Thursday, September 19, 2013

Thriller Thursday - Murder in Charlestown

We tend to associate slavery with the Southern colonies  and forget that slavery was legal in all thirteen colonies. The more I research, the more records I find involving slaves in New England. Like this story, they usually do not involve my ancestors but I get caught up in reading the accounts and this story in particular seemed worth sharing. It is shocking in many ways. 

In 1755 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, three of Capt. John Codman's slaves, Mark, Phillis, and Phebe, decided to poison him...although there is no primary record that tells why, it appears that Mark was separated from his family. The deposition, of Phillis, indicates that Mark came up with the idea because he really wanted a different master. The conspirators tried a less direct approach at first - working together Mark and Phillis burned down part of the property, hoping it would force a sale but that didn't happen.  Some secondary accounts say Capt. Codman was a strict taskmaster and a stern disciplinarian who had been violent on occasion.  The mastermind of the plot was Mark and he was able to read the Bible. He came to the conclusion that it was not a sin to kill if it was accomplished without spilling any blood. It might also be harder to detect. Mark was joined by fellow slaves, Phillis and Phebe, who put the poison in the food and drink. Other slaves belonging to other masters were accessories as they helped procure the arsenic and kept quiet about the plot. It did not take long after Capt. Codman's death for the crime to be traced back to Mark and Phillis. 

At the trial, they were both found guilty and sentenced to different, but equally gruesome, deaths. On September 18, 1755, Phillis was burned at the stake. She was one of only two people in colonial Massachusetts to receive this punishment. The other was another female slave, Maria, who in 1681,  tried to kill her master by setting his house on fire. On the same date, Mark was tarred, and gibbeted, or hanged in chains or a cage. Gibbeting involved leaving the body hanging as a warning to others and was most often used with pirates, as seen in this image of the pirate, William Kidd.  

The tarring may have acted as a preservative - read this excerpt from Pirates of the New England Coast.

Nearly twenty years later, Paul Revere even used the spot as a landmark when describing the route he took that fateful night in 1775. "I set off upon a very good Horse; it was then about 11 o'Clock, and very pleasant. After I had passed Charlestown Neck and go nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains, I was two men on Horse back, under a Tree. when I got near them, I discovered they were British officers."

Phebe appears to have been sold in the Caribbean - a place notorious for its brutality and others may have also suffered the same fate. 

Some sources for further investigation:
From The Freedom TrailCelebrate Boston and New England's Hidden History at
Gibbeting in Colonial America
The Trial and Execution for Petit Treason of Mark and Phillis
Pirates of the New England Coast


  1. Amazing story! I've added a link to this post on the Slave Name Roll Project page. Thank you.

    1. As soon as I read about it, I knew I had to do a blog post even though I don't have any ancestral connection (that I know of). Thanks for adding it to the Slave Name Roll Project!