a rugged, wild and dreary road

Map & Compass flag and treasure box

Earlier today Beverly and I went hiking in the woods near Gallows Lane in New London. She was setting out flags and prizes hidden in the woods for the thirty children who will be coming to her Map & Compass activity on Saturday. The children have to use a map of the woods and a compass to locate eight places marked by the flags. Each location has a plastic box filled with a little treasures. They bring back one treasure from each box to prove they found each of the flags. (They get to keep the treasures…) I think the first kid back from the expedition gets another prize, too. It took us a couple of hours to set it all up, so they’ll be having a long walk and an adventure, too, if they manage to find them all!

The cliff where Sarah Bramble
was hung from the gallows…

One might wonder how a road would come to be designated with such a morbid name. Gallows Lane. Well, it was a terrible thing that happened there. A servant woman named Sarah Bramble was executed by hanging off the cliff here in 1753. She had been convicted of murdering her illegitimate newborn daughter. So far I haven’t found out too much about her, but what I have found out makes me more curious than ever about her life.

November 21st, 1753, Sarah Bramble was executed in a cross highway that leads out of the main road to Norwich, about two miles north of the town plot. This path has ever since been known as Gallows Lane. It is a rugged, wild and dreary road, even at the present day. The fearful machine was erected in the highest part of the road, and all the hills and ledges around must have been covered with the spectators. It was computed that 10,000 assembled on this occasion; some of them probably came twenty or thirty miles to witness this repulsive exhibition. The gloom of the weather added another dismal feature to the scene, a drizzly rain continuing most of the day.

This is the only public execution of any white person that ever took place in New London. The crime of the unhappy woman was the murder of her infant illegitimate child, on the day of its birth. It was committed in April, 1752, and she was tried by the superior court the next September. But the jury disagreeing in their verdict, she was kept imprisoned another year, and sentenced October 3d, 1753. She declined hearing the sermon intended for her benefit, which was preached by Rev. Mr. Jewett, before the execution.

Frances Manwaring Caulkins, History of New London, Connecticut: From the First Survey of the Coast in 1612, to 1852, (Hartford, Connecticut: Press of Case, Tiffany & Company, 1852), 468

Sunlight through the trees and spilling over the wall…

[September 28, 1753] “at the meeting house to hear the Tryal of Sarah Bramble for murdr of her Bastard Child in March 1752.  Court Sat by Candle light.”
[October 1, 1753] “the Jury brot in their verdict & found Sarah Bramble Guilty of Murdering her Bastard Child a female in march 1752.”
[October 3, 1753] “Sarah Bramble Received Sentance of Death ys Day”
[October 24, 1753] “went to Lectureto hear Mr Jewit who pr to Sarah Bramble &c.”
[November 7, 1753] “in the aftern att Lecture. Mr Jewit preacht. the Sermon Composed to be pr to Sarah Bramble, but she declined Coming to hear itt, a Large Congregation.”
[November 21, 1753] “Misty & Rain moderately. S: Bramble. I was at home foren. in the aftern I Rid up to the Cross Highway abve Jno Bolles to See Sarah Bramble Executed for the Murdering her Bastard Child in march last was a year Since. She was hanged at 3 Clock. a Crowd of Spectators of all sexes & nations yt are among us from the neighbouring Towns as well as this. Judged to be Ten Thousand. it Rained moderately most of the day.”

Joshua Hempstead, Diary of Joshua Hempstead of New London, Connecticut (New London, Connecticut: New London County Historical Society, 1901), 616-619

Stone walls in the woods…

It strikes me how matter-of-fact and unemotional Hempstead is about this woman’s trial and execution. He doesn’t say one way or the other what he thinks about the matter. Why did the jury disagree on a verdict? Who was the father of Sarah Bramble’s child? Didn’t he have some responsibility for what happened? Was the father possibly her employer? I can’t help feeling she was probably abandoned and forced to bear the blame for the “fornication.” And why did she murder her baby, if she did? Did she want to spare it the pain of a lifetime of being referred to and excluded as a Bastard? Did she feel cornered, like there was no other way out? Honestly, I could see myself reasoning that way if I had found myself in that situation in that time period. Maybe she was suicidal…

There’s a lot of history in these woods, which are still claiming back the land the early settlers turned into farms and then abandoned when they moved westward. Today we found a pen made of stones for ewes and their lambs. The rocks were low enough for the mother sheep to leave to find food and return, but high enough to keep the lambs safe inside. Amazing how shepherds knew to build such an enclosure and how the sheep made use of it, instinctively knowing it was just what they needed for a perfect nursery!

