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Early American Criminals: Francis Burdett Personel and the Liberty Pole

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Constable Mr. Van Gelder was just about to abandon his search. He had recently been sent to New Haven, CT to find Francis Personel by New York City mayor Whitehead Hicks, who had learned that Personel was possibly hiding out in that city. But what Van Gelder did not know was that at the same time he was dispatched to New Haven, Personel was on his way back to New York City to test the safety of his return home and, if necessary, retrieve some of his possessions.

Whitehead Hicks, New York City Mayor (Wikimedia Commons)

Whitehead Hicks, New York City Mayor

Six weeks earlier on May 16, 1773, Personel had clubbed Robert White, Esq. in the head with a bar from a door near St. Paul’s Church (which is still standing at 209 Broadway, between Fulton and Vesey Streets in Lower Manhattan). The blow fractured White’s head in several places, leaving him speechless and senseless. Several days later, White died from the wound, and Personel was charged with murder.

While Van Gelder fruitlessly searched for the accused murderer in New Haven, Personel determined that it was not yet safe for him to remain in New York City, so he hopped on a ship and headed back to Connecticut. The trip turned out to be remarkably quick, which must have lifted Personel’s spirits at the time. Except that the short journey helped deliver Personel right into the arms of Van Gelder, just as he was preparing to return to New York empty-handed.

On June 25, 1773, Personel was back on a ship–albeit this time in irons–and two days later he arrived again in New York City. Reports of Van Gelder’s capture of Personel appeared in many newspapers, but the salacious details and true motivation behind the murder only came out later, when Personel wrote An Authentic and Particular Account of his life.

A Strained Relationship

Francis Burdett Personel was originally from Ireland and was an only child to “careful and industrious parents.” He attended school for eight years but did not learn as much as his parents felt he should have within that time, so they bound him as an apprentice. Once he became master of his trade, he moved to England, but after his father died, he returned to Ireland to be with his mother.

The relationship turned out to be strained: “my mother being a passionate woman, could never be content with me; do what I could, I might have done it better.” One night, a friend who knew of the situation took Personel on a “frolic.” They met a young woman, went out for drinks, and ended up staying out late. Personel confessed, “She was the first lewd woman I was ever in company with” and from that point on he “was guilty of pleasing the sinful appetites of the flesh many times.”

Eager to get out of the reach of his mother, Personel traveled to America, where he stayed for eighteen months before returning to Ireland in a “poor and miserable condition.” After his return, his mother proposed that it was time for him to settle down and find a wife, and when Personel agreed and said that he would begin a search as soon as possible, she responded that she had already found one for him.

Personel was not the least attracted to his mother’s pick, and even though he resisted the match, his mother implored him day after day to marry her. Their disagreement eventually came to an end when the woman decided to marry another, but the episode was enough to drive Personel away from his mother permanently. He bound himself as an indentured servant and ended up in Baltimore County in Maryland.


Personel’s new situation in Maryland turned out to be miserable, because his master mistreated him by depriving him of adequate clothing, a not uncommon situation for indentured servants. After serving eighteen months out of his four contracted years, Personel decided to run away. He grabbed an ax, headed into the woods, and traveled to within a mile of Baltimore. By then he was cold, wet, and hungry. He thought about returning, but he remembered his master saying once that he would treat a runaway servant who returned of his own volition worse than one who tried his best to get away, so he continued onward.

At mid-day, Personel ventured into town worried that someone would question him and ask for a pass from his master, which legally would have allowed him to travel alone as a servant. But no one seemed to notice him. Unable to procure a meal in Baltimore, he continued down a road that led to Annapolis when he was stopped and interrogated by two men. Personel told them that he belonged to Charles Carroll, who owned several plantations in the area and so everyone knew that his servants regularly traveled from one property to another. The men accepted Personel’s answer and did not question him any further.

Personel’s experience in Annapolis was similar to that in Baltimore: no one took any notice of him, but he could not find any food either. He left town feeble and hungry and was eventually stopped and questioned by another man. Personel said that he was recently set free from his master, who refused to pay him his freedom dues, so he traveled to Annapolis to find a friend, who had unfortunately left town before he arrived. The man told him that his brother was in need of laborers, so Personel took advantage of the opportunity and signed up to work for four months under the name “James Alkins.”

Personel worked through the harvest, but fearful that his new master might turn him in to his old one now that his services were no longer needed, he forged a pass under the name “Patt Percy” and left. He managed to find a job as a schoolmaster, but eventually two men began to suspect that he was a runaway, so he left the area. He later met a widow in Virginia and became engaged to her, but one day he took a mare, bridle, and saddle from her on the pretense of going to town and never came back. After traveling 100 miles, he sold the horse and headed to New York. [The editor of Personel’s Account notes that at this point, Personel may have been tried along with another man for horse theft in Lancaster, PA, but that the incident could not be verified.]

New York

After arriving in New York, Personel finally took a wife whom he loved, even though he “knew she had followed a loose way of life.” The morning after they had been “married and bedded,” Personel allowed her to pursue “her old habitation” until she could pay off some debts that now fell to him. But he soon could not bear the thought of this arrangement, and he vowed to work hard to satisfy all her needs. Not long afterward, he fell ill and could not work. Personel and his wife made a fateful decision: “we concluded unanimously, that we must either perish, or she take to her old course; accordingly, she prostituted her body as usual.”

On her first night out after making this decision, Personel’s wife returned home in a cheerful mood and reported that she had run into a young woman who lent her some money and thereby was able to avoid any interaction with men that night. The next night she returned home again, with money and a similar story. Personel eventually recovered from his illness, but his wife continued to go out at night any chance she got–with his encouragement. To keep up a show of respectability in front of the neighbors, some nights he would accompany his wife partway, visit a friend until nine or ten o’clock, and then meet up with her at an appointed place to return home.

On May 16, Personel visited his wife’s father and expected to stay the night, but instead he decided to return home. Thinking that her husband was sleeping over at her father’s, his wife stayed out much later than usual, so when it came time for Personel to go to bed and she had not returned, he decided to go out and search for her.

