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The Confessions of Moses Paul

These are the established facts about why Connecticut executed Moses Paul: On the night of December 7, 1771, Paul visited David Clark’s Tavern in Bethany, Conn. and had a drink. Moses Cook, a cobbler from Waterbury who was travelling through Bethany, was also at the tavern.

It was Saturday, and sale of alcohol was prohibited on the Sabbath (from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday) – with the exception of travelers who could buy a drink at a tavern. Both Paul and Cook qualified as travelers, but the tavern was banned by law from serving Paul – as he was an American Indian. The law against serving Indians was often overlooked, however, and it was not unusual for a tavern to serve them.

In colonial America, the myth was widely believed that Indians were particularly susceptible to drunkenness and misbehaving badly when intoxicated. Among whites, society held the view that excessive drunkenness was a failing of an individual. Among Indians it was ascribed to the entire race.

At some point in the evening of December 7, Mrs. Clark decided to stop serving Moses Paul. She believed he had consumed too much alcohol. What happened next is not clear.

The story that a colonial judge accepted was that Paul had left the tavern angry and threatened revenge. He found a flat iron and lay in wait outside. Moses Cook was the next man to leave the tavern, and Paul attacked him in revenge. He struck a blow so fierce that Cook instantly collapsed and “his brains spilled out.”

Paul was arrested. When Moses Clark died on Dec. 12, Paul was charged with murder. The court at New Haven found him guilty later in December, and he was sentenced to hang.

Executions were rare events, and they were a cause of particular interest to Colonial clergy. Once a man was condemned, he was urged to confess his crime and plan for his eventual execution. Confession, he was told, would help assure merciful treatment in the afterlife.

moses paul

Rev. Samson Occom

Moses Paul’s case was particularly interesting as it confirmed the fears that settlers had of the dangers of the drunken Indian. Four ministers from New Haven took an interest in Paul’s case and began visiting him. A sermon was expected at any execution, and in a case as famous as Paul’s, the sermon would undoubtedly be published.

But the ministers visiting Paul apparently were motivated by more than a desire for fame. They also (probably) arranged for him to have good legal representation. At his trial, Paul had stood silent and his defense offered little testimony to challenge the case against him.

But in an appeal to the Connecticut General Assembly, Paul told a different version of events.

“[Paul] called for a Dram and being denied, soon got angry and the more so because the said House owed him Money, and spoke unadvisedly, and behaved too unmannerly, whereupon the said Cook being then and there present reprimanded him in a most threatening imperious manner, and with one end of a cart rope tied his legs and with the other end thereof beat and bruised him, then drew him out at the door and pitched him down a steep bank or declivity headlong about eight or ten feet where he lay about a quarter of an hour and until the said Cook with a whip in hand came and telling him to get up and calling him a drunken dog and again whipped and beat him in a most cruel barbarous manner whereupon [Paul] got up and having obtained leave went again into the house to get some part of his clothing which he supposed he had left there, and the said Cook following him into the house, there began again to Insult him and then and there further abused him and laying violent Hands upon him again thrust him out of doors and as he was putting him out at the door said to one Mr. Hurlbutt (who was Standing near with a large Cane in his hand) give me your cane and I'll still the dog.

“Your petitioner then being greatly exasperated and the more so as he knew not but that he had as good a right to be there at the said house as the said Cook and also being in some measure Intoxicated with spirituous liquors, at that Instant in the heat of passion and expecting a sudden blow from the said Cook as he then saw him take the said cane out of the hands of the said Hurlbutt.

“[Paul] did then and there with a stick or club which he then saw lying in his way, and not with any Iron nor piece of Iron as was represented, strike the said Cook before ever the door was shut upon him, in a sudden heat of passion, with an Intent to hurt, and thereby to defend himself; but not with any intent mortally to wound; but this alas proved to be the fatal blow.”

Paul also claimed that the indictment against him was legally inadequate because it gave the wrong date for Cook’s death.

The General Assembly did not strike down Paul’s conviction, but it delayed his execution date to September of 1772, giving Paul more time to prepare and an opportunity for an appeals court to take up the case.

Paul and his lawyers promised to bring forward witnesses, including Hezekiah Hurlbutt, to support his version of events at appeal since they were not heard at the original trial. He would make the case that he was guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter, not murder. And, Paul suggested that any idea that he had set an ambush outside the tavern was never in evidence and was a pure prejudice of the court.

The Appeals Court declined to take up Moses Paul’s appeal leaving him to be executed in September of 1772.

By 1772, Rev. Samson Occom was something of a celebrity. Occom was a Mohegan Indian educated by Eleazar Wheelock, a Connecticut minister who had established a charitable school for Indians.

Wheelock had sent Occom to England to raise funds for his charitable school, and Occom was wildly successful. He returned with ₤12,000. Wheelock, however, changed the focus of his school. He relocated to New Hampshire, where his school became Dartmouth College, and its central mission became educating white missionaries, not Indians.

Occom became disillusioned with his situation in New England and moved to Long Island where he was instrumental in helping Indians assimilate into the colonial culture.

With the support of New Haven clergy, Moses Paul reached out to Occom and asked him to preach the sermon at his execution. The two men had lengthy discussions, and ultimately Occom agreed to preach.

Occom was well aware of the bias against American Indians. He felt that Wheelock had taken advantage of him by promising to use his fundraising efforts to found a school for Indians, only to later change that. He also noted that he had never been paid as much as white ministers, despite promises that he would be.

In his sermon, Occom made note of the positions Indian’s held in society, at one point saying: “I speak plainly to you. You are the bone of my bone and the flesh of my flesh. You are an Indian, a despised creature, but you have despised yourself.”

Occom’s sermon pointed out that had Paul eschewed alcohol and led a more Godly life, he would not be facing execution.

Historians have never concluded whether Paul would have received different treatment were he not Indian. Paul had poor legal representation at his first trial, but that was not unique to his case. The rules governing who was entitled to an appeal based on new testimony were not firm. Still, the myth of the dangerous drunken Indian was well established, and his case played into that preconceived notion.

For his part, Paul’s own remarks to the crowd at his execution were directed at the many Indians who attended. He, like Occom, warned them that drinking had been the source of his problems. He acknowledged that he had killed Cook and that it would not have happened had he not been drunk.

But Moses Paul never confirmed the case against him. In fact, to the end he said that he never struck Cook with an iron but instead with a club, which reflected his story of how the fight had broken out between he and Cook. Thousands of people attended Moses Paul’s execution, and Occom published the sermon he delivered.

Thanks to The Execution of Moses Paul: A Story of Crime and Contact in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut by Ava Chamberlain for many of the details of Moses Paul’s story.

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