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Early American Crimes: Burglary Wrap-Up

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Over the past year or so I have been writing about burglars and burglary in early America. To conclude this informal series I am going to try something a little different.

Please click on the audio media file attached to this post to hear me talk about my reflections and conclusions about burglary in early America. I am including my notes below to help you follow along as I talk.

The Burglars

  • Backgrounds
    • Some had neglectful parents, and some even learned their criminal skills from their parents or guardians.
    • Others came from well-off families and had kind, generous, and God-fearing parents.
    • Some were educated, but others received little to no education at all.
    • Some of the burglars served in the army, where they picked up skills and behaviors that led them into a life of crime.
  • A movement from isolated incidents of burglary–perhaps carried out during irrational moments–to more calculated, organized, and professional acts of burglary.
    • The Harvard-educated burglars, James Ward and Joseph Welde (1644): a couple of college kids who made poor judgment in burglarizing the house of one of their uncles.
    • Mathew Cushing (1734): his crimes appear to be less the acts of a professional criminal than of a rebellious young man who tried to take advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves to him.
    • The Morrison Gang (1744): an organized, professional gang of criminals living in Philadelphia, who carried out a string of calculated burglaries.
    • Henry Tufts (1793): planted burglary tools around the area he targeted, so that he had immediate access to them.
  • Personal progression.
    • Burglars often started out committing acts of petty crime as youths and then became more daring and attempted more sophisticated crimes as they got older.
    • Many of the burglars talked about a specific moment when they decided to become a professional criminal, almost like a conversion.

Burglary Methods

  • Many of the burglars took advantage of opportunities as they saw them, such as an open window.
  • More professional burglars employed advanced planning to carry out their burglaries and usually gained knowledge of the shop or building they were about to burglarize from a friend or acquaintance.
  • Some burglars returned over and over again to the same towns and stores.
  • Of all the burglars profiled, not one of them employed violence in carrying out a burglary.


  • Burglary had to be punished harshly, because it was easy to carry out at this time.
    • Easy to break into houses and stores.
    • Dwellings were more isolated from one another, which made for easy targets.
    • Problem of the Bible never singling out burglary as a crime, so early American communities that based their social organization on the Word of God did not have guidance in punishing burglary.
  • Trends:
    • The Harvard-educated burglars, James Ward and Joseph Welde (1644): a whipping and expulsion from school.
    • Arthur Nottool (1664): successfully pleaded Benefit of Clergy after being found guilty of burglary in Maryland, thus avoiding a death sentence.
    • Mathew Cushing (1734): who was executed and was the first American criminal celebrity.
    • Henry Tufts (1793): despite committing multiple burglaries, which should have earned him a death sentence, Tufts received a reprieve from the governor and was instead committed to life in prison.
  • Branding as a punishment seemed to go away in the 1770’s, and it never seemed to stop the criminal from committing further acts of burglary, as in the case of Isaac Frasier.
  • Escapes from jail and prison:
    • The fluid walls of the jails: most of the burglars held in prison seemed to be able to find their way out, and often did.
    • Makes sense: experts at breaking into houses and stores can use those same skills to break out of prison.
    • Burglars were adroit at identifying weaknesses in building construction and could use the vulnerabilities of prison walls to escape.
    • Their escapes indicate how primitive some of these prisons must have been, since their inhabitants could so easily escape out of them.
  • As in England, there was a struggle over the bodies of the executed to keep them away from surgeons, who wanted to use them for dissection.
    • Mathew Cushing was dissected.
    • Levi Ames’s body was successfully buried in an undisclosed location, despite the surgeons’s determination to take possession of it.
  • Many of the burglars asked people to use their fate as a warning not to follow in their footsteps.

In the end, I never grew tired of these stories of burglars. I originally thought that by focusing on burglary, at some point I would find myself repeating the same story over and over again. But that never happened.

As I read about and explored these criminal figures, each burglar exhibited some twist in their behavior or circumstance or criminal act that called out and compelled me to write about him or her. I hope these stories of early American burglars have captured your imagination as much as they have mine.

One Comment

  1. Currently I’m doing research for a WIP novel that I ready to start writing on shortly and it involves a person who has had prison time. I must say that these articles on robbery/burglary have been very informative. I’ve searched through many various articles, none have been as helpful as yours. Thank you!

    Tuesday, November 12, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

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