Personel went to the public house where he believed she was, but was told that she was not there, even though he heard his wife’s laugh in another room. He went around to the window where he had heard her and listened in as she conversed with two men. One of the men, a Mr. Gl—-r, left the room for fifteen minutes, and when he returned, the three of them headed outside. Personel believed that his wife would now take leave of the two men, and she could then return home with him. Instead, she continued down the street with one man on each of her arms.

St. Paul's Church, New York City, close to where Robert White's murder took place.

St. Paul’s Church, New York City, close to where Robert White’s murder took place.

Furious with jealousy, Personel went into the house where he had seen them, grabbed the nearest weapon he could find, which happened to be the wooden bar of the door, and pursued the threesome. When he caught up to them, he brought the bar down on the head of Robert White, who fell to the ground. As Personel’s wife ran off, he tackled Gl—-r, who begged for his life.

Gl—-r asked Personel why he had struck White, and Personel replied, “For being in company with my wife, in a bad house at an unseasonable hour.”

“Upon my honor,” responded Gl—-r, “I had no connection with her, nor have I reason to believe that Mr. White had.”

Personel said that if indeed the two were innocent, then he was sorry that he had struck them. Personel then noticed that White had not moved since falling to the ground. Seeing that some people were now approaching the scene, he ran off. Personel arrived home before his wife, spent the night, and then fled to New Haven.

Next to the Liberty Pole

After Personel was captured by Van Gelder and brought back from New Haven, the New York Supreme Court found Personel guilty of murder and sentenced him to be executed on September 10.

The editor of Personel’s Account notes that towards the end of his life Personel “appeared very cheerful and resigned to the will of God.” At the gallows–next to the Liberty Pole on the Common (where City Hall now stands, along with a replica of the Liberty Pole)–Personel addressed the crowd “with much composure, and resigned himself to the King of Terrors.”

Liberty Pole Marker - City Hall Park, New York City (City of New York Parks and Recreation)

Liberty Pole Marker – City Hall Park, New York City (City of New York Parks and Recreation)


  • “Extract of Another Letter from the Same Place.” Pennsylvania Packet, August 9, 1773, vol. II, issue 94, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New–Haven, June 25.” Connecticut Journal, June 25, 1773, issue 297, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, June 28, 1773, issue 1131, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New-York, July 1.” New-York Journal, July 1, 1773, issue 1591, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New-York, June 24.” Pennsylvania Chronicle, June 28, 1773, vol. VII, issue 23, p. 304. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New-York, September 13.” New-York Gazette, September 13, 1773, issue 1142, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Personel, Francis Burdett. An Authentic and Particular Account of the Life of Francis Burdett Personel, Written by Himself. New York, 1773. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.

Prisons and Punishments: The Crank Mill

The punishment of forcing convicts to step on a treadmill–a large, long rotating cylinder with steps attached along the outside–failed to take hold in America, even though England used it successfully for years in its prisons. Proponents of the punishment argued that the treadmill turned prisoners into productive citizens by making them work and provide food for themselves. Critics contended that the punishment had the tendency “to enfeeble or mutilate the human body” and “send [convicts] in a worse moral or physical conditions from the prison than when they entered it.”

Reservations over the use of the treadmill in prisons were strong enough to prompt politicians and prison officials to look for alternatives. In 1823, one year after the invention of the treadmill, Sir John Hippisley, a member of the British parliament, came up with the idea of the crank mill, which he believed produced the same effect as the treadmill, but with added benefits.

From the Baltimore Patriot, December 4, 1823 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.)

From the Baltimore Patriot, December 4, 1823 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.)

Rather than using their legs to rotate a cylinder in a stepping motion, convicts at the crank mill would use their arms to rotate a long bar in a vertical circular motion. Any number of bars could be connected to, and radiate out from, a central shaft that, like the treadmill, could turn stones for grinding corn. The seeming advantage of the crank mill is that convicts could situate themselves in a number of positions. They could stand with their right foot forward or their left. They could use one arm or two. They could even face one another as they rotated the bar. These variations would presumably reduce fatigue and put convicts less at risk to injury.

Hippisley also maintained that the crank mill could essentially police itself by means of a counter connected to the machine, so that the inspector could see the number of times the convicts rotated the crank during his absence (although such a device could just as easily be connected to the treadmill).

Even though the crank mill seemingly minimized the potentially injurious effects of the treadmill, its inventor admitted that its use could “be extended to a dangerous excess, without good vigilance on the part of the superintendants.” And for this reason, Hippisley recommended that female convicts be exempt from using both the crank mill and the treadmill.

The New York Evening Post published an engraving of Hippisley’s crank mill, which was then reprinted in several other American newspapers. But the idea did not go far. As with the treadmill, American politicians and prison officials had little interest in adopting the mechanism. And neither did the politicians and prison officials in England.

Prisons and Punishments: The Failure of the Treadmill in America

In 1822, when the American press began to circulate articles praising the use of a new invention in England that would instill fear in convicted felons and turn them into productive citizens, politicians, prison officials, and the press in America took notice. The invention was a treadmill, a large, long cylinder equipped with steps that prisoners would cause to rotate in a motion akin to walking up stairs that would grind corn, pump water, or perform other tasks that required mechanical power.

A few prisons in America quickly adopted the idea, and officials from other prisons eagerly waited to see if the treadmill as a punishment would match the glowing reports of its use that were coming out of England.

Adoption of the Treadmill in America

Treadmill - small

One of the first prisons to adopt the treadmill was the Bellevue County Penitentiary in New York City, located where 26th Street meets the East River, in 1822. Thirty-two convicts on two machines rotated the barrel-like contraptions through stepping motions, and every completed rotation of a cylinder caused a bell to ring. With this device, the convicts could grind 40-60 bushels of corn, which fed both the prisoners and residents of an almshouse.

