March 31

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Essex Gazette (March 31, 1772).

“An interesting Anecdote of Sheehen’s Life, not before published.”

In addition to publishing the Essex Gazette, printers Samuel Hall and Ebenezer Hall devised others means of making money from covering current events.  For example, in the spring of 1772 their newspaper carried an advertisement for “A SERMON, preached at Salem, January 16, 1772, being the Day on which Bryan Sheehen was EXECUTED, for committing a RAPE, on the Body of ABIAL HOLLOWELL, the Wife of Benjamin Hollowell, of Marblehead.”  Most readers were probably already aware of the basic outline of the case.  As Margaret Kellow, explains, “The case attracted enormous attention.  Rape was a capital crime and no one had been executed in Salem” since the infamous witch trials in 1692.[1]  “Sheehan admitted that he was guilty of adultery,” Kellow notes, “but claimed that Mrs. Hollowell had consented to have intercourse with him, and thus he was innocent of rape.”  The judges believed Hallowell and several witnesses who testified against Sheehan.  They convicted him and sentenced him to hang in December 1771.  Still, some colonizers “clearly had doubts about Abiel Hollowell’s story.”  They questioned whether Hollowell rejected Sheehan’s advances.  The authorities delayed his execution twice, perhaps to give him a chance to finally confess, but he maintained his innocence “even on the scaffold” on the day of his execution.

James Diman, minister of the Second Church in Salem, delivered a sermon to the crowd that gathered to witness the hanging.  When he published the sermon, he appended “An interesting Anecdote of Sheehen’s Life, not before published, which, with some other Particulars and Observations, may account for his denying to the last, that he committed the Crime for which he was hanged.”  The Halls printed and sold Diman’s sermon.  According to Kellow, they also produced their own broadside.  “Eager to thrill their readers with details about the monster who lived among them,” the Halls “included explicit details of Mrs. Hollowell’s testimony in their broadside accompanied by a vivid sketch of Sheehan’s depraved career.”[2]  Printers in Boston and Portsmouth also published broadsides.  In addition, the Halls printed a short pamphlet, “The Life of Bryan Sheehen, Executed in Salem, in the 16th Day of January 1772, as Written by Himself.”  The lengthy title asserted that Sheehan gave a copy “in his own hand-writing … to one of the ministers of Salem, on the day of his execution, with a desire that it might not be made public until after his death.”  Even for colonizers familiar with the case, these publications offered new tidbits while also extending access to the trial and execution beyond attending them in person.  The Halls could have chosen to insert more coverage of Sheehan into the Essex Gazette.  They stood to generate greater revenue, however, by producing and marketing items related solely to the accusation, trial, and execution.


[1] Margaret Kellow, “Bryan Sheehan: Servant, Soldier, Fisherman,” in The Human Tradition in Colonial America, eds. Ian Kenneth Steele and Nancy Lee Rhoden (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 288.

[2] Kellow, “Bryan Sheehan,” 289.

January 15

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Essex Gazette (January 15, 1771).

“A POEM on the Execution of William Shaw.”

True crime!  News of the murder of Edward East circulated widely in New England.  The Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter was among the first publications that presented the news to the public.  A short article in its September 27, 1770, edition reported, “We hear from Springfield, that one Edward East, was murthered in the Gaol at that Place, by William Shaw and George French, who wounded him in several Parts, on the 17th of this [month], of which Wounds he died the next Day.”  As was common practice at the time, several newspapers reprinted this news over the course of several weeks.

On October 12, the Connecticut Journal provided updates in a longer story, reporting that a “jury by their verdict declared” Shaw “to be guilty” of murder, “whereupon the sentence of death was passed upon him.”  The execution was scheduled for November 8.  At the same time, the jury did not find enough evidence to convict French as an accomplice but instead “returned a verdict in his favour.”  On November 19, the Boston Evening-Post noted that Shaw’s execution was delayed until December 13, but did not provide an explanation.  The Connecticut Journal reported on Shaw’s execution in its December 18 edition.  “On which solemn occasion,” the editor declared, “an affecting sermon was delivered by the Rev. MOSES BALDWIN … to an audience of many thousands collected from all the adjacent towns as spectators of the awful scene.”  Newspapers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Rhode Island all reported on the execution.

