One of the most interesting cases in criminal proceedings that ever occurred in Essex county is that of the Ames murder in the West parish of Boxford in the year 1769. The story of the murder and the trial of the accused is as follows.
On a knoll on the east side of a little brook running past the barn of Mr. A.S. Howe in Linebrook parish, Ipswich, and on the northerly side of the highway, are the remains of an ancient cellar. The house that stood there was probably gone before this century opened. A part of the cellar wall remains, and there yet survive some shrubs that grew in the yard. Here lived widow Ruth Perley with her family late in the year 1768. Her eldest child, Samuel, was then pastor of the church in Seabrook, N.H., and the rest of the six children were at home. Ruth, the elder daughter was twenty-one Oct. 29th. The family had lived there for many years.
Ruth was pretty and refined; and though her home was in the extreme western portion of the town of Ipswich, and in a sparsely settled region, she was early sought in marriage by Jonathan Ames of Boxford, a young man of affluent parents. The were married Dec. 19, 1768, by her brother, Rev. Samuel Perley.
Mr. Ames took his bride to the house of his parents in West Boxford, and lived there. The Ames house stood on the westerly side of the road running from "Captain Woor's corner" to the "peg factory," on a knoll by the edge of the present woods. The site is shown in the frontispiece, at its top, the bars being located in the cellar holes.
As has been the case in some instances since that early time, the mother-in-law was not in full sympathy with the young bride dwelling under her roof. The reason of this is probably as inexplicable as it has been in many similar cases.
Spring had hardly come when Mrs. Ames, senior, began to speak of Ruth as her son's housekeeper. Eventually, about the latter part of May a child was born to the newly-wedded couple.
On the morning of the fifth of June, one of the neighbors, Mrs. Kimball, called to see the young mother. She was met at the door by Mrs. Ames, senior, who, in reply to the request of Mrs. Kimball to see Ruth, objected, intimating that she was very ill, and had vomited and purged so much that it was disagreeable to enter the chamber. Nothwithstanding, Mrs, Kimball entered the house and went into the sick chamber. She found that the room was clean and agreeable, and there appeared no signs of vomiting of purging. But Ruth was in deathly agony, with froth or phlegm exuding from her mouth. She was taken sick in that manner at about seven o'clock in the morning and died between eleven and twelve o'clock before noon. Mrs. Ames said she knew that Ruth would die as it was the same disorder that a certain Mrs. Chandler died with some years before, and that it "was as mortal as the plague;" and that there would be another death soon, having reference to the baby. On laying out the body, livid spots, indicating poison, appeared on one of the arms of the deceased.
The writer was informed many years ago by an aged lady, who was born and had always lived her almost centenary of years within a few rods of the Ames homestead, and personally knew many of the people who took a prominent part in the events that followed, that the funeral occurred soon after Ruth's death, that none of the neighbors were invited to it and that a clergyman from a neighboring town performed the burial service instead of Rev. John Cushing, pastor of the church, who was their nearest neighbor. The burial occurred in the old village cemetery.
Mrs. Kimball was suspicious that Ruth had been poisoned to death. She repeatedly told of what she had experienced at the Ames house and in the sick room. The peculiar attitude which Mrs. Ames assumed toward the deceased seemed to confirm the suspicion of poisoning, and that Mrs. Ames was at least cognizant of the crime. The matter of an accusation was not at first conceived, but about a month afterward the feeling against Mrs. Ames became so strong that a complaint signed by twenty-nine men, and consented to by the relatives of the deceased, was preferred to Henry Ingalls, Mose Dole and Abarham Choates, three coroners, for an inquisition upon the body, which had lain in the ground all that length of time.
The coroners thereupon summoned a jury of twenty-five (whose names are affixed to their report hereinafter given, Joseph Osgood being foreman), thirteen of whom were physicians; and four other physicians were engaged to preform the autopsy.
The inquest was opened on Monday, July 10th, "when there assembled a promiscuous multitude of people." The court was held in the meeting house, which stood on the easterly side of the "Sandy road" in the pasture in the rear of the old cemetery, a road, which can still be traced running from the meeting-house up the present wooded declivity to the cemetery, and from thence as it now exists to the parsonage on the ancient Andover road.
