Today, the crimes of Hannah Ocuish would be readily explained, if not outright forgiven. Her childhood incorporated all the clichés and every demographic of the youthful offender: poverty, neglect, ignorance, discrimination. Taken together, they ensured that Hannah would be a naughty little girl indeed.
Unfortunately, it was Hannah’s poor luck to be born in 18th century America—a place where there were no dysfunctional families, no disadvantaged children. Our colonial forebears saw little need to debate causes in those simpler times. Everyone knew Satan was behind it all. Little girls like Hannah were wicked. The wicked were to be punished. And Hannah earned the harshest punishment they could mete out. Unlike her contemporary, the proverbial little girl with the curl (“When she was very, very good...”), Hannah was never good. But when she was bad, she was truly horrid.
She was born in 1774 in Groton, Connecticut under unpromising conditions. Her mother, a full-blooded Pequot Indian, was best known for her chronic drunkenness and an odd habit of vanishing for months at a time. Her father, who was apparently white, had long since left the picture—probably simultaneously with the news of Hannah’s conception. Yet Hannah’s fate would far exceed the grimmest promise of her background. She was barely six years old when she had her first recorded brush with the authorities. With poverty a perpetual concern in the Ocuish household, she pooled forces with her 8-year old brother to pick up a little extra money.
Not for them were the slim wages paid child workers or the petty profits of sneak thievery. They preferred the more lucrative occupation of armed robbery. The baby-faced muggers debuted in their chosen profession by waylaying a small girl. Descending on the child like a pair of small, ferocious animals, they beat her brutally, and tore her clothes and a small gold locket from her body—but poor planning did them in. The robbery was barely complete before they started arguing at the scene over the division of the loot. Their blood-covered, half-dead victim took advantage of the distraction to escape with her life.
As a result of this little incident, the town fathers decided something had to be done. Both Hannah and her brother were removed from their mother’s custody and put into pre-Federal America’s version of foster care: bound servitude. Nothing further was ever heard of her brother. Presumably, he went on to a life marked by nothing worse than petty crime. History-making notoriety would be reserved strictly for his little sister.
The year 1786 found Hannah working for and living with a widow outside New London, Connecticut. Now a big girl of 12, the intervening years of hard labor had made no discernible improvement in her moral fiber. According to one contemporary account, “Theft and lying were her common vices.” Nonetheless, she appears to have confined this kicking up of her heels to her off-duty hours. There are no records of any complaints from her elderly mistress. However, Hannah had found far more satisfactory targets for what writers so gracefully described as her “maliciousness of disposition.” She was the terror of the local sub-teen set. All about New London, the children were reportedly “very much afraid of her.”
In June of that year, the happy cries of children filled the fields outside what was then little more than a pastoral village. Strawberry time had come to the land. The fields were filled with youngsters equipped with all manner of baskets, bags, and barrels, eagerly seeking the succulent berries. Over hill and dale they scampered. With shouts of joy, they descended on bush after bush, quickly stripping them of the delicious fruit. No doubt as many berries wound up in red-stained mouths as in baskets and buckets. It was a scene straight out of a Winslow Homer painting, ripe with agrarian nostalgia.
In the midst of this gaiety, one little girl wasn’t happy. Eunice Bolles was only six, perhaps not old enough to know better. But she did know that strawberries she’d so carefully picked were now in Hannah’s basket. Perhaps Hannah had slyly filched the fruit. However, it is more likely she employed the traditional tactics of juvenile intimidation—bullying, if you will. It’s easy to picture Hannah approaching the younger girl in a remote field and politely advising her she had a choice between a full basket of strawberries and a split skull.
If it had ended here, nothing more would have happened. Eunice probably would have grown up to be a respectable middle class matron while Hannah most likely would have wound up a disreputable servant or perhaps a well-worn alcoholic slattern. But Eunice did not intend to forgive and forget. Boldly bucking the juvenile social code’s dire warnings about the slit tongues which await tattletales, she told. History does not record what punishment, if any, was meted out to Hannah. But it did leave her swearing a solemn oath to even the score. Unlike Eunice, Hannah was true to the code of her peer group. No neighborhood bully shall suffer a fink to live.
Hannah was in no hurry. She waited patiently, biding her time for the perfect opportunity. It came five weeks later. While she was out fetching water, Hannah spotted Eunice walking past her mistress’s house en route to school. This was her big chance. Quickly rushing inside, she put down the bucket and hastily grabbed a small piece of calico cloth. Vengeance was about to be hers.
Eunice was 100 yards down the road when Hannah came out. Hidden by a stone wall, she sprinted across the garden and jumped over the wall to confront the smaller girl. Perhaps the little girl was startled by this sudden appearance of her erstwhile tormentor. But Hannah was no fool; she knew the value of a delicate, strategic approach. Making a pretense of letting bygones be bygones, she cunningly concealed her malicious intent behind a mask of smiles and the calico cloth. “Here, Eunice,” she probably said in her most beguiling tones. “Look what I have for you.”
Eunice was completely taken in by this “new” Hannah. Like a horror movie actress investigating a noise in a darkened cellar, she was magnetically drawn to the older girl, her eyes glued to the gaily colored fabric. She didn’t noticed Hannah’s other hand—the one with the rock—until it was too late.
Hannah brought the stone down on her head with a tremendous blow, stunning the smaller girl. In a state of raging fury, she continued to strike the cringing child, even as she protested “Oh, if you keep beating me so I shall die!” This heart-rending plea probably only encouraged Hannah to redouble her efforts, for murder was the whole idea. Eunice finally collapsed in a crumpled heap. Her head and body were badly mangled and both her back and one arm broken. Hannah stepped back and triumphantly admired her handiwork, undoubtedly thinking, “That’ll teach her.”