Advertisements for commemorative items soon appeared as well, including one for “A POEM on the Execution of William Shaw” in the January 7, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post.  On January 10, an advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter promoted another commemorative item, “A SERMON intitled, The Ungodly condemned in Judgment; Preached at Springfield, December 13th 1770.  On Occasion of the Execution of WILLIAM SHAW, for Murder, By MOSES BALDWIN.”  Printers and booksellers in other places also advertised and sold the poem and the sermon.  Samuel Hall, printer of the Essex Gazette in Salem, for instance, advertised the poem on January 15.  These advertisements helped to deliver news of current events while offering consumers opportunities to learn more.  For those who were not among the “many thousands” who heard the sermon and witnessed the execution, the commemorative items served as a proxy in addition to as supplement for coverage in newspapers.

October 9

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Essex Gazette (October 9, 1770).

“A Hymn composed by the Rev. Mr. WHITEFIELD, and intended to be sung over his Corps.”

George Whitefield, one of the most influential ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals known as the Great Awakening, was a celebrity known throughout the American colonies.  Following his death in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770, newspaper coverage radiated out from Boston.  The first reports appeared in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy the following day.  The Massachusetts Spy, published in Boston, and the Essex Gazette, published in Salem, printed the news on October 2.  Two days later, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter reported Whitefield’s death and the Massachusetts Spy became the first newspaper to disseminate information about the event in more than one issue.  Coverage continued in other newspapers, many of them reprinting articles that first appeared in Boston’s newspapers.  On October 5, the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy, the New-Hampshire Gazette, and the New-London Gazette all carried the news, as did the Providence Gazette on October 6.  All three Boston newspapers that broke the story on October 1 expanded their coverage on October 8.  The same day, the Newport Mercury reprinted news that ran in the Boston-Gazette a week earlier.  The news also appeared in newspaper published outside New England for the first time.  The New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury and the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy reprinted items from Boston’s newspapers.

On October 9, the Connecticut Courant, published in Hartford, carried news for the first time, while the Essex Gazetteand the Massachusetts Spy continued coverage.  In addition to news items about Whitefield’s death, the Essex Gazette ran an advertisement for “A Hymn composed by the Rev. Mr. WHITEFIELD, and intended to be sung over his Corps, if he had died in England, by a Number or Orphans.”  That hymn was collected together with “some Verses on the Death of that great Man,” perhaps gathered from the various newspapers that honored Whitefield with poetry in addition to news articles.  The advertisement informed readers that the hymn and verses “will be printed on a Half Sheet, and sold at the Printing-Office To-Morrow.”  Samuel Hall, the printer of the Essex Gazette, participated in the commodification of Whitefield’s death.  He simultaneously sought to honor the revered minister and profit from his demise.

Even though Hall was the first to publish an advertisement, he was not the first to introduce the commodification of Whitefield’s death to the public.  Coverage in the October 4, 1770, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter included a short note about a similar (or perhaps the same) broadside:  “A FUNERAL HYMN, wrote by the Rev’d Mr. Whitefield:  Said to be designed to have been sung over his Corpse by the Orphans belonging to his Tabernacle in London, had he died there.  Sold at Green & Russell’s.”  This announcement appeared as part of an original news item about Whitefield’s death dated October 4, following a reprinted news item about his death dated October 1, and immediately before verses honoring the minister.  It was not separated from the coverage of Whitefield’s death as a distinct item, nor did it appear among the advertisements that ran elsewhere in that issue.  It was fully integrated into the reporting about Whitefield.  Just four days after the minister’s death, printers were already hawking memorabilia.  Not long after that, notices about commemorative items began appearing as advertisements rather than as part of the news coverage, underscoring the possibilities for generating revenue inherent in the commodification of Whitefield’s death.  Hall may have sold a broadside he printed or the one printed by Green and Russell, but either way he aimed to profit by leveraging the Whitefield’s celebrity and death.  Hall and other printers used current events to promote sales of commemorative items.

