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Special Announcement: Forthcoming Book, Early American Criminals

Early American Criminals

It has been a long time since I have posted on this website, but that is because I have been hard at work writing my next book. Now, I am thrilled to announce the forthcoming publication of Early American Criminals: An American Newgate Calendar, Chronicling the Lives of the Most Notorious Criminal Offenders from Colonial America and the New Republic from Pickpocket Publishing. The book should be available within the next couple weeks, if not sooner.

Here is the book’s description:

Most books about crime in colonial America focus on blasphemers, adulterers, and witches burning at the stake. Not this book. In Early American Criminals, crime historian, Anthony Vaver, examines early America’s most notorious criminals: burglars, murderers, pirates, counterfeiters, and other offenders who would be recognized as criminals even by today’s standards.

Vaver uncovers the dark, compelling, and even humorous stories from America’s earliest criminal underworld: a New England burglar who walked through the unlocked door of a goldsmith to rob his store a second time; a man who sat all morning on his roof in fear that someone walking by might harm him, but who ended up committing murder by day’s end; a transported convict who charmed her young lover into selling himself into servitude to raise money for her release from prison.

In telling the stories of these and other criminals, Vaver shows how early Americans both thought about and punished criminals differently than we do today. Poor parenting, abusive masters, and the influence of “The Devil” were often cited as motives for criminal behavior. Punishments that included the pillory, whipping, and hanging all took place in public so as to warn others not to follow a criminal path. Nowadays, we look to psychology to explain criminal behavior, and we punish our criminals behind closed doors. But, as Vaver makes clear in his book, even though our treatment of criminals differs from the past, the crimes that early Americans worried about are strikingly familiar to us today.

Anthony Vaver is the author of the Amazon bestseller, Bound with an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America and writes and publishes the blog He has a Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and an M.L.S. from Rutgers University.

Early American Criminals: Francis Burdett Personel and the Liberty Pole

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Constable Mr. Van Gelder was just about to abandon his search. He had recently been sent to New Haven, CT to find Francis Personel by New York City mayor Whitehead Hicks, who had learned that Personel was possibly hiding out in that city. But what Van Gelder did not know was that at the same time he was dispatched to New Haven, Personel was on his way back to New York City to test the safety of his return home and, if necessary, retrieve some of his possessions.

Whitehead Hicks, New York City Mayor (Wikimedia Commons)

Whitehead Hicks, New York City Mayor

Six weeks earlier on May 16, 1773, Personel had clubbed Robert White, Esq. in the head with a bar from a door near St. Paul’s Church (which is still standing at 209 Broadway, between Fulton and Vesey Streets in Lower Manhattan). The blow fractured White’s head in several places, leaving him speechless and senseless. Several days later, White died from the wound, and Personel was charged with murder.

While Van Gelder fruitlessly searched for the accused murderer in New Haven, Personel determined that it was not yet safe for him to remain in New York City, so he hopped on a ship and headed back to Connecticut. The trip turned out to be remarkably quick, which must have lifted Personel’s spirits at the time. Except that the short journey helped deliver Personel right into the arms of Van Gelder, just as he was preparing to return to New York empty-handed.

On June 25, 1773, Personel was back on a ship–albeit this time in irons–and two days later he arrived again in New York City. Reports of Van Gelder’s capture of Personel appeared in many newspapers, but the salacious details and true motivation behind the murder only came out later, when Personel wrote An Authentic and Particular Account of his life.

A Strained Relationship

Francis Burdett Personel was originally from Ireland and was an only child to “careful and industrious parents.” He attended school for eight years but did not learn as much as his parents felt he should have within that time, so they bound him as an apprentice. Once he became master of his trade, he moved to England, but after his father died, he returned to Ireland to be with his mother.

The relationship turned out to be strained: “my mother being a passionate woman, could never be content with me; do what I could, I might have done it better.” One night, a friend who knew of the situation took Personel on a “frolic.” They met a young woman, went out for drinks, and ended up staying out late. Personel confessed, “She was the first lewd woman I was ever in company with” and from that point on he “was guilty of pleasing the sinful appetites of the flesh many times.”