The idea of using treadmills in prisons intrigued the Governor of Massachusetts, who called for an investigation into its possible use during his annual address to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1823. As a follow-up to this inquiry, an official at the Bellevue Penitentiary declared that early indications show the treadmill to be “one of the most successful of inventions.” He reported that while the prisoners were engaged on the treadmill, they hardly spoke a word to each other, and that even when they were resting they were too fatigued to engage in conversation. He described the atmosphere created by the treadmill as “orderly and submissive” and added that it required little supervision. He concluded that when the treadmill is combined with solitary confinement, the two punishments “furnish the most salutary punishment and the most powerful detriment from crime that the lenient spirit of our laws admits.”

Elsewhere, in the spring of 1823, the Connecticut Legislature passed a resolution to appropriate $3,000 to erect a treadmill in the Newgate state prison in Simsbury, CT. In general, convicts at this prison spent their time behind bars practicing traditional crafts, such as blacksmithing, shoemaking, and stone cutting. Prisoners who did not ply a trade usually worked as waiters and common laborers, but now they could also be put on the treadmill.

Newgate Prison, CT - 1890

Newgate Prison, CT – 1890

In a report commissioned by the Connecticut Legislature on the prison’s conditions one year later, the committee contended that use of the treadmill in the prison was too new to draw firm conclusions about its effects, but it did acknowledge that it is a “powerful instrument” that could easily be used to abuse prisoners if put in the hands of the wrong supervisor. The committee asked a physician to assess the treadmill’s health risks, and he concluded that there were none. The report pointed out that the treadmill was particularly useful for employing convicts who were scheduled for short stays in the prison–where setting them up with a trade would be a waste of time–and concluded that the treadmill was an effective mode of punishment, because it is “peculiarly irksome; requiring a severe exertion of the body, but furnishing no employment of the mind.”

Bad Reviews

For the most part, newspaper reports about the use of treadmills in prisons were generally positive if not glowing. But a few reports also appeared that questioned the effectiveness of the punishment.

In March 27, 1823 the Baltimore Patriot published a report out of England about the first time a treadmill was put into motion in a prison in Reading. All appeared to be going well during the first few days of its operation until 1:00 p.m. on a Monday, when all 32 of the prisoners refused to go on the wheel unless they received more food and leather-bottomed shoes. The article reported that the men were under the impression that the worst punishment that would befall them for their work stoppage would be confinement in their cells, but the prison keeper and his assistants used “arms and bludgeons” to compel the men to return to work.

One year later, another report from England appeared in an American newspaper that highlighted the negative aspects of treadmills. The criticism came from the Edinburgh Review in its assessment of the use of treadmills in a prison in North Riding of Yorkshire in northern England. The reviewer called treadmills the “new magistrates plaything” and went on to write a scathing critique of its use:

The labour of the tread-mill is irksome, dull, monotonous, and disgusting to the last degree. A man does not see his work, does not know what he is making; there is no room for art, contrivance, ingenuity and superior skill–all which are the cheering circumstances of human labor. The husbandman sees the field gradually subdued by his plough, the smith beats the rude mass of iron by degrees into its meditated shape, and gives it its mediated utility: the tailor accommodates his parallelogram of cloth to the lumps and bumps of the human body, and holding it up, exclaims, ‘this will contain the lower moiety of an human being.’ But the treader does nothing but tread; he sees no change of objects, admires no new relations of parts, imparts no new qualities to matter, and gives it no new arrangements and positions; or if he does, he sees and knows it not, but is turned at once from a rational being, by a justice of peace, into a primum mobile [literally, “first moved”: the outer moving sphere of a geocentric model of the universe], and put upon a level with a rush of water or a puff of steam.

Such critiques of treadmills in American newspapers, though, were rare. But the enthusiasm of the press in the use of treadmills did not translate into their broad adoption in American prisons. Indeed, only four prisons in America ever employed treadmills, and in three of the four cases, the prisons quietly left their treadmills behind only a few years later when new prison facilities opened up to replace them.


England widely embraced the use of treadmills in its prisons from the time of its invention in 1822 to the early 20th century. In 1895, Oscar Wilde was even put to work on a treadmill after he was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to a two-year prison term. But if the treadmill was successfully adopted in England and showed so much promise in regulating the behavior and work of prisoners, then why did it fail to take hold in America?

David H. Shayt from the Smithsonian Institute believes the answer lies in the different need for work and the different attitudes toward prison labor between the two countries. After the Revolution, as America broke away from England and its influence on the American criminal justice system, American reformers in the early nineteenth century looked to Enlightenment philosophy for new ways to address the problem of crime and criminals. As a result, corporal and capital punishment was replaced by long periods of incarceration, where criminals spent their time reflecting on their bad behavior and interacting only with “good men”—i.e., members of the clergy and prison staff—in an attempt to reform them.

In a country like America, where liberty is highly valued, spending long periods of time behind bars was increasingly seen as an appropriate form of punishment for serious crimes. Attention now focused on how prisoners spent their time, with a preference for isolation, silence, and rigorous manual labor to keep them from sinking into idleness.

In both England and America, prison officials sought to use the labor of their convicts to offset the costs of housing them, and perhaps even to make a profit. In America, prisoners spent most of their time locked in their cells performing handicrafts to earn their keep. The idea was to turn the convicts into productive members of society by the time they finished their sentences.

The treadmill had the advantages of being able to regulate and measure precisely the productivity of convicts–longer intervals between the ringing of the bell meant their pace was slackening–and no special skills were required to operate it. But here is where the treadmill failed miserably in America. This latter “advantage” in the eyes of the American criminal justice system was perceived as a liability. The treadmill could not demonstrate any long-term benefit for the prisoner, who merely served as a power source. It did nothing to turn that prisoner into a productive worker.

Treadmills also turned out to be a poor use of potentially productive prison labor, especially in America where any form of labor was relatively scarce at the time. Convicts in America were already producing shoes, clothing, hardware, furniture, and other goods from raw or semi-finished goods brought into the prisons. To take this highly productive labor force and put them on a relatively inefficient treadmill would have seemed like folly.

