“Basely Murthered”: The Shocking Death of Elizabeth McKinstry

By William F. Hanna

Dreadful news reached Robert Treat Paine as he rode into Taunton on the morning of June 4, 1763. Elizabeth McKinstry, his friend and the sister of one of Taunton’s most prominent physicians, had been viciously attacked in the kitchen of her brother’s home. Her assailant, a young slave owned by the family, had fled the scene and was the subject of a widespread manhunt.

Still standing on present-day High Street, on the slope of Toad Hill, the McKinstry House now serves as the rectory of St. Thomas Episcopal Church. Built in 1759 in the Georgian style of architecture, the house was one of the social centers of mid-eighteenth century Taunton. Dr. William McKinstry and his wife Priscilla were popular and genial hosts with many friends in a town still undivided by revolutionary politics.

The McKinstry House ca. 1900

Most of what we know about the McKinstry case comes from Paine, who has given us three first-hand accounts of what happened during those stressful days. One of these is found in a letter written to his sister, Eunice, on June 13, 1763. A second is contained in an account written by Paine and published in The Boston Evening Post on the same day as his correspondence with Eunice. He wrote the third in late 1763, six months after the murder. It was published as an appendix to a sermon delivered by Reverend Sylvanus Conant at the killer’s execution, on the first of December. As both a friend of the bereaved family as well as an officer of the court, Paine was closely associated with the case from beginning to end.

Upon hearing the news of the crime, Paine went immediately to the McKinstry house, where he was gratefully received by the family. He later told Eunice that he found the residence “full of curious Spectators, Confusion, Anxiety and distress.” He learned that Elizabeth, 28 years old, was still alive but senseless and gravely injured. They told him that earlier in the morning she and “a little Girl,” being the only ones up, had come downstairs in the residence. In the kitchen they were joined by Bristol, a family slave described as “about 16 Years old.” Elizabeth wanted to do some early morning ironing, so after placing flat-irons in the fire she asked the child to go back upstairs to retrieve a certain piece of cloth. The girl was gone for about eight minutes and when she returned she saw neither Bristol nor Elizabeth nearby.

When the child entered the kitchen she first noticed that one of the flat-irons had fallen on its side. In his letter to The Boston Evening Post, Paine reported that the child “heard a bitter Groan, and stepping towards the Parlour, in the Entry Way she perceived a large Quantity of Blood . . . and immediately at the Foot of the Cellar Stairs” she saw Elizabeth lying in a “woeful condition.”

The child’s anguished cries awakened the McKinstrys and they hurried to the cellar, soon to be joined by neighbors who had heard the commotion. Upon the doctor’s examination, it appeared that Elizabeth “had received three or four Blows on the back of her Head, by means of which the Skull Bone was split almost across, depressed and fractured, and the left side of her Face was exceedingly burnt.”

As the injured young lady was being cared for, the family learned that Bristol had been seen riding away from the house on the doctor’s horse. Apparently in planning the crime he had earlier saddled and tied the horse near the back door of the residence and made good his escape before the neighbors arrived. Word of the atrocity spread quickly, however, and the young man’s escape was to be short-lived.

Elizabeth lingered near death throughout that day and into the next. On the morning after the attack she was visited by Dr. Elisha Tobey, of Dartmouth, one of the county’s best-known physicians, but the family knew that all was lost. Tobey confirmed that Elizabeth’s wounds were mortal and she died later that evening. By then word had spread through the town that Bristol had been apprehended in Newport, Rhode Island and was being returned to Taunton to face charges stemming from the attack.

A week later Paine told his sister that with Elizabeth’s death, “the burthen of everything lay upon me. . . . “ At 5 o’clock on the morning after she died, the coroner had asked Paine to take charge of the inquest. The young lawyer, who had moved to Taunton only two years earlier, was given just a few hours to prepare for the proceedings.

Late in the afternoon of June 6, Bristol appeared before a jury of inquest. At first, Paine told his sister, the boy appeared “sullen” and denied the charges, but after being remanded to the Taunton jail, he changed his story. The slave, wrote Paine, “has since most penitently confessed to me & many others the facts, . . .” In the account later published as the appendix to Conant’s sermon, Paine recalled Bristol testifying that “as Miss McKinstry was stooping over the Fire, he catch’d up a Flat-Iron that stood on the Hearth, struck her on the Head, and knock’d her into the Fire, which burnt her Face; he then gave her another Blow, and immediately dragged her down the Cellar Stairs, where finding an old Ax, he struck her with it on the Head, and made off as fast he could.”

Elizabeth was buried on June 14, 1763 in what Paine, who served as one of six pallbearers, described as “the largest & best regulated funeral I ever saw in the Country.” Her gravestone, calling attention to the fact that she was “basely murthered by a Negro boy,” still stands in the Plain Burial Ground on Broadway in Taunton.

Elizabeth McKinstry’s gravestone in the Plain Burial Ground. Note that in the 18th century even unmarried women were sometimes respectfully addressed as “Mrs.”

As Bristol awaited trial, townspeople could only wonder what had motivated him to harm the young woman. Paine wrote that until the crime the boy “was an exceeding good Servant, and remarkable for his obsequious Behaviour, nor was there the least surmise of his bearing Hatred to the deceased. . . . “ In the appendix to Conant’s sermon Paine characterized Bristol as having “always appeared happy in his Situation, and [he] showed uncommon readiness to do his Business . . . without the least Appearance of Sullenness or Malice.” Likewise, even after the crime, Bristol showed sincere remorse and took full responsibility for what he had done. While in the Taunton jail, Paine said that “he appeared very penitent, and expressed his Sorrow for the Crime: Particularly for the Grief he had brought on his Master’s Family.” He repeatedly said that he had harbored not the slightest ill will toward Elizabeth.

