A tombstone with an American flag is shown in a cemetery
The Old Gaol stands on a hill above a cemetery in York on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. John Seymour, who tried to kill his wife and murdered his infant daughter, was held there twice in the 1700s. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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PORTLAND, Maine — In 1745, blacksmith John Seymour sat atop wooden gallows in York with a noose around his neck for the whole colonial-era community to see. Earlier that year, Seymour tried to kill his wife, sawing at her throat with a dull blade.

After the brutal attack, a panel of judges convicted him of attempted murder.

But Seymour was not hanged for his crime that day.

Instead, his punishment was to endure public humiliation and shame while perched atop the hangman’s contraption, the rope around his windpipe, inches from death.

The punishment worked as a deterrent, for a while.

Nearly a decade later, Seymour succeeded in murdering a different member of his immediate family. When convicted of the second crime, he really was hanged. Seymour became the sixth person put to death by a government in Maine.

History doesn’t record why Seymour tried to kill his wife, Christiana, but we know she carried the scar on her neck for the rest of her life. She also remained married to her attacker.

“Nine years and nine children later, Seymour and his wife were still together,” wrote Daniel Allen Hearn in his book “Legal Executions in New England.”

The couple had at least 10 children together, all told.

It’s worth noting here, the following narrative comes entirely from Hearn’s book.

The Old York Historical Society, which operates the gaol where he was held, has no records of Seymour or his crimes.

An 1890 mention of Seymour in a book published by the Maine Historical Society states he was executed for murder but also indicates there were no records of him in the York County Clerk’s office.

Hearn got much of his information from court records found in the State Archives of Massachusetts. At the time of the murder, York County belonged to Massachusetts and covered all of present day Maine.

“There was also a detailed newspaper report of it as well,” Hearn said last week.

The account was printed July 16, 1754, in the Boston Gazette — though it was not a front page news.

“Page two, column two,” Hearn said.

Page one or not, the crime still has the power to shock, even today.

The Seymours’ ninth child was a girl, born July 3, 1754, according to Hearn’s book.

To celebrate the event, the once-again new father went on a drinking spree.

“For four days and four nights he remained in a state of extreme intoxication,” Hearn wrote.

Then, on the morning of July 7, Seymour arose in an agitated state, probably still drunk and possibly experiencing some sort of mental health crisis. He entered the parlor where his wife was nursing their new child.

“Glassy-eyed and disheveled, Seymour demanded that he be given the baby,” Hearn wrote. “Christiana Seymour refused to part with the infant because she mistrusted its father’s mental state.”

Seymour then ripped the infant from its mother’s breast and ran out of their house wearing nothing but an unbuttoned shirt. Carrying his likely terrified and screaming daughter, he ran through the streets of the village, toward the York River.

When he arrived, Seymour continued onto a bridge spanning the waterway. At the midpoint, he stopped and flung his own child into the water below.

Christiana, running after her husband, calling for help, saw what he had done and waded out into the river, trying to save the baby.

But it was no use, she was gone, drowned in the current.

Still not recovered from her recent childbirth, suffering an extreme mental trauma, Christiana then fell ill and also nearly died.

Meanwhile Seymour was apprehended by authorities and locked up in the York Gaol, which still stands today.

At some point his 13-year-old son visited him in his cell. Seymour told the boy he expected to hang for what he had done.

“When asked why he had killed his newborn child he said the devil had told him to do it,” Hearn wrote. “Then he admonished his eldest boy to serve God with equal fervor.”

Seymour stayed in jail for a year before a court was empanelled to try him. When they finally did, he was convicted and sentenced to death.

On August 11, 1755, Seymour was hanged in York. His final resting place, like his daughter’s, is unknown.

This story is part of an ongoing 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.