The Trauma of Writing about Black Children’s Death and Criminalization

Crystal Lynn Webster
Engraving showing a bird's-eye view of Eastern State Penitentiary from 1855

“This institution known as ‘Cherry Hill State Prison’ at Philadelphia,” 1855. Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

When I first encountered the story of Hannah Ocuish’s execution, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. I was on a fellowship at the Massachusetts Historical Society, wrapping up research for my first book, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood. The record of the twelve-year-old girl’s crime and punishment was told by a minister who preached at the event in eighteenth-century Connecticut. The pamphlet of the sermon is published and widely available as the 1786 text, God admonishing his people of their duty, as parents and masters. A sermon, preached at New-London, December 20th, 1786. Occasioned by the execution of Hannah Ocuish, a mulatto girl, aged 12 years and 9 months. For the murder of Eunice Bolles, aged 6 years and 6 months. Yet how had I not known that the youngest person ever executed in the U.S. was a Black and indigenous girl? I knew immediately that her story would begin my next writing project, Condemned: How American Justice Was Built on the Punishment of Black Children.

Hannah’s story is tragic. She was killed mercilessly and grotesquely on a public stage. And she was a child, alone. Writing and researching about her and other Black children’s harsh punishments in early America was some of the most difficult work I have ever done. The content of the history of Black children’s imprisonment and execution is incredibly violent.

In my own writing, I wavered between a political motivation to highlight that violence, and an awareness that I did not want to reproduce it in ways that dehumanized the children about whom I was writing. There was also the problem of sources. Many of the records of Black children’s criminal acts sensationalized them as inherently criminal, adultified them as acting beyond their childhoods, and presumed their guilt. While I initially was intrigued by the idea of determining whether or not they actually committed crimes, I soon realized it did not matter. It was just as important to tell their stories as children who were aggressively criminalized based on race as it was to uncover “what really happened.” And finally, writing about these children was challenging personally for myself as a Black woman and mother of Black children in a world that still refuses to recognize them as such.

Hannah Ocuish was robbed of her childhood in the trial, execution, and subsequent literature on the event. Since writing “Hanging Pretty Girls,” I have meditated on what it might mean to celebrate her as a child, and imagine joy and play even in her darkest moments. Of course, the historical record offers very little evidence of this. Yet Channing’s sermon, even with its violent condemnation, offers glimpses of Hannah’s joy. As I continue exploring Hannah’s story, I want to offer this new interpretation of her time in jail that attempts to embrace her girlhood in the face of violent erasure. In focusing on these parts of their stories, I hope I am able to give justice to Hannah’s story, and those of many other children whose lives were cut short and marred by the criminal justice system of early America.

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San of the title page of the execution sermon preached for Hannah Ocuish printed in 1786.

Title page of the execution sermon preached for Hannah Ocuish, 1786. Courtesy of the University of Michigan.

In the Connecticut town of Norwich in 1786, the child named Hannah Ocuish remained crouched in a cell, inside the local jail in the center of the town’s green. As she listened to the sounds of the bustling city beyond the walls around her, she constructed an entire world inside her mind. When she heard people gathering at the meetinghouse, she imagined the merchants, officials, and everyday people who would determine the rules for the residents of the city, some of whom had brought her there. She made up stories of the passersby to the postoffice—where and to whom they were mailing letters, and the faraway places those letters would travel. Just outside the walls there were stores, children scurrying to school, and even music. She imagined herself as part of it all—going to the festivals, singing along, dancing, and disappearing into the inner workings of the New England world.

Although she did not personally know any of the outsiders, she felt somehow well-acquainted with their lives. She had been jailed for months now, enough time to make many observations, and to compose many stories. Hannah was housed right next to the courthouse, with which she had already grown familiar despite not growing up in Norwich. She would have been jailed in her hometown of New London, but the jail was burned down only years earlier.

In truth, New London never felt quite like home, and Norwich was not much different. She had always felt isolated as a Black and Indigenous child in the Revolutionary era. But she was not entirely alone. She had friends, and on this particular day, they came to visit. She rejoiced at the sight of the other children who talked, laughed, and played with her as they sat just outside her cell. To them, the barrier was only a new physical boundary that divided them. The children had grown familiar with forces that at any moment might separate them from their family and friends. Forces of war, slavery, indenture, and abuse. They were willing to see past the bars and the restrictive space. They had done it before, and they would do it again. As Hannah and the children played, they imagined and enacted freedom. Through their play, Hannah was briefly but powerfully liberated from confinement.

18 July 2022

About the Author

Crystal Lynn Webster is assistant professor of history at the University of British Columbia.

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