Skip to content

Early American Criminals: The Fate of Joseph Atwood, Levi Ames’s Accomplice

Go to Early American Criminals

Click image to read more Early American Criminals

Note: This post continues “Advice from a Condemned Burglar.”

Joseph Atwood and Levi Ames both participated in the burglary of Martin Bicker’s house in 1773, although the extent to which each one was involved was a matter of debate. Both said that the other was the mastermind of the burglary, and Atwood claimed that he never even entered the house. In the end, the court sided with Atwood and only convicted him of theft, not burglary. As punishment, Atwood received a whipping and a fine. Ames, however, was found guilty of the burglary and was put to death.

Many writers at the time used the case of Levi Ames as an example of what can happen to someone who does not listen to their parents and decides to pursue a life of crime. Joseph Atwood, even though he luckily avoided a death sentence in the Bicker burglary, apparently never learned the lesson that Levi Ames’s execution supposedly taught.

The Fall

A little over a year after Levi Ames was executed, Joseph Atwood was arrested again for burglary and placed in jail in Norwich, CT. Atwood had secretly hid himself in the store of Joseph Howland, and after it closed for the night, Atwood used the opportunity to pocket fifty pounds of money from the till and take eighteen pounds worth of goods.

As Atwood turned to leave, however, he fell through an open scuttle—a hole in the floor through which large casks and other objects can be hoisted up and lowered down between stories. The 30-foot fall into the cellar cut his head, dislocated his shoulder, and left him unconscious for some time. Eventually, he recovered and escaped out a window with the stolen money and goods.

Atwood had little time to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He was picked up the next morning and brought to a “Place of Flagelation,” where he received ten stripes. In a scene that could just as well have been out of an episode of MTV’s Jackass, the “notorious villain” John Brown burst out laughing at the site of his friend being flogged. In retaliation, Atwood impeached Brown in the theft of four leather skins from a Mr. Chenea. Atwood also confessed during his interrogation to participating in several crimes around the town of Norwich with a “Gang of Banditti.”

In Prison

Both Atwood and Brown were found guilty of their crimes and sentenced to terms in Connecticut’s newest prison, the Symsbury Mines, a.k.a. Old New-Gate Prison. The prison was unusual in that it housed its inmates underground in an abandoned copper mine.

Connecticut Gazette (November 25, 1774) - From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.

After languishing over a year in the Symsbury Mines, Atwood and Brown, along with 6 other prisoners, plotted an escape. Their plan was to take turns in shifts of four men at a time clearing loose rock out of a drift meant to drain water from the mine shafts. After removing quite a bit of rock from the tunnel, they encountered some boulders that were too large to move. The gang decided to gather together as much coal as they could and build a fire next to the rock in the hope that the heat would crack or break the rocks apart.

Unfortunately for them, the coal, which had been stored in the cold, damp mine, was too moist to burn freely, so it gave off a noxious smoke. The gang’s attempted escape soon became lethal. Two of the prisoners became “speechless and unable to help themselves.” They were presumably guided out by John Brown and two other prisoners, who managed to come out of the affair relatively unharmed.

Joseph Atwood and two other prisoners, however, died from the fumes.


  • Domonell, William G. Newgate: From Copper Mine to State Prison. Simsbury, CT: The Simsbury Historical Society, 1998.
  • “New London, November 25.” Connecticut Gazette. November 25, 1774, vol. XII, issue 576, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Norwich, November 1.” Boston Gazette. November 28, 1774, issue 1024, p. 1. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

Read more about burglary in Early American Crime.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *