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Edmund Fortis, d. 1794
The Last Words and Dying Speech of Edmund Fortis, a Negro Man, Who Appeared to Be between Thirty and Forty Years of Age, but Very Ignorant. He Was Executed at Dresden, on Kennebeck River, on Thursday the Twenty-Fifth Day of September, 1794, for a Rape and Murder, Committed on the Body of Pamela Tilton, a Young Girl of about Fourteen Years of Age, Daughter of Mr. Tilton of Vassalborough, in the County of Lincoln
Exeter: s.n., 1795.


Peter Fortis, alias Edmund, was sentenced to death and hanged September 25, 1794, for the rape and murder of fourteen-year-old Pamela Tilton (c. 1790-1794). Details of his life leading up to the execution survive only in The Last Words and Dying Speech of Edmund Fortis. According to the account, Fortis was born in the mid-eighteenth century in "the back parts of Virginia" (p. 3). After escaping from his master, "Lawyer Jones," he moved frequently, first within Virginia, then to England, Greenland, and eventually back to America. While living in Maine, he married a woman named Lydia, with whom he had two children and who was pregnant with a third when Fortis was arrested for Tilton's murder.

Last Words was printed in Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1795, the year after Fortis's execution. As one of many criminal conversion narratives printed in the late eighteenth century, the text was probably written with the help of a printer and/or a minister, and served as both a religious cautionary tale and sensational entertainment. While it is difficult to approximate how many copies of the twelve-page pamphlet were purchased and circulated, several newspapers in New England—and one as far away as Savannah, Georgia—reprinted reports of Fortis' trial and sentencing, suggesting that the crime detailed in the narrative captured the public's attention, if only briefly.

Like many criminal confession narratives of the time, Fortis's Last Words presents rape and murder as the culmination of a series of lesser crimes, mostly acts of theft and fornication. He first steals from his master, Lawyer Jones, who, Fortis remembers, "treated me like a slave" and who whips him for his thievery (p. 3). When Fortis escapes, he steals from neighbors to survive before working as a waiter for a Mr. William Scott in a nearby county. Unable to give up his old habits, Fortis confesses, he not only continues his "old practice of stealing," but also "kept a woman" (p. 3). When Scott threatens punishment, Fortis again flees and moves around northern Virginia, taking from his several masters, fathering multiple children, and changing his name from Peter to Shadrach and finally to Edmund. He travels with merchants to Liverpool, England, where he is falsely accused of stealing flour, then to Greenland, and finally to Wilcassett, Maine, where he marries Lydia. Looking back on his wrongdoings with regret, Fortis notes, "my life was dreadful—Drinking, stealing and gaming" (p. 5).

Fortis moves to Vassalborough, Maine, where he "committed the last horrid crime against God, upon that poor PAMELA TILTON" (p. 5). Walking along a road, he comes across a set of female footprints and plans to seduce the girl to whom the footprints belong. "If I could meet with her," he thinks, "I could have my will of her" (p. 6). When he finds Tilton and she refuses his advances, telling him she "was not brought up to such things." Fortis forces her into the woods and rapes her twice (p. 6). Although he first agrees to release her if she promises not to reveal his crime, Fortis decides to murder Tilton, strangling her to death and hiding the body in the woods. Fortis is overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and returns the next day to better hide the corpse. When her body is discovered, Fortis visits the scene again and is suspected of committing the murder. Upon his arrest, he first denies responsibility, but guilt once again plagues him and he confesses. Fortis attempts several escapes from jail, but none is successful.

While awaiting arraignment, Fortis undergoes a dramatic spiritual conversion. Finding himself "in great distress of mind" and certain that "the Lord had forsaken me," he thinks he hears both the voice of the devil and an assurance of God's mercy (p. 8). Fortis attempts to pray through the night, certain he is the worst of sinners, having lived a "whole life filled with sin, stealing, lying, whoring, and drinking, and now murder" (p. 9). After continuing to pray the next day, Fortis finds some degree of hope, feeling "as if my heart was in some degree melted" and imagining a man inside of him, "working downward, and clearing or cleaning my heart" (p. 10). As he undergoes this cleansing, Fortis sees a heavenly light, hears singing angels, and cries out to God. When he wakes on Sunday, Fortis sees the world anew and prays once more for salvation, which is apparently granted: "the same angels began to sing again, and I believed in the Lord . . . all the dread and fear which I had suffered were gone" (p. 11). Against the advice of his attorney, Fortis, unwilling to "lie against God," calmly pleads guilty and accepts his sentence with gratitude (p. 11). As he awaits his execution, he trusts his eternal fate to the hands God, whatever that fate may be, and only asks for "the charity of Christian neighbors" for his wife and small children (p. 12).

It is no coincidence that Fortis's dramatic spiritual conversion is portrayed as having taken place over three days: Friday to Sunday. In doing so, it echoes the timeline in Christian belief of Jesus Christ's crucifixion and resurrection and reinforces the transformation made possible through Christ's death. In addition, as Daniel Cohen notes, Fortis's race makes such a conversion narrative especially useful as a tool of moral instruction, as African-Americans were a marginalized group in society. "If even such pariahs could achieve a glorious salvation," Cohen explains, "surely the humdrum readers of their narratives could aspire to heaven as well" (p. 79).

Works Consulted: Cohen, Daniel A., Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993; Foster, Frances Smith, Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979; Williams, Daniel, Pillars of Salt: An Anthology of Early American Criminal Narratives, Madison: Madison House, 1993.

Christy Webb

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