Moses Dunbar was hanged in Hartford, Conn., on March 19, 1777 – and his father, it is believed, offered the hemp for the noose.
Moses was 30 years old, widowed, with five children. He had just remarried after his first wife died. As he approached death – ‘the terrible crisis of my earthly fate’ – he was at peace with his God and his conscience and had little doubt of his future happiness.
Before Moses Dunbar died, he wrote out his final words in a small 10-page booklet. He read them to the large crowd assembled for his execution.
Dunbar had close relatives, Stephen and Ruth Graves. The Graves family farm was located a mile or two up the road from East Plymouth, where it is believed his family re-buried his body in the Episcopal cemetery. In the mid-20th century, a couple fascinated by colonial homes found the Graves homestead, dismantled it and moved it to New Canaan, Conn. In the process of dismantling, a small booklet 10 pages long was found in the walls. Those papers were the long lost documents of Moses Dunbar's final words.
After much consideration, Moses and Phebe Dunbar joined the king’s army because they did not support the Declaration of Independence. Moses fled to Long Island, where he accepted an offer to become a captain in the king’s army. He later went back to his family in Bristol, where he was a member of Trinity Episcopal Church. He was arrested by local authorities for trying to recruit boys to the king’s army, released, but caught again some time later.
Moses Dunbar was sentenced to the gallows of Trinity Hill in Hartford. It is believed that Dunbar's father offered the hemp for the noose. In his last days, he wrote his final speech. Dunbar recounted his father's disliking him in 'treating him harshly in many instances.'
Moses Dunbar was executed before a large concourse of spectators. His remains were taken to the Ancient Burying ground in Hartford, where he was placed in an unmarked grave. It is believed the family removed his body and brought him to the Episcopal cemetery in East Plymouth, where he was given a pauper’s grave. There are 23 limestone graves in East Church Cemetery and each is unmarked.
Moses Dunbar was the only man in Connecticut history to be executed for treason.
The following paragraphs are his last words:
I was born at Wallingford in Connecticut, the 3rd of June, A.D. 1746, being the second of sixteen children, all born to my Father by one wife. My Father, John Dunbar, was born also at Wallingford, and married Temperance Hall of the same place, about the year 1743. I was educated in the business of husbandry. About the year 1760, my father removed himself and family to Waterbury where, May ye 30th, 1764, I was married to Phebe Jearman of Farmington, by whom I have had seven children, five of whom are now living.
The first year of our marriage my wife and I, upon what we thought sufficient and rational motives, declared our conformity to the Church of England, the Rev. Mr. Scovill being a missionary at Waterbury. May 26th, 1770, my honored mother departed this life. She was a woman of much virtue and good reputation, whom I remember with the most honor and gratitude for the good care and affection she continually shewed me.
My joining myself to the Church occasioned a sorrowful breach between my father and me, which was the cause of his never assisting me but very little in gaining a livelihood, likewise it caused him to treat me very harshly in many instances, for which I heartily forgive him as well as my brothers, as I hope pardon from my God and my Saviour for my own offences. I likewise pray God to forgive them through Christ.
"From the time that the present unhappy misunderstanding between Great Britain and the Colonies began, I freely confess I never could reconcile my opinion to the necessity or lawfulness of taking up arms against Great Britain. Having spoken somewhat freely on the subject, I was attacked by a mob of about forty men, very much abused, my life threatened and nearly taken away, by which I was compelled to sign a paper containing many falsehoods. May 26th, 1776, my wife deceased in full hope of future happiness of which I doubt not in the least she is now in possession. The winter preceding this trial had been a time of distress with us, I, my wife and child sick all winter, another of my children had a broken leg, with many other afflictions which I omit relating.
I had now determined if possible to live peacable and give no offence, neither by word nor deed. I made some proposals of that kind to the committee, offering to enter into a voluntary confinement within the limits of a farm, instead of which I was carried to New Haven jail. But the sheriff and jailer both refused to receive me. A few days afterward I was taken again, carried before the Committee and by them ordered to suffer imprisonment during their pleasure not exceeding five months. When I had remained there about fourteen days, the authority of New Haven dismissed me. Finding my life uneasy, and, as I had reason to apprehend, in great danger, I thought it my safest method to flee to Long Island, which I accordingly did.
