Jonathan Jewett, of Belchertown

Jonathan Jewett, of Belchertown

By Cliff McCarthy

(A version of this story appeared in The Sentinel [Belchertown] on 1 November 2007 as “The Murder of Jonathan Jewett” and is used with permission.)

“We learn from Belchertown, that a respectable black man was killed by his son by a stab with a knife, on Monday evening last.”[1]

This brief item appeared in newspapers around the Commonwealth during the last days of December in 1814. Who was the nameless black man and what were the circumstances surrounding the incident? 

This item was found in the Congregational Church records at the Stone House Museum in Belchertown: 

“December 26, 1814. Jack or John or Jonathan Jewett, a black, killed by his son, Jonathan, who in a passion seized a butcher knife, which lay on the shelf and thrust it to his father’s heart. He died instantly. 75.”[2]

Even if the identity of the victim remained uncertain to the events’ chronicler, he likely had been enumerated in some other early records. The 1800 U.S. census for Belchertown lists “Jonth. Jewett, black man” as the head of a household of four.[3] Both “Jonathan Jewet” and “Jonathan Jewet, Jun.” [also spelled “Juet”] are identified among the voters in the “Middle of the Town District” in the disputed election of 1810.[4] Jonathan Jewett’s name appears regularly on town tax lists of the period. Sometimes, his son was also listed. The tax lists indicate he was a man of very meager means, with two acres of land and usually one horse or pig.[5] No deeds appear under his name. We know nothing about the origins of Jonathan Jewett and his son. They do not appear among the African American communities in either Amherst or Springfield.

Jonathan Jewett, Jr. was arrested and held for trial by the Supreme Judicial Court sitting in Northampton in late September 1815. The Hampshire Gazette covered the trial, which lasted one day. The prisoner pled “not guilty” and was “very ably and eloquently” represented by attorneys Eli P. Ashmun and Samuel Howe. Nonetheless, the jury took about one hour to return a guilty verdict. The sentence of death delivered by Chief Justice Isaac Parker, who presided over the trial, has been recorded by the newspapers of the time. In it we learn some more details:

“The record of this Court will only show that you have been guilty of murder; but it was proved on the trial that the victim of your furious and vindictive passion was a feeble old man, bowed down with the weight of years and infirmities, had been spared by the almighty beyond the common period of human life, and that this man was the author of your being, your father. .. This aged man, from whose loins you sprang, and under whose roof you enjoyed protection and support, chided you for your idle and dissolute life, and that not with the severity that your habits and conduct required … with the ferocity of a savage or beast of prey, you sprang towards the instrument of death, and with remorseless fury buried it in the bosom of your father, and even after this fatal blow, which pierced the fountain of life itself, was struck, you dragged the poor victim of your brutal rage across the room, and gave him another cruel and probably mortal wound, with the same deadly weapon.”[6]

Of the trial, Chief Justice Parker said, “The testimony upon which this verdict was founded came from witnesses of your own colour and kindred, so that no bias or prejudice against you can be suspected.”[7]

He concluded with the fateful words: “The sentence of the law, which according to the solemn duty imposed upon them, the Court now declares, is that you be removed from this bar to the prison from whence you was taken,· that from thence you be carried to the place of Execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And may God Almighty of his infinite grace, have mercy upon your soul.”[8]

The execution was cause for a public display; in Hampshire County, executions had long been events that drew crowds. Newspapers in Boston and all over the Commonwealth ran items like the following, copied from the Gazette

“Northampton, Nov. 1 – Execution – Jonathan Jewett, Jun., who was lately tried before the Supreme Judicial Court in this town; for the murder of his feeble old father and sentenced to be hung – is to be executed on Thursday the 9th inst. Between the hours of 12 and 3 o’clock. A sermon by the Rev. Mr. Porter of Belchertown, at 11 o’clock.”[9]

However, Jewett had other plans. He cheated the hangman, and the anticipating crowd, by taking his own life the night before his scheduled execution. Newspapers ran the following, under the title of “Jewett’s Last Dreadful Act”: 