In the end, treadmills turned out to be more of a psychological tool–by making prisoners mindlessly turn a large wheel for hours at a time–than a productive one and functioned more as a means for retributive justice than for reforming convicts. Americans valued productivity so much that even wasting it in the form of convict labor was an idea that simply could not take hold.


The advantages of the treadmill as a device that requires great physical effort with little necessary skill–and that measures accurately the productivity of its users–did not entirely go to waste. Today, treadmills (now known as Stairmasters or stepping machines) are staples at gyms and health centers, where users can measure the number of steps they take, the speed in which they take them, the calories they burn, and more. Few people realize that these popular pieces of exercise equipment trace their beginnings back to early prisons and punishment.

The original users of treadmills in the nineteenth century were compelled to rotate their cylinders; today, people seeking physical fitness pay for the privilege to do so.

The author on a "Treadmill"

The author on today’s “Treadmill”


  • American Mercury, February 28, 1826, vol. XLII, issue 2174, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot, January 4, 1823, vol. LVII, issue 4351, p. 4. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • “The Reading Tread-Mill.” Baltimore Patriot, March 27, 1823, vol. XXI, issue 66, p. 1. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • Salem Gazette, June 6, 1823, vol. I, issue 45, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • Shayt, David H. “Satairway to Redemption: America’s Encounter with the British Prison Treadmill. Technology and Culture 30:4 (Oct., 1989), 908-938.

Prisons and Punishments: The Treadmill Song

Treadmill - small

From the Amateur
The Treadmill Song

The stars are rolling in the sky,
The earth rolls on below,
And we can feel the rattling wheel
Revolving as we go,
Then tread away, my gallant boys,
And make the axle fly;
Why shouldn’t wheels go round about,
Like planets in the sky?

Wake up, wake up, my duck-legged man,
And stir your solid pegs;
Arouse, arouse, my gawky friend,
And shake your spider legs;
What though you’re awkward at the trade,
There’s time enough to learn–
So lean upon the rail, my lad,
And take another turn.

They’ve built us up a noble wall,
To keep the vulgar out;
We’ve nothing in the world to do,
But just to walk about;
So go it now, you middle men,
And try to beat the ends–
It’s pleasant work to rumble round
Among one’s honest friends.

Here, tread upon the long man’s toes,
He shan’t be lazy here–
And punch the little fellow’s ribs,
And tweak that lubber’s ear–
He’s lost them both–don’t pull his hair,
Because he wears a scratch,
But poke him in the further eye,
That isn’t in the patch.

Hark, fellows, there’s the supper bell,
And so our work is done;
It’s pretty sport–suppose we take
A round or two for fun.
If ever they should turn me out,
When I have better grown,
Now hang me, but I mean to have
A treadmill of my own.

Even though the tone of this poem is satiric, it still does not convey the true working conditions of the treadmill. Time spent on the treadmill was mind-numbing. This boredom combined with fatigue could often lead to injury. While the fact that those working the treadmill had no idea whether their labor was productive or not was lauded by its advocates–if the grain supplies being milled with the treadmill ever ran out, for example, the punishment could continue on–critics of the treadmill pointed out that the prisoners never saw or experienced the fruits of their labor, and consequently could not derive any satisfaction from it.

To reduce fatigue, convicts regularly traded working on and off the treadmill at regular intervals, but they were subjected to this exhausting punishment for hours at a time. There were no standards in the construction of the treadmills or in the time convicts spent on them, so what was considered reasonable punishment was left to the discretion of the individual jail wardens. Naturally, some wardens had different ideas of what constituted reasonable punishment and were more brutal than others.


  • Norwich Courier, September 22, 1830, vol. IX, issue 26 p. 4. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.

Saddened and Angered by the Newtown Tragedy?: Join Me in a Simple Act

Over the years of writing this blog, I have resisted as much as possible the temptation to use this forum as a means of promoting my political views. But the mass shooting at the elementary school in Newtown, CT last week is a tipping point. My sadness for the families of the victims in this tragedy and my anger over a political climate where our country’s leaders cannot so much as hint at discussing gun control without fear that the National Rifle Association (NRA) will organize heavily against them forces me into action.

I am not going to use my blog to address specific arguments about gun control laws; it is my hope that such a discussion will take place in other, more appropriate, media outlets. But I am tired of the seemingly unfettered power of the NRA and how its logically fallacious “slippery slope” arguments have effectively limited political speech and discussion of gun regulation.

If you, like me, are angered by our current political environment–where both mass shootings and daily killings appear to be repeatedly tolerated in the absence of sensible debate over meaningful steps that we can take to limit such senseless gun violence–please consider following my lead. A one-year membership in the NRA costs $35.00, and a “Junior Membership” costs $15.00. In my humble attempt to provide an antidote to this powerful lobbying organization, I am donating the equivalent cost of a one-year membership to the NRA to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence for myself and for each of my family members.


One hundred percent of the money donated to the Brady Campaign goes towards passing gun control legislation (consequently, the money is not tax deductible). But $3.75 of NRA membership dues goes towards a subscription to a magazine put out by the organization; Junior Members receive a special subscription to a magazine called Insights, which is specifically written for those under the age of 15. In addition, NRA members receive an “official NRA members-only Shooter’s cap,” as well as an NRA decal. So I figure that because the Brady Campaign does not offer similar “perks” for supporting its lobbying efforts, the money I donate will have a proportionally greater influence on politicians than would a regular NRA membership.

My contribution is modest, but if more people join me in this simple act and encourage others to do the same, perhaps we can have an impact on changing gun laws so that all our families can live in a safer world. Please donate an “NRA equivalent membership” ($35.00 or $15.00) either to the Brady Campaign or to some other worthy organization interested in spurring debate on, or advocating for, gun control laws. The shootings in Newtown, CT and elsewhere demand action, or, at the very least, meaningful debate. Do not, like I have until now, sit on the sidelines and allow the NRA to set our country’s gun control agenda while more tragedies involving guns occur every day.

