The Pownalborough Courthouse stands near the banks of the Kennebec River in Dresden, Maine on Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Murderer John O'Neil was convicted and hanged there in 1788.  Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — The man lying in bed was dead. That was clear.  But it didn’t take long for authorities to realize it wasn’t from natural causes.

Farmer Michael McCleary’s broken neck, which set his fractured skull off at an odd tilt, were their first clues.

All eyes immediately fell upon his hired man.

John O’Neil was a stranger in town. When he produced McCleary’s freshly written will, granting him the dead man’s farm, livestock and cash, authorities became suspicious.

But they didn’t know the half of it. Only during the subsequent 1788 inquest and trial did the full, gruesome story become clear.

O’Neil hadn’t just murdered the farmer and forged a will, he was also a fugitive running from another crime, an ocean away. When convicted here, O’Neil’s sentence was death, making him the 12th person executed by a government in Maine.

McCleary was an Irishman from County Cork who first immigrated to Boston in 1764. He eventually settled in Bristol, on Maine’s coast.

“He was industrious in his habits, and economical in his expenditures, and gradually accumulated some property, and even purchased some land on the east side of the stream,” wrote John Johnston in his 1873 book “A History of the Towns of Bristol and Bremen in the State of Maine, Including the Pemaquid Settlement.”

There, on the Pemaquid River, near the falls, McCleary lived alone on a small farm.

Meanwhile, probably sometime in early 1787, a British ship sought shelter from an offshore storm in Machias. The vessel was full of convicted felons, bound for exile in Newfoundland and Labrador.

O’Neil, also an Irishman, was one of the convicts on board the ship.

“When the weather cleared, the ship was unable to resume its journey because its hull had been weakened. Therefore, its human cargo was sent ashore in Maine,” wrote Daniel Allen Hearn in his book “Legal Executions in New England.”

Once on dry land, O’Neil escaped and headed west, down the coast, away from British-held Canada.

By midyear, he was working as a laborer for William Burns of Muscongus. In the fall, presumably after the harvest, he was let go and found himself destitute.

Around the start of winter, perhaps pitying a fellow countryman, McCleary took O’Neil in, putting him to work and letting him stay on the farm.

But it didn’t take long for McCleary to realize he’d made a mistake.

“The newcomer bore a bad character that he made little effort to conceal,” Hearn wrote.

By early 1788, the farmer was so scared of O’Neil he was spending nights at a neighbor’s house. Then, on Feb. 13, the neighbor saw the two Irishmen arguing over a silver belt buckle in McCleary’s farmyard.

An hour later, O’Neil rode by on McCleary’s horse, dressed in the man’s clothes. He ended up at another Irishman’s house in town, at Broad Cove. O’Neil stayed for the night, informing his host that McCleary was gravely ill and might die.

The next morning, O’Neil rode 10 miles back to McCleary’s farm. He stayed there all day before riding back to town the next day, on the 15th.

Arriving in the village, he told people McCleary was dead. However, he changed his story. Instead of dying from sickness, he said the farmer had slipped on the ice and hit his head.

O’Neil also informed townsfolk that, to his own great fortune, McCleary had signed a will just before his unexpected death, leaving everything to him. The document claimed O’Neil was the rightful heir because he was McCleary’s nephew.

The strangely foresightful future accident victim also supposedly told O’Neil, just before his demise, to, “Take what little money he had and purchase himself a suit of clothes and six gallons of rum for the funeral, which, however, would be strictly private,” wrote Johnston.

Authorities arrested O’Neil immediately.

The coroner’s inquest, an examination of the body and subsequent trial laid out the true facts.

McCleary had not died of sickness or a fall. O’Neil had bludgeoned him to death sometime after their farmyard argument. The murder weapon was thought to be a coal shovel, an ax or some kind of iron bar.

McCleary’s neck was broken, his skull was fractured in five places and he had defensive wounds on his hands.

Sometime after the killing, O’Neil cleaned the farmer’s gashes, washed the dead man’s bloodsoaked shirt and propped him up in bed, as if sleeping peacefully.

However, physical signs of violence were still visible on the corpse and the shirt, however clean, was on inside out.

In another bit of damning evidence, the silver buckle they’d argued over was found in O’Neil’s pocket, along with McCleary’s money.

According to Johnston, McCleary’s actual will, dated 1784, was found and executed shortly thereafter. His entire estate was valued at nearly 330 pounds —  approximately $57,589 in today’s currency.

Executors also discovered five pounds in cash O’Neil had neglected to steal.

O’Neil was tried for murder at the Pownalborough Courthouse in July. A Boston newspaper said the proceedings were well-attended and the defendant’s court-appointed lawyer made a spirited defense, though to no avail.

The proceedings took less than a day.

At first the jury came back hung, with one juror concluding there was no direct evidence linking O’Neil to the crime. But after some instruction from the three-judge panel, the juror gave in and voted to convict.

O’Neil was sentenced to death the same day.

Lincoln County Sheriff Amos Goudy carried out the sentence, hanging the prisoner in front of the courthouse at Pownalborough, on Sept. 11.

O’Neil’s initial crime, the one that earned him passage on the convict ship in the first place, has never been discovered.

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.