Executions were carried out at Boston Neck until 1826, when the new state prison at Charlestown was fully operational. Before many extensive landfill projects, Boston was a peninsula. At its southern base was a gate and gallows. The gate protected the town from marauders, and the gallows served as a deterrent to transients and traders as they entered the town.
Capital punishment prevailed in colonial Massachusetts, and for many years during statehood. Executions took place well into the 20th century. In the 1750s, Quakers were carted through the streets of Boston to the Neck, placed on a ladder with a noose around their heads, and then the ladder was kicked out from underneath them to violently end their lives. Their bodies were tossed into a nearby marsh, and sympathetic residents would later snatch their bodies and give them a proper burial.
More modern gallows were later constructed at different points further south along the Neck. Michael Powars was executed on May 26, 1820 for killing his friend. The June 5, 1820 Concord Observer (NH) describes his execution at Boston, and his request to the Governor that the sentence be quickly carried out if a pardon was not possible:
"Yesterday the sentence of Law and Justice was executed on Michael Powars, for the murder of his relation and countryman, Timothy Kennedy.
The prisoner was taken from jail in Court-street, about half past 10 o’clock, in a wagon, and was attended by the Rev. Mr. Larisey, of the Roman Catholic Church, who had visited him constantly since his condemnation, and had afforded him all the religious admonition, instruction, and consolation, which was suited to his situation. The wagon was preceded by Joseph Hall Esq, the high Sheriff of Suffolk, accompanied by his deputies, and several of the constables, on horses–and followed by a cart bearing the malefactor’s coffin, and by a carriage with the County Surgeon and the Superintendent of the Burying Grounds.
The procession moved through the Main-street to Boston Neck, where the gallows had been erected. The solemn preparations were made with the greatest propriety–and after appropriate prayers by the Rev. Mr. Larisey, about half past 11 o’clock, the cap was drawn over the face of the culprit, he gave the fatal signal, which was observed, and a few moments [later] terminated his existence.
He preserved the most utmost resolution and composure to the instant of his execution. He was neatly dressed, and seemed somewhat attentive to his appearance. His last words, we understand were, 'God bless you! I forgive all!' addressing the spectators. If he had reconciled to his own mind the taking [of] the life of a fellow creature for a dispute respecting a few dollars–how just should he have considered that law which required his life for the commission of murder!
The hour of the execution being unusually early–there was not a large collection of persons present.
Powars was in the 51st year of his age, was born in the county of Wexford, Ireland, had been in this country, about 18 years, and supported himself well and reputably as a laborer. Kennedy was a young man and had been here about two years.
Powars made his will, and left a small legacy to three of the women
who were witnesses against him.
This unhappy man, addressed a petition to the Governor and Council, requesting, if a pardon was denied him, that the day of execution may not be delayed beyond his power to meet the exigency with fortitude and resignation. The following is the closing passage of his petition:
'He feels that is an awful event to die by a publick execution, and that ir requires corporal strength and firmness of mind, as well as lively hopes of future forgiveness, to leave this world under such circumstances, with composure. He is taught by the religion he professes and believes, that on repentance alone, forgiveness is founded, and that this repentance should be felt and expressed when the penitent suppliant is in full possession of all his faculties: He has felt intensely the burden of his sins, and he hopes has repented of them sincerely; but such is the state of his feelings, that he does not wish, if he must die, to have the time protracted until his health is lost, and his courage gone. Fortitude, like all other possessions, is of uncertain tenure. If his life is forfeited to the country, and a pardon cannot be extended, let that forfeiture be paid with delay: He has made this representation to the Executive of the Commonwealth, because he understands, that a distant day is often fixed for execution of the unfortunate sufferer, from a principle of kindness and mercy, that sufficient time may be had for a preparation for eternity: But he is persuaded in the belief, that God, who marks the fall of a sparrow, and numbers the hairs our heads, can forgive at one moment as well as another, when that forgiveness is implored through repentance and the merits of a Redeemer.' "