In this paper I will explain and discuss the historical events that took place in a small rural town in early Massachusetts. The setting for which is Irene Quenzler Brown's and Richard D. Brown's, The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler. I will explain the actions and motives of Hannah and Betsy Wheeler in seeking legal retribution of husband and father Ephraim Wheeler. I will also discuss the large scope of patriarchal power allowed by the law and that given to husbands and masters of households. Of course, this will also lead to discussions of what was considered abuse of these powers by society and the motivation for upholding the Supreme Court's decision to hang Ephraim Wheeler.
Ephraim Wheeler was convicted and hanged for the rape of his thirteen year old daughter Betsy Wheeler. It occurred in the woods of rural Massachusetts on June 8, 1805. The incident was reported to Hannah Wheeler, Betsy's mother. Hannah Wheeler then reported the incident to Justice Robert Walker, who then arrested Ephraim Wheeler on that day. What was expected of a wife in 1805 Massachusetts, when confronted with such a vicious criminal act? Having such a crime inflicted upon yourself, would be hard enough to live through, but to have such an evil act forced upon your helpless thirteen year old daughter- by a husband and father is unfathomable.
Cases of incestial rape by father's upon their daughters, where actually rarely reported (Brown, 131). Most mother's and daughters kept incidents like these secret from the public or rarely even confronted their husbands and fathers for fear of experiencing further harm. Not to mention that it was a hard crime to prove (Brown, 112). Incest has been against the law for a long time- so the father of a household could be jailed a short while for the crime, but shockingly, girls only needed to be older than ten years of age to give consent to sex (Brown, 60). Thus making it easy for defense attorneys to establish reasonable of doubt rape and making the father guilty of incest instead (Brown, 89).
So what was Hannah Wheeler to do? Before she could even consider what action to take- she had to consider what options where even available to her? Betsy had come home assaulted and raped, but running away with her children was not an option that housewives had (Brown, 145). She and Betsy had a close bond from the several separations between her and Ephraim. He had attempted twice before, according to Betsy, to rape her. The first time he tried to coerce and seduce her with gifts, but Betsy said no, because she did not want to betray her mother by having a secret relationship with her father (Brown, 111). As long as her husband was alive, he had legal custody of her (Brown, 131). This, in my opinion, is why Ephraim allowed his children to return to their mother. He knew that they weren't going anywhere. He himself wasn't going anywhere, because he was dependent on his wife's network of family to survive himself (Brown, 175). She knew, however, that Ephraim would return for the children and she could not let him to freely attack and rape her daughter. It's doubtful that Hannah and Betsy knew that Ephraim would be condemned to death, if they reported the rape, but Hannah had to protect herself and her daughter (Brown, 147). She had to have expected Justice Robert Walker would be capable of advising her on her decision. Justice Walker ultimately filed the charges of rape and arrested Ephraim Wheeler later that day.
It's important to clearly illustrate the motive behind Hannah and Betsy seeking justice for the actions taken by Ephraim Wheeler. It was apparent from the beginning that the defense for Ephraim Wheeler had a very week case. It was hard not to notice Judge Sedgwick himself siding with the prosecution in his closing speech to the jury (Brown, 99). Ephraim was condemned to death by hanging, but this is neither what Hannah and Betsy wanted nor expected. They wanted only protection and the assurance that no further harm would come to either of them (Brown, 153). Hannah could not let Ephraim's evil intent to go unchecked, but they did not wish him dead. This is evident in their participation of the petition to have Ephraim's death sentence commuted (Brown, 189). Maybe it was because of the social common belief in man's natural tendency to commit evil. Especially in sexual context. I believe that it was more unnatural for a daughter to want her father dead or for Hannah to want her husband hang at the gallows- regardless of his crimes, abuse, or violent tendencies.
What was the range of power not only practiced, but expected by patriarchs of this time and in this region? It was common practice for a man to discipline and beat his wife. Of course, everybody knows that children where regularly beaten as an exercise in discipline. A belief still practiced, not only in outside cultures, but still in rural parts of the U.S. To a much less extent, I'll admit, but it still does happen. Even Massachusetts' attorney general James Sullivan encouraged the beating of his own children and grandchildren (Brown, 114). However, the law was beginning to recognize the limits of what was considered proper assertion of patriarchal power and the abuse of that same power (Brown, 58). As in the case of Abner Durwin who was charged with the attempted rape and assault of his eleven year old daughter, Nancy. He was acquitted of the rape charge, but the jurors concluded that he had "lewdly and lasciviously conducted himself towards her in an evil example to others" (Brown, 60). Part of the expected duties of the husband and father, was to lead the family in morality and discipline, while at the same time, providing that same family with protection and an honest livelihood.
Ephraim Wheeler was orphaned at a young age. His mother had died when he was only seven years old and father had flung himself overboard at sea the following year (Brown, 155). The county decided the best way to deal with Ephraim and his brother, was to enter them into indentured servitude until the age of twenty-one (Brown, 160). This was pretty much a system of slavery. Ephraim and his younger brother where indentured to a cruel shoemaker (Brown, 160). He sold Ephraim's little brother to a privateer and chained Ephraim to his work bench on several occasions(Brown, 161). This could have definitely laid the foundation for the type of man Ephraim grew up to be, but I don't believe it played a huge part in it. I found it curious that Ephraim used almost the same words to describe himself and his cruel master Jeduthan Hammond (Brown, 161).
Ephraim Wheeler was sentenced to die in Lenox, Massachusetts on September 14, 1805, by Judges Strong, Sewall, and Sedgwick. Ephraim Wheeler described himself as a violent man, but also he admitted to not being a "tuff-guy", but more of a vulnerable man of feeling (Brown, 168). He was an admitted drunkard, brawler, and lazy. He failed his entire life to earn a living for himself or his family. I believe a lot of his anger and depression came from mostly the lost of the woman originally courted and loved. Susanna Randal refused to marry him, because of his lack of worth (Brown, 167). He even followed her later to New York to try once more to wed her, but she informed him that she was already being married to another man and Ephraim was heartbroken again (Brown, 170). It seems to me, by his own narration, that he never really got over Susanna Randal. It also seems like he never really loved Hannah and only married and stayed with her out of his own dependency and loneliness. This combined with his constant failure, drinking, and resentment of not being with the Susanna, may have fueled feelings of resentment for his wife Hannah. Betsy was also her mother's daughter and not daddy's little girl, so it might have made it easier, combined with anger and alcohol, to abuse Betsy.
Wheeler's defense attorneys and even his own victims, Hannah and Betsy tried to petition for his pardon. So why did Ephraim hang at the gallows? Especially after his accusers pleaded to save the life of their husband and father? On September 24, 1805 Ephraims defense attorneys had prepared a petition for his pardon and two days after that, Hannah and Betsy Wheeler themselves petitioned to save his life (Brown, 190). Not to mention Ephraim himself trying to save his own life (Brown, 190). The court, however ultimately up held their decision. Pardoning was an important system, to show mercy and to insure trust in the legal system (Brown, 191). The court concluded that to pardon Ephraim Wheeler would state that the death penalty no longer applied to the worst kind of rape and they where just not willing to do that (Brown, 229). Sullivan himself stated in is his closing arguments, almost addressing to Ephraim himself, that "he sought the blood of no man," but he had the obligation to serve and defend "the morals, and the safety of my fellow-citizens" (Brown, 96). Defending his position and the necessity, in his mind, for the need of the death penalty in this case.
I believe that Ephraim Wheeler had a hard life and a hard up bringing. He lost his parents at an early age and was enslaved to a cruel man at a young age. The time and place where he grew up and committed his crimes where hard as well. His rough life was a common one and didn't give him the excuse to commit the crimes that he did. Especially to the ones that he was supposed to love and provide for. He was a cruel lazy drunk as well as a failure to his family and I believe he deserved to die for the rape of his young daughter. I personally feel that there are still cases of far more brutal rapes and torture, and I believe that some of these cases warrant a death penalty. However, if Betsy herself wanted her assaulter and father to be pardoned, then he should have. I believe the law was wrong in ignoring her wishes and over stepped their bounds by condemning a man to death to make an example of someone who attacked the morality and sensibility of their own idea of a proper society.
The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler
By Irene Quenzler Brown and Richard D. Brown