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.