By Walter W. Woodward
(c) Connecticut Explored. Fall 2016
On September 2, 1772, thousands gathered in New Haven’s First Congregational Church to watch a rare encounter between two Native Americans. One represented the stereotype many colonists believed most Indians in New England had become—dissolute, drunken, prone to violence; the other symbolized what colonists hoped Indians could become—Christian, educated, much like the Anglo-Americans themselves.
The occasion was the hanging of 32-year-old Wampanoag Moses Paul and the sermon the Mohegan Presbyterian minister Samson Occom was to deliver to the condemned man. Paul was to be executed for murdering Moses Cook, a 52- year-old white man, by hitting him in the head with an iron bar while in a drunken rage at being thrown out of a tavern. His public hanging was the first in New Haven since 1749. The rarity of the event, plus the fact that Paul’s execution sermon would be delivered by another Indian, drew the “very great Concourse of people,” reported in the Connecticut Journal.
Execution sermons were a regular feature of colonial capital punishment, and, along with the executions themselves, they drew thousands of spectators. Virtually all of the 460 public executions in New England before 1800 were preceded by a sermon written for, to, and about the condemned, delivered by a minister whose goal was to transform the spectacle into a moment of profound moral and spiritual significance, as Scott Seay explains in Hanging Between Heaven and Earth: Capital Crime, Execution Preaching, and Theology in Early New England (Northern Illinois University Press, 2009). More than 60 execution sermons were published in New England before 1800, and historian Daniel Cohen, author of Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture 1674-1860 (Oxford Press, 1993), notes they formed America’s first true crime literary genre. Occom’s sermon for Moses Paul, the first published writing by a Native American, became “the first Indian best seller,” according to historian A. LaVonne Brown Rudolf; it ultimately appeared in 19 editions for readers eager to know what a “praying Indian” had to say to a dying one..
Paul had asked to have Occom preach his execution sermon because he believed he was being hanged for being an Indian. As historian Ava Chamberlain notes (in “The Execution of Moses Paul: A Story of Crime and Contact in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut
Authors,” The New England Quarterly, September 2004), Paul admitted to killing Cook, but he had insisted on appeal that Cook had first taunted, threatened, and then severely beaten him. Those circumstances, Paul argued, should have lead to a charge of manslaughter, for which the punishment should be branding, not hanging. Paul further insisted that a prejudiced jury had rushed to a faulty judgment and that he therefore deserved a new trial. His appeals were denied, but Occom’s presence—as the then most celebrated native minister in America—would implicitly underscore the injustice of his conviction.
Occom, however, though he recognized whites’ pervasive anti-Indian prejudice, attributed Paul’s fate to his sin of drunkenness. He told Paul, “Whatever partiality, injustice and error there may be among the judges of the earth . . . You have despised yourself … and now, poor Moses, Your sins have found you out.” Occom’s sermon warned all who listened of the wages of sin and explicitly cautioned Indians against alcohol, especially when foisted on them by whites eager to take advantage of them. “You have been cheated over and over again, and you have lost your substance by drunkenness. O fools, when will ye be wise?” Occom’s harsh message was tempered in the end by his insistence that, even at the moment of death, Paul’s true repentance might lead to heavenly salvation. And on that note, Paul was taken to the gallows, with Occom at his side, and hanged.
Walter Woodward is the Connecticut state historian.
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