The Old Gaol in York stands on a hill overlooking the road on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. The fourth and fifth persons sentenced to death in Maine, Edmund Browns and George Necho, were both held in the building in 1740. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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PORTLAND, Maine — Edmund Brown and George Necho stood, awaiting their sentences, before a panel of judges in York on the morning of June 25, 1740. Browne was a convicted ax murderer, Necho a child rapist.

They didn’t know each other and their crimes were committed nearly a year apart. But in those years, Maine was a frontier outpost of Massachusetts without its own courts. Judges had to make special, northward journeys to hand out justice.

Browne and Necho’s cases were bundled together for convenience.

After a prayer, the court sentenced both men to death and scheduled their hangings for Aug. 7. Necho and Brown eventually became the fourth and fifth people legally executed on Maine soil.

Standing in the courtroom the day of the sentencing, nearly 300 years ago, was Rev. Israel Loring of Sudbury, Massachusetts. 

“To this sentence, Brown said, ‘Amen,’ and, turning himself about, after added, ‘God save the King,’ which was much talked about after this,” Loring wrote in his journal.

Loring had been in the area for over a month, visiting local pastors and guest preaching in nearby churches. His journal provides some of the only surviving details concerning Brown and Necho’s cases.

Loring left his journals to Rev. Ebeneezer Parkman when he died in 1772. The journals were then passed down through Parkman’s family until distant descendant Louise P. Thomas of Columbus, Georgia published a partially-transcribed portion in the Downeast Ancestry research journal in December 1982.

In his journal, Loring included a secondhand account of Brown’s crime gotten from “Mrs. Ingram” of York.

On Aug. 22, 1739, Brown spent the day drinking with friends in Boothbay Harbor which was then known as Townsend. Along with three other men named Bryant, Moore and Oakes, Brown had enjoyed several servings of flip, rum punch and rum-spiked water.

Flip was a popular colonial-era cocktail made with beer, rum, and sugar, heated with a red-hot iron.

Brown then obtained a small barrel of rum and went home with Moore to continue drinking — telling Oakes and Bryant to get lost.

Oakes complied with the brush off but Bryant made repeated attempts to get into Brown’s house. When he eventually succeeded in slipping inside, Brown went out to a nearby woodpile. There, he snatched up an ax and went after Bryant, striking him in the right temple.

Moore, who’d been busy fanning a blaze in the fireplace, restrained Brown but it was too late. Bryant was already dead or dying.

Brown was not sorry for what he’d done, reportedly saying, “I am glad of it, for I would rather be hanged for him than be plagued with him any longer.”

Then, Brown calmly went to a storage chest, pulled out a tobacco plug and cut himself some for a smoke.

“As unconcerned as a man would that had been killing a beast,” Loring wrote.

When the reverened visited Brown in his cell the following June, he’d already been convicted of murder and was still unfazed and unrepenant at what he had done.

“He told me that though he stood convicted by a humane court, yet [he] was not convicted by God nor in his own conscience,” Loring wrote.

Brown believed he was totally justified in the defense of his home and his rum.

“Brown compared what he had done to a person killing a robber who comes to rob another of his goods on the high road,” Loring wrote.

Loring repeatedly tried to convince Brown otherwise, advising him he would spend eternity damned to hell if he did not seek God’s forgiveness.

Brown was unmoved.

Loring was so concerned with the murderer’s eternal salvation, he dined with the judges on the night of the sentencing. Over supper, he asked that Brown’s execution be delayed so he might have time to better prepare the condemned man’s soul for the hereafter.

Loring said he needed more time to persuade Brown to repent. The judges agreed to the request, giving the preacher until September.

Loring did not plead any extra time for Necho.

Necho, an American Indian history remembers almost nothing about, had already admitted his crime and asked God’s forgiveness, according to Loring.

In modern times, Necho is usually remembered for his court-appointed defense attorney’s unique, last-minute argument, which almost prevented his execution.

On Sept. 24, 1738 Necho had abducted Susanah Kimble, 3, in Wells. Carrying the toddler off to a secluded patch of forest, he sexually assaulted her.

Lacking proof of actual pennetration, the court could not convict Necho of rape under the law at the time. Instead, he was found guilty of “gross indecency” and “carnal knowledge of a minor.”

Both were capital felonies, punishable by death.

However, Necho’s attorney pleaded “benefit of clergy.”

The obscure tactic dated back to medieval times when the “benefit of clergy” defense excused priests from convictions under secular law. Over the centuries it had evolved simply into a precedent for reducing felony convictions for first-time offenders.

If the judges accepted the motion, Necho’s conviction would be reduced to a non-capital crime.

“Such a point of law required further deliberation and it was ordered that Necho be held in jail until the matter was decided,” wrote Daniel Allen Hearn in “Legal Executions in New England” published in 1999. “The judges probably hoped that Necho would die of exposure in his unheated cell and thereby solve the problem for them.”

However, Necho did not die and was still there nearly two years later when Loring arrived. In eventually pronouncing their sentence, the judges ruled Necho’s crimes were too heinous to deserve any form of sentence reduction or mercy.

Necho was hanged in front of a large crowd in York, as scheduled, on Aug. 7, 1740.

The hangman did his job to everyone’s satisfaction, the local sheriff noted on the death warrant, according to Hearn.

It’s worth noting that three of Maine’s first four executions were of the American Indians: Joseph Quasson, Patience Boston and George Necho.

Loring did not witness Necho’s demise, having already headed home to Sudbury on July 1 without obtaining Brown’s spiritual admission of guilt or act of contrition.

Brown was hanged — ready or not for eternity — on Sept. 4.

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.