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Early American Criminals: The Life of Levi Ames in Print

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Note: This post continues “The Stories of Levi Ames, Burglar.”

After Levi Ames was sentenced to death for his part in the burglary of Martin Bicker in the early fall of 1773, he was held in prison to await his execution. At first, he hoped to find a means of escape, but he came to realize the futility of this plan. He then turned to strong alcohol to help ease the pain of anticipating his impending doom. Unsatisfied with its effect, Ames gave up drinking in favor of reading the Bible.

Sermons

Ames was visited in prison by a host of ministers who helped him prepare for his final journey. Ames also attended church, where he heard sermons that used his case as first-hand illustration of the perils of sin. These sermons were quickly printed up and sold on the strength that the condemned criminal was in attendance when they were given.

In the early days of printing in America, local ministers maintained tight control over the presses, so most crime literature took the form of sermons given on the occasion of a criminal’s execution. These works said little about the life of the criminal, and in some cases, if the criminal wasn’t mentioned in the title of the publication, readers would not have known that the sermon held any relationship to a particular offender. Still, the sermons were powerful stuff, since their subject involved real-life examples of sinners who paid the ultimate price for their actions.

Once ministers began losing influence over the printing presses, crime literature in America began to resemble England’s, where the lives and words of the criminals themselves took center stage. In some respects, the sermons published for Ames’s execution–Rev. Samuel Mather’s Christ Sent to Heal the Broken Hearted: A Sermon Preached at the Thursday Lecture in Boston . . . When Levi Ames . . . Was Present to Hear the Discourse and Rev. Samuel Stillman’s Two Sermons: The First from Psalm CII. 19, 20. Delivered the Lord’s Day before the Execution of Levi Ames–were both old-fashioned in terms of crime literature. However, in order to increase their appeal, Mather added to his publication an account of the life of Levi Ames “written by himself” and Stillman, “At the request of many,” appended to the end of his a first-hand account of his interactions with the criminal before his execution.

The Life of Levi Ames

In the account of Ames’s life at the end of Mather’s sermon, Ames displays an amazing recall for what he stole and who he stole it from. His confession of over seventeen thefts sometimes reads like a shopping list, but a few of his exploits stand out.

Levi Ames was born on May 1, 1752 in Groton, MA to Jacob, jr. and Olive Ames, but his father died when he was two years old. At the age of seven Ames began stealing small items, such as eggs, fruit, a jack knife, and some chalk. Even though his mother scolded him when he was caught committing such petty acts, Ames felt compelled to continue.

As Ames got older, he became more daring. At the age of sixteen or seventeen, he turned a neighbor’s cattle out into the cornfield and then used the distraction it caused to rob his house. Unable to control him, Olive found Ames an apprenticeship, but he promptly ran away from his master. With no real means of supporting himself, Ames turned to the unlawful skills he had cultivated as boy for his livelihood.

During one of his burglaries, Ames twisted the padlock to the cellar of a minister’s house in Marlborough, MA and then went up the stairs, lit a candle, and helped himself to some food. At times, Ames teamed up with the notorious Tom Cook. After stealing two great coats together and selling them, Cook showed Ames where he had hidden away seven pounds of plate in a stone wall, “close to the sign of the bull on Wrentham road.” Cook offered to give Ames half if he could dispose of the booty, but Ames claimed that he was too afraid to do so. Ames and Cook also robbed the house of Jonathan Hammond, an officeholder in Waltham. In a likely attempt to replicate the robbery Ames carried out as a teenager, he and Cook let Hammond’s cattle loose in his cornfield, which caused considerable damage to his crops. Cook was later arrested for this act.

Even Ames’s time in jail did not convince him to abandon his life of crime. In fact, it offered him opportunities. After Ames was thrown in jail in Cambridge, he asked Mr. Braddish, the jail-keeper, to provide him with a spoon so that he could eat. Braddish gave him a silver one, and Ames stole it. During another stint in prison, a Mr. Meriam gave Ames detailed instructions in how to steal some money from the house of Meriam’s father-in-law, Mr. Symonds of Lexington. Ames speculated, “I supposed he gave me this information through envy against his father-in-law, through whose means he was then confined for debt.” Ames came away with ten or eleven pounds from the robbery.

Before Ames was sentenced to death for burglary, he had been branded twice and whipped two or three times for stealing. Clearly, these former punishments had little effect on him. But for someone who neglected church and led a life of crime from an early age, Ames proved to be a fast learner when it came to redemption. All of the ministers’ accounts of Ames’s final days in prison show a young man who is quite articulate in expressing his hope for salvation.

Poetry

The Dying Groans of Levi Ames – The Library of Congress

In addition to the newspaper reports, sermons, and accounts of Ames’s life, the execution of Levi Ames occasioned the publication of at least nine poetic broadsides. Most of the poems are cautionary in nature and focus on the negative example that Ames provides and the religious lessons that can be drawn from his punishment. Some of them were hastily written and obvious attempts to capitalize on a public eager to read about Ames and his execution.

