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Early American Criminals: “The Wicked Flee When None Pursue”

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The final chapter in the fall of John Ormsby began when he stabbed a man in the chest with a fork in Boston in 1734. In his Last SPEECH and Dying WORDS, Ormsby says that he was hanging around a friend’s shop when some of the boys who worked there persuaded him that a customer “designed to do me a Mischief.” Right after Ormsby grabbed a fork off a table and performed the preemptive act, he ran to the local prison, confessed to committing murder, and was put in a holding cell while the authorities launched a formal investigation.

Ormsby’s trip to prison turned out to be premature, because the fork hit the man’s ribs and did little damage. But, as Ormsby states, “the wicked flee when none pursue,” for while he was in the holding cell, Ormsby committed the crime that would bring him to the gallows.

Early Chapters

Ormsby was born a Protestant in the town of Enniskillen in northern Ireland. He was sent to Dublin to serve an apprenticeship with a barber, but he left his master before he finished out his time. From there, he “went rambling about the Country” and fell in with “bad Company,” but he eventually married and had two children. Without a solid profession, he ran into debt, so in desperation he accepted an offer from a ship captain for a free passage to Philadelphia. When they arrived in America, the captain got Ormsby drunk and tricked him into signing an indentured servant contract.

Under the terms of the contract, Ormsby worked for four years for another barber. He then traveled to Boston with designs to return home, which he was anxious to do since he was unable to say goodbye to his family when he left Ireland and none of his relations knew where he was. But he also wanted to bring money back with him to pay his debts, and when he discovered that he could make a comfortable living buying and selling hair, he ended up staying in Boston.

“With little or no Provocation”

Throughout this time, Ormsby had become a hard drinker, and when his “Intellectual Powers were somewhat impaired” by alcohol, he “committed many Irregularities, with little or no Provocation.” This propensity for violence came into play while he was held in prison during the investigation for stabbing the man with a fork. While Ormsby was settling an account with an acquaintance who had come to see him in prison, the two shared a quart of liquor from a pewter pot. After the man left, Ormsby got into an argument with the two prisoners who shared his cell. The argument heated up and in a rage Ormsby attacked Thomas Bell, who was sitting on the floor by a charcoal fire. Ormsby beat Bell on the head with the pewter pot until he was senseless and then turned to the other man to do the same until the prison keeper intervened and stopped the melee. Several days later, Bell died from the blows to his head.

At the trial for Bell’s murder, Ormsby’s lawyer argued that his client was not guilty by reason of insanity because under the effects of the alcohol he did not know what he was doing and afterwards had no memory of what took place. But the jury found that Ormsby’s behavior both before and after the murder showed that he was “not wholly destitute of the use of reason” and brought in a guilty verdict.

On the day before his execution, Ormsby wrote his Last SPEECH and Dying WORDS “with his own Hand.” In it, he says that he preferred to write out the account of his life and his warnings to impressionable youth “rather than take up my own or the Spectators Time at the Hour of my Death.”

An early map showing Boston Neck, which runs along present-day Washington Street.

Ormsby was executed on Boston Neck on October 17, 1734 next to Matthew Cushing, the celebrity burglar who had broken into the house of a shoemaker at night and stole a few articles of clothing. Cushing’s execution grabbed more of the public’s attention than Ormsby’s did, mostly because Cushing was executed for a crime that was perceived to be much less egregious than the vicious one carried out by Ormsby.


  • Ormsby, John. The Last Speech and Dying Words of John Ormsby. Boston: Thomas Fleet, 1734. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Rogers, Alan. Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008.

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