Today we continue our series of reposts from MCW alums. Today it’s from Jen Blood, sharing the tale of a long ago murder, and reminding us that newspaper headlines could be a lot more lurid and engaging than many of those we see today. This is a Massachusetts murder, but for those who drive around Maine, there are always those old places that spark the imagination and lead to the question: who lives or lived there and isn’t that a great place for a murder? Indeed, crime writers are always asking the question: What’s the story?
Jen Blood on the Maine Crime scene today… I’ve been racking my brain for about a week now, looking for something extraordinary and entertaining for this month’s post with Maine Crime Writers. After Chris’s eloquent article on Monday, I thought I’d take a much less timely or studied approach while nonetheless continuing on the theme of Maine Crime… The crime this time, however, took place over two hundred years ago. I first began researching the grisly tale for a short story I wrote and then produced as a radio drama with WRFR, our local public broadcasting station in Rockland:
IT WASN’T THE GHOSTS THAT DREW ME TO THE STONE HOUSE. It wasn’t even the history, really. Not the mystery, nor the murder. Or murders, actually—eight of them over two hundred years before, when a supposedly upright former Harvard professor named Isaiah Burch took an axe to six of his seven children and his wife one night, then used his finest straight razor to slit his own throat.
But it wasn’t the murders that brought me to the house, either. No. Erin Solomon brought me there that day. The history and the mystery and the murder were just a convenient excuse. Solomon brought me there…
The ghosts just made me stay.
You can listen to the full audio here. It is based, albeit loosely, on the Purrington mass murder of 1806.
I first heard about the Purrington (there is much confusion as to the correct spelling of the name; I’m going with this one, but it’s also referred to as Purington and Purrinton) murders while doing a story on the Maine Greyhound Placement Service for Downeast Dog News a few years ago, because MGPS is actually built either on or near the site where the Purrington house once stood. While interviewing one of the volunteers there, he brought up the story. I promptly went home and researched, and stored it away as something I wanted to draw on at some undefined point in the future.
In 1805, Captain James Purrington moved with his family from Bowdoinham, Maine, to a farm on Old Belgrade Road in Augusta. From everything I’ve read thus far, he was a moody, dark sort of fellow, and my guess based on the highs and lows and what was called “hereditary madness” when people spoke about him after the fact, is that he probably suffered from bipolar or schizophrenia or some other illness that, in another time, might have been treated before things got out of hand. Unfortunately, that’s not the way things happened for the Purrington family.
Here’s an account from a hand-printed bill that detailed the night of the crime, on July 9, 1806:
“Between the hours of 2 and 3, a near neighbor, Mr. Dean Wyman, was awakened by the lad who escaped, with an incoherent account of the horrid scene from which he had just fled; he, with a Mr. Ballard, another neighbor, instantly repaired to the fatal spot, and here, after having lighted a candle, a scene was presented which beggars all description.–In the outer room lay prostrate on his face, and weltering in his gore, the perpetrator of the dreadful deed–his throat cut in the most shocking manner, and the bloody razor lying on a table by his side–In an adjoining bed-room lay Mrs. Purrinton in her bed, her head almost severed from her body; and near her on the floor, a little daughter about ten years old, who probably hearing the cries of her mother, ran to her relief from the apartment in which she slept, and was murdered by her side…”
What always gets me about these sorts of things is the graphic nature of the text. And, beyond that, you’ll note the depiction of the eight caskets on the bill (pictured above) — two large, the others lined up from largest to smallest. Eeks. According to the story, James Purrington was buried apart from the rest of the family, the axe and straight razor in the coffin with him. Though technically pre-Victorian, the account already shows that lurid fascination with the macabre the Victorian era is renowned for. The mid- to late- 1800s saw the return of so-called “mourning jewelry” – first made popular in the 1600s, jewelry made from a loved ones’ clothing, hair, or even bones – as well as the by-now-familiar memento mori death portraits. The Purrington murders pre-date those portraits by decades, but I took some liberties with my short story and included one such portrait – the image was just too chilling to resist.
The full story was that Purrington took an axe and murdered his wife, six of his eight children, and then killed himself with a straight razor. A seventeen-year-old son – the “lad” mentioned in the article – escaped with only minor injuries, while fifteen-year-old daughter Martha survived for another three weeks before she finally succumbed to her injuries.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Midwife’s Tale tells the story of Martha Ballard, a midwife with the incredible reputation of having never lost a mother in over one thousand births. Ballard was the midwife for the younger of the Purrington children, and the night of the murder it was Ballard’s home that the surviving son, seventeen-year-old James Purrington, fled to. The midwife detailed the night of the murder in her journal, and part of that story is told in Midwife’s Tale (which was later made into an award-winning PBS documentary).
I’ve altered other details of the crime to make everything fit within the fabric of my short story, including changing James Purrington from a captain with a history of ups and downs to a former Harvard professor who had been the picture of health. There is no greyhound farm in the story, but rather an old ice house and Freeport’s Stone House – a rambling estate I came to love while attending the University of Southern Maine’s Creative Writing MFA, as most of the MFA’s conferences and workshops were held there. But the spirit of the crime, that chilling knowledge that something dark and inexplicable happened in this place, remains.
The final line that captured my imagination and always makes me pause, is toward the end of the hand-printed bill, and was italicized by the original author.
“The ways of Providence are dark and mysterious! yet God is just! and man, weak man, must tremble and adore!”
You can read the full text from the hand-printed bill here.