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Early American Criminals: Henry Tufts’s Bill of Goods, a Preamble

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The main source of information about the burglar and thief Henry Tufts differs from many of the previous sources that document the lives of early American criminals. The most obvious difference is the length of A Narrative of the Life, Adventures, Travels, and Sufferings of Henry Tufts, which was published in 1807. Up until this point, most criminal narratives were printed on one-page broadsides or in booklet form. Tufts narrative goes on for 366 pages.

The length of Tufts’s narrative means that it offers a greater amount of detail about his crimes, thoughts, and motivations than previous criminal accounts. Tufts also took on a greater number of professional identities besides burglary, including horse thief, doctor, preacher, counterfeiter, con man, soldier, trapper, trader, showman, speculator, fortune teller, and wizard. This varied life is like no other burglar whose life story had appeared in print before this time.

The tone and treatment of Tufts’s crimes in the narrative is different as well. Whereas the confessions of most burglars from the colonial period are full of remorse, Tufts’s account of his criminal past is light-hearted and invokes laughter. His story is a picaresque and lacks the usual piety of his predecessors. This difference in tone could be attributed to the fact that earlier burglars told their life stories from death row, while Tufts told his from the comfort of his retirement on a farm.

Yet another difference between Tufts’s narrative and its predecessors is that it is ghost-written with a self-conscious literary style. True, many of the ministers who regularly visited burglars and other criminals awaiting execution had at least some hand in the writing or publishing of their life stories. But the literary technique used to evoke irony and satire in Tufts’s narrative is much too sophisticated for Tufts to have written it himself. Tufts admits in his book that he received no education, and the historical records that he left behind indicate that he was semi-literate, if even that.

Which brings us to another crucial difference: Henry Tufts as the narrator of his own story is an unreliable one. In the few cases where the historical record coincides with an episode in his book, Tufts inevitably gets the details wrong. In addition, the action of Tufts’s story sometimes differs from what Tufts the narrator says about it, and contradictions and inconsistencies appear frequently throughout the book. This discrepancy between Tufts as the Narrator and Tufts as the Subject of his book gives the ghostwriter the tools he needs to create a literary criminal narrative.

Henry Tufts emerges in his book as a colorful character who, despite his assertions that his narrative is an attempt to atone for his past actions, clearly relishes telling the tales of his criminal adventures. I like to think that the ghostwriter saw the inherent literary potential of Tufts’s character, and used his propensity for exaggeration and self-delusion to enhance the story. But for these reasons, we must read Tufts’s narrative with the knowledge that we may be buying a bill of goods in the process.

Note: The story of Henry Tufts continues with “Henry Tufts’s Thanksgiving.”

Sources

  • Tufts, Henry. A Narrative of the Life, Adventures, Travels, and Sufferings of Henry Tufts. Dover, NH: Samuel Bragg, 1807. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Williams, Daniel E. “Doctor, Preacher, Soldier, Thief: A New World of Possibilities in the Rogue Narrative of Henry Tufts.” Early American Literature 19.1 (Spring, 1984): 3-20.
  • —. “My Only Practical Atonement: Variations of Personality and Performance in the Narrative of Henry Tufts.” South Central Review 8.1 (Spring, 1991): 23-36.

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