What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The Declaration and Confession of Ruth Blay will be printed To-morrow.”
Infanticide and a public execution: read all about it! When compiling the contents for the first issue of the Essex Gazette for 1769, printer Samuel Hall devised one item that was part news and part advertisement. “We hear from Portsmouth,” the notice began, “That last Friday the unfortunate Ruth Blay was executed there, pursuant to her Sentence.” Hall did not go into great detail about the sequence of events, likely assuming that most readers were already familiar with the infamous case of an unmarried schoolmistress who had been convicted of concealing the birth of an illegitimate child in southern New Hampshire. The printer did report that Blay “behaved in a very penitent Manner, but denied … Murdering her Infant Child.” Before her execution, the schoolmistress “sign’d a Declaration and Confession.” Hall reprinted a portion of that document, both to inform readers and to entice them to purchase a copy of their own. The notice ended with an announcement, printed in italics and larger type to garner attention, that “The Declaration and Confession of Ruth Blay will be printed To-morrow.”
Hall leveraged current events in the service of earning revenues. He stoked interest in the Blay case by providing a teaser from the “Declaration and Confession” in advance of publishing his own edition. Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle, the printers of the New-Hampshire Gazette, had already published Blay’s appeal early in the morning on the day of her execution, at “2 o’clock Friday morning December 30, 1768” according to the imprint. Hall apparently acquired a copy, perhaps from the same messenger who brought news that Blay’s execution had finally occurred after she had received a series of reprieves. No known copy of an edition printed by Hall survives, but the Peabody Essex Museum and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin both have copies of the broadside attributed to the Fowles. The promised edition advertised in the Essex Gazette may never have gone to press, but Hall certainly could have printed copies of the broadside to offer for sale shortly after prospective customers saw the notice in the newspaper. He certainly would not have been the only printer who marketed memorabilia related to crimes and executions. First Thomas Green and Samuel Green and later printers in Boston printed and advertised a pamphlet about “the Life and Abominable Thefts” of Isaac Frasier in the wake of his execution for burglary in September 1768. Hall’s notice, part news and part advertisement, suggests that he also saw an opportunity to profit from print culture that entertained readers with the story of an infamous criminal.
For more on Ruth Blay, see Sharon L. Jansen’s “Ruth Blay and the Crime of Concealing the Birth of a ‘Bastard’ Child,” which includes an image of the Portsmouth Athenaeum’s photocopy of the “Declaration & Confession of Ruth Blay” printed by the Fowles.