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Early American Criminals: Henry Tufts’s Thanksgiving

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Note: This post follows “Early American Criminals: Henry Tufts’s Bill of Goods, a Preamble.”

Over the last year or so, Early American Crime has focused on burglars in early America, and Henry Tufts was one of the most prolific. He committed burglaries throughout New England for a good part of his life before retiring to a farm and writing his memoirs with the help of a ghostwriter. The length of Tufts’s narrative and the variety of crimes he committed besides burglary make it impractical to recount the complete history of his life through blog posts. As a result, the next few articles on Early American Crime will cover Tufts’s early fall into a life of crime and highlight his life as a burglar, but will leave aside his many other crimes for future treatment and study.

Apples, Pears, and Cucumbers

Henry Tufts was born in Newmarket, NH on June 24, 1748. He had a happy childhood until he hit the age of fourteen, when he “exhibited numerous indications of that natural propensity to theft” by stealing apples, pears, cucumbers, and other fruits.

These small crimes emboldened Tufts to try even more daring thefts. One time while walking through a farmer’s field, Tufts came across a sickle, so he hid it in some bushes and continued on his way. When the owner of the sickle missed it, he immediately suspected Tufts. In a rage, the farmer confronted Tufts’s father and charged Henry with the theft, but Henry steadfastly denied having taken the sickle. After several rounds of argument and accusations, the owner finally left unsatisfied and Henry went unpunished. Tufts waited a year before retrieving the sickle and then selling it (although how much he got for what presumably had become a rusty sickle is not covered in his book).

In another episode that could have come out of a Mark Twain novel, Tufts and two of his friends concocted a scheme to steal a loaf of bread and some cheese from “a steady old farmer” named Stevens and then rob his cucumber yard. The two friends were not as experienced in the criminal arts as Tufts was, so one of the boys got cold feet and proposed instead that he procure the bread and cheese from his father’s house. In the mean time, Tufts and the other companion went into the field and took as many cucumbers as they could carry.

When the three reconvened and sat down to enjoy their gains, Tufts decided that he wanted all of the spoils to himself. He secretly threw a pebble at the back of one of his companions to startle him and then jumped up and cried, “they are coming in pursuit of us.” The two other boys ran off in terror. After Tufts ensured that his two friends had returned to their homes, he went back to the food and transferred it to another hiding place. The next day Tufts told his friends that after they ran off he was overtaken by Stevens, who made Tufts agree to provide him with three days labor as punishment. The two boys each offered to give Tufts a day’s work apiece as part of their share in the “common penalty.”

A Prodigal Son

When Tufts turned 20 he asked his father to give him some of his inheritance to help him start a life on his own. His father denied his request and informed him that he intended to give the entire estate to Henry’s oldest brother. Henry was flabbergasted by the answer, but most likely Tuft’s father did not want to split up his meager estate into unprofitable pieces. With no education, Tufts saw little to no prospects for his future. He wrote, “It is written (as ‘tis said) in the Hebrew annals, that the man, who gave his son neither property, education nor trade, brought him up to be a thief. The truth of this was verified in me.”

After considering all the work he did for his father as a boy, and believing that he should be compensated in some way for his contribution in helping to support the family, he stole his father’s horse, rode it to the town of Chester, and sold it for thirty dollars. After only two months of traveling and doing odd jobs, the money Tufts got for the horse began to run out, so Tufts returned to his father a prodigal son, gave his father what little money he had left from the sale of the horse, and incurred his father’s wrath.

An Unsatisfying Lifestyle

At the age of 22, Tufts married Lydia Bickford of Durham, NH. Their marriage bliss was interrupted, however, by a false accusation that Tufts had stolen two bags of rye. Tufts was acquitted of the charges, but the incident, combined with the criminal acts of his youthful past, ruined his reputation and credit and sent his family into poverty. Faced with a choice of remaining with his family in poverty with a ruined reputation or of leaving them to head out into the world where he would be met as a stranger, Tufts chose the latter. He said goodbye to his family, traveled eastward, and ended up near Saco, ME, where he secured a job clearing land and tending livestock.

Tufts worked alongside a man named James Dennis, who listened to Tufts complain about his inability to support himself and his family in the lifestyle to which he aspired. Dennis proposed that they rectify this situation by robbing a store in Saco owned by a Mr. Pickard. Tufts had never attempted such a serious crime before, but with trepidation he agreed to go along. After the duo broke into the store in the darkness of night, Dennis directed Tufts to serve as lookout while he combed the store. Dennis did not find much money, so he packed up two large bundles of English goods and other commodities worth about two hundred dollars. The whole process took about a half hour.

The two burglars traveled quickly to Wells, ME in order to drop their score off at the house of Richard Dutton, who was a friend of Dennis’s. After celebrating their successful venture with drink the next day, Dennis and Dutton set out in the evening to sell some of the goods. They made the mistake, however, of asking such a low price for the articles that the potential buyers suspected they were stolen. The interested party called a magistrate, and Dennis and Dutton were arrested. Dutton received a pardon for telling the authorities all he knew about the stolen goods and confessed that more were hidden back at his house. Under heavy questioning Dennis admitted to carrying out the burglary and also impeached Tufts.

When the authorities arrived at Dutton’s house to arrest Tufts, they discovered him in bed with Dutton’s wife. They seized him and threw him in the jail at Falmouth, which is now called Portland. After spending a couple miserable months in prison, Tufts and Dennis decided to create a fire and burn their way out, but the flames quickly fanned out of control. The two prisoners were forced to cry for help, and when aid finally arrived the two convicts were practically suffocated. The prison-keepers rescued the two malefactors and fought the fire for three hours until they finally snuffed it out.

Thanksgiving

The fire made the Falmouth jail unsuitable for holding any prisoners, so the authorities proposed moving the two burglars to the Old York jail. But with Thanksgiving just around the corner, the authorities instead put Tufts and Dennis under guard with Mr. Modley and his family until the holiday was over. Tufts writes of the experience, “Here gratitude obliges me to give testimonial to the humanity and benevolence of that gentleman, to whom is due my peculiar thanks, for using us, while left in his family, as well as I have since fared in any part of America.”

The day after Thanksgiving, Tufts and Dennis were transferred to the Old York jail. During the journey, Dennis broke out of his irons and escaped. Once Tufts arrived at the jail, he was held in heavy irons and placed in the most secure ward. He remained in such a state for nineteen days, until Mr. Pickard, the owner of the burglarized store, showed up. He told Tufts that he would drop the charges against him if Tufts would agree to serve on a three month’s voyage on his brother’s ship to the West Indies. Tufts jumped at the opportunity, and the two headed off to join the vessel. During the journey, Pickard decided to stop at a tavern. He allowed Tufts to continue on ahead and said that he would catch up to him in a short while. Tufts, however, missed a turn, and the two never met up again.

Note: The story of Henry Tufts continues with “Henry Tufts’s Partners in Crime.”

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.

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