The St. George River snakes its way to the sea in a photograph taken around 1870 near Limestone Hill in Thomaston, the site of the former state prison and where Jeremiah Braun was hanged in 1780.  Credit: Collections of Thomaston Historical Society, courtesy of

PORTLAND, Maine — General Peleg Wadsworth is remembered as a bonafide Revolutionary War hero. Wadsworth was one of the few leaders praised after a disastrous defeat at Castine in 1779, made a daring escape from enemy capture and helped resettle Portland after a British bombardment pulverized the town.

His stately, brick residence still stands on Congress Street. It was also the boyhood home of his grandson, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

After the war, the general went on to serve seven terms in the new United States Congress, invented the town of Hiram and lived long enough to see Maine get its long-sought statehood.

But another important episode in Wadsworth’s story is rarely remembered in the glowing, historical accounts of his life.

While the militia commander in charge of Maine in 1780, he had local man Jeremiah Braun tried in a military court and condemned to hang in Thomaston for aiding the enemy. Braun was so frightened before his execution, he fainted. Some accounts say he was still unconscious when the hangman swung him off into eternity.

Braun was the only civilian ever condemned by a military court martial in Maine and the ninth person to be executed by a government here.

Wadsworth was born in Duxbury, Massachusetts, in 1748 and graduated from Harvard College in 1769. A patriot from the start, he was an aide to early American commander General Artemas Ward in 1776 and was a general in the militia by 1777.

Serving with Paul Revere, he helped lead the assault on the British fortress at Castine in 1779. Known as the Penobscot Expedition, the action was an utter failure resulting in almost 500 American casualties.

However, Wadsworth was praised after the loss for saving lives, organizing part of the chaotic retreat.

In an official report to the Continental Congress, his commanding officer stated the general acted with, “Great activity, courage, coolness and prudence.”

Conversely, Revere was accused of cowardice and drummed out of the militia after the affair. His reputation was later repaired by Wadsworth’s grandson, Henry, with a well-known poem featuring the lines, “Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.”

Due to his honorable performance at Castine, Wadsworth was sent back to Maine the following year, charged with keeping the British from advancing any further west, down the coast toward Boston. He was given few resources, however, and some of the populace was not sympathetic to the American cause.

“He was assured that he would be given 600 troops, but when he arrived at [Portland] on April 8th, he found neither soldiers nor tools to repair the crumbled fortifications,” wrote Clifford K. Shipton of the Massachusetts Historical Society in a 1976 article, “so he proceeded to Camden where troops were mustering. There he found a delicate situation and nothing that could be called an army.”

Headquartering himself at Thomaston, Wadsworth soon declared martial law in an attempt to keep the local populace from having anything to do with the British, just a little farther east along the coast.

“To draw a line of demarcation between friends and foes, he issued a proclamation strictly prohibiting all intercourse with the enemy,” wrote Cyrus Eaton in his 1877 book “Annals of Warren.”

But Wadsworth found midcoast Mainers hard to control.

A young man from a nearby island named Stephen Pendleton guided a group of British sympathizers, known as tories, to the house of a well-to-do patriot named Soule in Waldoboro.

The tories ransacked the house while Pendleton held Soule and his wife at gunpoint.

As the looters attempted to break into a locked desk, Soule tried to stop them. Pendelton fired his gun, killing the homeowner and wounding his wife. The entire party fled and Pendelton spent the rest of his life living in exile in Nova Scotia.

Adding to his already-declared martial law, and no-contact-with-the-enemy edict, Wadsworth then advised the population that the penalty for flouting his orders was death.

But almost immediately, it happened again.

This time, Braun, who was from Damariscotta, was arrested and charged with leading another band of British marauders through the backcountry.

The civilian was then tried by a military court assembled by Waadsworth on Aug. 23 and 24. Convicted, he was sentenced to hang.

Nobody really thought the general would go through with it, though, including Braun.

“Being a rather simple sort of man and, as many thought, unconscious of any offense in what he did, the sentence was generally considered a feint to frighten him and prevent a repetition of his crime” Eaton wrote.

However, Wadsworth was serious and gallows were erected on Thomaston’s nearby Limestone Hill.

Horrified, many locals, including a few prominent women, asked Wadsworth to reconsider executing Braun, universally described in scant historic accounts, if they mention him at all, as dim or slow witted.

“But the crisis demanded a decision. An example was thought necessary,” Eaton wrote. “Wadsworth remained inflexible.”

Braun was conveyed to the gallows in a cart on Aug. 28. Upon glimpsing the contraption of his doom, he slumped, fainted and became insensible with fear. An onlooker then lent Braun a handkerchief to tie over his eyes. It helped but not much.

Many who watched Braun die said he was in an unconscious, terrified stupor when the hangman’s noose ended his life, according to Eaton.

Wadsworth was not unmoved by the messy execution and was observed pacing in his quarters for most of the following day.

However, several more courts martial followed that summer and fall. Another local, Nathaniel Palmer, was also condemned but escaped his pre-execution confinement and vanished.

William King, Maine’s first governor, later sold the hill where Braun died to the state. It was home to the state prison from 1824 until 2002.

After futile attempts at keeping order on the eastern frontier, the few troops under Wadsworth’s command melted away. In 1781, a year after Braun’s death, the general made plans to abandon Maine altogether and head back to Boston.

But before he could depart, Wadsworth was captured in a nighttime firefight with British Army regulars in his Thomaston residence and taken prisoner.

Wadsworth later escaped confinement, digging out during a thunderstorm in similar fashion to the way fictional character Andy Dufresne’s slipped from the Maine State Prison in Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.”

After the Revolution, Wadsworth came back to Maine, building the first brick house in Portland in 1784. The Maine Historical Society now operates it as a museum.

In 1793, while serving in the Massachusetts Senate, Wadsworth proposed making Maine a separate state. The bill failed but momentum for the idea eventually grew until Maine was admitted to the Union in 1820.

In 1794, Wadsworth bought 7,500 acres in western Maine. There he founded the town of Hiram and made a fortune growing corn while serving seven terms in the U.S. Congress.

Wadsworth died in 1829, living long enough to see Maine become a state and himself become a living, patriotic legend.

“The general was regarded as an oracle,” Shipton wrote.

Many books and papers have been written about him and his accomplishments.

Only a few mention the name of Jeremiah Braun.

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.