July 8, 2010

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Hanging Ruth Blay: An Eighteenth-Century New Hampshire Tragedy, by Carolyn Marvin, 2010, The History Press, 128 pages.

Ruth Blay was 31 when she was hanged in Portsmouth in December 1768 for concealing the birth of a child she'd had out of wedlock.

She'd buried the child and claimed it was stillborn — we have no way to establish whether that's true or not, but the law "to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children" didn't care; the crime was that she'd secretly buried it, and the law called for the burial to be treated as murder unless she had a witness to say it wasn't. We don't know who the father was.

There isn't a lot of primary evidence, but author Carolyn Marvin, a research librarian at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, swaddles the story in cultural history plus Blay's family history and ancillary events. The story has connections to Sandown, Chester and Danville, and to the religious Great Awakening of the 1740s headed by George Whitefield. Where details of fact are absent, Marvin takes pains to show us what was likely — e.g. a photo of the inside of a typical jail cell of the time, albeit one in York, Maine, rather than Portsmouth. The building in which Ruth was jailed was about where The Music Hall is today.

What primary evidence does exist is pictured in the book, including an original plan for the Portsmouth prison, the Superior Court document indicting Ruth Blay, and photos of a blue quilt that is thought to have been hers and that is now in the care of the Portsmouth Historical Society.

Ruth Blay's story is not one of the happier ones in our regional history, but it's certainly worth knowing