May 31

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

May 31 - 5:31:1770 Pennsylvania Journal
Pennsylvania Journal (May 31, 1770).

“The LIFE and CONFESSION of HERMAN ROSENCRANTZ; Executed in the city of Philadelphia.”

True crime!  James Chattin hoped to capitalize on interest in current events when he hired Joseph Crukshank to print The Life and Confession of Herman Rosencrantz.  An advertisement in the May 31, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal, presumably placed by Chattin, provided an overview of Rosencrantz’s story.  Just a few weeks earlier he had been “Executed in the city of Philadelphia, on the 5th day of May, 1770, for counterfeiting and uttering the bills of credit of the province of Pennsylvania.”  To incite greater interest and achieve a greater return on his investment, Chattin declared that the Confession was “Taken from his own mouth, in one of the cells of the goal [jail], a short time before he was executed,” the words of a man condemned to die for his crimes.  Chattin also asserted that he published the Confession, a short pamphlet, at Rosncrantz’s request “as a warning to all others.”

While that may have been Rosencrantz’s motivation for dictating his Confession, Chattin likely hoped to earn a profit by publishing and distributing this story of the consequences of a life misled.  He proclaimed that it was “SOLD by the Booksellers in Philadelphia” and had already gained such popularity, the “sale of 2000 of this interesting piece,” to require “that a new impression should be struck off.”  Chattin intended that “Hawkers, Pedlars, and others that buy to sell again” would acquire and distribute the new edition of the pamphlet.  He offered “good allowance,” a discount for purchasing by volume, to retailers and peddlers.  Chattin’s claim that 2000 copies had already sold was most likely inflated to suggest to prospective customers that they stood to miss out on something that had enthralled a good portion of their community.

Chattin also traded on the spectacle of the entire affair, from Rosencrantz’s life that led to his conviction for counterfeiting to his confession delivered in jail to his execution.  The pamphlet also included “an Account [of] his CONFEDERATES,” though much of that part of the narrative was pure imagination.  In The Death Penalty: An American History, Stuart Banner notes that “in a last-minute effort to gain favor” the condemned man “named so many innocent people as his accomplices that the publisher of his confession felt compelled to clear their names in an appendix.”[1]  The false accusations, an attempt to buy time, added to the spectacle.

Chattin aimed to create the eighteenth-century equivalent of a bestseller, trumpeting that he already sold 2000 copies of the account of this extraordinary event.  He invited hawkers and peddlers to disseminate the pamphlet even further beyond the city of Philadelphia, spreading Rosencrantz’s “warning to others” while generating greater revenues.


[1] Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: An American History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 61.

January 3

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Essex Gazette (January 3, 1768).

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.

September 29

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Sep 29 - 9:29:1768 Boston Weekly News-Letter Postscript
Postscript to the Boston Weekly News-Letter (September 29, 1768).

The Account contains some Particulars of his robbing Mr Davis’s Shop at Roxbury.”

Less than three weeks after Thomas Green and Samuel Green, the printers of the Connecticut Journal, first promoted a pamphlet about the “LIFE, and abominable THEFTS, of the notorious Isaac Frasier,” who had just been executed in Fairfield, printers in Boston ran an advertisement for the same pamphlet in the Postscript to the Boston Weekly News-Letter. It announced that the pamphlet was “JUST RE-PRINTED and Sold at Kneeland & Adams’s Printing Office in Milk-Street; and R. Draper’s Office in Newbury Street.” The Boston printers most likely sold a second edition produced by the Greens rather than one they printed themselves.