“… he was found by the Jailor, between daylight and sunrise hanging by a cord from the grate of his apartment [jail cell]. His body was still warm and efforts were immediately made to resuscitate him; but in vain. His life of wickedness and folly had been rashly terminated by his own hands. A Coroner’s Inquest set upon the body, but was unable to ascertain by whose aid he was enabled to wrest from the arm of justice his forfeited life. It appeared however that a hardened and abandoned wretch who was confined in an adjacent room [cell], had frequently instigated him to the horrid deed, and was heard by the other prisoners conversing with him on this subject from his window, but a short time before his body was discovered.”[10]

Sounding disappointed, the newspapers consoled the public with the following:

“Although the thousands who were drawn together for the purpose were thus prevented from witnessing his public execution, they may still derive much benefit from a serious consideration of his wicked life, and awful death. A Prayer was made, and an excellent Discourse delivered upon the occasion, to a large concourse of people, by the Rev. Mr. Porter of Belchertown.”[11]

As if this story wasn’t sordid enough, there was another bizarre twist. George Bowen, the prisoner who was suspected of instigating Jewett’s suicide, was immediately indicted for murder. He stood trial the following September before the same court and judge that had sentenced Jewett.[12]

The prosecution alleged that Bowen, who was also known as James Newell, was guilty of the murder of Jonathan Jewett, Jr. “by compelling him and aiding him” to commit suicide. The case was largely based on the testimony of Cephas Clap the Northampton 
jailer and others, who described several conversations overheard between the prisoners.[13]

In his charge to the jury, Chief Justice Parker said:

“It may be thought singular and unjust that the life of a man [Bowen] should be forfeited merely because he has been instrumental in procuring the death of a culprit [Jewett] a few hours before his death by the sentence of the law. But the community has an interest in the execution of criminals; and to take such a one out of the reach of the law is no trivial offense … Hence, you are not to consider the atrocity of this offense in the least degree diminished by the consideration that justice was thirsting for a sacrifice and that but a small portion of Jewett’s earthly existence could in any event remain to him.”[14]

The jury acquitted Bowen on the 19th of September 1816 from a doubt whether the advice given by him “was in any measure the procuring cause of Jewett’s death.” The case, however, was a significant one in the annals of American jurisprudence and in Massachusetts case law.[15]

Cliff McCarthy, Archivist at the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History and at the Stone House Museum in Belchertown, is also Vice-President of the Pioneer Valley History Network.

[1] The Repertory, Boston, Mass., 31 December 1814.

[2] Records of the Congregational Church, Stone House Museum, Belchertown, MA.

[3] 1800 U.S. Census for Jonathan Jewett (Belchertown, Hampshire Co., MA).

[4] “Report on the Case of Belchertown Elections, 1810”, Massachusetts State Legislature, Stone House Museum, Belchertown, MA, Box 057, Folder 12.

[5] “Tax Lists”, Belchertown, Mass., Stone House Museum, Belchertown, MA, Box 045.

[6] “Trial of Jewett”, Hampshire Gazette, 27 September 1815.

[7] “Trial of Jewett”, Hampshire Gazette, 27 September 1815.

[8] “Trial of Jewett”, Hampshire Gazette, 27 September 1815.

[9] “Northampton, Nov. 1 – Execution –“, Boston Daily Advertiser, Boston, MA, 6 November 1815.

[10] “Jewett’s Last Dreadful Act,” Hampshire Gazette, 15 December 1815. See also “Jewett’s Last Dradful Act,” Merrimack Intelligencer, 25 November 1815.

[11] “Jewett’s Last Dreadful Act,” Hampshire Gazette, 15 December 1815. See also “Jewett’s Last Dradful Act,” Merrimack Intelligencer, 25 November 1815.

[12] Franklin Herald, 1 October 1816.

[13] “Singular Trial,” Boston Intelligencer, 11 January 1817.

[14] “Commonwealth v. Bowen, Supreme Court of Massachusetts,” in Kenny, Courtney Stanhope, A Selection of Cases Illustrative of English Criminal Law, Cambridge University Press, 1912. 3rd Edition.

[15] “Commonwealth v. Bowen, Supreme Court of Massachusetts,” in Kenny, Courtney Stanhope, A Selection of Cases Illustrative of English Criminal Law, Cambridge University Press, 1912. 3rd Edition.

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