries in his diary from April 2 to September 24 well after the actual event at Abner Newton’s Tavern. However, it is highly unlikely that Reverend Parkman did not know about the events that occurred at Newton’s Tavern, the arrest of Henderson, or the indictments that were handed down by the Court.
Sept. 24, “Message from John Hamilton under condemnation for Burglary requesting that I would visit him.”
Sept. 26, “ I rode to Mr. Burr’s. I hastened to the prisoner.” [Reverend Isacc Burr of Worcester]
Oct. 12, “I went to Worcester to see Hugh Henderson, found him in much ye same distressed state yet I left him in, but I hope more knowing and acquainted with his condition and with his duty. Mr. Burr at ye Goal with me. I prayed with him a multitude attending. He earnestly desired me to see him again and wishes over and over yet I would preach to him.”
Oct.17, “Mr. Wheeler distressed in conscience for Hugh Henderson.” [Mr. Joseph Wheeler of the North Precinct]
Oct. 21, “I proceeded to Worcester and stopped at ye Goal at the grates to speak with the Prisoner and to put him in mind of ye preparations needful for him to make in order to his keeping his Last Sabbath. I lodged at Mr. Burr’s.”
Oct. 23, “Early in the morning began to write my address to the Prisoner. A.M. on Eccl. 11, 9, a crowded assembly, poor Hugh Henderson present. P.M. on Job 3, 36. A great congregation, it being in their apprehension the last Sabbath Sermon the poor Criminal is to hear. At evening called at Mr. Eaton’s and at the Sheriff’s, who went with me to the Prison. I interrogated the Prisoner what was the occasion of his coming to this country-whether he had discovered and acknowledged all that was fit and proper for him to reveal? Whether he had any confederates? A great number flocked in the Goal when at his request I prayed with him. I left him between 8 and 9.”
Oct 27, “The Governor has Reprieve Hugh Henderson for a month at the request of Mr. Burr and Mr. Prentice.”
Nov 21, “I rode up to Worcester to see Hugh Henderson again. Was sorry to hear he had tried to make his escape by filing the goal door. We talked more of other matters and kept longer off y main point of his case y heretofore. I’m more put to it to judge of his fame.”
Nov 23, “I rode up to Worcester at the Request of the Criminal and others to Preach to him. There were so many at the Goal we were obliged to go to the Meeting House. He spoke of making a solemn vow warning taken from his mouth but chose to have it deferred to ye morning, but prayed that I would be early.”
Nov 24, “I went to the Prisoner when I could, and Mr. Burr was with me to assist in penning down what ye prisoner had to deliver by way of a Confession and Warning and strict as I could be in inserting his own words as near as I could and when any others were used.”
The confession and dying warning of Hugh Henderson who was executed at Worcester in the county of Worcester. November 24, 1737. Signed by him in the presence of four of the ministers the morning of the day of his execution.
“I, Hugh Henderson, otherwise through my wickedness called John Hamilton of about 28 or 29 years of age, was born in Armagh in the kingdom of Ireland, received baptism in the manner of the Presbyterians and was brought up by my uncle, who was obliged to give me suitable learning but did not: which neglect, together with my own neglect of God afterward of learning the word of God afterwards, was a great reason of my taking to such wicked courses as have brought me to my unhappy, untimely End.”
“I began with smaller sins, while I was young, with but stealing Pins, against which I received warnings oftentimes, but persisted in it, and was very disobedient, till I increased further in Sin.”
“Having given this Warning, I desire to commend myself to the Charity and Prayers of all Gods People for me, and that you would lift up your Hearts to God for me, for the Pardon of my Sins, an interest in Christ, and that I maybe Sanctified by the Sprit of God; But above all I Commend myself to the Infinite Mercy of God, in my Dear Redeemer, Begging and beseeching that through the merits of His Blood, I may this day be with him in Paradise.” XX … Hugh Henderson, signed with his mark
Four indictments were found against Henderson, two for burglary and two for larceny, and he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged on one for burglary. The court was the Superior Court of Judicature sitting in Worcester in the September Session, with the following named Judges on the bench: Benjamin Lynde, Paul Dudley, Edmund Quincy, Jonathan Remington, and Richard Saltonstall.
Shortly after the final verdict was read, the word quickly went out far and wide to all of the impending execution. Men, women, and children were invited to witness the event. It would be the first execution witnessed by the citizens of Worcester County. The Reverend Parkman and a number of Westborough citizens had traveled to Worcester to witness the solemn event.
On November 24, the convicted housebreaker was prepared to meet his fate. But there was no special last meal or final statement presented. Henderson had already made his amends with Reverend Parkman in the days previous to the trial and his confession to his waywardness the night before. He had nothing more to say, but Reverend Parkman would spend several hours with the condemned felon in prayer and reflection.
