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Early American Criminals: The Odd Couple of William Huggins and John Mansfield

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Even though William Huggins and John Mansfield were both born into good families, their backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. Huggins was raised in New York, served in the army, and then worked the land as a farm laborer. Mansfield was born in the Province of Maine and traveled the sea as a sailor. But after the two met in Stockbridge, MA in the summer of 1782, the fates of this unlikely duo became one.

William Huggins

William Huggins was born in Fish-Kill, NY in 1759. He was educated and grew up in a religious household. At the age of 18, Huggins enlisted in the army for five months and then returned home to live with his parents. While in the army, Huggins gained a love of gambling, cheating, and drinking. His parents tried to reform him, but to no avail. After two years, Huggins became anxious to be out on his own again and left his parents to become a farm laborer.

His plan didn’t last long. Unhappy with the amount of work farming required, Huggins enlisted in the army again, and when he received his discharge after six months, he returned to his parents a prodigal son. Huggins’s latest engagement in the army was hard, and this time he resolved to reform his ways and listen to his parents. But once again he became unsatisfied with life at home and left his parents one last time. His father died soon after.

Huggins traveled to Stockbridge, MA and returned to farming. He fared well, but he spent money as fast as he earned it. Around this time, he met John Mansfield, who had traveled west seeking work as a laborer.

John Mansfield

John Mansfield was born in Maine in 1761 to parents with a good reputation and influence in the community. One of his relatives commanded a ship and took a liking to him, so at the age of twelve Mansfield went to sea. After two years, Mansfield returned to his parents, but he missed life on board the ship, so at the age of 15 he left his parents for good and became a sailor.

Mansfield prospered in this profession. He saved 400 dollars in cash and built up a wardrobe of clothes worth 300 dollars. In September 1781, Mansfield signed up for a voyage in Salem, MA and took all that he had in the world with him. A day after setting sail, an English man of war seized Mansfield’s ship and took it to Halifax. The English locked Mansfield away in a prison-ship in the harbor and seized all of his possessions, down to the buckles on his shoes.

Mansfield spent the long winter in the prison-ship, but in May he escaped. Lacking money or suitable clothing, Mansfield set out through enemy territory in bare feet. He stuck to the woods for fear that he would be captured and spent five days without food, except for a fowl that he caught and ate. He finally arrived at St. Mary’s Bay, where he was rescued by a Dutchman, and made his way back to Beverly, MA.

Mansfield was too prideful to return to his family and friends in destitution, so he headed into the country to make his fortune. He soon discovered that he could not earn as much money working as a farm laborer as he did as a sailor. He continued looking for work until he reached Stockbridge, which is where he met William Huggins. Since the two of them had little money to their names, they decided to leave Stockbridge and travel to Salem to go to sea together.

Their Journey

Without food, clothing, and other supplies, Huggins and Mansfield had to beg for food as they went along–until they arrived in Pelham, MA. That evening they knocked on the door of Mr. Gray, who graciously let them in. Seeing that Mr. Gray, his wife, and a few young children were the only ones at home, they tied up Mr. Gray and put him on his bed. They locked Mrs. Gray in the cellar and, at her request, provided her with clothes and a candle. With the family secured, Mansfield and Huggins ransacked the house. They took a watch and some clothing before leaving.

Huggins and Mansfield headed for Harvard, MA and went to the inn of Mr. Packhurst. They purchased some liquor, and while they sipped their drinks they spotted a watch hanging in the adjoining bedroom. They also observed how Mr. Packhurst took a box out of a nearby closet to make change for the drinks they bought. Upon leaving, the two decided they should return to steal the watch and the money, so they traveled two miles to another tavern, where they ate dinner and waited for nightfall.

Between midnight and one o’clock, Huggins and Mansfield returned to the Packhurst inn. Mansfield entered the house by lifting up a window and made his way to the bedroom. The room was so dark that the only way that Mansfield knew that Mr. Packhurst and his wife were nearby was by the sound of their breathing while they slept. Nonetheless, Mansfield located the cash box, pocketed the fifteen dollars in it, and grabbed the watch. He then escaped out of the house undetected.

Their Last Stop

The day after they committed the Packhurst burglary, Huggins and Mansfield were pursued and captured in Concord. They were questioned and held in the Concord Gaol for 13 days until they were transferred to Worcester, where they appeared before the Supreme Judicial Court. They were both found guilty of burglary and were sentenced to be executed on June 19, 1783.

The day before their execution, Huggins and Mansfield attempted to escape from the Worcester Gaol. They secured a crowbar by reaching through the grate of their prison door and used it to wrench the iron staples that held their chains to the floor. They then broke open the casing of the prison vault and after entering it attempted to break through the wall.

As soon as the prison-keeper awoke in the morning, he discovered the two prisoners missing and sounded the alarm. The guards suspected that the two had entered the vault, so the floor of the prison was ripped open, and the two prisoners were found lying next to the wall “in a miserable condition.”

While they were held in the Worcester Gaol, the two wrote their autobiographical Last Words. Huggins’s account offers few details about the two burglaries and leaves the impression that they were simple cases of breaking and entering. Only when readers get to Mansfield’s account does the truth emerge of how calculated and sinister their acts really were.

Their Last Words also notes that while their given names were indeed their true ones, the surnames under which they were tried and convicted–“Huggins” and “Mansfield”–were not. They each gave different last names in order to protect their families from the shame of their actions.


Last Words of William Huggins and John Mansfield. Worcester, MA: [Isaiah Thomas, 1783]. Database: Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800), Readex/Newsbank.

“Worcester, April 24.” Massachusetts Spy. April 24, 1783, Vol. XIII, Issue 626, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

“Worcester, June 19.” Massachusetts Spy. June 19, 1783, Vol. XIII, Issue 634, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

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