But having a desire to see my friends and children, and being under engagement of marriage with her [Esther Adams] who is my wife, the banns of marriage having been before published, I returned, and was married. Having a mind to remove my wife and family to Long Island, as a place of safety, I went there the second time, to prepare matters accordingly. When there, I accepted a captain's warrant for the King's service in Colonel Fanning's regiment.
I returned to Connecticut, when I was taken and betrayed by Joseph Smith, and was brought before the authority of Waterbury. They refused to have anything to do with the affair. I was carried to Farmington, before Justice Strong and Justice Whitman, and by them committed to Hartford, where the Superior Court was then sitting. I was tried on Thursday, 23d of January, 1777, for High Treason against the State of Connecticut, by an act passed in October last, being accused of enlisting men for General Howe, and for having a captain's commission for that purpose. I was adjudged guilty and on the Saturday following was brought to the bar of the court and received sentence of death. The time of my suffering was afterward fixed to be the 19th day of March, 1777.
Which tremendous and awful day now draws near, when I must appear before the Searcher of Hearts to give an account of all things done in my body whether they be good or evil. I shall soon be delivered from all the pains and troubles of this mortal state, and shall be answerable to None but the all-seeing God, who is infinitely just, and knoweth all things. As I am fully persuaded that I depart in a state of peace with God and my own conscience, I can have but little doubt of my future happiness, through the mercy of God and the merits of Jesus Christ. I have sincerely repented of all my sins, examined my heart, prayed earnestly to God for mercy, for the gracious pardon of my manifold and heinous sins, and now resign myself wholly to the disposal of my Heavenly Father, submitting my will to His. From the very bottom of my heart I forgive all enemies and earnestly pray God to forgive them all. Some part of J----h S-----h's evidence was false, but I heartily forgive him, and likewise sincerely beg forgiveness of all persons whom I have injured or offended.
Since my sentence I have been visited by sundry worthy ministers of the gospel, who have discoursed and prayed with me, among whom are the Rev. Marsh of Wethersfield, the Rev. Mr. Strong of Hartford, and The Rev. William Viets being my fellow prisoner [on account of practices in favor of the British government], has been indefatigable in affording every possible assistance to prepare me for the terrible crisis of my earthly fate. He administered to me the sacrament of the Lord's Supper the Sunday before I was put to death. To those gentlemen, as well as all others who have shewed me kindness I give my most sincere thanks. I die in the profession and communion of the Church of England. Of my political sentence I leave the readers of these lines to judge. Perhaps it is neither reasonable nor proper that I should declare them in my present situation.
*** I cannot take the last farewell of my countrymen without desiring them to show kindness to my poor widow and children, not reflecting on them concerning the method of my death.
Now I have given you a narrative of all things material concerning my life with that veracity which you are to expect from one who is going to leave the world and appear before the God of truth. My last advice to you is that you, above all other concerns, prepare yourselves, [with God's assistance], for your future, Eternal state. You will all shortly be as near Eternity as I now am, and will then view both worldly and spiritual things in the same light in which I do now view them. You will then see all wordly things to be but shadows, but vapours, but vanity of vanities, and the things of the Spiritual world to be of importance beyond all description. You will then be sensible that the pleasures of a good conscience, and the happiness of the near prospect of Heaven, infinitely outweighs all the Riches, Pleasure, and Honor of this mean, sinful world.
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, have mercy on me, and receive my spirit.
Amen and Amen.
Hartford, March 18th, A. D., 1777
Moses Dunbar's Message To His 5 Children
Dunbar wrote the following to his children:
MY CHILDREN. Remember your Creator in the days of your youth. Learn your Creed, the Lord's prayer, and the ten commandments and catechism, and go to church as often as you can, and prepare yourselves as soon as you are of a proper age to worthily partake of the Lord's Supper. I charge you all, never to leave the Church. Read the Bible. Love the Saviour wherever you may be. I am now in Hartford jail condemned to death for high treason against the State of Connecticut. I was thirty years last June, the 14th. God bless you. Remember your Father and Mother and be dutiful to your present mother.
About the author: Thomas Vaughn is the 19-year-old vice president of the Plymouth Historical Society and a clock collector. He also has an ongoing passion for local history. You can see the Plymouth Historical Society's website here and Facebook page here. For a story by Thomas Vaughn about Connecticut clockmaker Eli Terry, click here.
This story was updated in 2017.