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Early American Criminals: The Stories of Levi Ames, Burglar

From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (Readex.com), a division of NewsBank, inc.

On August 23, 1773, Martin Bicker took out the above newspaper advertisement in the hope that it would lead to the capture of Levi Ames’s accomplice in burglarizing his house. Tucked away in the back pages of the Boston Post-Boy, the ad marks the first time that Levi Ames was mentioned in print. Soon, however, everyone in New England would know his name. The circumstances surrounding the burglary carried out by Ames and Joseph Atwood created a media sensation, which resulted in the publication of numerous broadsides, newspaper reports, and accounts of Ames’s life.

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Discovery and Arrest

One Friday morning in August 1773, Martin Bicker, an auctioneer, awoke to discover that someone had broken into his house at night and robbed him of sixty pounds. By Saturday, Levi Ames was arrested on suspicion that he had carried out the burglary, and when about half of Bicker’s money was found in his possession, he confessed his role in the crime.

Ames also named another party in the burglary: Joseph Atwood. Atwood had since run away to Portsmouth after learning that the authorities were hot on their trail. Bicker doggedly pursued Atwood to Portsmouth and found him in the home of a Mr. Davis. Upon his arrest, the authorities were able to confirm Atwood’s role in the burglary after they searched him and discovered some of Bicker’s money hidden away in a pocket under the crotch of Atwood’s breeches.

Atwood’s Story

Atwood was the first of the two burglars to be tried. On Monday, September 6, he was brought before the Superior Court in Boston, where the jury found him “‘Guilty in part’–Guilty of the theft, but not of burglary.”

The next day, Atwood appeared again before the court, this time to give evidence against Ames. In his testimony, Atwood claimed that he met Ames for the first time the day before the burglary in the Boston market. Since Atwood had little money in his possession, Ames bought him dinner and a large number of drinks.

After dinner, the two went walking. Ames asked Atwood if he knew of anyone who would buy some plate, since he had three or four pounds in his possession and knew of someone else who had seven or eight and was also seeking a buyer. Atwood, however, did not note his response to Ames’s question in his testimony.

At around 9 p.m. the two passed by the house of Martin Bicker. Ames said he knew that Bicker had received a large sum of money that day from an auction and saw where he had stashed it away. He asked Atwood if he would be willing to stand guard while he broke into the house to steal the money. Atwood declined, saying he was too fearful, to which Ames belittled him and boasted that he “had done things ten times more dangerous than that.”

They continued walking to the North End, where the two fell asleep on some planks in a shipyard. At about 2 a.m., they woke up and emptied a bottle of liquor that Ames pulled out of his pocket. Ames again asked Atwood to accompany him to Bicker’s house, and this time Atwood agreed. They returned to Bicker’s, and with Atwood serving as a lookout, Ames climbed up a spout and entered an open chamber window. After about fifteen minutes, Ames walked out of the shop door, handed Atwood a fistful of money, and said, “This is for watching for me.”

On the strength of Atwood’s story, Ames was found guilty of burglary.

Ames’s Story

If Ames was denied the chance to tell his side of the story in court, he was able to do so in an autobiographical account of his life, which was appended at the end of a published sermon by Rev. Samuel Mather and reprinted in several broadside editions. Not surprisingly, Ames’s story differs from the one that Atwood told during his testimony.

Ames claims that it was Atwood who approached him while he was inquiring into the price of a turkey from a vendor in the market in Boston. Atwood engaged Ames in conversation and confessed that he had no money, to which Ames offered to take him back to his place and give him some dinner. While they walked, Ames asked Atwood if he knew of anyone who was interested in buying some silver plate, and Atwood said he knew a goldsmith who would take it, since he had had dealings with him before. The two then went to Menotomy (present-day Arlington, MA) to retrieve the plate from its hiding place in a stone wall and kept it until morning.

The next day, Atwood proposed a scheme to break into Bicker’s house. Atwood had lived there at one time and said that he knew where a large quantity of money was hidden in the house. Ames agreed to the plan.

Later that night, Ames broke into a joiner’s shop to steal some chisels before the two proceeded to Bicker’s house, where they found a front chamber window that had been left open. They pulled off their shoes, and Ames helped Atwood climb through the window. Atwood then went around and let Ames in through the door. Using the chisels, the two broke open Bicker’s desk. Atwood claimed he only found some small change in the drawer he pulled out, but Ames found a bag of silver coin in his. After they left the house, they re-hid the plate that they had retrieved the night before and still had with them, split the money from the burglary, and departed.

The next day, Ames ran into Atwood, who told him that a warrant was out for their arrest. Atwood said he was fleeing to Portsmouth and that Ames should meet him at the house where Atwood was eventually taken. Ames went to retrieve some clothes, but he was arrested before he could leave Boston and join Atwood. Ames said he knew nothing of the gold coin that Atwood had secreted away during the burglary and was later found on him.

Sentencing

Ames and Atwood both received their sentences on Friday, Sept. 10 from the Honorable Peter Oliver, Chief Justice. Since in the eyes of the court Atwood never entered Bicker’s house, he received a sentence of 20 stripes at the public whipping post and was ordered to pay costs and triple damages for his part in the burglary. Not having the money to pay the fine, he was charged to be at Bicker’s disposal for ten years.

Oliver then turned to Ames and proclaimed his sentence, “You are to return to the place from whence you came, and . . . hanged by the neck with a rope until you are dead! dead! dead! May the LORD have mercy on your soul!

Ames did not know it at the time, but he was about to become one of the most famous criminals in all of New England.

Note: The story of Levi Ames continues with “The Life of Levi Ames in Print.”

Sources

  • Ames, Levi. The Last Words and Dying Speech of Levi Ames. Boston: Printed and Sold at the Shop Opposite the Court House in Queen Street, [1773]. Database: Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800), Readex/Newsbank.
  • —. The Last Words and Dying Speech of Levi Ames. Salem[, MA]: Printing Office, [1773].
  • “Boston, Sept. 2.” Boston Post-Boy. September 2, 1773, issue 3648, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, September 13.” Boston News-Letter. September 16, 1773, issue 3650, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, Thursday, Sept. 9” Essex Gazette. September 14, 1773, vol. VI, issue 268, p. 26. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Mather, Samuel. Christ Sent to Heal the Broken Hearted . . . To Which is Added, His Life [Ames] 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.
  • “A Theft.” Boston Post-Boy. August 23, 1773, issue 836, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

Read more about burglary in Early American Crime.

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