Nature center shares turf with murder's hanging

May 12, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson

*TC Shrieks and groans. The clank of chains.

When the Soldiers Delight Nature Center opens later this year, perhaps some visitors will hear such ghastly noises or even see a tormented, shadowy figure.

Maybe so -- if you believe in ghosts -- for the new center is atop Berry's Hill, where the final act of one of Colonial Maryland's most gruesome murder cases was played out 239 years ago.

It was here that John Berry was hanged and his body left to rot. The 20-year-old was the mastermind of the Nov. 20, 1751, ax murder of Sarah Clark and the near-slaying of her husband, farmer John Clark, in their beds.

Justice was swift in those days. Berry and his two female accomplices, one of whom swung the ax while the other held a candle, were convicted Dec. 18. On Jan. 10, 1752, the women were hanged at Joppa, then the Baltimore County seat.

But the brutality of the crime so outraged the Governor's Commission that it imposed a special penalty on Berry. It not only affirmed his sentence -- death by hanging Jan. 15 near the scene of the crime -- but ordered that his corpse hang in chains until nature consumed it.

Such punishment was reserved for the most heinous offenders, and the execution site has been known ever since as Berry's Hill, the subject of local legend. Just over 700 feet high, it sits in the heart of the 1,900-acre Soldiers Delight environmental area near Reisterstown, a wilderness of scrub woods, grassy areas and wildlife.

Berry's Hill's entry into folklore began about 2 a.m. on that Nov. 20 when the bloody scene was discovered at Clark's farm, off what is now Delight Road.

It was big news.

The next week, the Maryland Gazette devoted almost its entire local news section to a graphic account of the incident. The story included the imprisonment of Berry and the servant women, Mary Powell and Martha Bassett, along with Edward Evans, a 13-year-old servant, in the jail at Joppa.

The Gazette identified Berry as Mr. Clark's son-in-law. It said he plotted the killings to get the farmer's estate and had promised to marry Bassett, who was also known as Sarah Catcham.

Later accounts said Berry was stepson to both Mr. and Mrs. Clark through the remarriages and deaths of his natural parents. But his reported motive, greed, was the same.

A 1920 article in the Towson Jeffersonian attributed some of its information to an account by Mordecai Gosnell, a county deputy sheriff.

Berry and the servants claimed that an intruder had attacked the Clarks. But Deputy Gosnell was at once suspicious of the servants and asked Bassett, who was considered simple-minded, where the ax was.

Artlessly, she replied, "Hid behind a log in the swamp."

Once the bloodstained tool was found, Bassett confessed and implicated Powell and Berry, according to the account.

The women said Mrs. Clark had promised them freedom on her death. They said Berry wanted his stepparents' estate and had promised to marry Bassett if she would kill the Clarks.

According to the Jeffersonian version, Berry made them swear an oath and seal it in blood. While they were making their evil compact behind the tobacco house, a high wind suddenly rent the tranquil Sunday afternoon, driving the plotters terror-stricken into the house.

The defendants were tried Dec. 18, 1751, before a special three-justice Baltimore County Court in the Court House in Joppa.

Bassett pleaded guilty. Berry, Powell and Evans pleaded innocent, but the Maryland Gazette reported that Berry and Powell "appeared on trial to be hardened resolute offenders . . . the jury found them guilty." Evans was sentenced to die as well but was later pardoned.

The Governor's Commission reviewed the case, and on Jan. 2, 1752, ordered "dead warrants" issued.

Bassett and Powell were hanged at the Joppa jail Jan. 10. The commission ordered Berry's execution Jan. 15 and said his body was "to be hung up in chains."

It was a cold winter's day when the condemned man and a crowd of spectators climbed the hill. Berry continued to protest his innocence, declaring that the two women had lied about his role.

There is no description extant of the execution, but Berry probably stood on a barrel or in the back of a cart. The prop was pulled away, leaving him twisting on the gallows.

On Jan. 23, 1752, the Maryland Gazette carried a brief report that Berry had been executed according to the commission's order.

The legends began -- that Berry's restless spirit haunted the neighborhood, and that Berry's skull was "kicked around" until a settler found it and gave it Christian burial.

One particularly grim, and apparently fanciful, account was offered by E. Bennett Bowen in the Federation P.T.A. News in 1937.

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