July 25, 2010

Author Q&A:
Hanging judgment

Jerry Genesio's new self-published book tells the fascinating tale of the first execution ordered under the U.S. Constitution -- which took place in Portland.

By Tom Atwell tatwell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

The first execution ordered under the U.S. Constitution occurred in Portland, after a trial held at the predecessor to the current First Parish Church.

Thomas Bird, the person who was executed, was from England, and the crime took place off the coast of Africa. But Bird was arrested in Maine, held in a Portland jail until his trial, was hanged on Bramhall Hill on June 25, 1790, and is buried in an unmarked grave in Portland.

Jerry Genesio found a bit of information while working at the Portland Public Library, and the snippets he found about the case fascinated him. After retiring, he pursued more information, amazed that no one had written about the case.

Eight years later, he found 12 pages of information at a federal archive in Massachusetts. (Maine was part of Massachusetts in 1790, when the trial occurred.)

The result is "Portland Neck: The Hanging of Thomas Bird," a 132-page, self-published book telling the story of Bird, who was convicted of killing John Connor, captain of the slave ship on which he sailed. It also gives a brief look at what Portland was like in those early years of the new American government, and of some of the important people in town.

The book is available at some local bookstores and on Amazon.com. The price is $8.95. 

Q: How did you come up with the topic?

A: The last job that I had before I retired was as a special collections assistant at the Portland Public Library. I worked in the Portland Room.

In going over some of the history books of Portland and reference materials, I kept coming across references to this Thomas Bird who was hanged, the first execution under the U.S. Constitution by the U.S. District Court, and I wondered why such a significant piece of history had not been fleshed out.

It took me seven or eight years to find enough material to write the book. Maine was part of Massachusetts then, and I went to the federal archives in Waltham, Mass., and found 12 pages handwritten with quill pen that were records from the trial and just what I needed to write the book. It was like a treasure hunt looking for that story. 

Q: So did you actually go through the room of records down there, or was it in a list somewhere?

A: There is a room down there that they don't let anyone into. There was one guy down there who said he thought he knew of the trial and thought he had seen a folder. When he found the folder, he gave me white gloves and took all my ballpoint pens away from me and told me he would make copies of anything I wanted.

In the old history books by William Willis and Nathan Gould, there were references, maybe a half-page here or there, about this case, but never the complete story. I just kept finding clues, and one led to another.

I couldn't believe no one had written about this. It was the first execution ordered by a U.S. court under the Constitution.

His attorneys, William Symmes and John Frothingham, used that in making their appeal of the sentence to President Washington that this was a perfect opportunity for the federal court in its first case to show its leniency. 

Q: Do you think that Thomas Bird was guilty?

A: There is absolutely no way to know. Because Capt. Connor was such a brutal drunk, according to the record, that if the crew decided to take his life, I can see Thomas Bird taking part. But I don't think it was fair for him to be the only one held accountable for the crime, under the circumstances. I am surprised that some leniency wasn't shown. But no matter how brutal a captain was, at that time he was the law and god.

(Continued on page 2)

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