A blacksmith works on a piece of metal
Blacksmith Sam Smith hammers a ladle at his forge in Portland in 2015. In 1808, an earlier city blacksmith was hanged for murder. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Joseph Drew was a big man and a blacksmith by trade. Used to wielding heavy hammers, he made his living smiting red-hot metal, pounding it over and over again.

Maybe that’s why it only took Drew two blows with a wooden club to kill Cumberland County Deputy Sheriff Ebenezer Parker in January 1808.

The murder took place when the deputy chased a man wanted for a petty crime into Drew’s Portland shop, breaking down the door in the process. Though the blacksmith didn’t know the man Parker was after, Drew defended him with deadly force.

Six months later, Drew, 24, was hanged in the city before a large crowd. He was the third person to be hanged in Portland and the 16th put to death by a government in Maine.

Born on Oct. 9, 1783, in the York County town of Shapleigh, Drew was apprenticed to a blacksmith in Limerick as a teenager.

After about three years learning the trade, he set up shop in Limerick. But he found business and life there dull. Before long he moved to Saccarappa, or what’s now Westbrook.

That’s where Drew said he first fell into bad company.

“I found examples of swearing, drinking, gaming, quarreling, profaning the sabbath and neglecting public worship,” he stated in his confession, written the day before his execution and read aloud at the gallows. “In a short time, I was wiser than my teachers in sin.”

Being a vigorous, strapping young blacksmith, Drew said he was often enlisted in other men’s physical quarrels as muscle.

“Which added fuel to my corrupt and irascible passions and rapidly matured the cruelty and malignity of my temper,” he said.

On January 11, 1808, Drew was working in a blacksmith shop in Portland. That’s where his temper, added with his physical strength, finally equalled murder.

The previous December, Sheriff’s Deputy Parker had arrested a man named Levi Quinby for being a debtor and failing to pay his bills.

Parker marched Quinby to jail, but the incarcerated man must have been a smooth talker. Quinby soon convinced the jailer to let him go home, swearing he would resubmit to arrest peacefully if ever convicted.

But he was a liar.

Quinby armed himself with a wooden club, telling anyone who would listen that he was definitely not going back to jail.

Soon, Parker was after him again, chasing him through Portland’s streets.

“Quinby suddenly ducked into Joseph Drew’s place of business,” wrote Daniel Allen Hearn in his book “Legal Execution in New England,” published in 1999. “He then bolted the door behind him and begged Drew for refuge.”

Drew told Quinby to hide.

When the deputy began pounding on the blacksmith’s door, demanding to be let in, Drew told him Quinby wasn’t there.

Parker didn’t believe him and busted down the door.

Drew flew into a rage.

“The blacksmith took red hot horseshoes from his forge and flung them at the deputy,” Hearn wrote. “Dodging the barrage, Parker said he would have his prisoner.”

The two men then commenced fighting, fists flying.

Quinby tossed his club to Drew. The blacksmith raised it, swung and bashed Parker’s head.

“I repeated the stroke,” Drew said, “without knowing at the time the terrible effects of the first blow.”

The two hits were enough to crack open Parker’s skull. He lingered for a week, then died.

Drew went to trial in May. Convicted of murder, he was sentenced to death on the 28th.

Awaiting his fate, Drew harbored hopes for some kind of pardon and said he didn’t really feel any remorse. That changed as his execution date drew closer.

“When all hope of escape was gone, I desired to bless God,” Drew said.

Like many condemned prisoners before and since, Drew sought to make peace with himself, the people he’d wronged and his maker.

“I sincerely ask forgiveness of all persons whom I have injured,” he said in his final statement, “especially the widow and children of Ebenezer Parker.”

At 1 p.m. on Thursday, July 21, 1808, the Cumberland County Sheriff — and all his deputies — led Drew out of jail, to the nearby place of execution. The prisoner was dressed in a white robe and the noose was already tied firmly around his neck. Drew carried the rest of the rope’s length coiled on his left arm.

“He at first was greatly agitated at the view of his coffin laid in a cart,” states a pamphlet which described the scene and published later that year. “He burst into tears and cried out: Life is sweet! Life is Sweet!”

The sheriff then read Drew’s death warrant. Likewise, the blacksmith’s confession was read, along with a lengthy, written sermon by famed local minister Elijah Kellogg, who was too ill to preach it himself.

A few minutes before 3 p.m., after standing silent at the gallows for nearly two hours, Drew was finally hanged.

“He fell and hung by his neck strung, in a few moments died,” wrote folk poet Thomas Shaw of Standish, who was in the crowd that day.  “His body dead, his soul has fled, to judgment to be tried.”

Quinby, the debtor Drew died protecting from the law, was also charged with Parker’s murder but was acquitted.

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.