Prisons and Punishments: Inventive Ways to Cut Prison Costs

Cutting government budgets is on the minds of almost everyone nowadays. All levels of government seem to have empty coffers and are looking for new ways to save money in the midst of persistent societal needs. This situation is prompting many state governments to reexamine how they punish their criminals and to look for creative ways to reduce the heavy burden that strict sentencing laws and mass incarceration over recent years has had on taxpayers.

A Long and Vexing Problem

On November 10, 2012, the New York Times drew attention to these new approaches by publishing an editorial entitled, “How to Cut Prison Costs,” which supported steps taken by various states to contain expenditures on prisons by reducing recidivism through expanded drug treatment programs, improved post-prison supervision, and retooled parole systems.

Chip Corwin, a third-year student at the University of Wisconsin Law School, responded to the NYT editorial by arguing that along with implementing these cost-cutting programs, we as a society need to rethink the use of lengthy prison terms as punishment and should instead put away only those who “pose a grave risk to public safety.” He called for a new emphasis on “results over retribution,” a philosophical change that he maintained could restore communities, aid in paying restitution to victims, and “could frustrate the private prison industry’s unconscionable efforts to profit off mass incarceration.”

The New York Times asked readers to write responses to Corwin’s letter and published the resulting dialogue under the heading “How We Punish Crime.” All of the published letters supported Corwin’s view and added even more ideas for how to reform our dysfunctional U.S. prison system.

The issue of how to punish criminal offenders has long been a vexing problem. Today in our Age of Budget Cutting, government officials are using the need for cost savings to find new and better ways to deal with convicted felons. So perhaps it is natural that government officials in the Age of the Industrial Revolution turned to machinery for help in solving their prison problem.

An Industrial Solution

Beginning in 1822, a celebratory article began to appear in numerous American newspapers that described a device invented in England and recommended by the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline. This new machine, the article claimed, would solve once and for all the problem of employing prisoners and act as a preventive punishment that would sharply reduce the prison population and save the state money.

The invention was a treadmill, or treadwheel. The idea was to have a line prisoners step on boards attached to the sides of a long cylinder in the form of a paddle wheel, which would in turn provide power for grinding wheat or corn or for pumping water up from the ground. The effect for the prisoners would be like climbing an endless flight of steps, in the way that modern-day step machines function in health clubs today. (Suddenly, I have a great idea for a new revenue stream for gyms!)

The Salem Gazette, October 25, 1822 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.)

The treadmill was the invention of Samuel Cubitt of Ipswich, and one of the first was erected at the House of Correction in Brixton, England. The treadmill article that appeared in American newspapers notes that even though the treadmill had only been in operation for a short while, it had already shown great promise as a means of punishment. For one, the treadmill solved the problem of providing “regular and suitable employment for prisoners sentenced to hard labor.” And even if the supply of corn that needed grinding fell off or the water reserves were sufficient, it was not necessary to suspend the labor of the prisoners. In fact, it was not even necessary to inform the inmates of these circumstances. They could continue to fulfill their sentence of hard labor in the absence of productive need and not even know it.

Another advantage was that the operation of the device required minimal supervision. In Brixton, a series of ten treadmills radiated out like spokes on a wheel from the Governor’s house, which gave the governor a complete and continuous view of their workings. The operation of the machine was also so simple that prisoners did not need instruction in how to use it, nor did it require any tools, which might otherwise be “liable to waste on misapplication, or subject to wear and tear.” Even more, the machine automatically policed the prisoners’ productivity. If the speed with which the prisoners worked ever dropped below a certain level, the slow pace would cause a bell to ring and alert the governor or the taskmaster.

The treadmill could also save the state money. Even though an initial expense was required to build and put the machines into operation, they would have the overall effect of reducing the number of prisoners through deterrence. According to the celebratory article, “many prisoners have been known to declare that they would sooner undergo any species of fatigue, or suffer any deprivation, than return to the house of correction, when once released.” Imagine these prisoners’ reaction if they were told that one day people would actually buy or pay to use exercise machines that essentially mimics this form of punishment!

The Reality

For a short time, the use of treadmills in prisons proliferated in England. But the conditions created by their operation were brutal. The machines ran for ten hours a day at many institutions, with prisoners alternating between 20 minutes of rest and 20 minutes of work for hours on end. In a drive towards productivity, officials sometimes forced pregnant women and inmates with bad legs onto the treadmill, and fatigued prisoners were at times crushed and mangled in its gears.

The treadmills were not that productive either. The power that could be generated by the inmates fell well short of what could be produced by a water-driven wheel. And if indeed the machine did accomplish its goal of reducing the number of prisoners, what would happen if that number fell below what would be needed to operate the treadmills?

The early description of the treadmill that appeared in American newspapers was glowing. But did criminal justice officials in America buy into these arguments and race to implement this new invention in their prisons in the same way that those in England did? Stay tuned. An answer to this question will appear in another post on Early American Crime.


“Description of the Tread Mill.” Salem Gazette, October 25, 1822, vol. XXXVI, issue 83, p. 1. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.

“How to Cut Prison Costs” (Editorial). The New York Times, November 10, 2012. Website:

Ignatieff, Michael. A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. New York: Penguin Books, 1978.

Lienhard, John H. “Prison Treadmills.” Engines of Our Ingenuity, no. 374. Website:

“Sunday Dialogue: How We Punish Crime.” The New York Times, December 1, 2012. Website:

Weekly Eastern Argus, April 8, 1823, vol. XX, issue 1048, p. 1. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.

In the Media: Insights into Researching Early American Crime

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When I speak at libraries, historical societies, and other groups about early American crime, I am often asked where and how I find information about these historical criminals.

The short answer is that I generally use a combination of databases that are freely available on the Web and subscription databases that I access through local libraries. I also use a handful of print resources. Regular readers of this blog probably know this information already, because I always include a list of the sources I consulted during my research at the end of each article.

But if you are interested in gaining even greater insight into how I approach my research, you can read an article I wrote that just appeared in the November 2012 edition of the Readex Report entitled, “Digging Up Crime Stories from America’s Past: Tips and Technique from a Librarian-Scholar.”

