The Purrington Murders – Family Drama in Maine, 1806

The sleepy town of Augusta, Maine is known for its quiet beauty and its laid-back lifestyle, and that was even more true in 1806 than it is today. But in that year, the town of Augusta was home to one of the darkest chapters in American history: the notorious Purrington Murders.

The term Purrington Murders derives from the name of the perpetrator, one Captain James Scales Purrington (also known as Purinton and Purrinton), who until that day had been a respected citizen and a big part of life in small town Maine. Captain Purrington had moved his family to the Ballard neighborhood, a quiet suburb of Augusta, in August of 1805. Over the intervening months, the family settled into small town life, made friends and integrated themselves into the neighborhood.

Axe Murderer

The seeming ease with which Captain Purrington ingratiated himself to the neighbors and settled into Augusta life made what happened next all the more shocking. It was July 9, 1806 when the Ballard neighborhood was shocked by the senseless murder of not only Mrs. Elizabeth Purrington but her six children as well, the youngest being only 18 months (Louisa Purrington). Captain James Purrington murdered almost his entire family with both an axe and razor in their farm on the Old Belgrade Road. The fact that the murderer was their own husband and father was all the more shocking, as was the fact that Capital Purrington took his own life soon after murdering his family.

One of the Purrington children, a young girl named Martha, was able to survive her initial injuries, but she succumbed three weeks later. In the end, only one family member, a son named James, would survive the tragedy. James Purrington was able to escape during the killing spree, and he emerged with only minor injuries.

What makes the Purrington murders all the more tragic is that no one knew the reasons behind them. Neighbors were at a loss to explain the outburst of violence, and to this day no one is quite sure what set off Captain Purrington and turned the erstwhile family member into a cold-blooded murderer.

Was the family having money troubles? If so, no one knew about it at the time. Was the whole incident a suicide attempt gone wrong? Possible, but again there is no proof of motive. Was Captain Purrington an abusive husband and father? The outward signs did not give any indication. Was there some sort of personal anguish that led Captain Purrington to kill his family? The world may never know.

Family drama is nothing new, and most of the time it is pretty harmless. There are cases, however, where the ordinary stresses of family life give rise to almost unthinkable crimes, and the Purrington Murders is one of the most chilling examples. Even more than two centuries after the fact, the Purrington Murders appears to be ripped from the headlines, and it still stands as a turning point, and a dark stain, in Maine history.

Portland Gazette

On July 14, 1806 the Portland Gazette wrote an article on the horrific family drama. Reading:

At an early hour on Wednesday morning last, the inhabitants of this town were alarmed with the dreadful information, that Capt. James Purinton, of this place, in cold blood, had murdered his wife, six children, and himself. His oldest son, with a slight wound, escaped, and his second daughter was found desperately wounded, and probably supposed dead by the father.

Between the hours of 2 and 3 a near neighbour, Mr. Dean Wyman, was awakened by the lad who escaped, with an incoherent account of the horrid scene from which he had just fled; he, with a Mr. Ballard, another neighbour, instantly repaired to the fatal spot, and here, after having lighted a candle, a scene was presented which beggars all description.

In the outer room lay prostrate on his face, and weltering in his gore, the perpetrator of the dreadful deed — his throat cut in the most shocking manner, and the bloody razor lying on the table by his side . In an adjoining bed room lay Mrs. Purinton in her bed, her head almost severed from the body; and near her on the floor, a little daughter about ten years old, who probably hearing the cries of her mother, ran to her relief from the apartment in which she slept, and was murdered by her side.

In another apartment was found the two oldest and the youngest daughters, the first, aged 19, dreadfully butchered; the second desperately wounded, reclining with her head on the body of the dead infant 18 months old, and in a state of horror and almost total insensibility. In the room with the father, lay in bed with their throats cut, the two youngest sons, the one 8, the other 6 years old. And in another room was found on the hearth, most dreadfully mangled, the second son, aged 12; he had fallen with his trousers under one arm, with which he had attempted to escape.

On the breastwork over the fire-place was the distinct impression of a bloody hand, where the unhappy victim probably supported himself before he fell. The whole house seemed covered with blood, and near the body of the murdered laid the deadly axe. From the surviving daughter we have no account of this transaction; her dangerous situation prevents any communication, and but faint hopes are entertained for her recovery.

