Skip to content

Early American Criminals: Daniel Wilson: Horse Thief, Burglar, and Rapist

Go to Early American Criminals

Click image to read more Early American Criminals

Daniel Wilson was confident he could escape from prison one more time. He was being held in the Providence jail after committing a rape back in December 1773 in Smithfield, RI. He had escaped from the jail twice before, although both times he was caught and returned. But he vowed to himself on this early Sunday morning in April that this time was going to be different.

For his most recent escape from prison, Wilson copied the pattern of the key that locked his cell door and passed it to some friends. They used the pattern to create a pewter key, which they slipped back to Wilson. After making a few adjustments, Wilson used the key to open his cell door and walked out. With his newfound freedom, he proceeded to steal ten pairs of shoes from Jabez Pearce and sold nine of them. He then stole a horse from Jonathan Cobb and rode to Connecticut. But an advertisement for his capture provided enough information to lead to his return to the Providence jail.

Wilson had incentive to escape from prison this third time: he was scheduled for execution. Wilson feverishly filed off a rivet that held together an iron loop that circled around his waist and was attached to a chain. From there, he broke out of his handcuffs and fetters and began to groan loudly. The jailor came up to his cell to find out what was wrong. Wilson claimed he was ill and needed immediate attention, but as soon as the jailor opened the door, Wilson pushed him aside, ran from the room, and jumped out a second-story window.

“I Followed My Trade with Diligence”

Wilson was born in Bellingham, MA on June 25, 1749. He could not recall committing any transgressions during his youth, except that he once stole some apples out of a hold in the ground from an African American. At 17, he left home to learn carpentry from Abraham Joslyn in Mendon. After working three years for Joslyn, Wilson set up his own carpentry business in Bellingham and claimed, “I followed my trade with diligence, and to good advantage.”

At 23, Wilson met John Arnold of Gloucester. Arnold had received ten dollars from a Dr. Wood from Uxbridge to help him scare away a rival doctor with the last name of Willard. Arnold convinced Wilson and another man to participate in the scheme by offering them equal shares in the money. Arnold’s plan was to go to Dr. Willard one night and tell him that a patient needed his help right away. Wilson and the other confederate were to wait in hiding and, when the doctor appeared, jump out and terrorize him. Willard showed up at the designated place, but the plan did not go as scripted because he was able to run away from the two ruffians.

Even though the scheme failed, Wilson and Arnold maintained their friendship, and it was during this time that Arnold convinced Wilson to become a horse thief. Wilson’s first couple tries at his new profession failed, but he finally found success in stealing a horse from Dr. Dagget of Wrentham. He briefly kept the horse at Arnold’s, and then rode far out to Springfield to exchange it for another one. But Wilson was arrested for the crime nonetheless. He was committed to the Boston jail, and after being held six weeks, he offered money to Dagget to settle the affair and was let go without any further punishment.

But Wilson continued his thieving ways by stealing another horse in Grafton. Once again he was detected but was able to smooth the matter over with money. Lacking success as a horse thief, Wilson turned to burglary. He broke into a shop on the border of Waltham and Watertown and took some silk, velvet, and other articles, along with eight or ten dollars in money.

It was after he carried out this burglary that Wilson committed the rape that earned him a death sentence. Wilson’s Life and Confession does not provide any details about the rape except that the evidence against him clearly convinced the jury of his guilt.

One Hundred Pound Reward

After Wilson jumped out the window of the Providence jail during his escape, the sheriff rounded up a posse from the town to pursue him. The Deputy-Governor also issued a proclamation that offered a reward of 100 pounds for Wilson’s capture. Two days later on Tuesday morning, the posse seized Wilson in Mendon. This time, Wilson was placed under round-the-clock military watch until the appointed time of his execution arrived on April 29, 1774.

Over twelve thousand people showed up to see Wilson executed, including a number of armed townspeople who joined the prison guard to provide added security. Earlier that morning, an alarm was set off throughout the town when word arrived from Smithfield that a mob from the surrounding area was expected to gather to rescue Wilson. But no rescue attempt ever materialized.

Accounts say that Wilson “behaved in a very decent manner” as he stood before the gallows. After an hour of ceremony, he was finally executed in front of the approving crowd. His body was later taken down and given to his friends for burial.


  • Dialogue Between a Reverend Clergyman and Daniel Wilson. Boston: E. Russell, [1774]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Providence, April 2.” Norwich Packet, April 7, 1774, vol. I, issue 27, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Providence, April 23.” Providence Gazette, April 23, 1774, vol. XI, issue 537, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Providence, April 30.” Providence Gazette, April 30, 1774, vol. XI, issue 538, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Providence, January 15.” Providence Gazette, January 15, 1774, vol. XI, issue 523, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Providence, March 12.” Providence Gazette, March 12, 1774, vol. XI, issue 531, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Wilson, Daniel. The Life and Confession of Daniel Wilson. [Providence?, 1774]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *