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Early American Criminals: Arthur Nottool’s Escape

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Sometime around midnight on June 10, 1664, Arthur Nottool, a tailor by trade and a servant living in Abington Cliffs, broke into the house of John Hunt of Eltonhead Manor in Calvert County, Maryland. Poking around in the dark, Nottool spotted an open trunk and removed a shirt from it. He also spied a gun, and after quickly grabbing it, he fled the house with the two items in hand.

A 17th-century House in Eltonhead Manor - From the Library of Congress

A 17th-century House in Eltonhead Manor - From the Library of Congress

Soon after that night, Nottool was captured on suspicion of burglary and delivered to Thomas Sprigg, the High Sheriff of Calvert County. Sprigg placed irons on Nottool’s legs, locked him in a room, and put a watch over him. The fact that Nottool was held on Sprigg’s own property was not unusual. Prisons were not that common during early colonial times, so prisoners were often held in the homes of officials charged with keeping the peace until they could appear in court or be punished.

In the meantime, Hunt appeared before the Provincial Court on June 21 to lodge an official complaint that Nottool had been breaking into and robbing several houses in the area. Taking Hunt’s charges seriously, the Court ordered Nottool to be held by the sheriff until the next court session on July 5, 1664. The Court also realized the importance of Hunt’s testimony for the case. It set recognizance for Hunt to the value of three thousand pounds of tobacco plus the cask holding it, which Hunt would be required to pay the Court if he failed to appear and give testimony against Nottool on that day.

A Bold Move

Before Nottool could be brought to trial, he made a bold move to gain his freedom. On the Tuesday before his trial, Nottool found a horse lock in the room where he was being held and managed to pull out one of the screws. He waited until nighttime and with his newly found tool, he was able to pry off his shackles. After breaking out of the room, Nottool then broke into Sprigg’s milk house and stole three cheeses, two loaves of bread, and a canvas bag, all of which he took with him into the woods.

Nottool’s freedom, however, was short-lived. He was eventually found after a close search of the woods and placed back in custody. Not only did he fail to escape, he now faced the additional charge of escaping prison.

(Nottool wasn’t the only prisoner Sprigg failed to hold during his career as sheriff. One year later in 1665, Sprigg was accused of willfully allowing Richard Newell, who was convicted of killing some hogs that did not belong to him, to escape from his custody. This time, Sprigg was fined two thousand pounds of tobacco by the Court and threatened with even more fines if Newell could not be captured and brought to the next court session.)

On July 5, Nottool came to trial to face charges of burglary and escaping from prison. During testimony, Nottool readily cooperated with the court by openly confessing not only to the burglary of Hunt’s house, but to others as well. Nottool admitted to breaking open a chest with a hatchet and stealing a burning glass, a device that concentrates the rays of the sun in order to ignite a surface. He also confessed to breaking into the dairy of a Mr. Smyth and stealing some flour, which he hid in a hollow tree in the woods, taking a pot of butter and a pot of cream after climbing through the window of another home, and stealing other goods besides the shirt and gun from Hunt. When asked if anyone assisted him in any of his burglaries or in his escape, Nottool replied no.

After Nottool testified, John Hunt was then called before the Provincial Court. When asked if he could swear that Nottool had broken into his house, Hunt replied that he could not.

Despite the weak testimony of Hunt, Nottool’s confessions were enough for the jury to convict him of both charges of burglary and escaping from prison. Nottool was now in serious trouble. Burglary and robbery were capital offenses in Maryland, although conviction could bring any number of punishments, including death, loss of a member, or burning in the hand. Since Nottool compounded his original crime with escaping from prison, there was no telling how he would be sentenced.


During sentencing, Nottool and two other convicted offenders were called to the bar of the court. Nottool watched as the judge first turned to Pope Alvey, who was convicted of beating one of his servants, Alice Sandford, to death. When the judge asked Alvey what he had to say for himself, he replied that he “Craves Benifitt of Clergy,” which was granted to him. A book was brought forth, most likely a Bible, and with it Alvey proved that he could read.

Benefit of Clergy was an oddity of English law dating back to the Middle Ages and was widely used in the American colonies until just after the Revolution. Its origin grew out of the split in legal jurisdiction between the ecclesiastic and secular courts. Members of the clergy were one of the few people in English society who could read at the time, so if a convicted criminal could prove in the secular courts that he or she were literate, jurisdiction over the case would then fall to the Church.

As the practice of Benefit of Clergy evolved, only certain offenses became “clergyable”–usually minor felonies–and more serious ones, such as murder, were excluded. Only first-time offenders were eligible to claim Benefit of Clergy, and once they used this legal loophole, they were branded to ensure that they would not be able to exploit it again. Benefit of Clergy became an important component of English common law, because it mitigated the harsh penalties that would normally apply to first-time offenders and gave judges and juries some discretion in sentencing.
Since Pope Alvey was granted Benefit of Clergy, the charges against him must have been reduced to manslaughter by the jury, otherwise he would have been executed for murder. Nottool’s spirits must have risen somewhat after watching Alvey successfully avoid execution for an offense that was much more egregious than any that he committed. Alvey’s sentencing offered Nottool hope that he still might be able to escape the harsh punishment he desperately tried to avoid while he was locked away in prison, albeit through legal means.

The judge now turned to Nottool and asked him what he had to say for himself. Following the protocol employed by Alvey, Nottool replied that “hee Craves benifitt of Cleargy.” Just like before, a book was handed to Nottool, and he indeed proved that he could read.

Since both Nottool and Alvey were granted Benefit of Clergy, the court ordered the two of them to be burnt in the brawn of their right hands with a red hot iron. The Under Sheriff immediately stepped forward to perform the punishment, and they were both released.

Nottool’s case was one of the earliest in which Benefit of Clergy was used successfully in Maryland, and afterward it became a normal part of Maryland’s criminal law.

Read more about burglary in Early American Crime.


  • Proceedings of the Provincial Court, 1663-1666. Vol. 49. Archives of Maryland Online. Maryland State Archives.
  • Sawyer, Jeffrey K. “‘Benefit of Clergy’ in Maryland and Virginia. The American Journal of Legal History 34:1 (Jan., 1990), 49-60.
  • Semmes, Raphael. Crime and Punishment in Early Maryland. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1938.

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