The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler: A Story of Rape, Incest, and Justice in Early America Hardcover – April 30, 2003

The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler: A Story of Rape, Incest, and Justice in Early America Hardcover – April 30, 2003

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From Publishers Weekly


History's grand narratives-the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Gold Rush-are always crowd pleasers, but microhistory, on the scale of everyday persons and singular events, draws readers seeking a more intimate encounter. The case unfolded here, of a man executed for raping his daughter, offers such an experience, bringing readers face to face with a family torn by domestic violence and civic authorities struggling with questions of justice. Throughout the book, Brown and Brown, both professors at the University of Connecticut, balance a historical perspective on rural Massachusetts in the early 1800s with a sympathetic portrait of each character. After a journalistic reporting of the Wheeler trial, the authors take a psychological approach to the story from the viewpoints of Betsy, the 13-year-old victim; Hannah, the abused wife; and Ephraim, the father, who insisted that he had been framed. The authors also follow the judges, the state councilors and the governor through the decision to uphold capital punishment and, particularly, to deny petitions for Ephraim's life. If the authors go a bit far in transposing modern psychology to these early Americans, they clearly distinguish documented facts from conjectures about the individuals' thoughts and emotions. Wheeler was hanged two centuries ago, yet the authors effectively demonstrate that there were never uncomplicated solutions to the perennial problems of family violence and criminal justice. 14 photos, 1 map.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist


In a forceful reminder of just how long Americans have debated the morality of capital punishment, two gifted historians revisit a post-Revolutionary Massachusetts community struggling to adjudicate the ugly case of a dissolute sailor and farmhand--one Ephraim Wheeler--accused of raping his daughter. Careful scrutiny of the evidence leaves little doubt about Wheeler's guilt. Still, a community anxious to distance itself from the bloody rigor of contemporary British jurisprudence was troubled by doubts about the justice of ending an almost 30-year hiatus of executions for rape. In limning the personality of the man whose fate lay in the balance, the authors uncover few virtues. Yet they do illuminate sufficient humanity to account for the petitions from 103 local residents for clemency. But the governor refused to intervene. And so the taut narrative of Wheeler's last moments--the sudden release of the supporting plank, the jerk of the rope, the frantic death struggle of the suspended man--leaves modern readers wrestling with the same questions that troubled nineteenth-century witnesses of the harrowing event. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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In 1806 an anxious crowd of thousands descended upon Lenox, Massachusetts, for the public hanging of Ephraim Wheeler, condemned for the rape of his thirteen-year-old daughter, Betsy. Not all witnesses believed justice had triumphed. The death penalty had become controversial; no one had been executed for rape in Massachusetts in more than a quarter-century. Wheeler maintained his innocence. Over one hundred local citizens petitioned for his pardon--including, most remarkably, Betsy and her mother.

Impoverished, illiterate, a failed farmer who married into a mixed-race family and clashed routinely with his wife, Wheeler existed on the margins of society. Using the trial report to reconstruct the tragic crime and drawing on Wheeler's jailhouse autobiography to unravel his troubled family history, Irene Quenzler Brown and Richard D. Brown illuminates a rarely seen slice of early America. They imaginatively and sensitively explore issues of family violence, poverty, gender, race and class, religion, and capital punishment, revealing similarities between death penalty politics in America today and two hundred years ago.

Beautifully crafted, engagingly written, this unforgettable story probes deeply held beliefs about morality and about the nature of justice.

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