From the son, aged 17, we learn the following — That he was awaked by the piercing cries of his mother, and involuntarily shrieking himself, he leapt from his bed and ran towards the door of his apartment; he was met by his father with an axe in his hand (the moon shone bright) who struck him, but being so near each other, the axe passed over his shoulder and one corner of it entered his back, making a slight wound; his father then struck at him once or twice and missed him; at this moment his younger brother, who slept in the same bed with him, jumped from it, and attempted to get out at the door; to prevent this the father attacked him which gave the eldest an opportunity to escape. During this dreadful conflict, not a word was uttered.

From the appearance of the wounds generally, it seems to been the design of Purinton to dissever the heads from the bodies, excepting the two youngest, whose throats it is supposed were cut with a razor. The oldest daughter and second son had several wounds, the probable consequence of their resistance. We have no evidence to lead us satisfactorily to the motives for this barbarous and unnatural deed.

Capt. Purinton was 46 years of age, and had lately removed from Bowdoinham to this town — an independent farmer, with a handsome estate, of steady, correct, and industrious habits, and of a good character and fair reputation, and strongly attached to his family. He had been heard lately to say, that he felt much distressed at the unpromising appearance of his farm; that he should be destitute of bread for his family, and hay for his cattle, and dreaded the consequences.

The Sunday before his death, it is said, he wrote to his brother and informed him that on the reception of the letter he should be dead, and requesting him to take charge of his family. In the letter was a death’s head marked out, and it was sealed with black. — It was found on Monday by his wife, and gave her the greatest alarm and uneasiness. This her husband perceiving, and learning the cause, he attempted to console her by assurances that he had no intention of committing suicide, but that he had a presentiment of his approaching death.

Capt. Purinton was a warm believer in the doctrine of universal salvation, though it is not said of him, that he was a bigoted maniac or a religious enthusiast — his whole conduct the day preceding, and during the last and bloody scene of his life, seems marked with the utmost coolness and deliberation. Towards the close of that day he ground the fatal axe, and when the family retired to bed he was left reading the bible. The jury of inquest have brought him in guilty of wilful murder on his wife and six children, and that as a felon he did kill and murder himself — We do not recollect, that the annals of Massachusetts can furnish a transaction so distressing.

Victims

James Purrington killed his wife and seven of his children:

  • Elizabeth Purrington (-1806)
  • Polly Purrington (1787 – 1806)
  • Martha Purrington (1791 – 1806)
  • Benjamin Purrington (1794 – 1806)
  • Anna Purrington (1796 – 1806)
  • Nathaniel Purrington (1798 – 1806)
  • Nathan Purrington (1800 – 1806)
  • Louisa Purrington (1804 – 1806)

Portraying in the Media

Both a Book and DVD have been released which deal with the Purrington Murders:

  • American Experience – A Midwife’s Tale (DVD) 
    Based on her personal diary, this program presents a dramatic exploration of the life of Martha Ballard, a woman who lived through the economic boom and bust, and political and social turmoil of the decades following the American Revolution. The video is approximately three minutes longer than the broadcast version. You can find it here on Amazon.
  • A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (BOOK) 
    Drawing on the diaries of one woman in eighteenth-century Maine, this intimate history illuminates the medical practices, household economies, religious rivalries, and sexual mores of the New England frontier. Between 1785 and 1812 a midwife and healer named Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her arduous work (in 27 years she attended 816 births) as well as her domestic life in Hallowell, Maine. On the basis of that diary, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich gives us an intimate and densely imagined portrait, not only of the industrious and reticent Martha Ballard but of her society. At once lively and impeccably scholarly, A Midwife’s Tale is a triumph of history on a human scale. You can find it here on Amazon.
HELP: Does anyone have photographs from the Purrington Memorial in Mount Vernon Cemetery, Augusta, Kennebec County, Maine, USA that we may use? All further information on this old case is welcomed.

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2 Comments

  1. Mike says

    I know what I’m naming my next cat.

  2. Jason Fraser says

    I thought I had heard of every axe murder in the US, but this is a new one. Good write-up.

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