The Pownalborough Courthouse stands near the banks of the Kennebec River in Dresden, Maine on Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Murderer Edmund Fortis was hanged there in 1794. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Henry McCausland Jr. of Gardiner believed the quickest path to heaven’s everlasting glory was by murder.

So he slit a woman’s throat in October 1794.

“She bled like a calf,” McCausland later said, in triumph.

He was convinced the deed would bring about his own swift execution and speed his entrance through the Pearly Gates. He’d gotten the idea from his own religious visions and a pastor, who’d assured McCausland the gory, spiritual transaction was possible.

However, the earthly half of McCausland’s plan never fully worked out, and it’s impossible to know from our vantage point, on this side of death’s veil, if he ever made it into heaven.

McCausland’s twisted tale begins with another convicted murderer, Edmund Fortis, who had made his way to Maine some years before.

Fortis, a Black man, was born into slavery, somewhere in rural Virginia, around 1760. He ran away from multiple masters on several occasions. Each time, Fortis survived by hiding out in the woods and stealing food.

When caught, he was frequently whipped and tortured.

Eventually, Fortis escaped and signed on with a vessel, bound for Liverpool. Once there, he jumped ship, joining what was likely a whaling expedition bound for Greenland.

On its way south, the whaler docked at Wiscasset. There, Fortis ran away, was recaptured, then took off again. On the second attempt, Fortis made his way to Swan Island in the Kennebec River, then up to Hallowell.

At the time, the city had a small Black community, and Fortis tried to settle down, marrying a local woman named Lydia.

But his new life didn’t take.

“My life was dreadful — drinking, stealing and gaming,” Fortis said in a signed confession, published in Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1795. “After about a year I moved to [Vassalboro], where I continued my wicked courses for more than a year longer, until I committed the last horrid crimes against God.”

On Sunday, May 18, 1794, he met 14-year-old Pamela Tilton on a lonely stretch of road.

Fortis propositioned Tilton on the spot. When she refused his advances, he carried her into the woods and raped her.

Tilton then begged Fortis to show her the way back to the road. Instead, he raped her a second time. Then, Fortis murdered Tilton.

“I took her by the throat, strangled her, and endeavored to hide the body under a log, by covering it with some bark and rotten wood,” he said.

Fortis went back the next day and tried to better conceal her body. By then, people were searching for Tilton. When her remains were discovered, Fortis was still nearby.

Authorities arrested him and sent him to jail at the Pownalborough Courthouse in Dresden. At first, Fortis denied knowing anything about Tilton’s death and made multiple unsuccessful escape attempts.

Then, a week before his arraignment, Fortis underwent a vivid religious conversion.

Fortis lay in his cell, racked with guilt, unable to sleep and trying to pray when he said he felt his heart literally melting.

“I thought I could breathe out my heart to God, and could see a light shining from heaven, brighter than snow, and in the light it seemed as though a great many angels were singing, which drowned my groans and prayers,” Foris said.

Then, he heard singing birds surrounding the jail, outside.

“And immediately the same angels began to sing again,” Fortis said, “and I believed in the Lord, and loved everybody. I felt cool and calm; all the dread and fear which I had suffered were gone.”

Thus, when brought up in front of the judge later that summer, he pleaded guilty to all charges and accepted his death sentence as just.

“I can trust my soul in the hands of the Lord,” Fortis said, just hours before he was hanged at the courthouse on Sept. 25, 1794.

He was the 14th person executed by a government in Maine.

Fortis’ execution was big news, and thousands of people turned out to watch. One of them was likely a Baptist preacher from nearby Pittston named Stinson, who’d ministered to Fortis in jail.

McCausland was also a member of Stinson’s flock.

“[McCausland] says that Stinson told him that [Fortis] was certainly gone to heaven, and that the road to Heaven was marked with blood,” wrote the Boston Gazette and Weekly Republican Journal, which covered all the events in 1794.

This idea fitted neatly into McCausland’s already extreme religious cosmology.

“On all other subjects than religion, he was rational; but on this he really was insane… He was favored with visions. The Lord made special revelations to him,” someone wrote in an unsigned pamphlet titled “The Monomaniac,” published in 1858 about McCausland.

In one of his visions, God told McCausland to make a burnt offering, in the Old Testament tradition.

Following the divine instructions, McCausland filled a child’s shoe with red hot coals and crept into a Gardiner church on the night of Aug. 22, 1793.

“The building being unfinished, shavings were scattered in the gallery, and he gathered them into a pile, and placed the coals among them and to prevent a too early discovery, he covered them with a door, and taking the church Bible, he very tenderly carried it into the woods, and laid it on a stump,” wrote J.W. Harrison in “The History of Gardiner, Pittston and West Gardiner.”

The building burned to the ground. McCausland was never caught, and his next religious vision gave him murderous instructions.

Sometime in 1794, a divine message told McCausland that all three of his neighbor Abigail Warren’s children were illegitimate. Further, the spirit said Warren deserved death for her sins  and killing her would also wipe away all of McCausland’s own sins.

On Oct. 18, 1794, less than a month after Fortis’ execution, McCausland found Warren tending to her sick mother’s bedside outside of Gardiner. Entering the house, he grabbed Warren by the hair, tilted her head back and made a two-inch deep gash across her neck with a knife.

She died quickly and McCausland didn’t run far. He soon appeared at a church, haggard and disheveled, confessing his crime.

“Henry made no attempt to escape from the penalty of human laws, but rather coveted it. He had made his burnt offering and his sacrifice, and now wished to crown his religious acts by suffering for righteousness sake,” states the 1858 pamphlet about him.

At trial, like his inspiration Fortis before him, McCausland pled guilty.

But the two-judge panel refused to allow him a jury trial, supposing he was insane and not fit for it. Instead, they simply remanded him into custody, where he remained for the next 3 1/2 decades.

In those 35 years, held in an Augusta prison, McCausland became a tourist attraction. For two cents, he’d pull back the sliding grate on his cell door, letting the curious gawk at him and his magnificent beard. McCausland never shaved again after Warren’s murder, and by old age, his whiskers were pure white, nearly reaching his knees.

Though he talked with visitors, including the author of the anonymous pamphlet, McCausland never gave up his religious views and stated that there were several other wicked persons whom he was under spiritual directions to kill should he ever be released.

He never was.

McCausland finally died on Aug. 21, 1829, around the age of 70. Having been a soldier in the Revolution, he’s buried under a military marker in Farmingdale.

The whereabouts of McCausland’s eternal soul remain unknown.

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.