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Early American Criminals: Isaac Frasier’s Strike Out

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Isaac Frasier was colonial America’s most prolific burglar. In his Brief Account of the Life, and Abominable Thefts, of the Notorious Isaac Frasier, he recorded over 50 acts of burglary and theft and stated that he committed many more that he could not specifically remember. He toured all over New England and into New York, covering hundreds of miles at a time and committing burglaries all along the way. Even though Frasier was an itinerant burglar, he tended to revisit the same towns over and over again and even stole from the same people two or three times.

The Windup

Isaac was born on February 9, 1740 in North Kingston, RI to John and Martha Frasier. At the age of five, his father died in the Siege of Louisbourg (1745) during King George’s War. Frasier’s mother was too poor to educate him properly, so he only learned the alphabet and how to write his name. In time, he even forgot how to do that, so at the end of his life he dictated his Brief Account and signed it with an X-mark.

Frasier’s first act of theft was taking some ears of corn from a neighbor’s field. When his mother found out, she punished him and forced him to return the corn to its owner. At the age of eight, she placed Frasier in an apprenticeship with a shoemaker, where he learned more about theft than about making shoes. His master mistreated him and fed him so little that Frasier was forced to steal food to satisfy his hunger. The mistress of the house also contributed to Frasier’s education in theft. She would regularly send him off to steal snuff from a nearby snuff mill to satisfy her desire and encouraged him to pocket trifles for her from neighboring businesses. Frasier left his apprenticeship at the age of 16 when the shoemaker’s business began to fail.

In 1756 Frasier followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the army. He participated in several campaigns in the French and Indian War until he settled in Newport, RI in February 1760. Not long afterward, Frasier stole a watch and between 600 and 700 pounds from a Mr. Gent. After being arrested on suspicion, Frasier confessed to carrying out the crime. As punishment he was whipped at the cart’s tail and sold to a privateer. Frasier participated in one successful voyage before slipping away to Boston. He enlisted in several more military campaigns until he contracted small pox while living in Norton, MA.

The Pitch

Frasier’s poor health put an end to his military career. He moved to Newtown, CT, where he worked for Hezekiah Booth as a laborer for five months and then hired himself out to surrounding farmers for another two years. Throughout this time Frasier was accused of numerous thefts and lost his reputation, so he moved on to Goshen, CT and then to Canaan.

While in Canaan, Frasier lived an honest life and built up his reputation as an industrious worker. He even bought some land, met a young woman, and got married. But Frasier grew impatient with the slow progress of putting together their house, so he traveled to Woodbury, where he broke into the shop of Trueman Hinman and took 70 to 80 pounds worth of goods. After Frasier was caught, he privately settled the matter with Hinman, but word of his crime made it back to Canaan. His wife now refused to associate with him and his friends abandoned him.

Strike One

Stripped of his family and friends, Frasier became destitute, but he resolved to find some way to become rich and went on a crime spree. His career in crime had an inauspicious start. Frasier was apprehended and thrown in jail three times–in Goshen, NY, Litchfield, CT, and Fairfield, CT–although in each case he escaped. Frasier was turning out to be a terrible burglar, but a prodigious escape artist.

Not easily deterred from his goal, Frasier broke into the shops of Mr. Tomlinson in Woodbury and of Joseph Hopkins, a goldsmith, in Waterbury, CT. He fled to Rhode Island, but he was picked up with the stolen goods in his possession and transported back to Connecticut. He appeared before the Superior Court in New Haven, where he was tried and convicted on his first offense for housebreaking. As punishment, Frasier was whipped, cropped in the ear, and branded.

Strike Two

After receiving his punishment in New Haven, Frasier traveled to Massachusetts, where he broke into shops and houses all over the colony. At one point, he found himself in the Cambridge gaol, where he was whipped. At another time, he was committed to the Worcester gaol and broke out with three other criminals.

Frasier returned to Waterbury, CT, found a key in the door of the same goldsmith shop that had led to his first major punishment, and used it to let himself in. He took three silver spoons, some buckles, and a few other items. He then returned to Newtown, where he entered a shop he had robbed twice before. This time, he did not find much cash or items of value. Disappointed with the results, he broke into yet another shop that same night, but was caught.

Frasier was placed in the Fairfield gaol to await his trial by the Superior Court, which found him guilty of burglary once again, sentenced him to the same punishment as he received in New Haven, and warned him that his next burglary offense would result in his execution. After receiving his punishment, Frasier was recommitted to the Fairfield gaol, but he broke out and headed back to Boston.

