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Early American Criminals: William Linsey and the Telltale Candle

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Even though William Linsey was orphaned at a young age, this rough start did not appear to have any negative impact on him. Linsey was originally born in Palmer, MA in 1746, but at the age of two he went to live with Phinehas Mixture in Dudley, MA. By Linsey’s own account, Mixture raised him well by teaching him to read and giving him proper discipline and counsel.

Around the age of 18 or 19, however, Linsey committed his first act of theft. One day, instead of going to church as he usually did, Linsey stayed behind. He waited for his neighbor, Ebenezer Fosgit, to go to Sunday services with his family and for the children he left behind to go out into the fields to work. With the coast clear, Linsey broke into Fosgit’s house and took about 25 pounds in old Massachusetts currency from a drawer. Linsey was immediately suspected and held on a warrant. His master, though, did not want to see him punished, so Mixture settled the matter with Fosgit privately.

Four or five months after committing his first theft, Linsey was visiting Samuel Warden when he observed him put away a dollar someone had given him as a payment. Linsey waited for an opportunity when Warden was away to sneak into the house and take the dollar. This time, he was not suspected of the theft, since Warden focused his suspicions on someone else.

Linsey had committed two acts of theft at this point, and in each case he got away with it. The mercy bestowed upon Linsey by Mixture and his later success in carrying out a theft undetected were apparently enough to embolden Linsey into taking up a life of crime. Linsey proved to be an average criminal, at best, but he had an uncanny ability to escape punishment and get away with his crimes in one way or another. The swift hand of justice was slow in coming to him.


Soon after stealing the dollar from Warden, Linsey left home at the age of 19 and went to work for a Mr. Grosvenor in Pomfret, CT. On his way to join Grosvenor, Linsey stopped in Mr. McClellan’s shop in Woodstock, where he took out forty shillings on the account of a Mr. Pratter and assured McClellan that Pratter would settle the payment later. McClellan soon discovered that he had been cheated and sought to punish Linsey. But just as Linsey’s original master did, Grosvenor stepped in and settled the matter with McClellan privately.

Linsey’s failed attempt to commit fraud at McClellan’s shop did not stop him from trying it again. This time, he tried to use a forged order to receive goods and money from another merchant in Pomfret, but he was soon caught and committed to the gaol in Windham. While being held there, Linsey and a fellow prisoner executed an escape by lighting a fire and burning their way out of the prison.

After his escape from the Windham gaol, Linsey headed east and back into Massachusetts, where he was caught committing yet another act of fraud, this time against Col. Gage. He was held in the Ipswich gaol, where he received ten lashes and was ordered to pay the cost of his crime. Linsey was soon released from jail by Col. Gage, whom he ended up living with for eleven months afterward, presumably to work and pay off the debt of his crime.


Fraud wasn’t the only crime in Linsey’s repertoire. He also committed a string of burglaries throughout this period. In September 1768, Linsey broke into the shop of Thomas Legatt of Leominster and took a great quantity of items, including fabrics, hats, gloves, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, razors, ink pots, two spelling books, two primers, and a Bible. This burglary turned out to be the second time Linsey targeted Legatt’s shop. Many crimes earlier, Linsey used a forged order to obtain goods and money from Legatt. After realizing what happened, Legatt pursued and caught Linsey in Brimfield, although Linsey somehow managed to escape before he could be punished.

This time, loaded down with goods, Linsey was taken in Londonderry, NH, held in the Portsmouth gaol, and then transferred to Worcester, MA, where he was tried for the burglary and his earlier act of forgery. The Superior Court ordered him to stand in the pillory, to be whipped twenty times, and to be branded–all of which were carried out on the same day. Amazingly, not long after his punishment Linsey went to live and work with Legatt for a month, where he was careful to behave himself before moving on to continue his crime spree.

Despite all of these setbacks, Linsey committed over twenty acts of theft, burglary, and fraud over the course of five years. He admitted later that “Having so often escaped with impunity, for my wretched crimes, I was under no awe or restraint, neither learning God nor regarding man, resolutely bent upon working wickedness.”

The Telltale Candle

On the night of September 8, 1770, Joseph Bellows of Groton woke up around one or two in the morning and discovered a candle that had burned down to its socket and an open door. In the belief that these two oddities were the result of carelessness on the part of a family member, he went back to bed. Bellows learned the truth in the morning, however, when he noticed that several articles that were there the night before were suddenly missing. Someone had clearly entered his house and burglarized it.

The burglar, of course, was Linsey. After entering Bellow’s house through a window, Linsey lit a candle and proceeded to go through the cellar and other rooms in the house where no one was sleeping. He took a wide assortment of items, including a beaver hat, a pair of leather breeches, a pair of men’s shoes, thirty pounds of pork, and a pair of yarn stockings.

The Boston News-Letter, October 25, 1770. (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.)

Linsey was immediately suspected, and he was traced to Fitchburg, where he was captured in a house with some of the items in his possession. After some searching, the rest of the goods were found in the barn hidden in some hay.

Linsey was taken once again to the Worcester gaol, where he faced the Superior Court and for a second time was found guilty of burglary. The circumstances he faced this time around, however, were much different from the last. Massachusetts had been experiencing a sharp increase in burglaries–some of them committed by Linsey himself–and so the colony had just recently passed a law making burglary punishable by death without benefit of clergy. Linsey’s guilty sentence brought with it the death penalty.

Linsey was executed in Worcester on October 25, 1770 at the age of 24. This time around, Linsey received no mercy nor found a means of escaping punishment. Like the candle he left burning in the home of Joseph Bellows, his string of crimes had at last reached an end.


Read more about burglary in Early American Crime.


  1. Heather Rojo wrote:

    I enjoyed this story very much, and I saw that today J. Bell blogged about William Linsey, too, at his blog “Boston 1775“

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  2. Thomas Bingham wrote:

    I’m looking for news paper accounts of the killing of william lindsey (linsey)at polling place by a man that accused Lindsey of selling his vote. Argument started and the other man killed lindsey with a cane with a concealed sword with which Lindsey was stabbed to death. Thanks Thomas Bingham

    Wednesday, July 18, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Thomas Bingham wrote:

    On Thomas Bingham commen I failed to date the killing. It was,I think August 1859.
    thanks again.

    Wednesday, July 18, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

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