December 27, 1739
The first two people to be executed in New Hampshire, Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenny, are hanged for the willful murder of their children
The years leading to the executions and the murders that necessitated them, an illness (probably diphtheria) struck the area and saw a large portion of the children die from the disease. It is likely that because of this large amount of death amongst the children that, when an infant girl was found dead in a well on August 11, 1739, the townsfolk looked for the culprit with fervor.
Suspicion first fell upon Sarah Simpson, a widow who many had believed was with child. She was questioned at length and finally revealed she had recently given birth, though she surprised those around her by showing authorities a shallow grave dug near a river with the body of her newborn. She claimed her son had been stillborn but she was arrested nonetheless.
Authorities then directed their attention to Penelope Kenny who denied she had recently had a child until “four or five skillful Women” (probably midwives) examined her and determined she had given birth no more than a week before. She still denied the child in the well was hers but hinted at the fact that she had done something to her own child. It was revealed she had delivered a living male child who she put in a tub, placed in the cellar of the house she worked in. She gave birth on Wednesday, and when she returned on Friday the child was dead. She then put the newborn’s body in the river just 60 feet from where Simpson had buried her own son.
Both women were convicted of murder and both hanged on December 27, 1739. The motives behind the deaths (assuming Simpson’s baby was not stillborn as she claimed) is speculated to be the harsh judgment cast upon mothers of bastard children at the time. During that time and place, a woman found to have had a child out of wedlock would be shunned, losing any friends or allies as well as any possible job opportunities. It was, in essence, a death sentence.
The mother of the child in the well was never found though it is believed she was likely Kenny’s child as the body of the son she claimed to deliver was never found. However, why she would lie about the child in the well and fabricate a story about a different murdered child is unknown. Though documentation of the women’s crimes, arrests, trials, and executions exist, there are none regarding the fathers of the dead children, any attempt to locate them, or any consequences they would have faced for siring the illegitimate children.