The Readex Report is the official newsletter of Readex/Newsbank, the company that publishes two important subscription databases for my research, America’s Historical Imprints and America’s Historical Newspapers. History buffs might also enjoy the other articles in the newsletter, which include a story about a late nineteenth-century African-American cycling champion and another one about the first Egyptian mummy to be commercially displayed in America.

Crime Poems: Robert Young’s True Character

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Fifteen year-old Robert Young used his time in Dublin in 1765 to find his true character. He decided that he was “an absolute hater of all sorts of strong liquor,” but he also discovered that he was “much inclined to the company of women.” This inclination moved him to try his hand at seducing one of his master’s maids, who at first resisted his advances until his persistence and the “large promises” he made finally weakened her.

Young’s father had sent his son to Dublin from Carrick, Ireland to work for George Reilly, a wholesale merchant. He had educated Young with the expectation that the boy would eventually follow in his footsteps, and he believed that his son would gain valuable experience in the business world by working for Reilly. But Young came away from his time in Dublin with a worldly education that was not what his father had intended.

Young’s Education

Once Young attained his goal of seducing Reilly’s maid, he used his close connection with the merchant to have her discharged to ensure that the illicit relationship would remain a secret. Young then turned his attentions to “lewd women,” and with their influence he lost any noble spirit he originally possessed and “in a short time learned to drink to excess.”

Reilly soon discovered how Young was spending his time away from the warehouse, and he threatened to tell Young’s parents about it if he did not quit his current lifestyle and apply himself to learning the ways of business. Young responded by leaving Reilly and traveling to Liverpool, England for a two-week vacation. After he returned to Dublin, he enlisted in the army.

Young committed “all manner of debauchery” while in the army, and before he left Dublin with his regiment, he was treated in the hospital for syphilis, his first of many such treatments. As Young moved from place to place as a soldier, he continued to seduce and abandon women along the way. He eventually landed in Canada under General Burgoyne, and as the army wintered in Quebec, he came up with a scheme to supplement his meager earnings. He developed a relationship with a widow, who supplied him with money that he then used to buy liquor and spend time with bad company. When it came time for his regiment to go to Ticonderoga, the widow pleaded with Young to stay behind with her, but in perfect step, he marched on.


Young saw action in two battles but came out of both unscathed. After marching with his regiment to Hadley, MA, a woman he met talked him into deserting the army. He took her advice, spent the night with her, and then continued his rakish ways as he traveled around New England.

The Massachusetts Spy, November 11, 1779 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.)

Young landed a job as a schoolteacher in Greenfield, MA, and after two months went back to his “old practices of seducing the young women,” although he never explicitly says whether any of them were his students. One girl in town took a particular fancy to Young, and she often visited him “in private.” Her parents tried to keep the two apart by refusing to allow Young in their house, but their efforts came to no avail. And when Young eventually left Greenfield, the girl continued to slip away to visit him.

Teacher Opening

Young moved around acting as a schoolteacher in several towns, when he learned that there was an opening for a teacher in Brookfield, MA. When he arrived there in 1779, he decided to keep the fact that he had deserted the British army a secret so as to avoid any problems. Young opened a school on the property of Samuel Green, and not surprisingly he soon struck up relations with Green’s daughter, Anne. When Anne’s parents found out about the relationship, they were furious, especially because they knew that Young was having similar contacts with other women in town and on many nights never came home.

But this time was different. Young believed he was truly in love with Anne. He promised to quit his relationships with the other women and offered Anne marriage. He even told her that he belonged to the British army and assured her that he would never go back to it. Anne’s parents and friends tried their best to derail the relationship, but she held firm to her intention to marry Young. Young himself, though, made sure that the marriage would never happen.

On September 3 with their marriage only a few days away, Young got drunk and then raped one of his students, Jane Green, Anne’s eleven year-old sister.

Young was tried at the Superior Court in Worcester, and the Massachussets Spy reported that

the evidence of his crime was clear and striking. The jury found him guilty, and he received sentence of death on Saturday last. It is supposed that greater influences of brutality and barbarity, were never exercised in a crime of this kind, than were exhibited by said Young in the perpetration of this inhuman deed. The circumstances of which decency forbids us to publish in a public news paper.

Before Young was executed on November 11, 1779 at the age of 29, he wrote a poem called, “The Dying Criminal,” although it also offers little detail about what happened on that fateful evening in September.

(Library of Congress)


By ROBERT YOUNG, on his own Execution, which was on Thursday last, November 11th, 1779, for a RAPE committed on the Body of Jane Green, a Child eleven Years of Age, at Brookfield, in the County of Worcester, on the 3d Day of September last. Corrected from his own Manuscript.

ATTEND, ye youth! if ye would fain be old,
Take solemn warning when my tale is told;
In blooming life my soul I must resign,
In my full strength, just aged twenty-nine.

But a short time ago, I little thought
That to this shameful end I should be brought;
But the foul fiend, excepting God controuls,
Dresses sin lovely when he baits for souls.

Could you the monster in true colours see,
His subject nor his servant would you be;
His gilded baits would ne’er allure your minds,
For he who serves him bitter anguish finds.

Had I as oft unto my Bible went,
As on vain pleasures I was eager bent,
These lines had never been composed by me,
Nor my vile body hung upon the tree.

Those guilty pleasures that I did pursue,
No more delight—they’re painful to my view;
That monster, Sin, that dwells within my breast,
Tortures my soul and robs me of my rest.

That fatal time I very well remember,
For it was on the third day of September,
I went to Western, thoughtless of my God,
Though worlds do tremble at his awful nod:

With pot-companions did I pass the day,
And then direct to Brookfield bent my way,
The grand-deceiver thought it was his time,
And led me to commit a horrid crime.

When it was dark I met the little fair,
(Great God forgive, and hear my humble pray’r)
And, O! dear Jane, wilt thou forgive me too,
For I most cruelly have used you.

