PORTLAND, Maine — Seth Elliot of Knox killed his youngest son, slitting the 2-year-old’s throat with a 25-cent razor, on July 25, 1824.
That grim fact was clear and undisputed at his murder trial in October that year.
The real question before the empanelled jury, the one on which Elliot’s life hung, was whether he was insane when he did it, or merely drunk. Genuine madness was a viable defense against the hangman’s noose, rum was not.
Defense attorneys argued he drank, yes, but only because of his mental illness. Maine’s first attorney general maintained Elliot only seemed insane because he was drunk.
In the end, the jury sided with the state and the convicted child killer became the first person executed by the new state government. Maine had joined the union just five years earlier. All told, Elliot was the 18th person put to death by any government on Maine ground.
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Elliot was a prosperous farmer with seven children and a wife. History has forgotten her first name. He owned more than three hundred acres of land, with three barns, sheep, hayfields and a woodlot.
The Elliot family lived in a large brick house with hired farm hands and domestic help.
To all outward appearances, Elliot, 36, was doing well for himself. In reality, he was a very unhappy man in the months leading up to his son’s death.
Frequently drunk or hungover, he neglected his work in the fields, wrote incoherent, rambling letters to friends and was cruel to his family.
According to court transcripts, kept in the Harvard University Law School library, Benjamin Sanborn, a farmhand living with the family that summer, swore Elliot would get drunk, then terrorize his family by night, chasing them from room to room and locking his wife outside.
On at least one occasion, he threatened to shoot her.
“[He was] arbitrary and cross when he was drinking,” Sanborn said. “I found him with a loaded gun in his hands.”
At trial, many others testified to Elliot’s hard-drinking ways. Almost every witness claimed to have seen him drunk at least once.
“His passions are quick and he makes great use of ardent spirits,” said Samuel Farnum, another farmhand.
He said he thought his employer was drunk the day he killed his son, too.
“By his looks, talk and breath,” Farnum said.
Trial witnesses also testified to Elliot’s habit of telling anyone who would listen that his youngest son — John — was not his own. Elliot was convinced, for no reason anyone could understand, that his wife had been unfaithful and the family baby was the fruit of some secret tryst.
When asked what other things Elliot would say about his own wife, more than one person on the stand declined to elaborate, for sake of decorum.
“It was too indecent to be related at this time,” said a neighbor, Samuel Waters.
At the trial in Castine, which lasted all of October 29, 1824, Elliot’s defense attorney’s did little to dispute their client’s bad behavior or taste for alcohol. Instead, they claimed both were evidence of declining mental health — and had a novel theory as to why Elliot later seemed coherent.
On the Sunday morning he killed his son, Elliot laid down on a bed in a room off the kitchen with his toddler, slashed the boy’s throat, then his own.
The boy died from the four inch gash, which severed his carotid artery and laid open his windpipe. Elliot’s own wound was not as severe. He survived.
But defense attorneys produced an old fashioned — even for that day — doctor who said bloodletting was an acceptable treatment for insanity. Therefore, it was plausible to believe Elliot was insane when he killed his son but was then cured by blood loss from his own serious, self-inflicted wound.
Maine’s first attorney general, Erastus Foote, who argued the case himself, refuted the claim, bringing a younger, more current physician named Hollis Monroe of Belfast to the stand.
“Do you know any time when bleeding would have been good for the prisoner?” Foote asked the doctor.
“I do not,” Monroe said.
Foote also entered into evidence several long passages from up-to-date textbooks, borrowed from a medical school in Brunswick, none of which recommended bleeding as a treatment for insanity.
Curiously, Foote also produced witnesses testifying that Elliot told them his wife had murdered the boy and attempted to kill him, as well — that she’d framed him. Elliot’s attorneys, however, did not seize on that line of defense, at all, sticking with the insanity strategy.
After both sides made final, long-winded closing arguments, the two-judge panel gave the all-male jury instructions for their deliberations at 7 p.m.
An hour later, they had their verdict: Guilty.
Eliott’s was brought back to court for sentencing on Monday morning.
“Fly, fly to God your savior ‘ere it be too late,” said Judge William Preble in a speech sounding as much like a sermon as a sentencing. “Go sinful and heavy laden as you are.”
After several pages, Preble got down to business. He sentenced Elliot to hang by the neck until dead on the gallows in Castine, which last saw use when Ebenezer Ball was strung up there 13 years earlier.
The Harvard court records don’t relate the date on which Elliot was meant to die. In any case, his execution was likely delayed. Elliot continued to drink in jail — though his keepers swore they didn’t know where he was getting it — and one night he slashed own neck again.
Though he managed to expose the bottom of his tongue via the underside of his chin, doctors were able to sew him up again and he survived. Authorities don’t seem to have hanged him until his neck was fully healed.
Elliot finally swung from the gallows on Feb. 3, 1825.
Portland’s Eastern Argus newspaper printed a dispatch from the scene.
“The weather was very fine and a large concourse of spectators attended to witness his exit,” the page-2 article read.
It went on to describe how Elliott spoke for about an hour, standing on the scaffold, thanking his jailers for their fine treatment and preaching against the scourge of alcohol.
When all was made ready, the condemned man then broke into a loud prayer but, apparently, the authorities had already heard enough.
“In the midst of his pious ejaculations,” the paper said, “he was launched into eternity.”
This story is part of an ongoing series examining Maine’s historic use of the death penalty.