Rarely, if ever, has such a mass of people been seen in the parish, the meeting-house being, as the current newspaper (Essex Gazette, July 11-18, 1769), said, "much thronged."
The court was opened with prayer. The coroners then gave the jury "their solemn charge." During these exercises the same newspaper account says, "there appeared not the least irregularity or disorder, but a solemn, silent sadness seemed to be fixed on the face of the gayest youth."
After the charge, the coroners, the jury and the spectators proceeded "with decency and good order," over the winding roadway up the hill to the old burying ground, where for five weeks had lain the body of the murdered girl.
The exhumation of the body was begun; and as it progressed the human mass surged around the grave so eagerly to see the whole of the operation that they were only kept from causing harm by being told that all should have an opportunity of seeing the remains.
The body was taken to the meeting-house, the procession taking up its route down the hill, at the middle of that midsummer day.
An autopsy was made by the physicians; the jury heard their report and other testimony, and two days later the corners and the jury made report of their inquisition as follows: -
"An Inquisition. Indented & taken at Boxford within the said County of Essex, the Twelfth Day of July, in the Ninth year of our Sovereign Lord George, the third, by ye Grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, defender of ye Faith, &c., before Henry Ingalls, Moses Dole, & Abraham Choate, Gentlemen, Cornorers for our said Lord the King, within the county of Essex aforesaid upon the View of the Body of Ruth Eams Wife of Jona Ames Jur. thn and there being Dead by the Oaths of Joseph Osgood, Foreman, Nehemiah Abbot, Amos Putnam, Enoch Sawyer Jun., Micajah Sawyer, James Brickett, Wm. Hale, Silas Miriam, Thomas Kitredge, Wallace Rust, Ephriam Davis, Simons Baker, Benj. Muzzy, Ephriam Wales, Peter Osgood, Danl. Spafford, Asa Perly, Benj. Berry, Nathan Wood, John Hale, Ephriam Fuller, Moody Bridges, Nathaniel Pearly, Oliver Peabody, Richard Peabody, Good and Lawful Men of the County of Essex aforesaid, who being Charged and Sworn to enquire for our Lord the King, when, by what means, and how, the said Ruth Eames came to her Death, upon their Oaths do say, the said, Ruth Eames on the fifth Day of June last in the morning Died of Felony (that is to say by Poison) given her by ,a, Person or Persons to us unknown which murder is against the Peace of our said, Lord the King, his Crown and Dignity. In Witness whereof We the said Corners, as well as the said Jurors to this Inqusition, have interchangeably put our Hands and Seal the Day and year abovesaid.
"Joseph Osgood [ seal ]
Nehemiah Abbot [ seal ]
Amos Putnam [ seal ]
Enoch Sawyer jun. [ seal ]
Micajah Sawyer [ seal ]
James Brickett [ seal ]
William Hale [ seal ]
Silas Merriam [ seal ]
Thos. Kittredge [ seal ]
Wallis Rust [ seal ]
Symonds Baker [ seal ]
Benjamin Muzzy [ seal ]
Ephriam Davis [ seal ]
Ephriam Wales [ seal ]
Peter Osgood [ seal ]
Daniel Spaffard [ seal ]
Asa Perley [ seal ]
Benjamin Berry [ seal ]
Nathan Wood [ seal ]
John Hale [ seal ]
Moody Bridges [ seal ]
Ephriam Fuller [ seal ]
Nathaniel Perley [ seal ]
Oliver Peabody [ seal ]
Richard Peabody [ seal
When it was found that no sufficient evidence could be adduced to connect either the husband of the murdered girl, or his mother, which the murder, then was demanded an exhibition of that almost forgotten "ordeal of touch," which has rarely been known in England in modern centuries, and, as the writer believes, never in New England, except in this instance.
The body being laid upon a table with a sheet over it, Jonathan and his mother were invited to prove their innocence by this qruesome test. The ancient practice was similar. The body was laid at length, covered only with a sheet of the purest white, in the dim and weird church, and the suspected party was invited to touch the neck of the deceased with the index-finger of the left hand, the superstition being that when the guilty hand touched the remains blood would issue, the whiteness of the sheet making it plainly visible, "pleading trumpet-tongued against the deep-damnation of her taking off."
These scenes were always awful, being rendered more so by the environment and the nervous tension of every one of the multitude that gazed with strained eyes and breathless upon the accused as he dared to either advance towards or retreat from the remains, either direction tending to confirm his guilt in the minds of the spectators until he finally passed the ordeal, which but few persons ever did.
In this instance, from fear, probably, not that they believed in the superstition, but were afraid that by some chance blood might flow, both refused.
The "examination gave great occassion to conclude that they were concerned in the poisoning," and on Tuesday, July 18, they were arrested and taken to Salem, where they were confined in the ancient jail where the persons accused of withcraft were imprisoned many years before.
When the grand jury sat, Mrs. Ames was duly indicted as the principal, and Jonathan as accessory in the crime. Mrs. Ames, indictment was as follows:-
"The Jurors for the said Lord the King upon their Oath presented that Elizabeth Eams the wife of Jonathan Eams of Boxford in the said county of Essex yeoman, on the fourth day of June last past, at Boxford aforesaid, in the county aforesaid, not having the fear of God in her heart, but feloniously, wickedly and of her malice aforethought intending and contriving with Poison to kill and murder one Ruth Eams, then and there being in the peace of God, and of the said Lord and King, did then & there with force and arms feloniously willfully and of her malice aforethought, mix and mingle a deadly poison, in a certain quantity of Spermaceti she and said Elizabeth Eams, then and there well knowing the said white arsenic to be a deadly poison; And that she the said Elizabeth Eams, there afterwards, to wit, on the same day, the poison aforesaid so mixed and mingled as aforesaid; with force and arms feloniously willfully and of her malice aforethought, did offer and give to her the said Ruth Eams, to take, eat and Swallow down; and that the said Ruth Eams, not knowing the poison aforesaid, to have been mixed and mingled as aforesaid, in the Spermaceti aforesaid, there afterward on the same day, by the procurement and persuasion of the said Elizabeth Eams, did take, eat and swallow down said Poison, so mixed and mingled as aforesaid; and thereupon the said Ruth Eams by the said poison, so, as, aforesaid taken eaten & Swallowed down, then and there became sick and distempered in her body; and the said Ruth Eams of the poison aforesaid, and of the sickness and Distemper thereby occasioned, did languish and languishing did live from the said fourth day of June last, until the fifth day of the same June, at Boxford aforesaid in the county aforesaid; on which same fifth day of June, at Boxford aforesaid in the county aforesaid, and said Ruth Eams died of the poison aforesaid and of the Sickness and distemper thereby occasioned as aforesaid; and so the Jurors aforesaid upon their [said] Oath do say that the said Elizabeth Eames, in manner and form and by the means aforesaid, feloniously, willfully and of her malice aforethought, did poison kill and murder the said Ruth Eams against the peaceof the said Lord the King his crown and dignity.
"Jon: Sewall, Attorney. pro. Dom. Reg."
"This is a true bill
"David Britton, Foreman."
While lodged in jail, Mrs. Ames was heard to mutter in her sleep, "Don't tell on me, Jonathan; if you do, I shall be hanged."
The superior court, in which the case would be tried, being about to sit in Salem, Jonathan's sister Elizabeth was arrested as an accessory to the murder, by Amos Mulliken, deputy sheriff, on November 9th, and lodged in the jail at Salem on the same day.
The court convened on the morning of Tuesday, the 14th, in the old court house that then stood in the middle of Washington street, opposite the Tabernacle church. The judges upon the bench were Benjamin Lynde, John Cushing, Peter Oliver and Edmund Trowbridge, and during the session they boarded with William Goodhue.
The jury impanelled to try the case consisted of Jonathan Orne of Salem, foreman, and John Gardner of Salem, William Bowden of Marblehead, Daniel Jacobs of Danvers, Thorndike Proctor, Jr of Salem, William Becket of Salem, Richard Manning of Salem, Stephen Phillips of Marblehead, Thomas Grant of Marblehead, Theophilus Breed of Lynn, Mascol Williams of Salem, and Samuel Holton of Danvers.
The counsel for the king was Jonathan Sewell of Boston.
The counsel of the accused was John Adams, afterward president of the United States. He was, at this time, thirty-four years of age. In the trial of this case we can imagine the dignity and deliberation of his procedure, and the beaming of his intelligent face, which attracted so much attention when a few years later he became the man second in America to none but Washington.
The witnesses were summoned to present themselves at eight o'clock in the morning, and there was a host of them. There were Dr. Nathaniel Perkins and Dr. James Lloyd, both of Boston, Dr. Isaac Rand of Charlestown, David George and Josiah George, both of Newburyport, (these young men were under age, and were summoned in behalf of the prisoner), Rev. Samuel Pearley of Seabrook, (brother of the murdered woman), John Fowler, yeoman, John Chadwick, gentleman, and his wife Susanah, Prudence Tyler, singlewoman, Mehitable Tyler, wife of Gideon Tyler, Benjamin Proter, jr., yeoman, John Tyler and jonathan Tyler (sons of Gideon Tyler), William Eiles, yeoman, Oliver Foster, yeoman, Jonathan Foster, gentleman, George Farnam, laborer, all of Boxford, Miriam Dole of Rowley, Joseph Manning, John Calfe, Ephriam Chadwick, Dr. Thomas Kittredge, Dr. Francis Hodgskins, Dr. John Manning, jr., Abraham How, yeoman, all of Ispswich, Elizabeth, wife of Richard Kimball, Dr. Moses Baker, Solomon Cole, yeoman, Daniel Long, yeoman, all of Andover, Sarah Estey of Middleton, spinster, Nathan Browne, gentleman, and Jonathan Cook, fisherman, both of Salem, Aaron Wood, esq., and Amos Kimball, yeoman, both of Boxford, Dr. William Hale of Boxford, Dr. Macajah Sawyer and Dr. Enoch Sawyer, jr., both of Newburyport, Dr. Nehemiah Abbot of Andover, Lucy, wife of Abraham How, Ezekiel Potter, yeoman, and Martha Pearley, spinster, both of Ipswich, Dr. Ward Noyce of Andover, Moses Dole, yeoman, Daniel Spafford, gentleman, and Robert Cregg, yeoman, all of Rowley, Moses George of Newburyport, shipwright, Mary, wife of Isaac Blunt of Andover, Sarah Porter, widow, and Dea. Thomas chadwick, both or Boxford, John Barker of Andover, Dr. Henry Dow Banks of Haverhill, and Richard Dole and his wife Miriam of Boxford.
Mrs. Ames "was thereupon brought and set to the bar and arraigned and upon her arraingment pleaded not guilty and for trial put herself upon God and the country," --so runs the official record. The jury were then sworn to try the issue.
The trial began at nine o'clock; and the substance of the evidence, according to the report of the case in the then current Essex Gazette, was as follows:-
"That on a violent Suspicion that the said Ruth Eames, who died the Beginning of last May, was poisoned, her Body, five Weeks after the Burial, was taken up; and a Number of Physicians, summoned on the Jury of Inquest, on opening the same, and finding a Substance, which they believed to be Arsenick or Ratsbane, adhering to the Coats of the Stomach, were unamiously of Opinion, that she lost her Life by Poison: That, to corroborate this Opinion, it appeared that one Mrs. Kimball went to see the Deceased the morning before her Death, and on signifying her Desire on going up Chamber, the Prisoner (who was Mother in Law to the said Deceased, and resided in the same house with her) made an objection to it, intimating that her daughter was very ill, and had vomited and purged so much as to render it very disagreeable to enter the Chamber; notwithstanding which, Mrs. Kimball went up, found (the Reverse of what had been told her by the Prisoner) the Chamber clean and agreeable, and no signs of vomiting or purging, but found the deceased almost or quite in the Agonies of Death, with Froth or Phlemg issuing out of her mouth, and expired soon after, viz. between 11 and 12 o'clock in the forenoon, having been ill from about seven in the morning: That before her death, the prisoner said, she would certainly die, for her disorder was the same that one Mrs. Chandler died of some years before, and was as mortal as the Plague; and that there would be another death in the family soon (meaning an infant which the deceased, its mother, had lately suckled); That on laying out the body, livid spots, an indication of poison, appeared on one of her arms: That the Prisoner, when she was assured the body would be dug up, expressed much concern, and said she should not live a month: That since her imprisonment, she has said, she believed her daughter was poisoned, and that her son Jonathan (Husband to the deceased) did it; and asked whether she could not turn King's evidence."