I took advantage of the dark’ning hour,
(For beasts always by night their prey devour)
This little child, eleven years of age,
Then fell a victim to my brutal rage;

Nor could the groans of innocence prevail;
O pity, reader, though I tell the tale;
Drunk with my lust, on cursed purpose bent,
Severely us’d th’unhappy innocent.

Her sister dear was to have been my wife,
But I’ve abus’d her and must lose my life;
Was I but innocent, my heart would bleed
To hear a wretch, like me, had done the deed.

Reader, whoe’er thou art, a warning take,
Be good and just, and all your sins forsake;
May the Almighty God direct your way
To the bright regions of eternal day.

A dying man to you makes this request,
For sure he wishes that you may be blest;
And shortly, reader, thou must follow me,
And drop into a vast eternity!

The paths of lewdness, and these base profane,
Produce keen anguish, sorrow, fear and shame;
Forsake them then, I’ve trod the dreary road,
My crimes are great, I groan beneath the load.

For a long time on sin should you be bent,
You’ll find it hard, like me for to repent;
The more a dangerous wound doth mortify,
The more the surgeon his best skill must try.

These lines I write within a gloomy cell,
I soon shall leave them with a long farewell;
Again I caution all who read the same
And beg they would their wicked lives reclaim.

O THOU, Almight GOD, who gave me breath,
Save me from suffering a second death,
Through faith in thy dear SON may I be free,
And my poor soul ascend to dwell with Thee.

The Massachusetts Spy, November 24, 1779 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.)


  • “Extract of Another Letter from the Same Place. August 20.” Connecticut Gazette, October 27, 1779, vol. XVII, issue 833, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Worcester, October 14.” Massachusetts Spy, October 14, 1779, vol. IX, issue 441, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Young, Robert. The Dying Criminal: A Poem. New London, [1779]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • —. The Last Words and Dying Speech of Robert Young. New London, [1779]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • —. The Last Words and Dying Speech of Robert Young. Worcester, [1779]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.

Places and Events: Old Jails in Maine

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I had to duck my head as I passed through the low doorway that led into the dungeon of the Old Gaol in York, ME. The sole electric lamp trying to replicate what the lighting would have been like in the jail cell in the 1700s and the musty smell resulting from a lack of fresh air effectively transported me back in time. As I thought about the criminals who were once held here and tried to imagine what their experience must have been like, my two teenage daughters and their friend were outside sunning themselves on a stone wall before deciding to walk across the street to buy a refreshing drink.

By now, my family is used to me dragging them to historic sites that have connections to America’s criminal past as part of our vacations. But this time we were traveling with another family during our recent trip to Maine. Still, I managed to talk my traveling companions into stopping off to see the Old Gaol as we journeyed up the Maine coast, and as we continued on, we even stumbled onto yet another early American jail. I could not believe my luck.

The Pemaquid Village Jail

The earlier of the two jails we saw dates back to the 17th century and was a serendipitous find after I insisted that we visit the Colonial Pemaquid State Historic Site in Bristol, ME. The jail was part of the Pemaquid Village–which was established between 1625 and 1628–and all that is left of it today are the stone cellar walls that indicate a once small structure divided into two rooms.

The Pemaquid Village Jail

Archaeologists identified the building as a jail when they discovered the charred remains of a stockade that created a penned-in area adjacent to one corner of the building. The jail structure was burned down twice by Native Americans–once in 1676 and then again, with encouragement from the neighboring French to the north, in 1689–and the stockade must have burned down along with it.

The jail is not much to look at today, but the walls outlined by the rubble adequately convey the claustrophobia that its inhabitants must have endured long ago. I know of no other extant jail structure in the U.S. that dates back as far as this one (if you know of one, please share it in the comments), so this find turned out to be quite an historical treat for me, even as my teenage travelers urged me to hurry along so that they could go swimming.

The Old Gaol in York

The Old Gaol, one of the Museums of Old York, was built in 1719 with timbers salvaged from the original York jail constructed in 1656. The dungeon on the main floor is made up of three-foot thick stone walls and is adjacent to the kitchen, which was part of the living quarters of the gaoler and his family. After murdering her master’s grandchild in 1734, Patience Boston was held in this dank and gloomy space, and during her stay she gave birth to her third child. Today, visitors can stand on the same spot at the end of the long and narrow window that leads into the jail cell where Rev.s Samuel and Joseph Moody counseled Boston and helped her embrace Christianity before her execution on July 24, 1735. (See below for links to stories of more criminals who were once held in the Old Gaol.)

The Old Gaol in York, ME

As the population of Maine grew, so did the need for jail space, so the Gaol was expanded and the holding cells were moved to the second floor. While the gaoler and his family received more space and improved living accommodations as a result, they also lost a lot of their privacy. Instead of through the kitchen, prisoners now had to pass through the gaoler’s bedroom to enter the holding cells on the second floor, and all that separated the two spaces was a thin wooden door covering a small interior window through which food could be passed. This arrangement meant that prisoners could hear everything that was going on in the gaoler’s bedroom, and the gaoler and his wife could hear any noise coming from the adjacent cell. The children had it little better. They slept in another bedroom that was connected to the debtor’s cell.

Despite the best efforts by the gaolers to keep the Old Gaol’s prisoners locked up, some of these criminals still managed to escape. A particularly inventive Nathaniel Cole, who in 1819 was being held on the second floor for debt, smeared blood on the saw blades that partly blocked an air vent that led into his cell and then hid up the chimney. When the gaoler later entered the room and saw the bloodied saw blades, he assumed that Cole had wounded himself while escaping down the shaft and immediately ran out to find him. Cole then slipped back down the chimney and walked out the front door.

My teenage traveling companions escaped out of the Old Gaol almost as fast as Cole did after they quickly walked through just enough rooms to justify their entrance fee. Alas, while I cannot say that the girls toured these two historic sites with the same enthusiasm as I did, they did give me enough time to revel in these physical reminders of America’s early criminal past.