Eager to get out of the reach of his mother, Personel traveled to America, where he stayed for eighteen months before returning to Ireland in a “poor and miserable condition.” After his return, his mother proposed that it was time for him to settle down and find a wife, and when Personel agreed and said that he would begin a search as soon as possible, she responded that she had already found one for him.

Personel was not the least attracted to his mother’s pick, and even though he resisted the match, his mother implored him day after day to marry her. Their disagreement eventually came to an end when the woman decided to marry another, but the episode was enough to drive Personel away from his mother permanently. He bound himself as an indentured servant and ended up in Baltimore County in Maryland.


Personel’s new situation in Maryland turned out to be miserable, because his master mistreated him by depriving him of adequate clothing, a not uncommon situation for indentured servants. After serving eighteen months out of his four contracted years, Personel decided to run away. He grabbed an ax, headed into the woods, and traveled to within a mile of Baltimore. By then he was cold, wet, and hungry. He thought about returning, but he remembered his master saying once that he would treat a runaway servant who returned of his own volition worse than one who tried his best to get away, so he continued onward.

At mid-day, Personel ventured into town worried that someone would question him and ask for a pass from his master, which legally would have allowed him to travel alone as a servant. But no one seemed to notice him. Unable to procure a meal in Baltimore, he continued down a road that led to Annapolis when he was stopped and interrogated by two men. Personel told them that he belonged to Charles Carroll, who owned several plantations in the area and so everyone knew that his servants regularly traveled from one property to another. The men accepted Personel’s answer and did not question him any further.

Personel’s experience in Annapolis was similar to that in Baltimore: no one took any notice of him, but he could not find any food either. He left town feeble and hungry and was eventually stopped and questioned by another man. Personel said that he was recently set free from his master, who refused to pay him his freedom dues, so he traveled to Annapolis to find a friend, who had unfortunately left town before he arrived. The man told him that his brother was in need of laborers, so Personel took advantage of the opportunity and signed up to work for four months under the name “James Alkins.”

Personel worked through the harvest, but fearful that his new master might turn him in to his old one now that his services were no longer needed, he forged a pass under the name “Patt Percy” and left. He managed to find a job as a schoolmaster, but eventually two men began to suspect that he was a runaway, so he left the area. He later met a widow in Virginia and became engaged to her, but one day he took a mare, bridle, and saddle from her on the pretense of going to town and never came back. After traveling 100 miles, he sold the horse and headed to New York. [The editor of Personel’s Account notes that at this point, Personel may have been tried along with another man for horse theft in Lancaster, PA, but that the incident could not be verified.]

New York

After arriving in New York, Personel finally took a wife whom he loved, even though he “knew she had followed a loose way of life.” The morning after they had been “married and bedded,” Personel allowed her to pursue “her old habitation” until she could pay off some debts that now fell to him. But he soon could not bear the thought of this arrangement, and he vowed to work hard to satisfy all her needs. Not long afterward, he fell ill and could not work. Personel and his wife made a fateful decision: “we concluded unanimously, that we must either perish, or she take to her old course; accordingly, she prostituted her body as usual.”

On her first night out after making this decision, Personel’s wife returned home in a cheerful mood and reported that she had run into a young woman who lent her some money and thereby was able to avoid any interaction with men that night. The next night she returned home again, with money and a similar story. Personel eventually recovered from his illness, but his wife continued to go out at night any chance she got–with his encouragement. To keep up a show of respectability in front of the neighbors, some nights he would accompany his wife partway, visit a friend until nine or ten o’clock, and then meet up with her at an appointed place to return home.

On May 16, Personel visited his wife’s father and expected to stay the night, but instead he decided to return home. Thinking that her husband was sleeping over at her father’s, his wife stayed out much later than usual, so when it came time for Personel to go to bed and she had not returned, he decided to go out and search for her.

Personel went to the public house where he believed she was, but was told that she was not there, even though he heard his wife’s laugh in another room. He went around to the window where he had heard her and listened in as she conversed with two men. One of the men, a Mr. Gl—-r, left the room for fifteen minutes, and when he returned, the three of them headed outside. Personel believed that his wife would now take leave of the two men, and she could then return home with him. Instead, she continued down the street with one man on each of her arms.

St. Paul's Church, New York City, close to where Robert White's murder took place.

St. Paul’s Church, New York City, close to where Robert White’s murder took place.

Furious with jealousy, Personel went into the house where he had seen them, grabbed the nearest weapon he could find, which happened to be the wooden bar of the door, and pursued the threesome. When he caught up to them, he brought the bar down on the head of Robert White, who fell to the ground. As Personel’s wife ran off, he tackled Gl—-r, who begged for his life.

Gl—-r asked Personel why he had struck White, and Personel replied, “For being in company with my wife, in a bad house at an unseasonable hour.”

“Upon my honor,” responded Gl—-r, “I had no connection with her, nor have I reason to believe that Mr. White had.”

Personel said that if indeed the two were innocent, then he was sorry that he had struck them. Personel then noticed that White had not moved since falling to the ground. Seeing that some people were now approaching the scene, he ran off. Personel arrived home before his wife, spent the night, and then fled to New Haven.

Next to the Liberty Pole

After Personel was captured by Van Gelder and brought back from New Haven, the New York Supreme Court found Personel guilty of murder and sentenced him to be executed on September 10.

The editor of Personel’s Account notes that towards the end of his life Personel “appeared very cheerful and resigned to the will of God.” At the gallows–next to the Liberty Pole on the Common (where City Hall now stands, along with a replica of the Liberty Pole)–Personel addressed the crowd “with much composure, and resigned himself to the King of Terrors.”

Liberty Pole Marker - City Hall Park, New York City (City of New York Parks and Recreation)

Liberty Pole Marker – City Hall Park, New York City (City of New York Parks and Recreation)


  • “Extract of Another Letter from the Same Place.” Pennsylvania Packet, August 9, 1773, vol. II, issue 94, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New–Haven, June 25.” Connecticut Journal, June 25, 1773, issue 297, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, June 28, 1773, issue 1131, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New-York, July 1.” New-York Journal, July 1, 1773, issue 1591, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New-York, June 24.” Pennsylvania Chronicle, June 28, 1773, vol. VII, issue 23, p. 304. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New-York, September 13.” New-York Gazette, September 13, 1773, issue 1142, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Personel, Francis Burdett. An Authentic and Particular Account of the Life of Francis Burdett Personel, Written by Himself. New York, 1773. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.

Prisons and Punishments: The Crank Mill

The punishment of forcing convicts to step on a treadmill–a large, long rotating cylinder with steps attached along the outside–failed to take hold in America, even though England used it successfully for years in its prisons. Proponents of the punishment argued that the treadmill turned prisoners into productive citizens by making them work and provide food for themselves. Critics contended that the punishment had the tendency “to enfeeble or mutilate the human body” and “send [convicts] in a worse moral or physical conditions from the prison than when they entered it.”

Reservations over the use of the treadmill in prisons were strong enough to prompt politicians and prison officials to look for alternatives. In 1823, one year after the invention of the treadmill, Sir John Hippisley, a member of the British parliament, came up with the idea of the crank mill, which he believed produced the same effect as the treadmill, but with added benefits.

From the Baltimore Patriot, December 4, 1823 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.)

From the Baltimore Patriot, December 4, 1823 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.)

Rather than using their legs to rotate a cylinder in a stepping motion, convicts at the crank mill would use their arms to rotate a long bar in a vertical circular motion. Any number of bars could be connected to, and radiate out from, a central shaft that, like the treadmill, could turn stones for grinding corn. The seeming advantage of the crank mill is that convicts could situate themselves in a number of positions. They could stand with their right foot forward or their left. They could use one arm or two. They could even face one another as they rotated the bar. These variations would presumably reduce fatigue and put convicts less at risk to injury.

