Historical novel ‘Gallows Road’ based on the 1753 hanging of a young mother in New London – Hartford Courant
Little is known about Sarah Bramble, who was executed in 1753 in New London on charges of killing her illegitimate infant. The mystery of the young servant girl has fascinated Lisa Hall Brownell since she knew her as a teenager. Brownell took this thin story and expanded it into his new novel “Gallows Road.”
Existing historical records say little about Bramble except that she denied killing the baby but was found guilty. The offices of King George II issued his death warrant, Bramble signed his final declaration with an “X” and she was hanged in front of a huge crowd.
Since there was no non-fiction way to find out more, Brownell created her own story: she changed Sarah’s name to Mercy and gave her a sad story, friends, enemies, hopes, dreams and a clear conscience.
“I wanted to make it clear that the ‘truth’ in some historical records can be biased, depending on who is telling the story. What is missing or omitted in a written document is just as important as what is documented,” said Brownell, of Ledyard. “What if” and “Why?” are the most frequent questions I have asked myself. …I wanted the freedom to explore circumstances and emotions that weren’t documented in the 1750s.”
In her research, Brownell reached a time when New London had no newspaper, female illiteracy was common, and most damagingly, a legendary malefactor wiped out the city and the information it held.
“One of the real villains of ‘Gallows Road’ is the traitorous Benedict Arnold, who burned down New London in 1781, erasing much of its ancient history,” she said. This fire, on September 6, 1781, destroyed more than 140 buildings, as well as ships. A gunpowder carrier exploded, further fueling the fire.
Brownell was born in New London and grew up in Waterford in “a house older than America”. This house fueled his interest in the pre-Revolution era and influenced the story of “Gallows Road”, published by Elm Grove Press.
The story is set in homes where Mercy was, according to Brownell, an indentured servant, sold by her mother to a landlord, who ‘owned’ her for seven years, then passed her on to another ’employer’. .
“I have often wondered why so little has been written about this case. Was this case simply considered too obscure? Was an indentured servant who was illegitimate, illiterate, and unbaptized considered too humble to be immortalized except as a dire warning to others? Brownell said.
In her second home, Mercy finds new friends but also danger in the form of a loving employer, his jealous wife, and the woman’s predatory son, who stalks and threatens Mercy and a fellow servant.
All of these additions to the historical record have been incorporated for several reasons: “First, although I am fascinated by history, I am not a historian. And second, I was aware of the gaps in the historical record for this particular case and wanted to create a relatable character for today’s reader. I also had to adopt the point of view of his world, a point of view strictly limited by his situation and his illiteracy.
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The real Bramble was not tried for witchcraft, but the legacy of this 17th century obsession was evident in some historical records. “The language used in the Superior Court documents indicates that Sarah Bramble was ‘moved and seduced by the instigations of the devil’. It suggested to me that certain beliefs were still very much alive. This suggestion is subtly incorporated into Brownell’s story.
Brownell incorporated other New England folk tales into the story of Mercy and her executioners. One reference is the legend of Micah Rood, the story of a Norwich-area farmer who allegedly killed someone and buried the body under an apple tree, whose apples dripped blood forever.
Another legend is that of The Leatherman, which is embodied in Brownell’s story as a traveling salesman of French descent. A third is the Spanish Ship case, a notorious case of stolen cargo in the mid-eighteenth century.
In the end, Brownell hopes readers will come to their own conclusions about Sarah, aka Mercy, Bramble.
“I believe the documents that survive the Sarah Bramble case could have been written or altered by the men who had a stake in her death: the ministers, the judges and the sheriff,” she said. “The fact that the ‘criminal’ is a woman is significant. She may have been unjustly condemned and a victim of circumstance because she had no one to defend her, not even her mother.
“Gallows Road” is on sale at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, RJ Julia, Elm Grove Press and, after April 26, Bank Square Books. A schedule of Brownell appearances and readings:
- April 26, 6-7 p.m. at Bank Square Books, 53 West Main St. in Mystic
- May 14 from 5-6pm at the Hygienic Arts Gallery, 79 Bank St. in New London
- June 4 at 1:30 p.m. at the Ledyard Public Library, 718 Colonel Ledyard Highway
Susan Dunne can be contacted at email@example.com.