Public historian Hannah Peterson stands inside a cell at the Old Gaol in York where prisoners, including Patience Boston, were held in colonial times on Tuesday. Peterson is passionate about telling Boston's story. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

YORK, Maine — Patience Boston pushed a young boy down a Portland well in 1734. Boston then held him underwater with a pole until he drowned. She may have also killed two of her own infants and even claimed to have murdered a third.

The gruesome details of her real, and imagined, crimes make Boston the most infamous prisoner ever held at the Old Gaol in York. That’s also how she became the third person executed by a government in Maine.

But public historian Hannah Peterson feels a deep calling to share that Boston was more than just a colonial, true-crime caricature who got what she deserved. To Peterson, the colonial woman was a complex, troubled human figure struggling to navigate the rigid and racist social order of the day.

“I need to stand up for her,” she said. “That’s important to me.”

The Old Gaol in York stands on a hill overlooking a cemetery on Tuesday. Patience Boston was held inside before her execution in 1735. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

She is also convinced Boston died forgiven and at peace with God — and hopes to meet her in heaven someday.

Peterson first became acquainted with Boston’s tale in 2016 while leading tours at the Old Gaol in York. During the tours, she spent hours in the same dank, windowless cell where Boston spent the final months of her short life.

“I felt like there must be more to her story,” she said. “You can only fit so much into the blurb on the wall. I wanted to know more about her, herself.”

That desire to know the rest of the story led Peterson to research and write a scholarly paper about Boston with fellow historian Daniel Bottino. It is scheduled to be published later this year.

Most of what historians including Peterson and Bottino know of Boston’s story comes from a pamphlet published by York Rev. Samuel Moody and his son Rev. Joseph Moody. Both Moodys visited Boston in her tiny cell, just across the road from their church.

Their pamphlet chronicles Boston’s life and spiritual struggles.

Hannah Peterson peers through the bars at the Old Gaol in York where Patience Boston was held before her execution in 1735 on Tuesday. Boston was the third person executed by a government in Maine. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The older Moody had already written a similar pamphlet about Maine’s second-ever executed murder Joseph  Quasson, also based on a jailhouse interview. Quasson was held in the same cell as Boston, a decade earlier.

Like Quasson, Boston was an American Indian of the Monomoyick people. She was born on Cape Cod in 1711. Also like Quasson, her parents died young and she was sold into indentured servitude to a white family, probably settling a debt.

“Natives still had a lot of land on Cape Cod and lots of children,” said Joel Lefevre, executive director and chief curator at the Old York Historical Society. “Settlers would intentionally get them into debt on purpose. It was really a form of slavery without being official.”

When she reached adulthood, Boston was set free but only remained so for a while.

“In about a year, I was married to a negro servant and, because his master would have it so, I bound myself as a servant with him during his lifetime or as long as we both should live,” she told the Moodys.

Soon after, Boston became pregnant.

While her husband was away on a whaling voyage, she ran away from their master.

“I drank hard and broke the marriage covenant, being wicked above measure,” Boston said.

The Moodys’ narrative then becomes muddled. Boston’s child was either born with malformed or broken arms or its arms were broken by Boston. In any case, it died a few weeks later and she blamed herself.

“I now think I am guilty of its death,” she said. “But my conscience then was in a dead sleep. I went on drinking, lying, swearing, and quarreling with my husband.”

Before long, Boston was pregnant again. Her second infant also died under mysterious circumstances as it slept. Again, she blamed herself.

The Rev. Samuel Moody’s grave stands within sight of the red-painted Old Gaol in York on Tuesday. Moody visited two condemned prisoners there and chronicled their life stories in a pair of pamphlets. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Without giving details or evidence, Boston told her husband she killed their baby. He turned her over to authorities but she was eventually acquitted at trial in Barnstable, Massachusetts. After that, she was sold off to a new master. A year later, Boston was sold again, this time to Joseph Bailey in Portland.

Upon arrival, the troubled Boston began telling locals a false story that she’d murdered a third child of her own but nobody believed her.

“For nothing was to be found where I said I had buried the child, and a number of women on examination declared I had not then been delivered of a child,” she said.

Looking back with a modern gaze, it seems possible and even likely that Boston was suffering with postpartum depression.

In 1734, when she was just 23 years old, Boston probably committed the murder which sent her to the gallows.

Miserable, perhaps suffering from mental illness and facing a life of servitude, hundreds of miles from her own people, she began to contemplate murdering Bailey.

“I would have killed my master himself, if I could have done it and had thoughts of putting poison into his victuals if I could have got any,” she said.

Instead, Boston pushed Bailey’s grandson into a well and held him under until he stopped struggling.

“When I saw he was dead, I lifted up my Hands with my eyes towards heaven, speaking after this manner: ‘Now am I guilty of murder indeed.’ And it seemed as if the ground where I went was cursed for my sake and I thought God would not suffer me to escape his righteous vengeance,” she said. “I went forthwith, and informed the authority.”

After turning herself in, Boston was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. But there was no evidence against her aside from her own insistence she was guilty.

Boston was even put through “trial by touch” in the same manner Maine’s first condemned murderer — also a woman — was convicted.

In the ancient practice, the accused is forced to lay hands upon the murdered person’s corpse. If blood flows or the body moves, the accused is considered guilty.

The boy’s body did neither.

“She may have pleaded guilty just to put herself out of misery,” Lefevre said.

Boston wasn’t hanged until the next summer.

She was pregnant again, probably four or five months along, and authorities allowed her to give birth in her cell. She nursed the baby for a while before they carried out her sentence.

These are the details which move Peterson the most and what comes to mind standing in the bare Old Gaol cell today. She believes Boston must have been frightened but also possibly relieved that her suffering would soon be over.

While incarcerated, the Moodys’ and many local ministers visited Boston. She was allowed to go across the road and hear them preach on occasion, as well. During this time, Boston renounced her life of sin, professed love for God and asked for forgiveness.

The Moodys’ pamphlet, describing this conversion, reads as both a historical narrative and a sermon, warning about the wages of sin. They quote Boston at length as she confesses and commends her life to God.

Some scholars dismiss her conversion, maintaining she was a prop used by the reverends.

Peterson does not.

“I believe Patience had agency and it’s important for us to allow her that same agency 300 years later,” she said.

On July 24, 1735, a hangman put the noose around her neck in York. A sack covering her face, Boston spoke her final words, standing in the back of a cart.

“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” she said.

Boston’s third child was adopted by a prominent local family. It died just a few months later.

Upon publishing her detailed paper later this year, Peterson hopes readers will see Boston as flawed and tragic but also strong and fully human — not just the main character of a homicidal horror story.

A mother three times over, Boston was ripped from her native culture, family, language and land. Held as a slave in all but name, she had no agency over her own destiny, except maybe to choose death in the hopes of a better afterlife.

Peterson, a practicing Christian, hopes to run into Boston in heaven someday.

“It will, of course, be secondary to meeting Jesus but I’m going to meet her and tell her that I told her story,” she said.

This story is part of an occasional series examining Maine’s historic use of the death penalty.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.