I came across a good story while doing some research on the Augusta area, just the type of stuff you ghost hunters out there love to hear about. According to the story, A James Purrington moved from Bowdoinham to a farm on the Belgrade road and subsequently massacred his family with an ax and the committed suicide with a razor. Just another in a long line of oddities coming out of that little burg on the Kennebec River. Have you ever noticed that Bowdoinham’s phone numbers start with 666? 😮 Spooks a lurking behind every door, and a skeleton in every closet, as they say.
Stories like this one, and the Mary Knight murder I posted on a while back are just a few of the interesting events that have occurred across Maine throughout her history. These two excerpts are from a couple of different texts that touch upon this event. You can click on the links to read the story in the original publications from the 1800’s.
I found it particularly interesting that Purrintons body was buried near the road, with a mention that gossip claims that Bowdoin College had secretly exhumed the body and taken it to the college for scientific research. Did the college indeed take the body? Maybe, maybe not, but this story would make a good research project for those interested in these sorts of events in Maine history. A century and six years have passed since that tragic day, and we ask, could the spirits of those poor children and Betsy Purrinton still roam that farmhouse on the Belgrade road?
The Purrinton Tragedy
The year 1806 was made melancholy in the annals of the town by an awful tragedy committed by a maniac. James Purrinton (aged forty-six) came to Augusta with his wife (aged forty-five) and family from Bowdoinham in 1805, and occupied the farm on the Belgrade road that was owned by the late George Cony (who built the Cony House). Purrinton had eight children: Polly, aged 19 years; James, aged 17; Martha, 15; Benjamin, 12; Anna, 10; Nathaniel, 8; Nathan, 6; Louisa, 18 months.
On the morning of July 9th, between two and three o’clock, the maniacal monster stealthily assailed with an axe every member of his family, and killed instantly all except two— James (who recovered from his wounds), and Martha, who died July 30th. The maniac then cut his own throat and fell dead in his blood. The news of the deed spread horror everywhere. Elias Craig, as coroner, summoned a jury of inquest, consisting of John Eveleth (foreman), Theophilus Hamlen, James Child, Kendall Nichols, Shubael Pitts, Caleb Heath, Jonathan Perkins, Oliver Pollard, Samuel Bond, Ezekiel Page, Ephraim Ballard, jun. This jury found that Purrinton “of his malice aforethought” did kill and murder his wife and children, “and as a felon did voluntarily kill and murder himself.”
The selectmen caused the bodies to be carried to the meeting house, but that of the suicide was denied admission beyond the porch, where it was detained with the axe and razor spectacularly displayed on the coffin. The funeral was held the day after the tragedy, attended by many hundreds of people from the surrounding country. A platform was set up in Market Square for the minister. Daniel Stone offered prayer and Joshua Taylor (Methodist) preached to the multitude. The procession was headed by the coroner and his jury, behind whom were the seven victims’ bodies, “supported by bearers and attended by pall-bearers,” and they were followed by the surviving son (James} and relatives and people. Purrinton’s body was hauled on a cart behind.
The procession marched across the bridge to Fort Western, and having passed by it returned over the river and went via Bridge and State streets to the Winthrop road, and from thence to the burying ground (Mt. Vernon Cemetery), where, in the northeast corner, and near to the powder house (built in 1805) the bodies of the mother and her six children were buried side by side in graves that are unmarked. Purrinton’s body, with axe and razor,was buried between the road-side and the cemetery, but tradition hints that it was secretly exhumed in the darkness of the following night for the benefit of science at Bowdoin College.
Purrinton Tragedy of 1806 is Recalled
The State Librarian on a recent trip to Boston secured at an auction book store a very rare and valuable pamphlet, one recalling a long forgotten tragedy in Augusta. It is printed in the style of that day, with the coarse white paper, now browned with age, the queer faced type, with the old-fash1oned small s, and has 22 pages. Beyond the mark of age it is remarkably well preserved. The first and outside page is a gruesome affair. It is surrounded with a heavy black border and covered with heavy mourning rules. Near the top are cuts of seven coffins in a row and of varying sizes, probably representing the ages and sizes of the victims of the tragedy. At the bottom of the page is a single coffin, on which is cut a razor and an ax, the weapons with which the deed was committed. The title page inscription reads as follows:
HORRID MASSACREl l
of Capt. JAMES PURRINTON
Who on the Night of the Eighth of July 1806
Murdered His Wife, Six Children and Himself.