Hippisley also maintained that the crank mill could essentially police itself by means of a counter connected to the machine, so that the inspector could see the number of times the convicts rotated the crank during his absence (although such a device could just as easily be connected to the treadmill).

Even though the crank mill seemingly minimized the potentially injurious effects of the treadmill, its inventor admitted that its use could “be extended to a dangerous excess, without good vigilance on the part of the superintendants.” And for this reason, Hippisley recommended that female convicts be exempt from using both the crank mill and the treadmill.

The New York Evening Post published an engraving of Hippisley’s crank mill, which was then reprinted in several other American newspapers. But the idea did not go far. As with the treadmill, American politicians and prison officials had little interest in adopting the mechanism. And neither did the politicians and prison officials in England.

Prisons and Punishments: The Failure of the Treadmill in America

In 1822, when the American press began to circulate articles praising the use of a new invention in England that would instill fear in convicted felons and turn them into productive citizens, politicians, prison officials, and the press in America took notice. The invention was a treadmill, a large, long cylinder equipped with steps that prisoners would cause to rotate in a motion akin to walking up stairs that would grind corn, pump water, or perform other tasks that required mechanical power.

A few prisons in America quickly adopted the idea, and officials from other prisons eagerly waited to see if the treadmill as a punishment would match the glowing reports of its use that were coming out of England.

Adoption of the Treadmill in America

Treadmill - small

One of the first prisons to adopt the treadmill was the Bellevue County Penitentiary in New York City, located where 26th Street meets the East River, in 1822. Thirty-two convicts on two machines rotated the barrel-like contraptions through stepping motions, and every completed rotation of a cylinder caused a bell to ring. With this device, the convicts could grind 40-60 bushels of corn, which fed both the prisoners and residents of an almshouse.

The idea of using treadmills in prisons intrigued the Governor of Massachusetts, who called for an investigation into its possible use during his annual address to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1823. As a follow-up to this inquiry, an official at the Bellevue Penitentiary declared that early indications show the treadmill to be “one of the most successful of inventions.” He reported that while the prisoners were engaged on the treadmill, they hardly spoke a word to each other, and that even when they were resting they were too fatigued to engage in conversation. He described the atmosphere created by the treadmill as “orderly and submissive” and added that it required little supervision. He concluded that when the treadmill is combined with solitary confinement, the two punishments “furnish the most salutary punishment and the most powerful detriment from crime that the lenient spirit of our laws admits.”

Elsewhere, in the spring of 1823, the Connecticut Legislature passed a resolution to appropriate $3,000 to erect a treadmill in the Newgate state prison in Simsbury, CT. In general, convicts at this prison spent their time behind bars practicing traditional crafts, such as blacksmithing, shoemaking, and stone cutting. Prisoners who did not ply a trade usually worked as waiters and common laborers, but now they could also be put on the treadmill.

Newgate Prison, CT - 1890

Newgate Prison, CT – 1890

In a report commissioned by the Connecticut Legislature on the prison’s conditions one year later, the committee contended that use of the treadmill in the prison was too new to draw firm conclusions about its effects, but it did acknowledge that it is a “powerful instrument” that could easily be used to abuse prisoners if put in the hands of the wrong supervisor. The committee asked a physician to assess the treadmill’s health risks, and he concluded that there were none. The report pointed out that the treadmill was particularly useful for employing convicts who were scheduled for short stays in the prison–where setting them up with a trade would be a waste of time–and concluded that the treadmill was an effective mode of punishment, because it is “peculiarly irksome; requiring a severe exertion of the body, but furnishing no employment of the mind.”

Bad Reviews

For the most part, newspaper reports about the use of treadmills in prisons were generally positive if not glowing. But a few reports also appeared that questioned the effectiveness of the punishment.