The court thought proper to admit the evidence of Jonathan, who had turned King's evidence against his mother.
"By his Testimony, it appeared, that, five or six days before his wife died, his mother told him, that she would deprive him of his housekeeper (as she called his wife) if she did it by a poison of Ratsbane; and the night before her death, he saw his mother give his wife a piece of Bread and butter, with Ratsbane on it, as near as he could tell; and said that since he had heard the Doctors tell what Ratsbane is, he is certain that it was that; and that he cautioned his wife against taking it."
The trial continued through the short November day, and the dusk of evening found the court in session. Candles were lighted, and dimly dispelled the darkness of the ancient court room. Gloom must have settled on the prisoners, who knew not what the results of the trial might be, and the jury, too, could not have escaped from the feeling of awe that their duty that night must give or take a human life.
The trial wore on. The midnight hour approached and passed before the lawyer began their arguments to the jury.
John Adams spoke the first. With all the solemnity of the hour and the occasion, he urged the jury to give release to the prisoner. As the substance of his argument, he said that by the evidence it did not appear that Mrs. Ames had been guilty of any ill behavior toward the deceased during their residence together in the same house; that it was the opinion of physicians that it was very improbable, if not impossible, that arsenic should lie so long in the body, as it was said it did in that of the deceased, that is, from some time in the evening till seven o'clock in the morning, before it operated; that the body, when taken up, was not putrefied in such a manner as it must have been had the deceased been poisoned; and that the evidence of the prisoner's son, Jonathan Ames, was not to be relied on, as he had sworn before the corner, at the time the body was taken up, that he had no knowledge of any one's poisoning his wife; and now, in order to get clear himself, was so base as to give testimony which not only rendered him guilty of perjury, but had a direct tendency to take away the life of his own mother.
In reply Jonathan Sewall said, in substance, that the deceased on the same day that she ate the bread and butter dined on a fish called shad, and in the evening following ate a hearty supper of the same kind of fish; which, together with the quantity of butter on the bread, with which, it was said the arsenic was mixed, and some Spermaceti which she took soon after, might very probably tend to delay the operation of the arsenic; or, that which the prisoner gave the deceased, on the bread and butter, might have been salt, and that Jonathan was made to believe that it was ratsbane, as an artifice to render a discovery more difficult and perlexing, and that she in fact administered the arsenic the next morning; that as to the body's not being putrefied as much as might be expected it was the opinion of physicians that so large a quanity of arsenic might be received into the stomach as to cause violent convulsions and contractions of the large and small orifices, which might bring on death before the poison had mixed with the blood, and therefore a speedy putrefaction, as in cases wherein the body swells, might not take place; that the prisoner's son, Jonathan Ames, was a legal witness; and that it could not be supposed that he would come into court, and, in a most solomen manner, swear to that which was false, when he must be convinced that his evidence would probably be the means of taking away the life who bore him.
Three if the judges, in summing up the evidence, were clear and explicit in declaring their opinion that the circumstances proved amounted to "a violent presumption" that the prisoner was guilty. the other judge was not so clear in his opinion and said that a doubt might arise concerning the prisoner's guilt from the judgement of the physicians in her favor. The case was then committed to th jury, and the court adjourned at two o'clock in the morning until nine o'clock.
At nine o'clock the court came in, the prisoner was placed at the bar, and the jury rendered their verdict which cleared the prisoner from the bands of the law at least. The record continues, "It is therefore considered by the court that the said Elizabeth Eames go without day."
The record of the court closed as follows:-
"Upon the motion of John Adams Esq. attorney to Jonathan Eams jur. and Elizabeth Eams Jur. who stand committed to his majestiy's goal in this country, viz. The said Jonathan for the murder, and the said Elizabeth as being accessory to the murder of One Ruth Eams, be discharged the King's attorney not objecting ---
"Salem November 15th, 1769. Judgement was entered according to the Verdicts and Complaints, &c, and the court is adjourned without day."
The next spring, Jonathan Ames, senior, sold the farm, and the family removed to some place unknown to the people of the parish, being virtually exiled from all their old associations and homeland."
So ends the story of this Murder Trial.