Unsavoury man, unsafe verdict

The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler
June 11, 2004

In June 1805, Ephraim Wheeler took his 13-year-old daughter, Betsy, into the woods in search of medicinal plants. Afterwards she told her mother, Hannah, that he had "had to do" with her. Hannah promptly called in the local justice of the peace. Wheeler went on trial for rape in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, was found guilty and, in February 1806, publicly hanged.

This case is recounted and analysed with care in this compelling book designed for a broad audience. The social, cultural and legal contexts are fully explained and all the characters finely delineated. The lives of the Wheelers are sympathetically recreated, despite the scarcity of evidence, and this micro-history gives us a significant glimpse into the realities of life for an impoverished, racially ambiguous family living on the margins of Massachusetts rural society. Even for those thought to have lived outside the bounds of convention, traditional cultural norms, such as patriarchal authority and the urge for adult male independence, operated powerfully and, in this case, with tragic effect.

Unfortunately, Irene and Richard Brown's speculations on this incident are weakened by their unquestioning acceptance of Ephraim's guilt. The only evidence of rape presented in court came from Betsy. The only person to examine her after the incident was her mother, who said she detected signs of violation but, as wife of the accused, could not give evidence or be cross-examined. So Ephraim was condemned on the uncorroborated evidence of a (some said, unreliable) minor, and at least one judge had misgivings about the safety of the verdict.

The jury may well have been reflecting local opinion that Wheeler was an unsavoury character. The authors argue that the womenfolk would never have persisted in such a dreadful accusation had it not been true. Yet they also reveal that the women had ample reason to make up the story. The marriage had long been unhappy and the couple had separated twice previously. The crisis of June 1805 differed because they had gone to live with Hannah's black brother and she had preferred his authority to that of her white husband. Ephraim left with the children, as was his right, and it was on this journey that the incident is supposed to have happened. The accusation of rape was the only means of restoring the children to their mother.

Not that the women necessarily appreciated that conviction meant hanging.

No one in Massachusetts had been executed for rape for a generation (and no white man ever); and the legislature was considering removing rape from the list of capital crimes. After the sentencing, Hannah and children petitioned the governor for mercy, along with many local residents. As the Browns argue, the fact that the offence was against his own child probably persuaded the governor and his council to allow the sentence to stand.

This assumption of Ephraim's guilt induces the authors to underplay the dilemmas the women faced and to underestimate how far the partial nature of the evidence prevents firm judgment. Ephraim protested his innocence to the end, arguing that the supposed crime was discovered only because he allowed the children to return home temporarily. On the eve of his execution, he proclaimed that he forgave his wife and daughter, and hoped that God would, too. Not sure I would.

Donald Ratcliffe is emeritus reader in history, Durham University.

The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler: A Story of Rape, Incest, and Justice in Early America

Author - Irene Quenzler Brown and Richard D. Brown
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 388
Price - £17.95
ISBN - 0 674 01020 5

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