After writing stories about each of Maine's 26 state executions, our analysis shows the death penalty was never handed out in a fair or consistent manner. Credit: Illustration by Troy R. Bennett / BDN

In 2022, we dug up stories of every person executed under various Maine governments between 1644 and 1885, when the death penalty was in use.

Our reporting looked at each true-crime tale of murder, rape, treason, desertion and piracy — whether infamous or long forgotten — where the convicted were put to death.

The examination revealed a stark pattern: In Maine, the death penalty was never handed out in a fair or consistent manner.

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If the convicted person was outside the white-male power structure, they were more likely to face the hangman’s noose. Those more likely to die included women, people of color, enslaved persons, those struggling with their mental health and those considered to be “from away.”

Only seven out of 28 people executed in Maine — just 25 percent — were free white men originally from here, not experiencing mental health issues.

In each execution case, the convicting jurors and the condemning judges were all white men residing within society’s power structure. That’s because they were the only ones allowed to.

Throughout the entire period when Maine’s death penalty existed, women, Native Americans, enslaved people, foreign nationals and African Americans were all prevented from sitting on juries.

That goes for juries when Maine was part of the Plymouth Company’s land grant, beginning in the 1600s, when it was under Massachusetts’ rule, starting in the 1750s, and after it became a state in 1820.

This also holds true for federal and military trials and executions held here.

Half the people put to death in Maine — 14 in all — were from somewhere else. Most were newcomers when convicted, hailing from other countries and states, without friends or deep connections in the Pine Tree State.

Local courts condemned 11 of them. The list includes two Italian laborers, an escaped Irish convict, a migrant fisherman from Germany and several people from Massachusetts.

Of the five federal prisoners executed here, three were from away. One each were from Belgium, England and St. Martin.

More than 30 percent of executed persons who met their final fates in Maine were considered people of color. This includes Italians, Blacks and an Indigenous American — even though the state has never had a statistically outstanding population of non-whites.

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Five of the first six people put to death were either women, Native American or enslaved persons.

The first person executed in Maine, in 1644, was a woman convicted of killing her husband. She was condemned via supposed supernatural evidence while her suspected accomplice, a man, was set free. She was also an outsider, a newcomer to the York village. 

The second and fourth people executed were Indigenous people, while the sixth was an enslaved African-American man. 

Maine’s third executed person fit several of the above descriptions, being an enslaved, Indigenous woman from far off Cape Cod.

She was also likely suffering with chronic depression. Several others put to death here were probably struggling with their mental health, as well.

Historic evidence suggests two executed men, both convicted of killing their children, were dealing with acute depression, which they self-medicated with alcohol. 

A man executed by the U.S. Army for deserting his unit during the Civil War is now thought to have been developmentally disabled. Another Civil War veteran, a Black man from the deep south, who was also likely developmentally disabled, had his death warrant signed by Maine’s most famous Civil War General, Joshua Chamberlain.

Historically, white men often seem to have been operating under a separate and unequal justice system.

In 1695, Nathaniel Keen beat an enslaved woman in his household named Rachel to death in Kittery. Keen was indicted for murder and prosecutors stated they had 11 witnesses ready to testify against him.

But by the time of Keen’s trial, his charge had been reduced to “cruelty to his negro woman by cruel beating and hard usage.”

Convicted of the lesser crime, Keen was fined five pounds. He was then ordered to pay an additional five-pound court fee — though records show the original fine was suspended and no evidence of Keen ever paying it exists.

In 1749, a group of white men murdered a Native American man in Wiscasset, while also shooting and wounding two more. 

Obidiah Albee, Benjamin Ledite and Samuel Ball were arrested for the crimes. At first, local courts sent the case to Massachusetts, deciding there was no way to find impartial jurors in Maine willing to convict white men of crimes against the native population.

The Massachusetts court refused to take the case.

Sent back to Maine, Albee was acquitted, Ball escaped his cell and vanished. Ledite was convicted of assault, fined 100 pounds and given 20 lashes.

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When Maine gained statehood in 1820, legislators drew up laws make treason, murder, arson, rape, burglary and robbery all capital offences. But nobody ever made their way to the hangman via state courts for any crime but murder.

The death penalty was controversial in Maine from the start. Though many criminals were condemned to die, officials did not carry out many of the sentences.

Starting with an 1837 law, anyone sentenced to death had to spend a year in solitary confinement, then the governor had to sign a special death warrant setting the state for execution.

With public opinion divided, most governors avoided controversy and ignored the provision. Thus most inmates sentenced to death lived in limbo inside the state prison until their sentences were commuted to life or they were pardoned. 

White man Thomas Thorne murdered his lover’s husband in Harpswell in 1843. Sentenced to hang, succeeding one-term governors ignored his sentence for 25 years, leaving him alive in prison. Thorne was eventually pardoned by Gov. Joshua Chamberlain in 1868.

The year before, in 1867, 12 men sat on Maine’s unofficial death row. Chamberlain only signed one of their death warrants — for Clifton Harris, the only Black man among them.

Harris was a formerly enslaved man, probably from Mississippi and almost certainly developmentally disabled. He was also a Civil War veteran.

Maine outlawed the death penalty in 1876, the third state to do so, but reinstated it in 1885.

That year, Maine executed its final prisoners. Of the five men sitting on death row, three were hanged. All were foreign born, while those who lived were from here.

Capital punishment was banned for good in Maine in 1887.

No one has been put to death in Maine 135 years. Women and people of color can now vote and sit on juries. Slavery has long since been abolished as well.

However, troubling disparities still exist inside Maine’s justice system.

According to a 2021 report, 18 percent of male inmates at the Maine State Prison are non-white. Among female inmates, the number is 12 percent. Meanwhile, just six percent of overall Mainers fit that description.

That means if you’re Black, Native American or Asian, you’re more than twice as likely to be incarcerated than white Mainers.
This story is the final installment of a 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.