One of the poetic broadsides, Theft and Murder! A Poem on the Execution of Levi Ames, is unusual in that it injects political controversy into Ames’s situation. The poem asks why murderers can be cleared by technicalities in the law, while common thieves, like Levi Ames, are hanged:

Must Thieves who take men’s goods away
Be put to death? While fierce blood hounds,
Who do their fellow creatures slay,
Are sav’d from death? This cruel sounds.

The author of the poem goes on to point out the apparent hypocrisy on the part of ministers and other community leaders regarding Ames’s case:

But, ah! Alas it seems to me,
That Murder now is passed by
While Priests and Rulers all agree
That this poor Criminal must die.
What can they no compassion have?
Upon the poor distressed Thief,
Will none appear his life to save
Or pray that he may have relief?
Oh no! The Ministers they say,
For him there can be no reprieve;
He must be hang’d upon the day,
And his just punishment receive.

The subject and tone of this poem is quite different from all of the others published about Ames’s execution. Why is Ames garnering so much sympathy here, and who are these murderers that are being let off on technicalities?

The poem refers to a case that started back in 1770, when Ebenezer Richardson accidentally shot a rioter. Richardson was accused of murder, and he appeared to be headed for certain execution. The authorities, however, believed that Richardson was innocent and used all of their power in the legal system to create delay until England could issue a pardon. The delay infuriated the public.

Even though Richardson’s guilt was far from certain, a fabricated criminal biography appeared, complete with tales of adultery, incest, and homicide. While Richardson sat in prison with the hope that he would eventually be freed, he was transformed into an embodiment of evil in the press and in public perception.

Finally, in the spring of 1773, Richardson received his pardon from England and was secretly released from prison. When news of his release got out, the public was livid. Richardson’s pardon created enough heated sentiment that the execution of Levi Ames in the fall reminded people of the perceived injustices of the Richardson case from the spring.

So Much Ink

There are several reasons why so much ink was used in telling the story of Levi Ames and why his case garnered so much interest. First, there were the competing stories of the burglary from Ames and his accomplice, Joseph Atwood. While the guilt of Ames was never in doubt, Atwood probably had a greater hand in the burglary than what came out in court. Atwood was lucky. He probably deserved the same sentence as Ames.

Ames also proved to be a model prisoner, which bolstered his standing in the public’s eyes. He immersed himself in Christian theology in a desperate attempt to find salvation for his soul. The fact that he never showed ill-will towards Atwood–and even sent his final meal to his former accomplice because he wasn’t hungry at the time–was taken as a sign of the depth of his repentance. Ames’s young age must have played into interest in his case as well. He was only twenty-one at the time. And finally, his cased tapped into a latent controversy over the punishment of thieves and murderers in Massachusetts.

Perhaps out of some show of mercy, the Governor delayed Ames’s execution by one week, moving it from Thursday, October 14 to October 21. But even the publication of Theft and Murder! and its arguments were not enough to commute or delay any further Ames’s execution.

Note: The story of Levi Ames continues with “The Execution of Levi Ames.”

Sources

  • Mather, Samuel. Christ Sent to Heal the Broken Hearted . . . To Which is Added, His [Ames’s] Life Written by Himself. Boston: William M’Alpine, 1773. Database: Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800), Readex/Newsbank.
  • A Prospective View of Death: Being a Solemn Warning to Inconsiderate Youth, Occasioned by the Trial and Condemnation of Levi Ames. Boston: E. Russell, [1773]. Database: Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800), Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Salem, October 12.” Essex Gazette. October 12, 1773, vol. VI, issue 272, p. 43. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Simons, D. Brenton. Witches, Rakes, and Rogues: True Stories of Scam, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in Boston, 1630-1775. Beverly, MA: Commonwealth Editions, 2005.
  • Stillman, Samuel. Two Sermons . . . Delivered the Lord’s Day Before the Execution of Levi Ames . . . to Which is Added, at the Request of Many, an Account of the Exercise of his Mind, from the Time of his Condemnation, until He Left the World. Second ed. Boston: E. Russell, 1773. Database: Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800), Readex/Newsbank.
  • Theft and Murder! A Poem on the Execution of Levi Ames. [Boston, 1773]. Database: Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800), Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Vital Records of Groton, MA, 1655 to 1849: Births.” The Massachusetts Vital Records Project. Accessed: 16 March 2010. http://ma-vitalrecords.org/MA/Middlesex/Groton/BirthsA.shtml.
  • Wilf, Steven. “Placing Blame: Criminal Law and Constitutional Narratives in Revolutionary Boston.” Crime, History, and Society 4.1: 31-61, 2000.

Note: Read more about Ebenezer Richardson at Boston 1775:

Read more about burglary in Early American Crime.

One Comment

  1. ktg wrote:

    Just a quick aside–Ebenezer Richardson didn’t shoot a “rioter”, he shot and killed an 11 year old named Christopher Seider who was demonstrating and protesting importation outside a merchant’s shop.

    Saturday, June 28, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

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