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The Hanging Of Ephraim Wheeler

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The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler

In this paper I will explain and discuss the historical events that took place in a small rural town in early Massachusetts. The setting for which is Irene Quenzler Brown's and Richard D. Brown's, The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler. I will explain the actions and motives of Hannah and Betsy Wheeler in seeking legal retribution of husband and father Ephraim Wheeler. I will also discuss the large scope of patriarchal power allowed by the law and that given to husbands and masters of households. Of course, this will also lead to discussions of what was considered abuse of these powers by society and the motivation for upholding the Supreme Court's decision to hang Ephraim Wheeler.

Ephraim Wheeler was convicted and hanged for the rape of his thirteen year old daughter Betsy Wheeler. It occurred in the woods of rural Massachusetts on June 8, 1805. The incident was reported to Hannah Wheeler, Betsy's mother. Hannah Wheeler then reported the incident to Justice Robert Walker, who then arrested Ephraim Wheeler on that day. What was expected of a wife in 1805 Massachusetts, when confronted with such a vicious criminal act? Having such a crime inflicted upon yourself, would be hard enough to live through, but to have such an evil act forced upon your helpless thirteen year old daughter- by a husband and father is unfathomable.

Cases of incestial rape by father's upon their daughters, where actually rarely reported (Brown, 131). Most mother's and daughters kept incidents like these secret from the public or rarely even confronted their husbands and fathers for fear of experiencing further harm. Not to mention that it was a hard crime to prove (Brown, 112). Incest has been against the law for a long time- so the father of a household could be jailed a short while for the crime, but shockingly, girls only needed to be older than ten years of age to give consent to sex (Brown, 60). Thus making it easy for defense attorneys to establish reasonable of doubt rape and making the father guilty of incest instead (Brown, 89).

So what was Hannah Wheeler to do? Before she could even consider what action to take- she had to consider what options where even available to her? Betsy had come home assaulted and raped, but running away with her children was not an option that housewives had (Brown, 145). She and Betsy had a close bond from the several separations between her and Ephraim. He had attempted twice before, according to Betsy, to rape her. The first time he tried to coerce and seduce her with gifts, but Betsy said no, because she did not want to betray her mother by having a secret relationship with her father (Brown, 111). As long as her husband was alive, he had legal custody of her (Brown, 131). This, in my opinion, is why Ephraim allowed his children to return to their mother. He knew that they weren't going anywhere. He himself wasn't going anywhere, because he was dependent on his wife's network of family to survive himself (Brown, 175). She knew, however, that Ephraim would return for the children and she could not let him to freely attack and rape her daughter. It's doubtful that Hannah and Betsy knew that Ephraim would be condemned to death, if they reported the rape, but Hannah had to protect herself and her daughter (Brown, 147). She had to have expected Justice Robert Walker would be capable of advising her on her decision. Justice Walker ultimately filed the charges of rape and arrested Ephraim Wheeler later that day.

It's important to clearly illustrate the motive behind Hannah and Betsy seeking justice for the actions taken by Ephraim Wheeler. It was apparent from the beginning that the defense for Ephraim Wheeler had a very week case. It was hard not to notice Judge Sedgwick himself siding with the prosecution in his closing speech to the jury (Brown, 99). Ephraim was condemned to death by hanging, but this is neither what Hannah and Betsy wanted nor expected. They wanted only protection and the assurance that no further harm would come to either of them (Brown, 153). Hannah could not let Ephraim's evil intent to go unchecked, but they did not wish him dead. This is evident in their participation of the petition to have Ephraim's death sentence commuted (Brown, 189). Maybe it was because of the social common belief in man's natural tendency to commit evil. Especially in sexual context. I believe that it was more unnatural for a daughter to want her father dead or for Hannah to want her husband hang at the gallows- regardless of his crimes, abuse, or violent tendencies.

What was the range of power not only practiced, but expected by patriarchs of this time and in this region? It was common practice for a man to discipline and beat his wife. Of course, everybody knows that children where regularly beaten as an exercise in discipline. A belief still practiced, not only in outside cultures, but still in rural parts of the U.S. To a much less extent, I'll admit, but it still does happen. Even Massachusetts' attorney general James Sullivan encouraged the beating of his own children and grandchildren (Brown, 114). However, the law was beginning to recognize the limits of what was considered proper assertion of patriarchal power and the abuse of that same power (Brown, 58). As in the case of Abner Durwin who was charged with the attempted rape and assault of his eleven year old daughter, Nancy. He was acquitted of the rape charge, but the jurors concluded that he had "lewdly and lasciviously conducted himself towards her in an evil example to others" (Brown, 60). Part of the expected duties of the husband and father, was to lead the family in morality and discipline, while at the same time, providing that same family with protection and an honest livelihood.

Ephraim Wheeler was orphaned at a young age. His mother had died when he was only seven years old and father had flung himself overboard at sea the following year (Brown, 155). The county decided the best way to deal with Ephraim and his brother, was to enter them into indentured servitude until the age of twenty-one (Brown, 160). This was pretty much a system of slavery.



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