A very rare illustrated broadside issued on the occasion of the execution of Samuel Frost for murder on October 31, 1793. Published in Worcester, Massachusetts by Isaiah Thomas, one of the leading printers of the Revolutionary and early Republican eras and the founder of the American Antiquarian Society.
The broadside is large and striking, nearly 20” high by 17” wide, adorned by a large woodcut, several lines of headline type and a mourning border. The four columns of letterpress are in two parts, the first being an autobiographical account by Frost of his life and crimes, the second being commentary by an unnamed commentator.
Frost was born in 1765 in Princeton, Worcester County, one of four sons of a farming family. By his own account, his mother died young, when Frost was only 14, and “I always supposed her death was occasioned by the bad treatment she received from my father. He was very churlish, and was void of all affection for his family.” In 1783 Frost exacted revenge on his father in the most extreme manner possible: “as we were digging a ditch together; I knocked him down with a handspike, and then beat his brains out.” Frost was arrested and tried for the crime, but “acquitted contrarily to my expectations.”
Frost’s account continues: After his acquittal he spent a few years living with various families in Princeton and a relation in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, during which time he had a passing encounter with Shays Rebellion. Then in 1786 he settled in Princeton in the home of Revolutionary War veteran Captain Elisha Allen (1744-93). Though Frost was 20 or 21 at the time, Allen may have been Frost’s legal guardian with power of attorney: “I had a small estate and wanted to work on that, but I could not.—Mr. Allen had the care of my estate, and I supposed was paid for my living with him out of it.” Fueling Frost’s anger was hard treatment at Allen’s hands: “I went off [i.e., ran away] several times… and was absent sometimes a longer and sometimes a shorter time, but did not get any thing by going away but flogging when I returned”. Thus Frost again resorted to murder, in a strikingly similar manner:
“At length, on the 16th day of July, 1793, I effected it thus—Capt. Allen was going to set out cabbage plants…. I found him stooping to fix a plant… and accordingly went up to him and gave him a blow on the head, and repeated it…. Continued repeating the blows until I supposed he was dead. I had beaten his head so as it had made a large hole in the ground and his brains come out.”
Frost was apprehended a few days later, tried in Worcester, and executed there by hanging on October 31, 1793. The ritual pre-execution sermon was given by the Rev. Aaron Bancroft and later published as “The Importance of a Religious Education Illustrated and Enforced.” Taking as his text the tale of the sons of Eli (I. SAMUEL, iii.13), Bancroft traced Frost’s brutal character to his father’s.
“In the daily intercourses of the family, he saw not that example of love and condescension, of tenderness and humanity, which enforces good instruction, softens the passions of resentment and revenge, and insensibly forms the disposition to mildness, sympathy and humanity. But the example set before him was impious, cruel, and barbarous. In this school the son was but too ready to learn. All the rough, malignant, and revengeful passions, acquired strength, and obtained an habitual control of the mind.” (Bancroft, pp. 18-19)
I am not in a position to diagnose Frost, but he comes across as very, very strange: brutal, and brutally honest, but without any apparent regret, remorse or even a sense that he has committed terrible crimes. And yet, in a truly odd note, he concludes by asserting “that I had always a great aversion to stealing and telling lies, and think them to be great crimes.”
In his “Account of Samuel Frost”, the unnamed commentator focuses on this odd disconnect in Frost’s character. On the one hand “his natural capacity in many respects seemed to be equal to persons in general, whose minds have not been cultivated”, and “He appears also to have been a person who regarded truth; and he valued himself upon his probity and sincerity.” And yet “He thought it no great crime to kill such as he supposed treated him very ill—and did not appear to have a just conception of the heinous crime of murder.” Frost was so honest and so brutal, in fact, that “on being asked if he had his liberty, if he would kill any other person, he answered there was one more he believed he should.”
The broadside is extremely rare. I find record of but one other impression having appeared on the antiquarian market, a toned and trimmed copy sold at Cowan’s in 2006 for $2875. Evans mentions only the American Antiquarian Society impression, though I am aware of additional holdings at Dartmouth, Princeton, and the Worcester Historical Society.
Frost’s life and execution inspired at least two other broadsides, both published posthumously, with similar text but accompanied by a “Poem on the Execution of Samuel Frost”. One was printed by Henry Blake & Co. in Keene, New Hampshire, without illustration; the other by Jonathan Plummer in Newbury, Massachusetts, illustrated with several stock cuts.
Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831)
This broadside was composed and printed at the Worcester office of Isaiah Thomas, the greatest American publisher of the Revolutionary and early Republic eras. A native of Boston, Thomas’s father deserted while he was still young, leaving his mother impoverished. At seven he was thus apprenticed to printer Zechariah Fowle. At some point in his teens Thomas left Fowle and traveled widely, taking short-lived printing jobs as far afield as Nova Scotia and South Carolina. He returned to Boston in 1770 and entered into a partnership with Fowle to publish The Massachusetts Spy. Fowle retired within months, but Thomas continued the paper with great success, achieving the then-huge circulation of 3500 before the outbreak of the Revolution.
Thomas was an ardent patriot, and his newspaper reflected his views, so much so that in 1771 Governor Hutchinson attempted—unsuccessfully—to prosecute him for libel. He became so obnoxious to the authorities that in April 1775, fearing for his safety, he removed his press to Worcester, where he resumed publication of the Spy. In later years he recalled that “he had the honor of being included with John Hancock and Samuel Adams a list of twelve persons who were to be summarily executed when taken.”
Thomas settled in Worcester and over time developed a vertically-integrated empire including a paper mill, print shops in Worcester and Boston, and multiple bookshops. He published among others the short-lived Royal American Magazine (1774), which included many Paul Revere cuts; the New England Almanac (1775-1819) the Massachusetts Magazine (1789-96); and a folio Bible (1791); and after his retirement wrote a History of Printing in America (1808). Whiggish as he had been during the Revolutionary years, he later opposed Shays’ Rebellion and eventually became a strong Federalist.
In 1812 Thomas founded the American Antiquarian Society (AAS), giving it a start by donating his nearly 8000-volume library, a large newspaper collection, a substantial endowment and a parcel of land for the first Antiquarian Hall. He served as AAS President until his death in 1831. Today the AAS is the preeminent repository for early-American printed material.
In all, a rare and striking 18th-century American execution broadside, well worthy of further study for the unusual character of its protagonist.
Evans, American Bibliography, #25521 (AAS). Ford, Massachusetts Broadsides, #3680 (AAS). Sabin #105351 (AAS and Worcester Historical Society). See “The Confession and Dying Words of Samuel Frost” on the web site of the Princeton University Graphic Arts Collection.