Stories of Criminals Held in the Old Gaol in York, ME

Early American Criminals: The Cuckolded Soldier

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Around 1764 or 1765, Bryan Sheehen returned home to his wife in Casco Bay, ME after serving in the regular army for a long six and a half years. But the joy of his homecoming turned into rage when he learned that his wife had remarried during his absence to a Frenchman. Sheehen made preparations to kill the man by sharpening the end of a hanger, but his anger subsided before the two met and cooler heads prevailed when they agreed that their wife should choose which husband she wanted.

She chose Sheehen.

But her choice did not save the marriage. Sheehen could not stomach the thought of the Frenchman’s child living with them, and so even though he had subsequently had three or four children by his wife (all of whom died except one), he abandoned her and moved to Marblehead, MA.

Carelessness and Reluctance

Sheehen was born in Ireland in 1732 to a mixed religious household. His father was Catholic and his mother Anglican, so he and his brothers attended Catholic services and his sisters accompanied their mother to the English church. At the age of 20, he went to Newfoundland to work in the fishing industry before moving to Charlestown, MA to work as a truckman. From there, he bound himself as a servant to the shipbuilder Benjamin Hollowell in Boston.

While Sheehen lived with Hollowell, he was required to attend religious services with the family, and his master occasionally quizzed him on the text of the gospel and the content of the sermon. Since Sheehen was not used to the Protestant service, he performed these duties “with carelessness and reluctance.”

After he finished his term and left Hollowell, he met another person who got him drunk and tricked him into signing yet another indentured servant contract. Sheehen left no details as to who this person was or what work he was required to perform, but after he satisfied the terms of the contract he moved to Casco Bay and got married.


After Sheehen abandoned his family in 1768 and moved to Marblehead, he worked once again in the fishing business as a sailor. But when he was not out at sea, he hung around the streets and developed “the character of a wicked, profligate person.” During the winter of 1770-1771, a shop owner accused Sheehen and another man of planning to burglarize his store when he spotted them loitering in front of his establishment. In response, Sheehen violently threatened and abused the shop owner, and as punishment he was confined to the jail in Salem and then publicly whipped. During his imprisonment, Sheehen learned that his wife had died, which deeply affected him.

That July, Sheehen was in the tavern of a Mrs. Poor when a woman struck his fancy. When she left the room he enquired about her, and when she returned he ordered her a drink. She refused it. He offered her money, but she declined to take that as well. Frustrated, he left Mrs. Poor’s house, and when he returned and asked about her again, he was informed that she was married.

The woman turned out to be Abial Hollowell, wife of Benjamin Hollowell. This Benjamin was not the shipbuilder, Benjamin Hallowell, who had owned Sheehen as an indentured servant back in Boston, but Sheehen must have at least had some recognition that she shared a similar sounding last name as his former master.


The knowledge that Abial Hollowell was married did nothing to detract Sheehen from pursuing her, and the women in town did their best to hide and protect her from his advances. But they could not save her one night when Sheehen broke into her house and entered her room with a lighted candle. When Hollowell woke up and saw Sheehen in her room, she asked him in a fright what he wanted and pleaded for him to leave. Sheehen offered her money, which she again refused. Then he blew out the candle.

Sheehen leaped onto Hollowell’s bed, covered her mouth with his hand, threatened that if she made any noise he would kill her, and raped her. Afterward, in an attempt to prevent her from becoming pregnant, he abused “her with his other hand in so shocking a manner that she had little hope or expectation of her life.” As a result, she was unable to get out of bed without help for 10 days afterward.

Sheehen was arrested on September 13 and charged with the crime. Hollowell testified against him in court, and a physician who examined her corroborated her account. Sheehen, though, claimed that she had consented to lying in bed with him.


Rape was a capital offense in Massachusetts at the time, so Sheehan was sentenced to execution. He steadfastly maintained until the end that he was not guilty, and his stubborn refusal to confess the crime garnered sympathy from some members of the public who consequently believed that he should not have been hanged. But the attorney general at his trial asserted “that he had been at a number of trials of the like kind, but never knew one so plain, and the evidence so full against the prisoner.”

Essex Gazette - March 31, 1772 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.)

James Dimon, Pastor of the Second Church in Salem, published the sermon he gave on January 16, 1772, the day of Sheehen’s execution. He also added a brief account of Sheehen’s life at the end of the publication in which he accused Sheehen of committing a similar crime while living in Casco Bay.

In his account, Dimon describes in shocking detail a similar crime suffered by another woman, except that, unlike Hollowell, this woman died. After boasting to his companions what he had done, the man was arrested and held in a private home for lack of a jail, but after 2 or 3 days he escaped. This man fit the description of Sheehen, and the informants who told Dimon about this case were fairly certain that Sheehen was the one who committed the crime. Dimon contends that these events were the real reason Sheehen abandoned his wife and son in Casco Bay.


Before his execution, Sheehen sold his body to a Dr. Kast of Salem for dissection, and in his last words he informed the hangman of this fact. But a March report in the Massachusetts Spy assures the public that Kast never obtained Sheehen’s body, because “between thirty and forty persons last Friday se’nnight opened his grave, where they found [Sheehen] lying nearly in the same state he was buried in, the afternoon he was executed.”


  • An Account of the Life of Bryan Sheehen. [Salem, MA: Samuel and Ebenezer Hall, 1772]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Banner, Stuart. The Death Penalty: An American History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • Dimon, James. A Sermon Preached at Salem, January 16, 1772. Salem, MA: Samuel and Ebenezer Hall, 1772. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Extract of a Letter from Chatham, September 15.” Connecticut Courant, November 19, 1771, issue 360, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Kellow, Margaret. “Bryan Sheehan: Servant, Soldier, Fisherman.” The Human Condition in Colonial America. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1999.
  • “Salem, March 3.” Massaschusetts Spy, March 5, 1772, vol. II, issue 53, p. 211. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Salem, September 24.” Boston News-Letter, September 26, 1771, issue 3546, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Salem, March 3.” Massaschusetts Spy, March 5, 1772, vol. II, issue 53, p. 211. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Thursday, January 23. Boston.” Massachusetts Spy, January 23, 1771, vol. I, issue 47, p. 187. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.