Murder In South Wellfleet

On the night of May 2, 1859, between 12 and 1 AM, Eben S. Ward was murdered by his son-in-law, Samuel S. Rich.  The Wards lived between the South Wellfleet church/cemetery and the area noted on early maps as “Fresh Brook Village.” The news account reports Mrs. and Mrs. Ward were awakened just after 12 when two bricks were thrown through their bedroom window. They got up, lighted a lamp, and went to a back room. Mr. Ward was too frightened to go outside. A half-hour later, two more bricks were thrown into the kitchen where they were sitting.  Mr. Ward was walking to the front room when they saw the muzzle of a gun pointing at them through a window, and then the shots were fired. The women of the house were too frightened to give an alarm until daylight came.” The report goes on, “The murderer has been caught and confessed to his crime. He attempted to shoot himself after committing the murder, but the cap on the gun did not explode.

This story in the Boston Daily Advertiser on May 3, 1859, described some details of the event, but left a lot out. It also reported the wrong name of the murderer as: “Samuel Fish.” A  Springfield Republican story provided more information as to motive: “Mr. Fish” was known in the town of Wellfleet for being subject to fits of insanity. He had married Miss Ward about a year earlier, but she left him and went to her father’s and the newspaper surmised: “ …it is supposed he killed Mr. Ward while he was laboring under the infatuation that he was the cause of the separation.”

By May 10, 1859, the Barnstable Patriot filled out the story of Samuel Rich, correctly named in this article. The Patriot refers to a “gentleman from Wellfleet” who talked to their reporter, about Rich’s well-known fits of insanity. He would tie himself to a tree in the woods and bellow like a bull. He sometimes thought he was a horse, and would kick and bite the horses around him. He rarely or never troubled people, and was permitted to pursue his insane fancies until he became tired. He is between 20 and 30 years old and a common laborer. Several times he found girls who were willing to marry him, but the town authorities always interfered. However, about a year before the murder, he succeeded in marrying Miss Ward “privately” but then kept steady at work, and no one was inclined to bring a separation. Then, he became savagely wild, breaking all his house furniture, even the stove. His wife was frightened and went home to her father. Rich left Wellfleet for a while and went to Boston, and then Chelsea, where he worked industriously for some time. It is unknown when he returned to Wellfleet, but his rage at the loss of his wife soon caused the actions of May 2. This story tells a lot about the problem of the insane in the mid-19th Century. Samuel Rich was not violent enough to be locked up, but nevertheless a burden on the town’s support system.  Those who could not work had to be supported with Town funds. Thus, the Town authorities made an effort not to allow a marriage and additional family to support.

The Ward family is part of the 1600s Eastham family. Eben (Ebenezer) Ward, son of Elisha Ward and Thankful Smith, and his wife, Phebe, daughter of Seth and Olive Brigs, were born in1799 and 1804. Their children were Ebenezer (1825), William (1827), Louisa (1829) and Thankful Kennedy (1833).

There is a record dated May 13, 1857, for the marriage of the Ward’s daughter, Thankful K. Ward, to Samuel S. Rich, son of Elisha and Mary Rich. All other bridegrooms on the page have an occupation; Samuel Rich does not. They were married by a clergyman, L.H. Patrick, whose name is difficult to read due to the handwriting. The clergyman is listed as marrying others on the page, so the ceremony did not reflect a couple who ran away to another place to get married. Samuel was 26 years old; Thankful was 24.

There is a birth record for a Sarah L. Rich, born in Wellfleet February 25, 1859, to Samuel and Thankful Rich. The father’s occupation is not listed.

The next record available to us is the 1860 Federal Census, taken on June 22. This version of the census does not list family relationships, only who is living in a particular household. Phebe Ward, age 58, is the head of the family. Ebenezer Ward, age 35 is next, presumably a son. He is a farmer. Next is “Mary Rich” age 28; other than the name Mary, this would appear to be Thankful. Even more mysterious is the three-year-old child in the home, listed as “Hariot Doyle.” This person surely is Sarah Rich, the child of Samuel and Thankful. Were the changed names an effort to hide the relationship to Samuel?

In the1860 Federal Census, David Wiley, Joseph Boyington, Elisha Smith and William Ward (Phebe’s son), were South Wellfleet neighbors. Eben Ward is buried in the South Wellfleet cemetery, which seems to imply that they were members of the South Wellfleet Congregational Church.

In September 1859, there are news reports of the indictment of Samuel Rich for the murder of his father-in-law. Another man was indicted for the murder of his wife in Mashpee. Trial dates were not set, but both men were assigned “counsel”, with George Marston and J.M. Day assigned to Rich. Grand Jurors and Petit Jurors were listed for each Cape town for this session of the “new Superior Court” of Barnstable County.

Other contemporary news stories about homicides indicate that convicted murderers were hanged for their crimes. One news report gave details of such a hanging, reporting quite a crowd gathering at the scaffold outside the jail  to witness the event and “discuss capital punishment.” The ceremony of last words, readings from Scripture, and the mechanics of the hanging are all described in minute detail, including the fact that the rope was cut a bit too long.

Samuel Rich’s trial was reported in the Boston papers in early December, when the defendant’s attorney “Judge Marston” entered an insanity plea. Rich’s father testified to “mental peculiarities from childhood” and the report noted that there were 25 additional witnesses. Two doctors — Stedman and Choate — said the prisoner was not insane but acting under delusion.

I could not find a news report as to the results of the jury’s deliberations, but fortunately, thanks to David Kew’s research, found a 1860 Federal census record for “Sam’l Rich”. Mr. Rich is listed as a prisoner in the Charlestown State Prison, with the census- taker noting the reasons why each person was incarcerated. Samuel Rich’s is “murder in the 2nd degree,” which explains why he was not hanged. Like today, prisoners are put to work making things. Strangely, for an insane person, Samuel Rich is making whips.  But Samuel was not to live much longer. The Massachusetts death records show his death from consumption on July 31, 1863.

Thankful (Ward) may have divorced her husband. She married a second time on June 17, 1863 – just before he died, another indication that they divorced – to Leartus Lincoln, age 54, a South Wellfleet neighbor. Both bride and groom were marrying for the second time. She is listed as “Thankful Ward.” A minister named Mr. White married them.

In the 1870 Federal census, Leartus and Thankful are in South Wellfleet with a daughter named Lilla, age 6, a daughter named Hellen, age 2, and a daughter named Sarah, age 11. Sarah appears to be the right age to be Sarah Rich, Thankful’s first daughter. Sadly, far over in the right column, she is noted as “idiotic.”  Soon after the census, in October 1870, Leartus died of heart disease. In 1871, there is a death record for Sarah L. (Sally) Rich, who died of apoplexy at age 15.

Phebe Ward died in 1881 at age 79. A Barnstable Patriot column about South Wellfleet notes that Eben had arrived in town to “open his house again,”  suggesting that he left at some point, perhaps pursuing work off Cape as so many others were doing at this time. Eben Ward died in 1898 at age 75.

Phebe and Eben’s son, William Ward, was mentioned in an earlier posting I wrote about the South Wellfleet Post Office where he is noted as the 1871 postmaster. The 1880 Federal Census notes that he is the “Depot Master” of the South Wellfleet Railroad.


Massachusetts Vital Records on line at

Barnstable Patriot online archive:

Newspaper account on line at

U.S. Federal Census collection at

David Kew’s Cape Cod History site:


Family history researcher living in New York City.
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