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Chapter 1

A Reluctant Confession; Innocence Interrupted

   On the eve of my execution they hound me, man after man, to confess to the crime of murder, the crime of which I have been convicted by a jury of my peers and sentenced to hang by a judge of the great state of New York; the crime which I did not commit. Men of the cloth, worried for my everlasting soul— and I believe I have been ministered by every sect—bring me books and tracts, read me sermons and platitudes. I must tell the truth, they say, to earn God’s forgiveness. God will not tolerate a liar, they tell me, I must confess my sins, unburden my soul in order to enter the Kingdom; and I try to comprehend a theology where a murder is forgiven, but a lie is not. Clearly, it is not my soul but their own souls that worry them. Like the constables and magistrates of Monroe County, who, tomorrow morning, will take my life; as sure as they are of my guilt, they are still fearful of hanging an innocent man.

And the newspaper men who propagate like maggots around a hanging, they want me to confess to this and other crimes, not for the sake of anyone’s soul, but for the sake of their journals, spewing venom today and wrapping garbage tomorrow. From as far away as Manhattan they come, confronting me with rumors and half-truths, demanding answers to their foolish questions.  Why did I commit this murder? What about the others for which I have been charged by the court of innuendo? How had I gone so far to the bad at such a tender age? What forces led me to this wretched life of crime? They demand a statement, any statement, anything to drive their story beyond the usual gallows clichés, and in this they are relentless.

So to please all, and to get some much-needed rest in my final hours, I have agreed to confess, in my own words, and in writing. The county has provided me with pen and paper, and all will leave me alone until the morning when the pageant in full begins. As I sit here ready to begin the task, I can’t help but heave a sigh of relief – at last some peace. From the time I was arrested, through the trial, and until this moment, the din and confusion have been overwhelming. So yes, in the silence of the cell, by the light of this thin candle they have allowed me, I will write my confession.

I, Jonathan Pratt, confess to violating countless laws of the State of New York, and all of God’s Commandments save the one for which I shall hang. There are those I have met in my travels, righteous men, for whom breaking nine of Ten Commandments would be sufficient for the gallows, but by the laws of New York I did not commit a capital crime and should not pay the penalty of my life.  You may say that all condemned men profess innocence, and you would be right; and in admitting to breaking nine Commandments, have I not also identified myself as a liar? Yes again, but that is the very reason I undertook to write this confession. For only a full account of the incidents which led to this cruel fate will explain my situation and I beg you, dear reader, to withhold judgment until you have read it all.

I was born in 1832 in Essex County, Massachusetts. The mother I never knew died during that delivery, and, looking back, perhaps that is why I never knew my father either.  All of the mothering I received came from my two sisters, Sarah, older by four years, and Naomi, older by three. My brother Jacob, eight years my senior, had, to my mind, always been an adult.

We had a farm outside of Salem where I would work all day in the summer months, and in the winter months, do chores after school. I loved working on the farm, tending to the fields, taking care of the animals—feeding chickens, milking cows. Everything had its needs and its time, and I knew the schedule. It seemed to me less like work, as I was later to understand the word, than play. It was my role in the natural order of things.

The girls loved farm life less than I; they would tell me their plans for leaving it when they were old enough.  We had a place we would meet, a tall oak tree on the south field—Papa and Jacob wished it gone, but had deferred its removal until more ground was needed. Under the oak, I would listen to the plans and dreams of my sisters. Naomi wished to marry a rich and handsome Salem man and spend her days shopping and her nights at fine dinner parties. Not Sarah; she wished to travel the world, to see the capitals of Europe, and then visit China and maybe Africa.  When I told them I had no plans, and just wished to stay on the farm forever, they laughed at me, said I was just a child and would soon want to be off the farm as much as they did. I thought they were wrong; I could not imagine a life off the farm.

But things began to change.  My sisters would ask Papa for money to buy some trifle, and he would refuse, saying times were hard, we must be frugal. Christmas and birthdays were smaller and less festive—more hard times. Then, true to their plans, my sisters began to leave.  First Sarah said she was leaving to work in the cotton mills in Lowell. It made sense; she wanted to travel the world. Lowell was just the start. But in the back of my mind, I wondered if the hard times hadn’t driven her away. Then Naomi agreed to marry Mr. Avery of Ipswich. Marriage had been her desire, but Mr. Avery was twenty years older than she, bald, fat and far from handsome, and though his farm was larger than ours, I would not call him rich. I could not second guess her judgment, but maybe it was hard times again.

Easter Sunday 1848, not long after my sixteenth birthday, I rode to church with my father for the first time without my sisters. Jacob rode on ahead, saying he had something to do in town after the service. It was just my father and me in the wagon, and we spoke not a word.

We belonged to the Congregational Church in Salem but seldom attended Sunday services anymore. We went for weddings and funerals, and of course, we still went for Easter. In former days we had owned a pew in the front of the church, but my father gave it up after Naomi was married. Now it seemed strange sitting in the back of the church among people I did not recognize as if we were guests in our own church.

My father did not speak as we left the churchyard that Easter Sunday, but on the road home, he broke the silence.

“Jonathan, I have been thinking of your future. I want to do what is best for you and for the family.”

I nodded.

“I will get straight to the point, Jonathan, I will not be on this earth forever, and I must do what is best for all before I die. I am giving the farm to Jacob. I cannot divide it. Neither piece would survive without the other. Thus, I have arranged for your indenture to Mr. Pembroke the cooper, in Salem. You will work for him and learn his trade. When you have mastered it, your fortune will be in your own hands.”

I was aghast, caught completely unprepared for this.   I would be leaving the farm as my sisters had don’t want to leave home, Papa. Can’t I stay on the farm and help Jacob?”

“No, Jonathan. Without ownership, you will be nothing more than a farm hand. That is no life for a man. Times are too hard; the farm cannot support you both. You shall become a cooper; you shall leave tomorrow.”

We sat in silence again, and I tried to imagine life away from the farm.  I did not want to leave. It was all I could do to stifle tears. My father spoke to me in a soothing tone.

“You know, Jonathan before my own father died he divided his farm between my brother and me.”

“You and Uncle Asa.”

“Yes, but what I have never told you is that I had another brother, Samuel. My father knew the farm could not be split three ways so when Samuel was no older than you, he was indentured to a merchant ship out of Salem, and we never saw him again. I tell you this, Jonathan, to show you that, though you may think me cold to turn you out this way, I could have been much colder. Samuel, if he even survived his first voyage, was destined to a life at sea, the hardest life a man can endure.  But I have arranged for you to learn a trade and prosper from your own skill and enterprise. You will save the farm from hard times as Samuel had, but what Samuel sacrificed is more than I could ever ask of you.

I sat quietly for a time, still trying to understand what was happening. I felt sad for Samuel, but how did his trouble make mine less? I said, “Papa, where did the hard times come from?”

He looked up at me, “What son?”

“Our lives were once so good,” I said, “we work just as hard now, where did the hard times come from?”

“I curse the bankers,” he said, “and New York speculators.” It was a curse I had heard before, and I knew if he said any more it would only make him angry, and I would not understand any of it.

Next morning, after breakfast, my brother Jacob said his good-byes—shook my hand and gave me a gold dollar. We hitched the wagon, and my father drove me into Salem.  I was off to become a cooper, and at that time I did not even know what a cooper was.