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Early American Criminals: Mistaken Identities in the Robbery of John “Ready Money” Scott

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George Burns made one last desperate attempt to save himself: he wrote to the Attorney-General and named Ephraim Jones and Arthur Sykes as accomplices in a robbery that he had actually helped to pull off with three different men on July 29, 1766. The victim of the robbery, John “Ready Money” Scott, had mistakenly fingered Jones and Sykes as actors in the crime, so Burns tried to take advantage of Scott’s error by implicating the two men as well.

Burns hoped that by offering to testify against Jones and Sykes he would be “admitted as King’s evidence.” Once he secured a pardon for his testimony, his plan was then to change his story and impeach the other three men–Jeremiah Fulsom, Nathaniel Foster, and Thomas Grey–who actually carried out the robbery with him.

Blacked and Disguised

Jeremiah Fulsom originally came up with the idea of robbing John Scott. Scott was a well-known storekeeper in the backcountry of South Carolina, and his nickname must have made him an enticing target. Fulsom presented his plan to Burns, who later claimed that he was reluctant to participate in the scheme. But Burns relented, and the two secured the additional help of Nathaniel Foster, since the robbery “would require more force” than just the two of them could bring. They also enlisted Thomas Grey, who was an acquaintance of the storekeeper.

On the day of the robbery, the four men crossed from Georgia into South Carolina in a canoe and arrived at Scott’s home after sunset. Grey went to the house first, both to engage Scott in conversation and give warning if any neighbors happened to be present, which turned out not to be the case. Armed with a gun and a stick, Foster stood outside the house in order to sound an alarm if anyone else happened to show up and to prevent Scott from escaping if need be.

Burns and Fulsom were designated to carry out the attack. In preparation, they blackened their faces and adopted disguises, which accounts for why Scott originally misidentified his assailants. With Foster in position, the two burst into the house through the open door and found Grey talking with Scott and his wife.

Outlaw Gangs

Around the time that Burns and his confederates schemed to rob John Scott, outlaw gangs were relentlessly attacking people and property throughout the South Carolina backcountry. Horse thieves, robbers, and murderers banded together to terrorize the countryside and more effectively carry out their crimes. Some outlaws painted their faces to look like Indians or blackened their faces to hide their identity, as Fulsom and Burns did. Even so, the presence of Native Americans and runaway African slaves in these gangs was common, so that many of them were tri-racial in composition.

These roving bandits took advantage of the relative absence of a criminal justice system along the southern frontier. Indeed, well over a year and a half passed between the time that Burns participated in the robbery and when he was finally captured and charged with the crime.

To counter these lawless gangs, white settlers banded together to create large vigilante groups that became known as Regulators. Naturally, the methods and motivations of the Regulators and the outlaw groups sometimes made it difficult to tell the difference between the two, and their confrontations often became a clash of race and culture, given the identities of each group’s members. The efforts of the Regulators eventually paid off, because by the end of the 1760’s they had effectively reduced outlaw activity in the backcountry.

The Robbery

As soon as Burns and Fulsom entered Scott’s house, they demanded that he turn over his money to them. Scott offered them a few half-pence, but the villains refused to take the coins and said that they “had not come 500 miles for his coppers.” Burns then seized Scott’s wife, threw snuff in her eyes, tied her up in a blanket, and pushed her into the chimney-corner. Scott darted towards the door, but Fulsom hit him on the back with a stick, and the two intruders tied him up.

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Scott still refused to tell them where his money was hidden. So Fulsom grabbed a hot iron and “held him to the fire till his eyes were ready to start out of his head, burnt his toes almost off, heated irons and branded and burnt him in a shocking manner” until Scott finally disclosed its location. Burns retrieved the money while Fulsom made Scott swear three times on the Bible that he did not have any more hidden away.

The original plan was for Burns and Fulsom to tie up Grey along with the Scotts so as to conceal his participation in the robbery. But instead, Burns pretended to strike him after entering the house, and Grey ran out crying “Murder.” Once the robbery was completed, the four men met up at the river and crossed back over to Georgia that same night. The next day they gathered to divide the spoils, which amounted to a considerable eighty pounds in South Carolina currency each.

Mercy

On January 18, 1768 in Charlestown, SC, George Burns, Thomas Grey, and Arthur Sykes were convicted for the robbery and sentenced to be hanged, although Sykes was recommended for mercy. During this same court session, two other men were convicted of horse theft and were burned in the hand, one man was fined 350 pounds for “killing a Negroe in the heat of passion”–as was another “for making Negroes under his care whip a white person”–and a woman was fined 100 pounds for keeping a disorderly house.

Burns was held in the Charles-Town Goal until his execution. After his failed attempt to secure a pardon by falsely accusing Arthur Sykes and Ephraim Jones of taking part in the robbery, he revealed their innocence in his Confession and Declaration. On the strength of Burns’s admission, both Sykes and Jones were granted “his Majesty’s free pardon.” Even though “the still more unhappy Thomas Grey” maintained his innocence in the robbery, he was executed along with Burns on February 10, 1768.

Sources

  • Boulware, Tyler. “A ‘dangerous sett of horse-thieves and vagrants’: Outlaws of the Southern Frontier during the Revolutionary Era.” Eras 6 (Nov., 2004): ftp://ftp.uic.edu/pub/library/scua/ERAS/2004.06.03.ERAS.pdf.
  • Burns, George. The Confession and Declaration of George Burns. Charleston, [SC]: John-Hugar Van Huerin, [1768]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Charles-Town, (S. Carolina) August 18.” New-York Mercury, October 13, 1766, issue 781, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Charles-Town (South-Carolina) Dec. 29.” New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy, March 7, 1768, issue 1314, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

One Comment

  1. Paul Scott wrote:

    This John Scott was my gggg grandfather. If anyone knows more about him or the family please email me.

    Saturday, September 17, 2011 at 12:58 am | Permalink

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