In January 1821, the widowed Anna Ayer of Goffstown claimed before the selectmen of the town that Daniel Davis Farmer (who was married and had four children of his own) was the father of her unborn baby. Born in Manchester, Farmer had recently owned a farm in Goffstown but had returned to his home town. He furiously contested Ayer’s charge. If she could somehow prove that Farmer was the father, however, he, not the town of Goffstown, would be responsible for support of her child. On April 4, 1821, he bought some rum at Colonel Riddle’s store in ‘Squog Village (the area where the Piscataquog drains into the Merrimack River—which was then a part of Bedford), walked the five miles to what is now East Dunbarton Road (currently the northeastern part of Goffstown), and visited Ayer. What transpired next is unclear, but it appears Farmer hit Ayer on the side of the head with a shovel and then beat her with a stick. He also beat Ayer’s daughter before attempting to burn down the Ayer house. The widow Ayer was fatally wounded in the attack and died some eight days later. Ayer’s daughter, also named Anna, was injured but survived. A little over a week after the widow Ayer’s death, Farmer was indicted for first-degree murder by a grand jury sitting in Hopkinton. On October 10, he was put on trial in Amherst, then the seat of Hillsborough County, before the Superior Court of Judicature (the ancestor of New Hampshire’s supreme court). The trial began at 8 AM and concluded at 10 PM of that day. After deliberating for one hour, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. The Attorney General sought the death penalty. The next morning, Farmer was brought before the bar, and Levi Woodbury, an associate justice of the court, pronounced a sentence of death. Farmer was kept in the county jail in Amherst until January 3, 1822, when, on a bitterly cold day, he was hanged near the town common before a crowd of 10,000 people (at a time when the population of Goffstown was only about 2,000). Farmer’s execution was one of only three that occurred in all of New England in 1822. Farmer also had the bad luck to be one of the five people executed in New Hampshire in the first half of the 19th century.
The Ayer murder serves as the topic for the research project in History 112: History’s Mysteries, team-taught by Professors Matt Masur and Hugh Dubrulle at Saint Anselm College. The reading list in the course consists of microhistories, almost all of which revolve around some sort of mystery (often including a court case). It is in this fashion that Masur and Dubrulle hope to initiate students in the practice of history as a discipline.
What is microhistory, you may ask? Writing in The Journal of American History, Jill Lepore argues that like biographers, microhistorians often study an individual’s life. Yet “microhistorians do have nonbiographical goals in mind: even when the study a single person’s life, they are keen to evoke a period, a mentalite, a problem.” To put it more thoroughly in Lepore’s words:
If biography is largely founded on a belief in the singularity and significance of an individual’s life and his contribution to history, microhistory is founded upon almost the opposite assumption: however singular a person’s life may be, the value of examining it lies not in its uniqueness, but in its exemplariness, in how the individual’s life serves as an allegory for broader issues affecting the culture as a whole.
In History 112: History’s Mysteries, then, students will read books that are classics not merely in microhistory but history as well, including Jonathan Spence’s The Question of Hu and Leonard Dinnerstein’s The Leo Frank Case. By reading about people like an 18th-century Chinese copyist who accompanied a Jesuit missionary back to France and an early 20th-century Jewish-American factory superintendent who was lynched by a Georgia mob, students can learn about past periods. Not only that, they can also learn how historians use documentary evidence to build arguments about these periods.
Having read a number of prominent works in microhistory, students will then try their hand at building the foundation for a microhistory of their own: Daniel Davis Farmer’s murder of the widow Anna Ayer. As students sift through some of the most important primary source material associated with the case, they will map out areas of secondary research that will help illuminate the world that both Farmer and Ayer inhabited. And thus they will lay the groundwork upon which future students enrolled in History 112 will build. Stay tuned for further updates on this blog as students in History 112 find out more and more about the mysteries surrounding the bloody events that transpired in Goffstown in the spring of 1821.