Slaveowner Phinehas Jones' headstone stands in Portland's Eastern Cemetery in 2016. The third and seventh people executed in Maine were both enslaved persons. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — In 1755, an enslaved Black man named Toney killed his owner’s daughter in Kittery. He then immediately turned himself over to the authorities, confessing the crime.

A year later, Toney was convicted of murder and hanged in York, the seventh person put to death by a government in Maine.

Between 1644, when the Maine’s first legal execution took place, and Toney’s death 110 years later, more than a dozen people here were charged with crimes carrying the death penalty. The overwhelming majority of defendants were white men, but most of those convicted and executed were not.

Out of the first seven people put to death, only two were white men.

The rest were either women, enslaved persons or Native Americans. In fact, when Tobey met the hangman’s rope in 1756, no non-white person or woman had ever been acquitted at trail in a capital case in Maine.

It’s not hard to imagine why.

At the time, slavery was legal, Native American and Black people were considered less-than-fully human and white women could not vote. White men were a privileged class, in complete control of the government, church and judicial system.

Historic details of Toney’s life and crime are sparse. Most come from a one-page trial summary kept in the Massachusetts State Archive and articles in Boston newspapers.

On the night of July 15, 1755, near the head of Spruce Creek, not far from where the Kittery Trading Post stands now, Toney threw 5-year-old Mary Johnson down a well. The child was the daughter of Samuel Johnson, Toney’s owner.

Toney then walked to the next town, York, and gave himself up to the sheriff.

“He gave a long, convoluted confession of his crime,” wrote Patricia Q. Wall in her book “Lives of Consequence: Blacks in Early Kittery and Berwick, “saying his master’s repeated beatings had driven him to murder as a way to get himself killed.”

Toney apparently saw murder and his own eventual execution as the only way out of a miserable existence.

Johnson, his master, had a well-known temper and was once taken to court for assaulting his neighbor, Mary King. On another occasion, Johnson was fined for public swearing and, when ordered to pay a bond to ensure proper behavior in the future, told the justice of the peace “he’d be damned if he did.”

Six years before the murder, Johnson advertised for the return of a runaway slave. No name was given, but it might have been Toney, and it’s not hard to imagine the rough treatment he may have suffered upon being returned.

In his confession, the only evidence at trial against him, Toney said he wanted to kill Johnson but couldn’t work up the nerve. Toney was also afraid Johnson was such a bad person he would not get into heaven if he died in a sudden manner without an opportunity to repent.

That’s why he chose to kill Johnson’s little girl, instead.

“The child had far fewer sins against her, reasoned Toney, and therefore she would obtain easy admittance into heaven,” wrote Daniel Allen Hearn in his book, “Legal Executions in New England.”

In the end, the enslaved man got his grim, desperate wish fulfilled. A year after the murder, on July 29, 1756, Toney was condemned by a court and hanged in York.

Toney was the second enslaved person executed in Maine up to that point. The other was the Native American woman Patience Boston. She also killed her master’s child as an escape from slavery, tossing the boy down a well 20 years earlier, in 1734.

The other two non-white men executed in Maine before Toney were George Necho and Joseph Quasson, both Native Americans. Goodwife Cornish, a white woman, was the first person put to death by a government in Maine. She was convicted of murdering her husband with mostly supernatural evidence.

The only white men executed in Maine prior to Tobey were Edmund Brown and John Seymour — even though at least 10 other white men had been put on trail in capital cases. Most were either acquitted, had their sentences and charges reduced or were pardoned.

One of those men was Nathaniel Keen of Kittery.

Keen was indicted for murder on New Year’s Day 1695 in the beating death of an enslaved woman named Rachel, who he legally owned. Prosecutors stated they had 11 witnesses ready to testify against him.

It was not Keen’s first experience in court.

He’d already been charged with going after his neighbor’s child with a stick, then attempting to strangle their mother. During another run in with the law, Keen and his wife threatened a town official with an ax.

Still, the murder case against him was not assured, even with so many witnesses.

“Though killing of a slave was rare in New England, colonial law at the time was murky regarding its criminality,” writes Wall.

That may be the reason why, by the time Keen’s trial came around in May, his charge had been reduced to “cruelty to his negro woman by cruel beating and hard usage.”

Convicted of the lesser crime, Keen was fined five pounds. He was then ordered to pay an additional five-pound court fee. But, as Wall points out in her book, the original fine was suspended and no record of Keen ever paying it exists.

Racial inequities in Maine capital cases did not end with Toney, either.

Four years later, in 1749, near Wiscasset, an Native American of the Canibas band was killed in a brawl. Two more were seriously wounded. Afterward, three white men, Obadiah Albee Jr., Richard Holbrook and Benjamin Holbrook, were taken into custody and charged with murder at York.

Albee was aquitted. The court decided to try the Holbrooks in Middlesex County, Massachusetts but the trial never happened. No impartial jury could be found and the men went free.

“So strongly was the feeling of resentment against the Indians, that no white person, even in times of profound peace, could be convicted for killing one of them,” states a summary of Maine’s legal history, published by the Maine Historical Society in 1890.

After Toney, 16 more people were executed in non-federal death penalty cases in Maine before the punishment was outlawed in 1876. Of those, 11 were white men. Three were Black men. Two were Italian immigrants. None were Native Americans or women.

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

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.