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.

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.