For the past two weeks, the nerds of have been hard at work conducting research for our October Haunted Candlelight Tours. If you want to avoid the rush and oddities of Salem in October, be sure to travel a bit further north and check out a historical tour that prides itself in accuracy, entertaining stories and historic alcoholic drinks!
Anyway, we were researching 17th and 18th century homicide cases and came across the murder of Mary Sholy.
In 1635, English settlers anchored off the coast of Massachusetts Bay Colony, rowed up the Parker River and established the village of Newbury. Meanwhile, thirty miles to the north, another group of settlers had established a village along the Piscataqua River in 1630. That settlement was called by a variety of names but eventually became known as Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
One of the Portsmouth residents was Mary Sholy. Little is known about Mary other than she was possibly a maid, a servant girl or indentured servant. In 1636, she traveled south to Newbury to attend to some personal business. The journey was difficult as she had to traverse along a “narrow path” for several days and then had to find a way to cross the treacherous Merrimack River (ferries had yet to be established).
Nevertheless, despite the hardships, she successfully reached Newbury without incident.
After spending a few weeks tending to her personal matters, Sholy decided she wanted to return home. She posted an advertisement in town seeking to hire a guide to escort her back to Portsmouth.
It was at this time she had the misfortune of meeting William Schooler.
While in England, Schooler was employed as a “vintner with intemperate habits.” Though he had been married to “a handsome, neat woman,” he was, by his own admission, a common adulterer. After wounding a man in a duel, he fled to Holland to avoid prosecution. He then abandoned his wife and traveled to New England. By 1636, he was living in a shack along the Merrimack River with another man. Many Newbury residents referred to Schooler and his roommate as “atheists”.
Schooler answered Sholy’s advertisement and offered to lead her north for a fee of fifteen shillings. Unfortunately, Mary was completely unaware that Schooler had no experience as a guide and was not familiar with the route between Newbury and Portsmouth. Sholy agreed and the pair departed Newbury.
Two days after their departure, William Schooler returned to Newbury alone. When asked why he had returned so quickly, he simply replied that he had guided Mary to “within two or three miles of Pascataquack (Portsmouth), where she stopped, saying she would go no farther.” Schooler allegedly left her there and returned to Newbury.
The settlers were naturally suspicious. Several people noted Schooler had a scratch on his nose and blood stains on his clothes and hat. When pressed, he explained the blood came from a pigeon he had killed to eat and the scratch was from a branch. Schooler was promptly arrested and hauled before a magistrate in Ipswich to be examined. The magistrate, although highly suspicious, found there was no evidence that a crime had taken place and released him.
Mary was never seen alive again.
Several months later, an Agawam Indian was passing through the Winnacunnet woods, about three miles north of the Merrimack River, when he discovered the decomposed body of a young white woman. She was stripped naked and her clothing was in a neat pile nearby. The Indian immediately reported his discovery to the residents of Newbury and led several Englishmen back to the crime scene. The woman was eventually identified as Mary Sholy.
Meanwhile, fighting had broken out between the Pequod tribe and the English colonists. William Schooler was drafted to serve in the militia but publicly spoke out against it. His actions were considered “mutinous and disorderly,” and the Massachusetts colonial governor issued a warrant for his arrest. When he was approached by the authorities, Schooler assumed they were there to arrest him for the murder of Mary Sholy. He began to loudly proclaim his innocence. The protest revived suspicions that Schooler had not told the truth about Mary Sholy’s fate and he was once again brought before a magistrate.
This time, authorities developed a circumstantial case against Schooler. Witnesses noted that Sholy’s body was found well off the path leading to her intended destination of Portsmouth. Others noted that following his quick return, Schooler was flush with money he previously didn’t have. The scratches on his face and bloodstains on his clothes naturally didn’t help and Schooler only made things worse when he escaped from the local jail. He eventually returned to face his accusers.
Schooler was indicted for the murder of Sholy. According to the charging documents:
1. He had led a vicious life and now lived like an atheist.
2. He had sought out the maid and undertook to carry her to a place where he had never been.
3. When he crossed Merrimack he landed in a place three miles distant from the usual path from whence it was scarce possible he should get into the path.
4. He said he went by Winicowett house which he said stood on the contrary side of the way.
5. Being as he said within two or three miles of Swanscote when he left her, he went not thither to tell them of her, nor stayed by her that night, nor at his return home did tell anybody of her ’till he was demanded of her.
6. When he came back he had above 10ƒ in his purse, and yet he said she would give him but 7ƒ, and he carried no money with him.
7. At his return he had some blood upon his hat, and on his shirts before, which he said was with a pigeon which he killed
8. He had a scratch on the left side of his nose, and being asked by a neighbour how it came, he said it was with a bramble, which could not be, it being of the breadth of a small nail; and being asked after by the magistrate, he said it was with his piece, but that could not be on the left side.
9. The body of the maid was found by an Indian about half a year after in the midst of a thick swamp, ten miles short of the place he said he left her in, and about three miles from the place where he landed by Merrimack (and it was after seen by the English) the flesh being rotted off it, and the clothes laid all on a heap by the body
10. He said that soon after he left her he met with a bear, and he thought that bear might kill her, yet he would not go back to save her.
11. He broke prison and fled as far as Powder Horn hill, and there hid himself out of the way for fear of pursuit, and after, when he arose to go forward he could not, but as himself confessed, he was forced to return back to prison again.
Authorities successfully portrayed him as a man who callously robbed, raped and murdered Sholy. He was quickly “condemned by due proceeding” and sentenced to death by public hanging. Surprisingly, several local ministers came forward and pleaded with authorities to spare his life. These pleas were rejected and on September 28, 1637 Schooler was executed.
According to a period account he protested his innocence to the very end. “At his death he confessed he had made many lies to excuse himself, but denied that he had killed or ravished her. He was very loth to die, and had hope he should be reprieved, but the court held him worthy of death in undertaking the charge of a shiftless maid, and leaving her, when he might have done otherwise, in such a place as he knew she must needs perish, if not preserved bv means unknown. Yet there were some ministers and others who thought the evidence not sufficient to take away life.”