Hartford’s Muster Day Murder of 1748

Colonial muster days were generally raucous events, but a muster day murder was an unusual event, even by the rowdy standards applied to musters.

Colonial era musters were militia training days. The militia members would gather from a region in a field or town square and practice their drills. Depending upon the current state of relations with the local Indians, the musters were taken more or less seriously. The militia's stock would be inventoried and new men signed up.

Accompanying the military drills was a sort of carnival atmosphere where people played games, ate sweets and baked goods and drank, often to great excess.

muster day murder

Muster Day by Charles Haley Granger (National Gallery of Art)

In 1748, muster was called at the home of Lieutenant Joseph Rew. Rew was an officer in Farmington, Conn.'s north militia. He was a well-respected member of the community and his name turns up in Connecticut probate records, where he was named executor of several estates.

The muster involved about 20 men in the militia company. What had probably started out as a serious training devolved into roughhousing late in the day.

The men, among other things, began throwing beehives at each other. Samuel Woodruff, a young man of about 25, made his way toward lieutenant Rew's house, perhaps to escape the rowdiness in the field.

Woodruff was from a large Farmington family. His father, Samuel, was an ensign in the local militia, a fairly low level officer's rank.

As young Samuel approached the house, he was waylaid by the rowdy militiamen. And he was struck in the back of the head with an old broomstick. Samuel turned and threw the broomstick toward the crowd of young men.

Josiah Northaway of Farmington, who would have been about 24, was the unlucky target of the stick. The broomstick had struck Northway in the back of the head with enough force to fracture his skull.

Josiah Northaway lived on for roughly four months, but he never recovered. Two doctors were summoned to the Samuel Northaway's house to examine his son. Josiah had bled profusely. He had a hole in his skull that was one-third of an inch in diameter. When the doctors examined his brain they discover it had received a major injury. That was the cause of Josiah Northaway's death.

An inquest was scheduled for February of 1749 to hear the case in Hartford. Four members of the militia testified as to the day's events, and their stories were all similar. They told about the roughhousing, how Woodruff had been hit with a stick and how he threw it back at the militia.

However, the witnesses testified, Woodruff was struck in the spirit of fun. No one held any malice toward him. Likewise, they said, Woodruff had tossed the stick that hit Northaway in the same spirit.

The inquest found the cause of the death to be accidental, rather than intentional.

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