In March 27, 1823 the Baltimore Patriot published a report out of England about the first time a treadmill was put into motion in a prison in Reading. All appeared to be going well during the first few days of its operation until 1:00 p.m. on a Monday, when all 32 of the prisoners refused to go on the wheel unless they received more food and leather-bottomed shoes. The article reported that the men were under the impression that the worst punishment that would befall them for their work stoppage would be confinement in their cells, but the prison keeper and his assistants used “arms and bludgeons” to compel the men to return to work.

One year later, another report from England appeared in an American newspaper that highlighted the negative aspects of treadmills. The criticism came from the Edinburgh Review in its assessment of the use of treadmills in a prison in North Riding of Yorkshire in northern England. The reviewer called treadmills the “new magistrates plaything” and went on to write a scathing critique of its use:

The labour of the tread-mill is irksome, dull, monotonous, and disgusting to the last degree. A man does not see his work, does not know what he is making; there is no room for art, contrivance, ingenuity and superior skill–all which are the cheering circumstances of human labor. The husbandman sees the field gradually subdued by his plough, the smith beats the rude mass of iron by degrees into its meditated shape, and gives it its mediated utility: the tailor accommodates his parallelogram of cloth to the lumps and bumps of the human body, and holding it up, exclaims, ‘this will contain the lower moiety of an human being.’ But the treader does nothing but tread; he sees no change of objects, admires no new relations of parts, imparts no new qualities to matter, and gives it no new arrangements and positions; or if he does, he sees and knows it not, but is turned at once from a rational being, by a justice of peace, into a primum mobile [literally, “first moved”: the outer moving sphere of a geocentric model of the universe], and put upon a level with a rush of water or a puff of steam.

Such critiques of treadmills in American newspapers, though, were rare. But the enthusiasm of the press in the use of treadmills did not translate into their broad adoption in American prisons. Indeed, only four prisons in America ever employed treadmills, and in three of the four cases, the prisons quietly left their treadmills behind only a few years later when new prison facilities opened up to replace them.


England widely embraced the use of treadmills in its prisons from the time of its invention in 1822 to the early 20th century. In 1895, Oscar Wilde was even put to work on a treadmill after he was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to a two-year prison term. But if the treadmill was successfully adopted in England and showed so much promise in regulating the behavior and work of prisoners, then why did it fail to take hold in America?

David H. Shayt from the Smithsonian Institute believes the answer lies in the different need for work and the different attitudes toward prison labor between the two countries. After the Revolution, as America broke away from England and its influence on the American criminal justice system, American reformers in the early nineteenth century looked to Enlightenment philosophy for new ways to address the problem of crime and criminals. As a result, corporal and capital punishment was replaced by long periods of incarceration, where criminals spent their time reflecting on their bad behavior and interacting only with “good men”—i.e., members of the clergy and prison staff—in an attempt to reform them.

In a country like America, where liberty is highly valued, spending long periods of time behind bars was increasingly seen as an appropriate form of punishment for serious crimes. Attention now focused on how prisoners spent their time, with a preference for isolation, silence, and rigorous manual labor to keep them from sinking into idleness.

In both England and America, prison officials sought to use the labor of their convicts to offset the costs of housing them, and perhaps even to make a profit. In America, prisoners spent most of their time locked in their cells performing handicrafts to earn their keep. The idea was to turn the convicts into productive members of society by the time they finished their sentences.

The treadmill had the advantages of being able to regulate and measure precisely the productivity of convicts–longer intervals between the ringing of the bell meant their pace was slackening–and no special skills were required to operate it. But here is where the treadmill failed miserably in America. This latter “advantage” in the eyes of the American criminal justice system was perceived as a liability. The treadmill could not demonstrate any long-term benefit for the prisoner, who merely served as a power source. It did nothing to turn that prisoner into a productive worker.