With a Particular Account of that Shocking Catastrophe to Which are Subjoined REMARKS on the fatal
tendency of erroneous principles and motives for receiving and obeying the pure and salutary precepts of the gospel
Copy Right Secured
Printed and Sold by Peter Edds
The article tells of the terrible murder by Capt. James Purrinton of his wife, seven children and himself one child escaping death, though wounded.
Captain Purrinton was born in 1750 in Bowdoinham and married Betsey Clifford of Bath. Twelve children were born to them, of which four died in infancy. The family in August, 1805 moved to Augusta and located on a farm about a mile and a half above the village. There they lived peacefully for some time, until the following year Mrs. Purrinton noticed that her husband was acting peculiarly and at one time found him sharpening a knife. When taxed with intending to make way with himself he denied it, but on the morning of July 9, 1806, Dean Wyman, a near neighbor, was aroused by James, the eldest Purrinton boy, who, wounded, had just escaped from his home and told of the terrible deed his father had just committed.
Wyman secured help and they proceeded to the Purrinton home, where Capt. Purrinton, his wife and six children were found dead and the second daughter, Martha, apparently dying.
The deed had been committed with an ax and the captain had cut his throat with a razor. The bodies of the victims were terribly mutilated, and almost all had put up a terrific struggle against their maniacal father. The list follows:
Dead—Mrs. Purrinton, aged 45; Polly, 19; Benjamin, 12; Anna, 10; Nathaniel, 8; Nathan. 6; Louisa, 18 months. Martha, aged 15, died the following July 30 from her wounds. James, aged 17, was but slightly wounded and recovered.
A letter was found written by Capt. Purrinton giving in a rambling way his religious views and expressing the hope of future happiness for all his family.
Coroner Elias Craig empaneled a jury, consisting of Theopilus Hamlin, James Child, Kendal Nichols, Shuball Pitts, Caleb Heath, Frederic Wingate, Jonathan Perkins, Oliver Pollard, Samuel Bond, Ezekiel Page and Ephraim Ballard, Jr. Wingate was foreman. The verdict was that Purrinton “Of his malice aforethought” did kill and murder his wife and children, “and as a felon did voluntarily kill and murder himself,” though the general opinion was that he was seized with an attack of hereditary insanity and was a maniac when he committed the deed.
The work then goes on to give the writer’s personal views on religion and the lessons taught by the tragedy, in a more or less interesting manner, filling greater part of the 22 pages.
Much additional information concerning the tragedy is contained in North’s History of Augusta, Among other things it states that the selectmen on the day of the tragedy placed the remains of the victims in the meeting house, leaving the remains of the father in the porch, with the ax and razor on the coffin. The next day “a vast concourse of people” gathered for the funeral, so great the throng “that the street and adjoining houses were filled and many were on the house tops.” Rev. Joshua Taylor, a Methodist minister, preached the funeral sermon. The remains of the mother and six children were taken across the bridge and returned, then going by way of Bridge and State streets to the Burnt Hill burying ground, in the northeast corner of which the remains were interred.
The remans of the father were taken without ceremony, with the ax and razor, and buried together in the highway, near the southwest corner of the burying ground, at the corner of Winthrop and High streets. The procession then returned to the meeting house and the multitude was dismissed, after prayer by Rev. Eliphaet Gillet.
North’s History also states that Purrinton frequently changed his religious belief, but had finally settled down to the belief of universal salvation. His manners were reserved and he was “obstinately tenacious of his opinion.” He was known to be elated or depressed according to circumstances and was, before the tragedy very despondent over the severe drought, fearing that his crops would be cut off and his family suffer from want.
North’s History further locates the home of the Purrintons by stating it was “a farm on the Belgrade road now owned and occupied by George Cony.”