Foul Ball

In a replay of his earlier tour of Massachusetts, Frasier committed burglaries and thefts throughout the colony, was recommitted to both the Cambridge and Worcester gaols, and escaped from each. Frasier broke out of the Worcester gaol with “Arthur, a Negro Man”–who one year later was executed for rape–and another criminal. The three jailbirds proceeded to commit a string of petty thefts in various towns between Worcester and Boston before parting ways.

Frasier returned to Connecticut, where he committed four burglaries in one night, and then went to New York, where he claims he did not commit any thefts and possibly married another woman under a different name.

In March 1768, Frasier broke into the shop of Samuel Bradley in Fairfield, CT and set out to return to New York. He stole a horse from a pasture and then stopped at a house a few miles down the road to look for a saddle, but he was discovered by the family and thrown in the Fairfield gaol.

Frasier conspired to break out with a fellow prisoner named Hoit, who was being held for debt. Hoit was imprisoned in an adjoining room, but he delivered an ember to Frasier under the door that separated them. At about eleven or twelve at night, Frasier used the ember to light a fire in an attempt to burn a hole in the side of the jail. The fire quickly grew out of control. Frasier and Hoit would have suffocated from the smoke were it not for one of the jailer’s family members hearing their cries and raising an alarm.

The fire continued to burn so high and furious that it moved from the jail to the adjoining court house, and the two buildings, along with the jailer’s apartment, burned to the ground. Before the jail was completely destroyed by Frasier, it had been newly built and was considered the strongest place of confinement in the colony. The two prisoners were transferred to the jail in New Haven.

The Superior Court sentenced Frasier to be hanged for the Bradley burglary and for his disastrous escape attempt. The judges, loathe to put someone to death, delayed the warrant of execution by 4 months. Frasier took full advantage of the delay. On July 28, 1768 he acquired a small saw and knife, and with them he broke out of his irons and escaped.

Stephen Munson, the New Haven jailer, offered a twenty dollar reward for his capture and return, and a newspaper carrying the story described Frasier as being “of middling Stature, black Hair, pitted with the Small-Pox, has both his Ears cropt, and branded twice on his Forehead with the Capital Letter B, his Fore-Teeth gone, aged about Twenty-Eight Years; had on a brown Great Coat, a Pair of old Homespun Breeches, and a Check Shirt.”

After escaping from the New Haven gaol, Frasier made his way to Boston. While on the road he met an Irish girl, and the two traveled together until they came to a tavern near Roxbury where they got a room together. The girl somehow gained possession of Frasier’s money, but when he tried to get it back, she was protected by the landlord and several other ruffians staying in the house. In the end, she gave 19 of the 40 dollars back to him after he pleaded his case with her.

The Travels of Isaac Frasier throughout New England and New York.

Strike Three

The watering trough and the flagstone at the base are all that remains of Beaman's Tavern, which is now under water.

Frasier made his way to Beaman’s Tavern in Shrewsbury, MA, where he stayed two days and then left in the night with a waistcoat, a watch, a silver cup, and 14 pounds. He was captured, though, and held in the Worcester gaol. Frasier settled the affair privately with Beaman, but he was given ten stripes for another theft he had committed. While he was being held in custody, word of his involvement in the affair in New Haven reached Worcester, and he was transferred back to Connecticut to face his execution. Upon his arrival, the Superior Court in Fairfield ordered Frasier to be loaded with chains and the jail to be guarded every night until his execution.

A large number of people showed up in Fairfield on September 7, 1768 to witness Frasier’s execution. He showed little concern throughout the proceedings, which made people think that he held hope that he would at some point receive a reprieve. But as his final hour drew near and it became increasingly apparent that there was no escape, he began to display anxiety over his fate.

Frasier did not give a public speech, but he requested Noah Hobart to give a sermon at his execution. Hobart ended his address to Frasier and the spectators in dramatic fashion:

You are now on the very brink of an awful, and endless eternity; in an hour or two you must enter on the unseen world; and your everlasting condition will be fixed and determined. This is the last sermon you are to hear,—these are the last offers of pardon and salvation through CHRIST that are ever to be made you. O! accept them immediately, for your eternal happiness depends upon it.

At the time of his execution, Frasier did not know if his mother was still living in Rhode Island or was dead. He attributed the start of his thieving ways to his lack of education and his treatment while an apprentice. In his Brief Account, he beseeched parents to educate their children and to be careful when employing others to educate them. He also advised masters to instill principles of virtue and religion into their charges, since they were essentially filling the shoes of their parents.


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