But like so many killers before and since, Hannah had underestimated the magnitude of her task. Eunice began to stir. Hannah was startled, but managed to keep her cool. Mindful of what happened the last time she didn’t finish a job, she grabbed the little girl by the throat and squeezed until any lingering doubts were gone. Then, to make things look good, she piled rocks from the nearby stone fence atop the body. As she strolled back to her mistress’s house, she probably was smug in her cleverness at making Eunice’s murder look like the result of a collapsed fence.
A passerby discovered the body a few hours later. As a nearby resident, Hannah was one of the first people questioned. She was prepared. Why yes, she told investigators, she had noticed something unusual that morning. She had spotted four boys trespassing in her mistress’s garden. Ever the loyal and faithful servant, she shouted at them until they fled. And not too long afterwards, she heard a strange sound, much like the noise of stones falling from a fence. Why, that must have been when the fence fell onto the poor little girl!
The prominent finger marks on Eunice’s throat ruled out the possibility of an accident. The four boys seemed likely suspects. But no trace of them could be found. Playing a hunch, the investigators tried some hardball with Hannah the next day. They confronted her with the result of her deed, taking her to the house where Eunice’s battered corpse was lying in state. Not too surprisingly, Hannah broke down and told them everything, from the strawberries to the stones.
The trial was one of the more bizarre spectacles to grace a colonial courtroom. With the concept of juvenile court over 100 years in the future, the trial was conducted under standard adult criminal process. Nonetheless, even the most dedicated advocate of the “children are just little adults” theory popular at the time found the spectacle of a 12-year-old girl on trial for her life somewhat disconcerting. Contemporary accounts describe emotions (sympathetic, mind you) running high in the audience. Even the judge himself was reported often near tears. The calmest person in the courtroom was Hannah herself, who remained cool and apparently unconcerned throughout the hearing.
The judge may have been misty, but he managed to keep any trace of sentiment out of his decision. In reviewing the evidence, he found elements of malice, premeditation and a pretty good darn good try at concealing the crime. He admonished Hannah:
You must consider and realize it, that after death you must undergo another trial infinitely more solemn and awful than what you have passed through, before that God against whom you offended—at whose bar the deceased child will appear as a swift witness against you.
Despite this plain situation of double jeopardy, he continued his sentence:
...the sparing of you, on account of your age, would...be of dangerous consequences to the public, by holding up an idea that children might commit such atrocious acts with impunity.
Even back then, adults worried about outbreaks of homicidal mania among the hoop and hopscotch set if they thought they would get off easy. With a final roar of judicial thunder, he roared his verdict, sentencing her to “be hanged with a rope by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead...”
Back in her cell, Hannah’s tough chick facade cracked when someone explained they really meant the part about hanging her by her neck. She found this very upsetting and was inconsolable for the rest of the day. But by the next morning, she was her old, carefree self again. Apparently someone else had told her she was a cinch for a reprieve. She could go back to her jailhouse routine, which may have been the happiest days of her life. She didn’t have to work, got lots of attention, and could even play with the children who came to visit. And she took no sass from the adults. One observer commented she “frequently would make very shrewd turns upon those persons who made severe remarks upon her.”
Reality sank in about two weeks before the hanging. Hannah realized there would be no reprieve, no rescue. On December 20, less than five months after the killing, she was taken from her cell and marched out before a crowd behind the New London meetinghouse.
Hanging was not the only punishment awaiting her. Before the main event, Yale minister Henry Channing harangued Hannah and the assembled New Englanders with an amazing sermon the colonists saw fit to preserve for posterity. He ranted for well over an hour, illustrating the fate of children with poor church attendance with readings of every Bible verse involving a naughty child, a spared rod, and a nasty end. Not neglecting his younger listeners, he pointed to Hannah and said:
There behold, my young brethren, the fate of one, who, with a mind not below the common level, has been left unrestrained to the guidance of guilty passions and a corrupt heart...
Oddly enough, he directed much of his wrath at blasphemy. At one point, he almost shrieked the text of Exodus 20:7: “THE LORD WILL NOT HOLD HIM GUILTLESS THAT TAKETH HIS NAME IN VAIN.”
At the end of his sermon, he brought his heavy ecclesiastical cannons to bear on the quivering prisoner. “Hannah,” he thundered, “the time for you to die is come.” And that would be far from the end of her troubles.
You will soon see that there is a great GOD who...is angry with the wicked every day, and will punish forever those whose sins are not pardoned before they die.
And apparently ignorance of God was no excuse. He warned the cringing girl:
If he is not more merciful than you, your soul cannot be saved... He sees nothing in you but wickedness, a poor wicked creature covered with the innocent blood of a helpless child crying to you for mercy....
Small wonder that witness reported Hannah looking “greatly afraid and seemed to want somebody to help her.”
Eventually Channing ran out of hellfire and brimstone and the ordeal. With what must have been at least a small sense of relief, Hannah quickly thanked the sheriff for her kind treatment in the jail and stepped up on the gallows.
Within moments, she set a record. At 12 years and 9 months, she remains the youngest girl ever executed in the United States. She may not have been the naughtiest girl in American history, but one can only react with awe at her precocity.
Top image by kahvikisu
This article originally appeared in Murder Can Be Fun and has been republished with permission.