Treadmills also turned out to be a poor use of potentially productive prison labor, especially in America where any form of labor was relatively scarce at the time. Convicts in America were already producing shoes, clothing, hardware, furniture, and other goods from raw or semi-finished goods brought into the prisons. To take this highly productive labor force and put them on a relatively inefficient treadmill would have seemed like folly.

In the end, treadmills turned out to be more of a psychological tool–by making prisoners mindlessly turn a large wheel for hours at a time–than a productive one and functioned more as a means for retributive justice than for reforming convicts. Americans valued productivity so much that even wasting it in the form of convict labor was an idea that simply could not take hold.


The advantages of the treadmill as a device that requires great physical effort with little necessary skill–and that measures accurately the productivity of its users–did not entirely go to waste. Today, treadmills (now known as Stairmasters or stepping machines) are staples at gyms and health centers, where users can measure the number of steps they take, the speed in which they take them, the calories they burn, and more. Few people realize that these popular pieces of exercise equipment trace their beginnings back to early prisons and punishment.

The original users of treadmills in the nineteenth century were compelled to rotate their cylinders; today, people seeking physical fitness pay for the privilege to do so.

The author on a "Treadmill"

The author on today’s “Treadmill”


  • American Mercury, February 28, 1826, vol. XLII, issue 2174, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot, January 4, 1823, vol. LVII, issue 4351, p. 4. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • “The Reading Tread-Mill.” Baltimore Patriot, March 27, 1823, vol. XXI, issue 66, p. 1. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • Salem Gazette, June 6, 1823, vol. I, issue 45, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • Shayt, David H. “Satairway to Redemption: America’s Encounter with the British Prison Treadmill. Technology and Culture 30:4 (Oct., 1989), 908-938.

Prisons and Punishments: The Treadmill Song

Treadmill - small

From the Amateur
The Treadmill Song

The stars are rolling in the sky,
The earth rolls on below,
And we can feel the rattling wheel
Revolving as we go,
Then tread away, my gallant boys,
And make the axle fly;
Why shouldn’t wheels go round about,
Like planets in the sky?

Wake up, wake up, my duck-legged man,
And stir your solid pegs;
Arouse, arouse, my gawky friend,
And shake your spider legs;
What though you’re awkward at the trade,
There’s time enough to learn–
So lean upon the rail, my lad,
And take another turn.

They’ve built us up a noble wall,
To keep the vulgar out;
We’ve nothing in the world to do,
But just to walk about;
So go it now, you middle men,
And try to beat the ends–
It’s pleasant work to rumble round
Among one’s honest friends.

Here, tread upon the long man’s toes,
He shan’t be lazy here–
And punch the little fellow’s ribs,
And tweak that lubber’s ear–
He’s lost them both–don’t pull his hair,
Because he wears a scratch,
But poke him in the further eye,
That isn’t in the patch.

Hark, fellows, there’s the supper bell,
And so our work is done;
It’s pretty sport–suppose we take
A round or two for fun.
If ever they should turn me out,
When I have better grown,
Now hang me, but I mean to have
A treadmill of my own.

Even though the tone of this poem is satiric, it still does not convey the true working conditions of the treadmill. Time spent on the treadmill was mind-numbing. This boredom combined with fatigue could often lead to injury. While the fact that those working the treadmill had no idea whether their labor was productive or not was lauded by its advocates–if the grain supplies being milled with the treadmill ever ran out, for example, the punishment could continue on–critics of the treadmill pointed out that the prisoners never saw or experienced the fruits of their labor, and consequently could not derive any satisfaction from it.

To reduce fatigue, convicts regularly traded working on and off the treadmill at regular intervals, but they were subjected to this exhausting punishment for hours at a time. There were no standards in the construction of the treadmills or in the time convicts spent on them, so what was considered reasonable punishment was left to the discretion of the individual jail wardens. Naturally, some wardens had different ideas of what constituted reasonable punishment and were more brutal than others.


  • Norwich Courier, September 22, 1830, vol. IX, issue 26 p. 4. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.