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Early American Criminals: John Dixon, the Recalcitrant Burglar

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On August 21, 1784, a man entered the house of Capt. James Dagget of Reheboth, MA in the middle of the night and took several valuable items. He was soon caught and committed to the Taunton Gaol, where he gave his name as Abiel Brigs. The authorities knew better. They easily recognized him as John Dixon, who only three weeks earlier had broken out of the Norwich Gaol in Connecticut with two other prisoners.

The jury found Dixon guilty of burglary at his trial before the Supreme Court in Taunton, and he was sentenced to death. A considerable number of people rose to Dixon’s defense. They openly questioned the lawfulness of his impending execution and asked whether someone who did not commit murder deserved to be put to death. But Dixon’s behavior, both before and after his sentencing, did not make it easy to support his cause.

Defiance in Prison

Dixon’s escape from prison before his arrest was actually the second time he had escaped from the Norwich Gaol, which was new and unfinished at the time. But Dixon could also boast about his daring escapes from the Springfield Gaol, the Windham gaol, and, despite being loaded down with chains around his neck at the time, the Worcester Gaol. Knowing his reputation, the keepers of the Taunton Gaol, where Dixon was being held after his burglary conviction, did not want to take any chances, so they held him in chains as well.

Norwich Packet, April 1, 1784 - From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.

Execution narratives in early America generally followed the same script. The criminal commits a string of heinous crimes throughout his life until he is finally caught and brought to justice. While in prison awaiting his execution he is visited by a minister, who convinces him of the error of his ways and prepares him spiritually for his journey to the afterlife. The criminal then demonstrates his repentance by making a speech at his execution that warns spectators against traveling down the same sinful path that he did.

Dixon seemed determined not to cooperate in the construction of this common narrative. One newspaper reported that after his arrest for the Dagget burglary, Dixon “appeared previous to and at his trial a most hardened wretch–making a jest of death, judgement and eternity, in such an extraordinary manner, that the Judges and spectators were very much affected.”

While Dixon was held in the Taunton Gaol, he was visited by Rev. Perez Fobes, pastor of the church in Raynham, MA. Ministers who attended a criminal awaiting execution normally got to know him so well that they published an authoritative history of his life along with the sermon they gave on the occasion of his execution. Fobes was no exception. He published his sermon and story of Dixon’s life as well, but he noted, “The principal account, we can at present give of this unfortunate young man, is that which was taken from his own mouth, while in prison: And as he was utterly averse from such confessions as have been usually made under such circumstances, his history will be short.”

Dixon’s History

Dixon was born in 1762 in East Haddam, CT. His father died while he was young, but his mother, brother, and sister continued to live in the same town at the time of his execution. His mother sent him to school at a young age, but he concentrated more on mischief than on studying.

Against the wishes of his mother, he signed up to serve on board a ship bound for France, but “his villainous conduct” earned him stiff punishment from the captain. At the first chance he got, Dixon left the ship and enlisted in the American army in exchange for a bounty. After enlisting, he promptly deserted from his unit. He then turned around and enlisted once again, collected his bounty, and deserted the army a second time. He continued this pattern eighteen times, all the while collecting both bounties and punishments whenever he was detected.

At one point, Dixon was sentenced to death for the number of enlistments and desertions he carried out with the army. For some reason, he was pardoned and sent back to his regiment, and within a few hours he stole a horse from an officer and rode off.

Dixon traveled throughout the country breaking into houses and stores and stealing goods, money, clothing, and cattle. He quickly spent whatever he gained “at taverns, in grog-shops, and over the gameing-table.”

One time, Dixon was caught stealing a pair of shoes from a shoemaker. He pleaded with the shoemaker to allow him to work off his punishment rather than turn him over to the authorities, who probably would have sentenced him to a whipping. The shoemaker reluctantly agreed and put him behind a team of oxen. At first opportunity, Dixon drove the oxen to a river, swam the team across it, sold them on the other side, and ran off with the money.

He was once accused of committing rape.

Fobes reports that in telling his history, Dixon’s “‘mouth was full of cursing’ and swearing, of oaths and blasphemies of the most horrible sound, that his imagination could invent. He shewed no regard to the holy sabbath; rarely ever read the scriptures, or attended public worship, and never gave any attention to the word preached when present.”