When asked why he had killed Elizabeth, Bristol said that a slave belonging to John McWhorter had threatened to kill him if he didn’t take the young woman’s life. “This he persisted in to his dying moment,” wrote Paine.

More than two and a half centuries later we can only regret that more detailed records of the case haven’t survived. The scarcity of information leaves several interesting questions unanswered. Among them is the identity of the “little Girl” mentioned by Paine as having assisted Elizabeth that morning. Over their sixteen-year marriage (1760–1776) William and Priscilla McKinstry had ten children, four of whom were girls. However, Priscilla, their eldest daughter, wasn’t born until 1765, so the child in the kitchen was not the daughter of the doctor and his wife. Who was she and what was her status in the McKinstry household? Could she have been an indentured servant or even another McKinstry slave?

Also of interest is the background of Bristol. Like most slaves of the period, almost nothing is known about him. Paine, certainly getting his information from the McKinstrys, wrote in Conant’s appendix that Bristol had come to New England from Africa at the age of “about eight Years,” and had spent the next five years at the Windsor, Connecticut home of Reverend John and Elizabeth McKinstry, the parents of William and Elizabeth. Upon his master’s death, writes Paine, Bristol was bought by William and taken to Taunton, where he lived for three years before murdering Elizabeth in 1763.

We can only wish we knew more about this. First, record-keeping , especially concerning the births of children born into slavery, was notoriously poor, and often non-existent. In most cases neither slaves nor their owners had any reliable information about the particulars of their birth dates, places, siblings, etc. Additionally, as in Bristol’s case, it would have been unusual for a small child to have endured the so-called Middle Passage across the Atlantic on a slave ship. More than likely, Bristol was born in the New World, probably in the Caribbean, and brought to the North American mainland sometime later.

Equally uncertain is the timeline proposed for Bristol’s whereabouts. If he was 16 years old when he murdered Elizabeth, that would place his birth sometime during the year 1747. But Reverend McKinstry died in 1754, and by that reckoning Bristol would have been just 7 years old at the time of his move to Taunton. And if he had spent three years here with the family of Dr. William McKinstry, he would have been about 10 years old when Elizabeth died. The point is that local officials in1763 could only approximate Bristol’s age, and that is what they did as the case unfolded. While it is doubtful that he was younger than 16 when he killed Elizabeth, he may well have been older.

This brings us to the most interesting question: motive. According to Paine, Bristol said that John McWhorter’s slave had threatened to kill him unless he murdered Elizabeth. Who was that slave, and how did he answer Bristol’s charge? Certainly he was questioned, and he surely knew that inciting another slave to murder a white woman would have reserved him a place on the gallows next to the murderer. Yet he remains unidentified and there is no surviving record that he was ever held responsible for a criminal act. Could that mean the authorities didn’t believe Bristol when he gave that as his reason for killing Elizabeth?

Another possible motive has circulated through the years, this one repeated by William Willis in an article published in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register. In it, Willis writes that Bristol had been led to believe that he could win his freedom by killing a member of the McKinstry family. This can be dismissed out of hand, first because Paine, who was called upon to represent Bristol, never mentioned it; and second because — no matter what his age — nothing in Bristol’s life as a slave would have ever caused him to believe that murdering his master’s sister would bring anything but a death sentence.

These questions notwithstanding, Bristol, represented by Paine, was tried before the Superior Court in Taunton on October 13, 1763. Samuel White, the king’s attorney for Bristol County, asked that a sentence of death be passed on the defendant. When asked by the court why the request should not be granted, Bristol made no reply and was therefore sentenced to hang on November 14. In the interim Paine secured a three-week reprieve for the boy, which ultimately brought him to the gallows on December 1, 1763.

Robert Treat Paine

Executions were rare in Taunton, but there was a “hanging ground” just in case. It was located adjacent to the north end of the Plain Burial Ground, perhaps within sight of Elizabeth McKinstry’s grave. On the appointed day clergymen offered prayers and Reverend Conant delivered his sermon. Then, in the manner of the time, the condemned man was asked if he wished to speak. According to Paine, Bristol made a “long Speech” in which he expressed his concern for the McKinstry family, thanked those who had been kind to him in jail, and acknowledged the justice of his sentence. Then, after repeating the Lord’s Prayer, said Paine, Bristol’s life was “turn’d off.”

In retrospect, it’s interesting to note what lesson the town chose to take from Elizabeth McKinstry’s murder. Slavery had been a part of life in Massachusetts, including Bristol County, since the earliest days, and indeed it would last for another two decades after 1763. Besides the McKinstrys, several prominent families — including the Paines — had once owned, or still did own, slaves. Given the shocking events of June 1763 there’s no doubt that Tauntonians would have agreed with Robert Treat Paine when he warned of “the bad Effects of Negroes too freely consorting together.” Indeed, he wrote that the McKinstry murder “naturally calls upon those who have Care of Negroes to be very vigilant in removing the Prejudices of their barbarous Disposition . . . and particularly to inspect their companying together. . . . “ The repercussions, if there were any, are lost to history.

After Elizabeth’s murder the McKinstrys remained in Taunton for eleven years before they were driven out by townspeople — former friends and colleagues — who found their support of the Crown unacceptable. In that time, William, Priscilla and their children saw the Revolutionary struggle from an decidedly different perspective. We’ll visit them again in another blog.

The McKinstry House, 2022

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