The Pownalborough Courthouse stands near the banks of the Kennebec River in Dresden, Maine on Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Convicted killer Samuel Hadlock was hanged there in 1790. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Samuel Hadlock was hanged for murder in 1790, outside the Pownalborough Courthouse in Dresden.

But it took two tries.

The first time the hangman kicked the stool out from under Hadlock, he slipped through the noose, falling to the ground, unharmed. After standing Hadlock back up, tightening the rope around his neck a second time, then re-kicking the stool, the executioner got the job done.

The convicted killer swung until he was dead.

Still, Hadlock went to his grave claiming he was the real victim, that he’d been robbed and only acted in self-defense. His neighbors, the family of the man he beat to death with a fence post and the judges at his trial all disagreed.

Hadlock, about 44 at the time of his crime, was a successful man, running logging and sawmill operations out of Northeast Harbor. His mills were powered by a pair of ponds which still bear Hadlock’s name.

Originally from Gloucester, he left there over a tax dispute in 1783. Sailing up the coast for greener pastures in Maine, the widower brought with him three sons, seven daughters and several nieces.

According to surviving court records, on the morning of Oct. 26, 1789, Hadlock mixed up a batch of rum, water and molasses then proceeded to get sloshed. While doing so, he worked himself into a fervor, ruminating on old grudges with his neighbors.

Then, for reasons that are not clear, he marched to a nearby house and seized Comfort Manchester by her hair. Dragging her outside, he then threw her to the ground more than once.

About that time, he spied 22-year-old Eliab Gott paddling a canoe just offshore. Hadlock hailed Gott and motioned him to land. When Gott came close, Hadlock asked the young man where he was headed.

Gott said he was going to a nearby island for a load of sand. Hadlock then became enraged, claiming he had a lease on the island. He then muckled onto Gott, plunging his head under water several times.

When Gott sputtered and struggled free, Hadlock chased him toward Manchester’s house. There, Hadlock caused more trouble, tussling with Manchester’s husband and three more neighbors.

After a struggle, Gott and neighbor James Richardson finally subdued Hadlock outside, on the ground.

Hadlock then feigned calm, saying he wanted to get up. When Gott and Richardson released him, Hadlock tore a fencepost out of the ground and chased them.

Richardson got away. Gott, whose boots were still full of water, did not.

Hadlock beat him with the post, fracturing his skull in several places.

“I see him strike several more blows, the deceased crying, ‘Lord have mercy on me,”’ Comfort Manchester said, in a sworn court statement. “Hadlock said, ‘God damn you for this is the last time you shall have the opportunity to pray.'”

Gott died the next day.

Hadlock was in custody by Nov. 2. His trial was held at the Pownalborough Courthouse in Dresden the following summer, on July 6, 1790.

Among the four justices who heard his case was Robert Treat Paine, who’d signed the Declaration of Independence 14 years earlier.

The proceedings lasted less than a day, with the judges pronouncing Hadlock guilty of murder, then sentencing him to death.

However, Hadlock had other plans.

He escaped on the 16th. An advertisement in Portland’s Cumberland Gazette newspaper in late July offered a $50 reward for anyone recapturing Hadlock. It described the renegade as five-foot-eight, with a sandy complexion.

“As he left all his clothes in jail, we cannot say what his dress will be,” it added.

Hadlock evaded authorities until mid-October, when he was spotted on his home island. As a  posse was being rounded up, he escaped onboard a schooner owned by a son-in-law. When two chase boats finally caught the schooner off Long Island in Casco Bay weeks later, the captain swore Hadlock was not aboard.

But he was there — and he was armed.

Hidden, Hadlock had the drop on the posse but his pistol misfired.

“Had the gun discharged at the time Hadlock pulled the trigger, it is probable he would have killed and wounded as many as five or six as the gun proved to be loaded with two balls and 18 buckshot,” stated the Columbian Centinel newspaper in Boston.

Instead, Hadlock was taken into custody again, but only after stabbing one member of the posse five times with a bayonet.

Back at the Pownalborough Courthouse, where he was also jailed, Hadlock wrote his will, leaving everything to his oldest son. It was reportedly the first will ever filed in Hancock County, which had been founded the previous year.

Hadlock also spoke to a journalist before he died. The resulting interview was published as a broadside. In it, he gave his side of the story, claiming the Manchesters had provoked his attack by verbally abusing him.

He also claimed he hadn’t tried to drown Gott. In Hadlock’s version of events, Gott tripped and dunked himself under the water, then attacked Hadlock.

Finally, Hadlock denied ever hitting Gott on the head with the fencepost, saying he’d only hit him on the thigh.

He also said the men who arrested him the first time had robbed him.

“They stole my watch, used half a barrel of rum, killed one of my oxen and a fat hog — took from me my money, desk, notes of hand and all my papers,” Hadlock said. “After tarrying several days at my house, and having plundered my substance to the value of about 60 pounds, they carried me to gaol.”

He also complained that those who captured him the second time stole his handkerchief, stockings, gun and bayonet. Though, he neglected to mention that he’d tried to kill them with the last two items.

Finally, at 1 p.m. on Oct. 28, 1790, Hadlock strode to the gallows in Dresden, where he addressed the considerable crowd.

He said that his entire life had been one of vexation and he’d never known true pleasure. His thoughts had always been on accumulating money. He found the pursuit, now that he was facing eternity, to be nothing more than vanity.

Then, Hadlock was hanged twice, the second time proving effective.

This narrative was made possible by “Hadlock Executed This Day,” a paper written by Ralph Hamilton Long Jr. and Alice MacDonald Long, published in 1998 by the Mount Desert Island Historical Society; and Hadlock’s broadside, preserved by Raymond Strout.

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

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.