“On the day of the Execution the Reverend Campbell of Oxford preached to the Prisoner and a great assembly, a very suitable sermon on I Peter 4-5. The prisoner was exceedingly moved and in such Anguish of soul that the expressions of in the face of the congregation, in crying and moans, in prayers and tears and passionate gesture there were even to disturbance.” –The N. E. Weekly Journal, Dec. 6, 1737
From behind the Goal a wagon appeared driven by a hooded man, with Henderson sitting on the end of the wagon, followed by Sheriff Gookin. The convicted felon was bareheaded with his hands tied in front so that all could see. The hangman was wearing a hood, and his face was blackened to hide his features from the large crowd that had gathered to witness the event. Because this was the first hanging to take place in Worcester County, a hastily built gallows was waiting the hangman’s noose.
The wagon was now brought into place beneath the gallows, and Henderson was brought to his feet and stood at the edge of the wagon. But the hangman, not having prior experience in the proper placement of the noose, only delayed the event and added suspense while merely prolonging the agony for Henderson.
“At the place of execution, after the Reverend Mr. Hall of Sutton had prayed, the prisoner with great earnestness desired all that were present to harken well to what was going to be read to them, and to mind to take the warning contained in it, after which he put up a most importunate and pathetical prayer himself which manifested more of knowledge of religion, sense of his own state and humble faith and hope in God, then anything that has been received from him before.”
As the Reverend Hall of Sutton finished the final prayer, the gathering bowed their heads in solemn respect. The time had finally arrived. The large gathering fell silent while small children fidgeted.
Now the noose was thrown over the head of the six-footer and laid on his broad shoulders. A burlap bag was then placed over his head to cover his face from the crowd. The time had finally arrived. The hangman slapped the horse so it would be startled forwards, but rather than the horse bolting quickly away, it only reared causing Henderson to fall off the end of the wagon, and instead of a quick snap of the neck ending his agony, he hung from the rope dangling, legs flailing, choking but certainly not dying as expected. At every gasp, crying out a profanity at the hangman then begging for forgiveness, the crowd was aghast.
The execution had not succeeded, so the wagon was retrieved and Henderson was again placed at the wagon’s edge. Now sobbing, Henderson stood bent over still gagging from the botched execution, his hands still tied. This time the hangman would not fail. Re-positioning the noose and resting the knot on Henderson’s left shoulder, he tightened the knot with sufficient slack in the rope. The horse was again given a good slap on the rear only to jerk backwards, with Henderson merely losing his balance. But after yet another slap, the horse jumped forward, pulling the wagon from under Henderson’s feet, and sending him in the opposite direction. This time, his neck broke with a sickening sound that was heard by the entire crowd. As the body flopped back and forth, his end came quickly. The crowd stood motionless. Some wept, some covered their children’s eyes, some cried out for mercy, while most just stood in awe at the sight. A lifetime of petty thievery and blasphemy had ended.
Not for some time after the body had ceased convulsing and the horrified onlookers had seen enough was the lifeless body taken down so as not to damage the rope for future use. The deceased was then laid out in the wagon. He was covered with a shroud and taken behind the goal until such time as a suitable grave could be dug in the street, a customary practice afforded to those who died from their own hand, convicted felons, slaves, or non-believers.
There was no graveside ceremony, no minister’s prayers, nor tearful goodbye. At dusk, the wagon carrying Henderson’s remains was brought from behind the goal to the hastily-dug grave site. Henderson’s body was then unceremoniously rolled into the open pit dug at the side of the road and quickly covered over. No stone adornment or remembrance of the remains would be found. The event was only memorialized in this broadside some days later.
“A Poem occasioned by the Untimely Death of Hugh Henderson alias John Hamilton who was hanged at Worcester for House Breaking, Nov. 24, 1737” reads:
“The scene we did but lately view ~ Too well evinces this is true ~ A man with healthful Vigour bless’d ~ The morn of life but hardly past ~ Compelled to leave the pleasing Light ~ And stretch away to endless Night ~ Because regardless of his Peace ~ He choose the flowery Path of Vice.” –The New England Weekly Journal, December 6, 1737.
The uncle also receives his desserts in the poem as follows:
“But when he met with no Restraint, and found his uncle was no Saint, in Vice’s pleasing Steps he ran.
“O Henderson! Unhappy Man! How did’st thou feel, When in Thy Ken, the best was Horror, like Despair, amazing doubt or anxious fear, what pangs, what extasys of smart convuls’d, thy poor, thy Bleeding Hear, When in that state, were bro’t to mind the unnumber’d crimes of life behind? He died the Death of the accused tree, that from the sting of death you might be free.” –Author Unknown
This ends the tragic story of Hugh Henderson and the notoriety that Westborough attained as being the first community to have the first person to be executed in Worcester County. The former tavern remains at 108 West Main St.
Note that various versions of the same folk tale will be published so as to compare how each are told.