Just as the Greens had attempted to draw on popular interest in an event that had just occurred in their colony, the Boston printers adapted the advertisement to focus on a local connection. The contents of the pamphlet were certainly provocative already: an account given by the Frasier “(under Sentence of Death for Burglary) penned from his own Mouth, signed by him, a few Days before his Execution: With his dying SPEECH.” Yet some of the details were especially relevant to readers of the Boston Weekly News-Letter. The advertisement in that newspaper specified that “The Account contains some Particulars of his robbing Mr Davis’s Shop at Roxbury, and other Places in Roxbury, Boston, &c.” Furthermore, the contents of the pamphlet answered lingering questions about crimes that had occurred in Massachusetts. According to Anthony Vaver, author of Early American Criminals, the pamphlet recorded more than fifty thefts and burglaries committed by Frasier as he “toured all over New England and into New York, covering hundreds of miles at a time.” As far as his thefts in Roxbury, Boston, and other local towns were concerned, the advertisement stated, “The Articles that he stole are mentioned very particularly at his Desire, that the Owners may know the Articles taken by him, in order to exculpate others.” The pamphlet presented information about those thefts that would not otherwise appear in news coverage in the public prints. It offered an exclusive look at Frasier’s crime spree.

The printer-booksellers who sold the “brief Account” in Boston encouraged readers to simultaneously marvel at Frasier’s audacity and condemn his crimes. They transformed his narrative of his thefts and his “dying SPEECH” into a form of entertainment. In their promotion, they heralded the genre of true crime and its power to provoke interest and sell merchandise.

September 9

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Sep 9 - 9:9:1768 Connecticut Journal
Connecticut Journal (September 9, 1768).

“Brief Account of the LIFE, and abominable THEFTS, of the notorious Isaac Frasier.”

True Crime! In early September of 1768, Thomas Green and Samuel Green, printers of the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy, sold a pamphlet about an execution of a burglar that had just taken place. “Just published, and to be sold by the Printers hereof,” the Greens announced, “Brief Account of the LIFE, and abominable THEFTS, of the notorious Isaac Frasier, (Who was executed at Fairfield, on the 7th of September, 1768) penned from his own Mouth, and signed by him, a few Days before his Execution.” This advertisement first ran in the September 9 issue, just two days after the execution and presumably less than a week after the infamous thief had dictated his life’s story.

The Greens marketed memorabilia about an event currently in the news. To help sustain the attention Frasier and his trial and execution had generated, they ran a short article about the burglar, offering prospective customers a preview of the pamphlet. “Last Wednesday,” the Connecticut Journal reported, “Isaac Frasier, was executed at Fairfield, pursuant to the Sentence of the Superior Court, for the Third Offence of Burglary; the lenitive Laws of this Colony, only Punishing the first and second Offences with whipping, cropping, and branding. He was born at North-Kingston, in the Colony of Rhode-Island. It is said, he seem’d a good deal unconcerned, till a few Hours before he was turn’d off—and it is conjectured, by his Conduct, that he had some secret Hope of being cleared, some Way or other.” The Greens likely intended that this teaser provoke even more interest in Frasier, stimulating sales of the pamphlet.

To that end, all of the news from within the colony focused on thieves and burglars who had been captured and punished. Two days before Frasier’s execution, David Powers had been “cropt, branded and whipt” in New Haven after being discovered “breaking open a House.” He had previously experienced the same punishment in Hartford, where James Hardig was “whipt ten stripes at the public whipping post … for stealing.” The Greens described Hardig as “an old offender, as it appears he has already been cropt, branded and whipt.” If they did not change their ways, Powers and Hardig would find themselves “Candidate[s] for a greater Promotion” at their own executions. Frasier’s case offered a cautionary tale for anyone who chose to purchase and read his pamphlet.

Although Frasier was executed upon his third conviction for burglary, he recorded more than fifty burglaries and thefts in the Brief Account. According to Anthony Vaver, Frasier had “toured all over New England and into New York, covering hundreds of miles at a time and committing burglaries all along the way.” Vaver provides and overview of Frasier’s case at Early American Crime, including the circumstances of all three burglaries that led to his execution and a map of the route he followed on his crime spree.