Friday, October 26, 2012


((Originally published in March 2007))

Jonathan Ames Jr. married Ruth Perley on Dec 19th, 1768 and
took his new bride home to live in his parents house which might
very well have been the same one built by Robert (E)Ames. The
story goes that, as often happens with newlyweds, the bride and
mother in law didn't seem to get along very well. The couple’s
first child was born in May in 1769 and there was no sign of
anything out of the ordinary until the morning of June 5th when
a neighbor, Mrs. Kimball, came to call on the young wife and was
informed by the elder Mrs. Ames that Ruth was ill.

Despite Mrs. Ames’ objections Mrs. Kimball insisted on seeing
Ruth and found the younger woman in agony and frothing at the
mouth. The illness has begun at 7 am in the morning and within
four or five hours Ruth Perley Ames was dead. The funeral and
burial was swift and the townsfolk of Boxford became highly
suspicious of the cause of the young bride’s death. They petitioned
for a coroner’s inquest and on July 10th the proceedings began
looking into whether Ruth had been poisoned.

It’s not my intention to recount the whole story. It can be read
here in the article from the Essex Antiquarian. But I did want to
point out some interesting aspects of the case. It’s probably the
last recorded instance of the medieval custom of “ordeal by
touch” in New England if not in America as a whole. Briefly, the
accused was made to touch the corpse’s neck with the index finger
of his left hand. If the touch caused the body to bleed at the point
of contact then the accused was guilty. There had been insufficient
evidence presented so far and apparently the townsfolk or one of
the jury proposed that Jonathan Ames and his mother be put to
the test with the exhumed body of Ruth Perley Ames.

Both Jonathan and his mother refused to take part in the ordeal
and so were taken off to jail in nearby Salem where a grand jury
indicted Mrs. Ames for murder and Jonathan as her accessory.
On November 9th Jonathan’s sister Elizabeth was also arrested
as an accessory and the trial began in Superior Court on November

The account of the trial reads almost like an episode of Law &
Order. The Crown was represented by Jonathan Sewall. The
accused was represented by Sewall’s old friend and fellow law
student, John Adams. By this time Jonathan had turned King's
Evidence against his mother and accused her of killing Ruth by
poisoning her with “rats bane”. There were four judges who
heard the case, three of whom seemed to feel the evidence was
sufficient for a guilty verdict. The fourth judge was unconvinced
due to the uncertainty of physicians as to whether it had indeed
been “rat’s bane“ (or arsenic as we now call it ) that had killed
the victim and also because it was not certain who administered
the poison in the first place.

The trial lasted late into the night and the jury got the case at 2am
on November 15th. At 9am, they came back with a verdict: Not
guilty. The Ames family was freed but would soon after leave town.

So, what relation is Jonathan Ames to me? What of the identity of
his mother, known only in the Antiquarian account as “Elizabeth
Ames”? Where did they all go to when they left Boxford in
shame? And what of Mrs. Kimball?

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