PORTLAND, Maine — The murder happened one summer night in 1725. Joseph Quasson and Jonathan Boler were seated around a campfire when a drunken argument broke out.
Nobody knows what the men were quarreling over but Quasson laid a loaded shotgun’s barrel to Boler’s groin and pulled the trigger.
Boler lingered, likely in agony, for several days before dying.
Quasson was arrested, convicted, sentenced to death and hanged the following year. It was Maine’s second government-approved execution.
His guilt was never in doubt. Quasson openly admitted it — often. The big question on his own mind, and the subject of a contemporary, published account of his crime, was: Could God ever forgive him?
What we know of Quasson and his case comes mostly from a 40-page pamphlet written by York preacher and war veteran Rev. Samuel Moody, who visited the condemned man in prison. It was published in Boston in 1726.
Quasson was an American Indian, born on Cape Cod, March 28, 1698. When he was six years old, he was forced to leave his family.
“My father died five pounds in debt to Mr. Samuel Sturges of Yarmouth,” Quasson told Moody. “I was bound out to him by my mother on that account.”
Quasson spent the next 12 years indentured to Sturges, serving his family and at the man’s business.
Along with the forced work, Quasson was taught to read and given Protestant religious instruction. He attended church regularly.
“My mistress used to tell me, I must never sin, for hell was a dreadful place,” he said, “where the workers of iniquity must go.”
When Quasson turned 18, Sturgis gave him a new set of clothes, a bit of money, a new bible and set him free. But, cut off from his family and Indigenous culture, it didn’t go well for the liberated young man. Before long, he began to drink.
“I worked a little at first but grew idle, and took to spending,” Quasson said, “and sold my clothes and other things and even my bible, to maintain my lusts.”
Without decent clothes to wear, humiliated, he stopped going to church. That was an offense in the eyes of the authorities at the time, punishable by a fine. To avoid this fate, he began attending an American Indian church but found he’d lost his indigenous language skills.
“I could understand nothing,” he said.
With few options, Quasson then joined the English army and was sent to the Province of Maine to fight in Dummer’s War sometime around 1722. He was about 24 years old.
The war, often called Father Rale’s War in Maine, was a series of skirmishes and battles fought between British colonists and Native Americans allied with France. It was one in a series of wars now collectively known as the French and Indian Wars. The fighting took place mainly in New England and Nova Scotia.
On Aug. 20, 1725, Quasson was camped with a group of soldiers in what’s now Arundel. That’s when he killed Boler, who we know almost nothing about, except that he was also an Indigenous man from Cape Cod.
In his long conversation and confessions with Moody, Quasson describes his moral calcification over years of hard drinking, and said it’s what led him to murder.
“My drunkenness hurt my conscience very much at first,” he said. “But after a while, all was quiet. I could sin without remorse.”
Quasson said his situation grew even worse after he came to Maine as a soldier.
“I was more and more settled, hardened and quiet in my sinful courses till the fact was committed, for which I must die,” he said.
His unexamined lifestyle ended after he was arrested. Detained in August, the part-time Maine court didn’t hear cases again until the following May. That gave Quasson a long fall and cold winter to ruminate upon his life — and his soul’s ultimate destination.
In prison, not long before his execution, Quasson told Moody a lengthy, detailed and meandering tale of his spiritual ups and downs throughout his months of incarceration.
At first, Quasson prayed for forgiveness. But the more he thought about it, he reckoned that to be saved from hell, he must ask forgiveness for every sin he ever committed, one-at-a-time He wasn’t convinced this was possible.
Also, Quasson could not bring himself to believe that he was truly remorseful for his actions, he said. What’s more, even if he was truly sorry, he didn’t know if he could recognize what that felt like.
All of these questions and uncertainties seemed to make him destined for eternal pits of damnation, he reckoned. These tangled, contradicting notions left Quasson in anguished despair, according to Moody.
“I am thoroughly convinced now, though I thought otherwise at first, that I am so far from having any power to change my heart, that I have no will to any thing that is good,” Quasson said.
Moody spends a great deal of time in his pamphlet trying to convince the condemned man, and the reader, that salvation is always possible.
He also described the execution on May 12, 1726, saying the gallows were built in York, at the bottom of a valley. He estimated 3,000 people showed up to witness Quasson’s death, noting it was the first local execution in over 70 years.
Moody walked with Quasson to the hangman’s noose.
“I would have you all take warning by me,” Quasson said, in a final public statement. “I am come here to die a shameful death and I acknowledge the justice of God in it. It is drunkenness that has brought me to it.”
Then he died.
Moody finished his pamphlet with a sermon, using Quasson as an example of both the wages of sin and the promise of forgiveness.
We will never know if Quasson truly believed that himself.
This story is part of an occasional series examining Maine’s historic use of the death penalty.