Response to the Public Outcry

The public outcry against Dixon’s execution prompted Rev. Fobes to add an appendix “On the Nature and Enormity of Burglary” onto the printed version of the sermon he gave before Dixon’s execution. The appendix is a “short vindication” of Dixon’s punishment using arguments based on scripture in support of executing convicted burglars. One of the problems in taking such a position, however, is that burglary itself is never spelled out as a capital crime in the Bible.

In his treatise, Fobes observes that “God himself has set a peculiar brand of infamy and enormity upon theft,” and reasons that if common theft is an egregious crime that calls for death as punishment, then certainly burglary should as well. He also points out that God commands that other crimes of less magnitude than burglary be punishable by death, so burglary should follow suit.

As to why burglary isn’t treated like other crimes in the Bible, Fobes explains that at the time the Bible was written, most of the people were shepherds who lived in tents. Even when the people moved into houses, the structures were constructed so simplistically that they offered little opportunity for housebreakers. For these reasons, burglary simply was not an issue back then in the way that it is today.

Fobes concludes his defense by siding with those who say that the justness in executing burglars is so obvious that it does not need proofs from the Bible to support its practice. He asks,

is it possible to suppose, that a body of judicial laws, though made in heaven, for a people who existed some thousand years ago, and so different from us in their manners, connexions, pursuits, situation, soil, climate, and an endless variety of other circumstances, can, or ever ought in equity, and in particular, to bind us, or any other nation on earth, at this day[?]

These assertions are a radical break from the Pilgrim’s original intention 150 years earlier of creating a society based solely on Biblical law.


After spending time in prison with Rev. Fobes, Dixon seemed to realize that his impending punishment was not a joke, and he was more willing to follow the usual execution protocols. One newspaper reported that Dixon’s

Conduct in Prison, previous to his Trial, was intermixt with Profanity and Dissoluteness, gratifying every Lust which his close Confinement would possibly admit of. But after his Trial, and receiving Sentence, the poor deluded Man was in some Measure brought to a Sense of his sorrowful Situation, and conducted himself with a Decency becoming a Person under Sentence of Death.

On November 11 at eleven o’clock, Dixon was brought out of the prison by the sheriff and his officers. He was also guarded by one hundred “decently equipped” men. The number of guards present had probably less to do with the fear that Dixon would concoct an escape than that the two or three thousand spectators who showed up to witness the execution would rise up and attempt to stop the proceedings.

Dixon was taken to the meeting house, where he listened to Rev. Fobes’s sermon, and then to the place of execution. After the warrant of execution was read, Dixon stepped onto his coffin and addressed the crowd “with Steadiness and modest Composure”:

I WOULD solemnly warn and caution you all against hard drinking, gaming and keeping bad company: for following these practices is what has brought me to this untimely end. And I desire you all to take warning by me, and avoid the bad practices I have run into.

Dixon went on to thank the sheriff for his kind treatment while in prison and recognized the favors he received from the people of the town.

Providence Gazette, November 13, 1784 - From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.

At two o’clock, the time for his execution had arrived. Fobes reported that Dixon, “leaped into the cart, assisted in adjusting the rope about his neck, and even in turning himself off, with an appearance of fortitude, which surprised every spectator; but this, whether from principles of infidelity, stupefaction, or Christianity, we dare not pronounce.”

Fobes wasn’t the only person to express skepticism over Dixon’s conversion. The Providence Gazette reported that “At the Place of Execution, [Dixon] behaved in the same unbecoming Manner as when on Trial.”

Dixon hanged for about 20 minutes before he was taken down and buried.

Ill-fated youth! compute your gain,
Pain purchas’d pleasure, ends in pain:
The strangling noose, in death destroys,
The fabric of your guilty joys!


“Boston, Thursday, November 4.” Continental Journal. November 4, 1784, Issue 455, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

Fobes, Perez. The Paradise of God. Providence, RI: Bennett Wheeler, [1785]. Database: Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800), Readex/Newsbank.

“Norwich, April 1.” Norwich Packet. April 1, 1784, Vol. X, Issue 491, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

“Norwich, September 2.” Norwich Packet, September 2, 1784, Vol. X, Issue 513, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

“Providence, August 28.” Providence Gazette. August 28, 1784, Vol. XXI, Issue 1078, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

“Providence, Nov. 13.” Providence Gazette, November 13, 1784, Vol. XXI, Issue 1089, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

“Taunton, November 12, 1784.” United States Chronicle. December 8, 1784, Vol. 1, Issue 50, p. 2-3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

Williams, Daniel E., ed. Pillars of Salt: An Anthology of Early American Criminal Narratives. Madison, WI: Madison House Publishers, 1993.

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