PORTLAND, Maine — Ebenezer Ball, they said, knew how to make money — literally.
The suspected backwoods counterfeiter lived on the New Brunswick border at a time when the international boundary was still wild and unsettled. Known to be armed wherever he went, Ball shot the leader of an illegal posse who came to arrest him in 1811.
Ball swore it was an accident, that his gun went off by chance and he wasn’t even aiming it.
But a sworn jury, the local paper and a hometown minister all declared him guilty. Ball was hanged on Halloween that year, the 17th person executed by a government in Maine.
Born in 1779 in Spencer, Massachusetts, Ball ran away from home when he was 12, making it as far as New London, Connecticut. Returned to his family, Ball’s father apprenticed the boy to a blacksmith, then a hatter.
He took to neither trade.
By 1800, Ball had made his way to Deer Isle, working as a laborer and marrying a local woman — his second wife.
“[He] was noted for profane language and for carrying a brace of pistols,” wrote Jonathan Fisher, a Blue Hill parson who published a poem and brief biographical sketch about Ball after his execution. “He left one illegitimate child and one by each of his wives.”
In 1811, Ball was living even farther Down East, in Robbinston, just across the St. Croix River from New Brunswick, then British territory.
“The boundary region was a hotbed of illegal activities,” wrote William L. Welch in a 2010 issue of Maine History. “In 1807, when President Thomas Jefferson tried to protect American ships from European harassment by imposing a trade embargo, American merchants simply shipped
their pork and flour downeast, swelling the flow of illicit commerce over the border.”
Along with all the illicit goods flowing to and fro went copious amounts of foreign and domestic currency. American coins mingling with their British and Spanish counterparts. Adding to the lawless milieu, there were no nearby banks and no experts to tell the real stuff from the fake.
Enterprising criminals were known to move bogus “shineys,” as the fake coins were called, across the border into Canada in exchange for hard-to-come-by British goods. Then, they’d smuggle the valuable merchandise into Maine, selling it for real money.
Ball was thought to be part of one of these operations.
A man named Samuel Jones swore to local authorities that Ball and a few cronies were melting down legitimate gold and silver coins, then reminting them in greater numbers, after mixing in a lot of worthless lead and pewter.
Talk about stretching a dollar.
A local Calais judge signed an arrest warrant for Ball based on the complaint. But there was a problem. There was no police force available to go and nab him.
Instead, the judge authorized prominent citizen John Tileston Downes to form a posse and arrest Ball. When Downes found him on Jan. 26, 1811, the presumed illegal money manufacturer went quietly.
However, Jones didn’t show up to give his testimony, and Ball was immediately set free. The next day, Jones appeared, and the judge sent Downes back out to arrest Ball a second time.
The judge never signed a second arrest warrant, but nobody seemed to care.
This time, when Downes and his men approached Ball’s cabin, they found him walking down the road, armed with a rifle, pistol and bayonet. Ball then turned down a wooded path with the posse following.
Suddenly, he wheeled around, facing his pursuers with his unaimed rifle at his waist. The long gun then went off with a thundering crack and billow of thick smoke.
When the fumes cleared away, Downes lay on the ground, dying.
Ball vanished into the woods with a few men from the posse on his tail. Then, he turned on them again, brandishing his pistol. They backed off and let him go.
Downes died the next day.
Ball could have run for the border, but he didn’t and turned himself in to authorities a couple days later.
With his trial scheduled for June, Ball was first held in Castine and then Augusta. On the long trip to central Maine and back again, he was held in shackles and displayed every night at roadside inns as “the murderer of poor Downes.”
At trial, Ball’s defense attorneys tried to poke holes in contradictory tales told by the prosecution’s witnesses. They also claimed their client’s gun went off by accident, therefore, the worst Ball could be guilty of was manslaughter, not murder.
The defense strategies were not successful. Ball was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang in September.
His attorneys appealed straight to the Massachusetts governor and argued several technical points. They succeeded in buying Ball some time but only a little.
His legal resources exhausted, Ball was hanged in Castine on Oct. 31, 1811.
The event drew at least 1,500 spectators. The local inns filled, some people from out of town camped beside the road.
Wearing a veil over his head that day, Ball was marched to the scaffold on a nearby hill.
“The sheriff gave him a cloth, and told him to throw it when he was ready,” Fisher wrote. “He held it a minute, then dropped it. He fell about five feet, and died with hardly a struggle.”
Though he maintained his innocence to the end, most locals believed Ball was guilty.
“He died an unrelenting sinner, [an] awful instance of the destroying character of sin and a frightful monument of justice,” read the local paper, the Castine Eagle.
Fisher also believed in the sinner diagnosis. He’d tried repeatedly to get Ball to repent his sins while in jail but was rebuffed.
“When warned of the danger of falling into hell, he said there was no hell but what was in this world,” Fisher wrote of Ball. “As he lived, so he died.”
Ball was never tried for counterfeiting, but the reverend went on to make some money, publishing a broadside poem about the condemned man. Printed in two editions and sold for $.06 a copy, it also included a woodcut by Fisher, showing Ball dangling from a rope in front of a large crowd.
An original copy can now be purchased for almost $10,000 from one local Maine antique dealer.
“Take warning, then, O my dear friends, let me advise you all,” it still reads, “Pray shun all vice — oh! do not die Like Ebenezer Ball.”
This story is part of an ongoing series examining Maine’s historic use of the death penalty.