We also found a pretty little princess pine forest…

Enchanting princess pine forest…

10 thoughts on “a rugged, wild and dreary road”

    1. You’re welcome, Jeff. This morning I started wondering if the poor woman might even have been raped… Hmm – that’s a thought, perhaps in the future I might have the time to start digging around for enough material to write an interesting account of Sarah’s life. Maybe even a historical fiction… Thanks for a great idea! 🙂

  1. What a brilliant post! As a bit of a history buff I was fascinated by this tragic story! Old woods are magical, and for me very scary! The picture of the hanging stone made the hairs stand up. I have a habit of becoming easily spooked in old woods, it’s so easy to start the feeling of someone watching you. A moving branch or a cracked twig and my eyes are darting for the culprit. I’ve visited America a number of times, but never ventured to far from the safety of people. I’d love a trip through these woods, but perhaps not alone! Please keep posting more of the same. Superb!

    1. Thank you, Keith! It’s funny, I grew up in the woods and was never scared, even when I got lost. The trees were my friends and I never felt alone. There was a hemlock tree I climbed often and spent a lot of time in its branches, soaking up its energy – it’s dying now – but someday I plan to blog about its history. (My sister found an aerial photo from the 1930s that shows our woods was once part of a farm, but this particular tree was there at that time, which would explain why it is so much larger than the others around it.)
      But that was back in the 1960s and I don’t feel safe alone in the woods where I live now. Things are different. And I have to say the part of the woods where the poor woman was hanged does have a creepy strong energy. As if the woods remembers 10,000 people gathered to watch something so terrible.
      It’s nice to meet someone interested in local history. I’ll see what else I can dig up for you! Thanks again for your kind words and encouragement!

      1. Barbara, we live in a very old village with many strange stories. A few buildings down from where we live, there’s a plot of land which has never been built upon. Its a green square with only an old oak tree. History has it, that this square plot was a ‘plague pit’, (which are common in old villages). The children refuse to play there and the homes on either side are always up for sale! I shall post you a picture.

        1. I would like to see a picture of the plague pit, Keith. It’s amazing how the land seems aware of history, and holds onto it that way. When I was younger I read the *Kristin Lavransdatter* trilogy by Sigrid Undset. In the last book, the Black Death arrived in Norway and I was spellbound by the way the author described its effects on the lives of the characters. Eventually it claimed Kristin’s life, too. Taking that in was one of those “aha” moments in my life, when I realized it wasn’t history that I disliked, it was the way it was taught at school. Wars, dates and exploits are not nearly as interesting as the lives of the people living during social and cultural periods of transition.

  2. The miniature pine forest is so enchanting! There is so much left unsaid about this woman’s life, and it speaks volumes, doesn’t it? Thank you looking into her story in more depth and sharing it here. It kind of blows me away thinking of everything the old trees around us have witnessed.

    1. Me, too, Cait! Sometimes I wonder if some of today’s trees were there back when only Native Americans were here, before Europeans arrived. What long lives they have!
      When I wasn’t climbing up trees as a child, I was often laying on the ground, eye level with the princess pines, imagining them to be a little fairy forest. Once I even lay down in the snow, loving the way the little tops of them were poking through the thin layer of snow crust on top of the snow. Do you have princess pines up in your neck of the woods?

  3. I think we do, though I’ve always known it as Ground Pine. Yes, a fairy forest is what I always imagined them as too! We went to Clayoquot Sound in BC a few years ago and were intending to do a sea kayak/hike over to Meares Island to visit an 800 year old tree, but there was too much fog to make the crossing. Shortly after we got home, we heard that it fell. I was so sad to have missed it.

    1. How disappointing to travel all that way and miss such a rare sight! One thing leads to another, and your story aroused my curiosity so I found some information online. It sounds amazing, all those ancient trees still living in the temperate rainforest. Another incentive for us to travel out west some day… It must be beautiful there…

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