Today in 1786, in the town of New London, Connecticut, 12-year-old Hannah Occuish was hanged after bring found guilty of the capital crime of murdering a six-year-old girl.
Hannah’s execution marked the tragic end to a short life full of trials and tribulations. Born in 1774 to a Pequot mother and father of unknown ethnicity, Hannah was orphaned at an early age. Her poor social status, her nonwhite ethnicity, and her struggles with what most modern historians believe was a mental disability made life extremely difficult for the young girl. In 18th century Connecticut society, which lacked anything even remotely resembling a modern-day social safety net, children like Hannah often ended up as indentured servants.
While historians know relatively little about Hannah or the details of her life, historical records confirm that Hannah was 12 years of age and indentured to an elderly New London resident in 1786. That summer, during strawberry-picking time, Eunice Bolles, a six-year-old girl from New London, returned home after a day in the strawberry fields and complained to her parents that Hannah Occuish had bullied her and taken some of her strawberries. Six weeks later, on July 21, Eunice’s lifeless body was found along the Norwich Road, “mangled in a shocking manner” with “a number of heavy stones placed on the body, arms and legs,” according to a contemporary Connecticut Courant newspaper report.
The very next day, Hannah was questioned as a suspect; initially, the preteen claimed to have seen four suspicious-looking boys in the area on the morning of the 21st, but her story fell apart under cross-examination and she eventually confessed to the crime. In October, Hannah was charged with murder, tried as an adult (there was no judicial precedent for treating juvenile crimes differently in 18th century America), and quickly found guilty. The judge ruled that Hannah, still angry with Eunice Bolles over their clash in the strawberry fields, had murdered her in a rage and then covered her in rocks to try and make the incident look like an accident due to a collapsed stone wall. The magistrate furthermore sentenced young Hannah to death, justifying his decision by telling Hannah, “The sparing of you on account of your age would… be of dangerous consequence to the public, by holding up an idea, that children might commit such atrocious crimes with impunity.”
Thus, on December 20, 1786, after a lengthy execution sermon preached (and later published) by Reverend Henry Channing from Yale College, 12-year-old Hannah Occuish was hanged in front of a crowd behind the New London meetinghouse. Young Hannah remains the youngest person ever executed in American history, and the last female executed in state history. A troubled girl met a disturbing fate, today in Connecticut history.
Julie Stagis, “A Girl, 12, Is Hanged In Connecticut For Murder In 1786,” Hartford Courant
“A Most Unusual Criminal Execution in New London,” connecticuthistory.org