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The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler

The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler

A Story of Rape, Incest, and Justice in Early America

Irene Quenzler Brown, Richard D. Brown

ISBN 9780674017603

Publication date: 04/30/2005

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 illuminate 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.


  • The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler is a haunting book that will engage the reader at every level--analytical, historical, and above all emotional. With exceptional insight and rare grace, the Browns describe an early republic at least as compelling and perhaps more real than the glamour of the Founding Fathers.

    —Jon Butler, author of Becoming America


  • Irene Quenzler Brown, a historian, is Associate Professor of Family Studies, University of Connecticut.
  • Richard D. Brown is Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History, University of Connecticut, and Director, University of Connecticut Humanities Institute.

Book Details

  • 408 pages
  • 0-15/16 x 5-1/8 x 7-15/16 inches
  • Belknap Press