The discovery of New Hampshire’s infanticides began on Saturday, Aug. 11, 1739, when someone discovered a dead infant girl in a well on the outskirts of Portsmouth.
Suspicion immediately fell on Sarah Simpson, a 27-year-old widow. She probably had little money, as she had spent her childhood as an indentured servant. Her neighbors suspected her of concealing a pregnancy.
But that was just the beginning. Simpson said she hadn’t delivered a baby girl and, to prove it, she led the constable to a spot near the Piscataqua River. There they found the shallow grave of her infant son. Infanticide? She insisted she had delivered him stillborn.
Nevertheless, the constable arrested Sarah Simpson and charged her with concealing the death of her child.
An Epidemic of Child Deaths
The New Hampshire colonists had a heightened sensitivity to the loss of young children. The colony in 1739 had experienced four years of an epidemic of throat distemper, which mostly killed children.
Across New England some 5,000 people died of diphtheria between 1735 and 1740. Three out of four were children. In New Hampshire, where it struck first and worst, 75 out of every 1,000 people died of it. In Portsmouth, the disease killed 80 children under 10.
If Sarah Simpson hadn’t killed the baby girl, who had? The next day, officials questioned Penelope Kenny, the 20-year-old servant of Dr. Joseph Franklin. They suspected her of throwing the baby down the well.
She, too, denied it. The magistrates ordered her examined by several women, probably midwives who believed she gave birth to a child within the past week.
After a night in jail, Sarah Simpson confessed to giving birth to a baby—but a baby boy. She said she ‘put it alive into a tub in her Master’s Cellar and then left it, till Friday-Night following, when she threw it into the River.’
The shocking infanticides (if Sarah Simpson was lying) no doubt resulted from the women’s fears of harsh punishment for having extramarital sex. They probably thought concealing their pregnancies a matter of survival.
But killing and hiding an illegitimate baby brought an even worse punishment than loss of income. In 1714, the New Hampshire General Court passed a law against infanticides, called “An Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children.”
“Whereas many lewd women that have been delivered of Bastard children, to avoid shame and escape punishment, do secretly bury or conceal the death of their children …shall suffer Death.”
They allowed one exception: “except such Mother cann make proof by one witness at least, the Child whose death was by her so intended to be concealed was born dead.”
Three weeks after the discovery of the dead child, a jury found Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenny guilty of concealing the deaths of their children.
Chief Justice Henry Sherburn ordered the infanticides hanged by the neck until they were dead.
On Dec. 27, 1739, an executioner hanged first Sarah Simpson, then Penelope Kenny, before a large crowd in a field covered with snow.
The mournful spectacle included sermons, confessions of guilt and the anguished deaths of the two women. The infanticides were the first judicial executions in New Hampshire history.
But several mysteries remained: Who had thrown the baby girl into the well? Some still suspected Penelope Kenny as the culprit. And who had fathered the dead children? No evidence exists that suggests officials tried to find out. The women apparently took the secret to their graves.
Between 1623 and 1800, New England executed 29 women, mostly white servants or African-American slaves, for infanticide.
Thanks to The Story of the First Executions in New Hampshire’s History by Christopher Benedetto. This story was updated in 2020.