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Early American Criminals: The Final Words and Thoughts of Francis Uss, Burglar

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Francis Uss handed a manuscript to a visitor a “day or two before his suffering.” The manuscript was an account of his life and crimes, and it gives a remarkable picture of a man waiting to be hanged.

Back and Forth

Uss said that he was born in 1761 to “reputable parents,” who lived in Strasburg in the province of Alsace in northeastern France. In 1770, his family moved to Philadelphia, and at the age of twelve he was bound as an apprentice to a tailor and served three years.

Around the time that Uss turned sixteen, his father died. Uss traveled back overseas to Amsterdam and then returned to Strasburg to live with an uncle. After nine months Uss began to feel restless, so he left his uncle and traveled through France until he met up with a company of dragoons, who convinced him to sign on with them. Soon after, France joined America in its revolutionary fight against Great Britain, so Uss’s regiment was sent to America.

The War in America

Uss and his company sailed on the St. Clara, a transport ship, but they became separated from their convoy at sea and were seized by a British frigate. The British carried them to Pensacola, FL and imprisoned them there. The heat and humidity of the region oppressed the men so much that they offered to enlist in the British army to get away from the area. The British officers granted their request, but before their oaths of allegiance could be administered, Uss and twenty other men ran away.

The group headed up the eastern shore through the wilderness. While crossing a river, three of their company drowned. They also lost in the water the few guns they carried with them and any means of kindling a fire. As they traveled on, their circumstances deteriorated rapidly. They resorted to eating unpalatable plants and an occasional land tortoise, which they were forced to consume raw.

After traveling north for about 400 miles, they met a tribe of Creek Indians. Unfortunately for them, the Creeks were aligned with the British. They seized the weary travelers and turned them over to the English army, who forced Uss and his companions to retrace their steps back to Pensacola. The group feared harsh punishment for their unsanctioned excursion, but they were instead traded back to the French.

Uss and his new French unit went up to Rhode Island, where he learned that his former regiment was now in Petersburg, VA. He raced southward and in a matter of days rejoined his fellow soldiers. Uss saw a fair amount of action during the war, including the final battle at Yorktown, where he received two wounds. At the finish of the war, his regiment embarked for France, but Uss did not want to re-cross the Atlantic, so he deserted the army and went to his mother, who still lived in Philadelphia.

After the War

Uss worked as a tailor for three years in Philadelphia until he ran into trouble with John Hummel. Uss does not indicate what transpired, but he was thrown into prison with “a large number of criminals; among whom no additions were made to my virtue.” Upon his release from prison, Uss moved to New York and got married.

Uss’s downfall began when he traveled to Poughkeepsie and committed several small thefts along the way. After he arrived in town he visited the shop of Major Andrew Billings. Uss became so enamored of the items on display that he broke into the shop at night and robbed it. This act proved to be a big mistake, because he was arrested and found guilty of burglary.

Uss initially claimed that he was a mere accomplice in the burglary, but once it became clear that his sentence was going to stick and that he had no hope for a pardon, he confessed that he was the sole perpetrator of the crime.

Awaiting Execution

After recounting his life and spelling out the reason he faced execution, Uss’s narrative suddenly shifts to the present tense as he chronicles his thoughts during his remaining time on earth:

Ah! me unhappy what shall I do? Writhing in agony, and convuls’d with grief, I fall amid the clanging of my chains prostrate on the floor of my dungeon and WISH a supplication to my maker, for my poor distracted mind is incapable of coherence, and the half-form’d syllables die upon my tongue.

If groans unutterable, and sighs from the inmost soul have a language, mine is most pathetic.

The terrors of the approaching awful Friday rise up in fearful anticipation before me! I have realized them so often that they cease to be ideal. Once more I will indulge them and, hand in hand with horror, once more walk over the gloomy stage.— —

Albany Gazette, August 6, 1789 - From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.

After a night spent in disturbed slumbers and terrific dreams, I rise from the floor and see the gleamings of a rising sun which I never never more will see go down. The birds hail in cheerfullest notes the new-born day—but music to me has lost its charms, and to me the new-born day brings woe unutterable. Food is set before me; but I turn with loathing [from(?)] nourishment, for what connexion is there between life and me? My pious friends surround me, and retire not, till they have wearied Heaven with the most fervent supplications in my behalf. Oh that I felt their fervor, had their faith, and enjoyed their consolations?—The day fast advances—I hear the din of crouds assembled in the streets—Again there is a noise at the prison door! The massy key grates upon the wards of the lock, and grates too upon my very soul. The door recoils, and enter the ministers of justice. Pity is painted on every countenance. The sounding file is applied, my chains drop to the earth, and my limbs are once more free, only soon to be bound in never-ending obstruction.

Heavens! What are my feelings while the suffocating cord is adjusted to my throat! Death is in the very touch and I think with unutterable . . .

Uss’s story essentially ends here, because the last page of the only extant copy of Uss’s narrative is vertically ripped in half.

Uss was publicly hanged in Poughkeepsie on July 11, 1789 at the age of 29. The last two legible words of his published narrative read, “—no more.”


  • Uss, Francis. The Narrative of the Life of Francis Uss. [Poughkeepsie?], NY, 1789. Database: Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800), Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Poughkeepsie, August 1.” Albany Gazette. August 6, 1789, vol. VI, issue 282, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

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