An Execution at Winter Island

Today, Salem’s Winter Island (which at present is not really an island but more of a neck) is a recreational park, the site of camping, sunbathing, biking, and kayaking. But 190 years ago TODAY, it was the site of an infamous execution at its highest point, “Execution Hill”.   The convict executed on May 10, 1821, reportedly before a crowd of thousands, was Stephen Merrill Clark, who was only 16 years old.  Clark had been convicted of arson, a crime that was on a par with murder in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Library of Congress

The execution of a juvenile for a crime involving mere property damage can only be (partially) explained by the fact that Clark set fires up in Newburyport, which had experienced a devastating fire which destroyed over 250 buildings only a decade before.  Yet along with their guilty verdict, the jury recommended that Clark’s sentence be commuted, perhaps taking to heart the defense counsel’s argument that his client was “scarcely beyond the period of childhood, coming to the bar friendless and alone, and cast upon the mercy of the Court and upon the kindness of strangers.” (A Report of the Evidence, Arguments of Counsel, Charge, and Sentence, at the Trial of Stephen Merrill Clark for Arson, before the Supreme Judicial Court, T.C. Cushing, Salem, 1821)

The Governor’s Council of Massachusetts ignored the jury’s recommendation (citing public safety concerns) and so the execution proceeded.  As Clark had been convicted in Salem and languished in Salem Jail (recently restored and converted to apartments, which I wrote about in an earlier post), he was taken to Winter Island, the site of a succession of executions dating back to at least the mid-eighteenth century.  Why Winter Island became Salem’s execution locale I do not know; perhaps because of its remoteness and disciplinary function.  The island was home to miliary installations dating back to the seventeenth century, including Fort Pickering, which had been operational during the War of 1812 and would be pressed into service again during the Civil War.

"Execution Hill" today

The circumstances of Clark’s trial and execution, including his age and the facts that no one was injured by his crime, a rather disreputable woman named Hannah Downes was the primary witness for the prosecution, and the jury’s recommendation of leniency, caused a great deal of debate in Massachusetts legal and political circles after 1821.  Consequentially arson was eliminated from the list of capital crimes in Massachusetts by 1852, and Stephen Merrill Clark was the last person executed at Winter Island.
 
Comparative Context:  Below is another crime broadside(an extremely popular genre in the nineteenth century, and well before) from the Harvard Law School Library’s digital database Dying Speeches & Bloody Murders:  Crime Broadsides.  Clearly arson was an equally serious crime on both sides of the Atlantic in the first half of the nineteenth century, as here we have a British boy even younger than Clark executed for it.  Proceed with caution when venturing into these texts:  lots of graphic images!
 
 

5 responses to “An Execution at Winter Island

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