PORTLAND, Maine — Two and a half centuries ago this spring, Solomon Goodwin brought a six-and-a-half-foot oar crashing down onto David Wilson’s head during an alcohol-fueled argument while the pair rowed a boat up the Kennebec River.
The blow did not kill Wilson but it knocked him into the water, where he drowned.
A third man in the boat, who had tried to keep the peace, turned Goodwin in to authorities. Tried for murder, Goodwin was convicted and hanged in Portland in November 1772.
Back then, as now, the public was hungry for all the gory details related to murderous true crime stories, including Goodwin’s.
However, Maine did not yet have a single newspaper.
Instead, the inquisitive public turned to popular religious pamphlets written by Puritan ministers who visited doomed prisoners, recorded their sad stories and published them — along with pious sermons warning readers about the death-wages of sin.
Often, ministers could convince their subjects to ask God’s forgiveness before it was too late.
The narratives and sermons were a morally acceptable way to savor titillating particulars surrounding murder and mayhem, while also being comforted, knowing the guilty had been captured, convicted, condemned, converted and now in heaven.
The quick, tidy tomes were the equivalent of today’s true crime television shows and podcasts.
With enough spice to keep a reader interested and enough piety to remain legal, these colonial, gallows-conversion narratives were also money makers, remaining popular throughout New England for a hundred years.
Goodwin’s story was the final such pamphlet published about a Maine murderer.
Written by Rev. Ephraim Clark of Cape Elizabeth, the short booklet was titled, “Sovereign grace displayed in the conversion and salvation of a penitent sinner, set forth in a sermon preached before the execution of Solomon Goodwin.”
The first 16 pages are a standard sermon warning against sins such as excessive drinking and fornication, coupled with a call to repent.
After that, Clark offers Goodwin’s first person account of the murder, which occurred May 25, 1772.
Goodwin and Wilson were acquaintances who met up in Georgetown at the mouth of the Kennebec River that day. Both were traveling upstream to Merrymeeting Bay. Wilson, and the third man, had a small boat and agreed to let Goodwin join them if he helped paddle.
The drinking started almost immediately.
Not far from Georgetown, the three men hitched a ride with a sloop heading their way.
“The master of the sloop received us kindly, and gave each of us a glass of rum, which we received kindly,” Goodwin said.
The captain also gave each man a hot toddy.
“He made half a gallon, and six of us drank it,” Goodwin said.
After parting ways with the sloop, the party paddled some distance before pulling off at a riverside tavern. There, the men drank mugs of flip, a popular colonial-era cocktail made from rum-fortified beer and molasses heated with a red-hot fire poker.
Back in the boat, Goodwin and Wilson began to quarrel about old debts and how far they would paddle that day. Eventually, it came to blows.
Both men raised their oars, intending to strike one another while grappling in the small boat.
“The oar came down upon his head, and was the fatal blow, tho’ God knows I had no design of murder in my heart,” Goodwin said.
Brained senseless, Wilson fell overboard.
“In less than two minutes I saw Wilson rise on the top of the water about three rods off, and he sunk again,” Goodwin said.
That was the last time anyone saw Wilson, alive or dead.
Goodwin ends his first-person account of his own crime with a genre-standard warning to readers.
“Let me exhort all people to abstain from drinking to excess, and from giving way to violent passion,” he said, “which two vices were the principal reason of the death of Mr. David Wilson, and of my ignominious death by the hands of justice.”
Goodwin was tried and convicted in Portland. He was hanged on November 12, 1772.
Also included in Clark’s sensational pamphlet are two letters Goodwin wrote before he died, one to his wife and another to his daughter.
In the first letter, written the night before his execution, Goodwin warns his wife to steer clear of sin and sinners. Foreseeing her coming life with no family breadwinner, he also hopes that she will be able to farm their children out to good families, if it comes to that.
Goodwin wrote to his daughter three days before he died, urging her to “live in the fear of God and beg of God to keep you out of bad company.”
At the end, he apologizes for his brevity, complaining about the lack of paper in the jail.
For all its true crime narration, Clark’s pamphlet on Goodwin is tame when compared against other examples of the genre which often came with longer, more prurient descriptions of crimes.
Some even included crude illustrations of the executed, dangling from nooses while devils watch with glee from atop the scaffold.
Historian Daniel Cohen, who wrote a book on the subject called “Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace,” reckons the first American religious pamphlet relating entertaining, murderous redemption was published in Boston in 1674.
It was called “The cry of Sodom enquired into; upon occasion of the arraignment and condemnation of Benjamin Goad, for his prodigious villany.”
Rev. Samuel Moody’s “Account of the Indian Executed at York” was the first such pamphlet authored by a Mainer and published in 1726.
Both follow the same formula as Clark and Goodwin’s publication.
English professor Daniel E. Williams, who also wrote a book on the subject, said the genre, aside from being entertaining and cautionary, also reinforced the social order of the day with their tales of crime and just desserts.
“In life, criminals were agents of disorder,” Willams wrote, “but in death they became the opposite.”
Moody went on to write a second crime and conversion pamphlet, along with his son, Joseph, 20 years after his first.
Their work, concerning the child-killer Patience Boston, is particularly notable in true crime narrative history because they completely dispensed with the sermon portion, focussing entirely on her crime narrative for a full 29 pages.
Goodwin’s narrative was the final religious, true crime tract published about a Maine criminal. The genre was completely gone by the early 19th century.
By then, the American Revolution was over and more rational Age of Enlightenment thinking was in vogue. The war also helped obliterate most Americans’ taste for absolute authority, be it English kings or their local pastor.
Also, there was a healthy free press by then, eagerly taking over crime coverage. Boston boasted several newspapers. Maine’s first paper finally appeared 13 years after Goodwin’s execution, when Benjamin Titcomb began publishing the Falmouth Gazette in 1785.
Further, state-sanctioned executions became private affairs, usually occurring within the confines of a prison yard’s walls. Clergymen no longer had massive, captive audiences to preach to on the gallows.
But for a century before New England newspapers, religious conversion tales like Goodwin’s were the only options for colonial true crime fans.
“As the ultimate human drama, it was cheap, sensational and profound,” Williams wrote.
This story is part of an ongoing series examining Maine’s historic use of the death penalty.