Skip to content

Transported Convicts in the New World: Committing Crime in America

Note: This post is part of a series on Convict Transportation to the American colonies.

On July 15, 1751 the New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy reported that Onesiphorus Lucas was executed in Annapolis in a follow-up to a newspaper story that appeared two weeks earlier about how Lucas was found guilty of burglary and sentenced to be hanged. The earlier article also reported that Thomas Poney was tried that same day and was sentenced to be burnt in the hand for committing a felony and that Jacob Windsor was executed for a crime he committed in Queen Anne’s County. Windsor had apparently caused quite a bit of trouble before being executed, because he “had been four Times since whipp’d and pillor’d, once for stealing a Bible.” All three of these criminals were transported convicts.

These reports and others like them helped confirm what American colonists initially feared, that the Transportation Act of 1718, which set the legal stage for sending convicts to America, would drastically increase the number of crimes in the colonies.

Complaints of Criminal Activity

Complaints by colonists about crimes committed by convict servants began to appear not long after Great Britain started to send its convicts to the American colonies. In 1724, Hugh Jones, the Rector of Jamestown, Virginia, stated that the “abundance of [convicts] do great Mischiefs, commit robbery and Murder, and spoil Servants that were before very good.” Likewise, the Baltimore County Court complained that “the great number of convicts of late imported into this Province have not only committed divers murders, burglaries and other felonies, but debauched several of its formerly innocent and honest inhabitants” and that the “very great numbers of said convicts in this County . . . encourages them to be more frequent in the perpetration of their villainies.”

The belief that the presence of convict servants increased crime was widespread enough that in 1732 John Clayton, the attorney general of Virginia, successfully asked for a higher salary on the grounds that “the increase of Criminals of late Years especially since the importation of Convicts from great Britain” had increased his workload. Whether the influx of convicts into Virginia and Maryland actually increased the number of murders, arsons, and robberies is open to debate, but beginning in the middle of the century, newspaper stories about crimes committed by convict servants notably increased, as did editorials complaining about their shipment to America.

Attacks on Their Owners

Not surprisingly, the owners of convict servants would sometimes become victims of crimes committed by transported convicts. In 1752, the Pennsylvania Gazette reported that two convict servants in Dorchester County attempted to murder their two owners. The master and mistress held their assailants at bay, and most likely would have overpowered them, when a female convict servant joined the attack. Her appearance prompted the mistress to run upstairs, escape out a window, and hide in a swamp near the house. With his wife gone, the master was quickly overtaken and cruelly beaten by the three until they left him for dead. The group then plundered the house, taking clothes and eleven pounds in money with them. The article noted, however, that the master survived the attack and was likely to recover.

One year earlier the Pennsylvania Gazette reported another attack on a convict servant’s owner. This time, the convict servant entered the main house armed with an ax and with the intent of murdering his mistress. But when he came face-to-face with her and saw, as he later said, “how d—-d innocent she look’d,” he placed his left hand on a block, cut it off, and threw it at her, shouting, “Now make me work, if you can.” In a note added to the end of the story, the Gazette warns the public that the convict servant had recently been seen begging in Philadelphia, claiming that he lost his hand in an accident.


Sometimes the reputations of transported convicts preceded them. The Boston Post-Boy reported in 1770 that Captain Blichenden arrived in Annapolis from London with a number of coiners on board his ship, the Trotman. The report claims that since their arrival some poorly made counterfeit dollars and a milled shilling have already been discovered. The convicts are implicated in the article as the ones who produced them, even though it is doubtful that they would have had the means or the time between their arrival and the appearance of the report to carry out even poor reproductions of colonial money.

In 1751, the New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy carried a story about a man named Chamberlain who tried to pass by two merchants in Philadelphia a forged order for 200 pistoles (Spanish gold coins) supposedly written by a Mr. Wardrop, a merchant in Maryland. The two merchants spotted a mistake in the spelling of Wardrop’s name and suspected forgery, so they took the man before a magistrate, where he was committed to prison. The authorities also found other forged bills of exchange for considerable sums of money on Chamberlain.

After some investigation, it turns out that the young man’s name was not Chamberlain and that he came from a reputable family in Maryland. The article goes on to speculate that he no doubt learned how to pass counterfeit bills of exchange from the convict servants who populate that area of the country.


In the same article in the New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy that reported the execution of Onesiphorus Lucas is an account of “one of the most audacious Robberies.” Two armed men went at night to the house of Charles Cole with a ladder, which one of them used to climb into the second-story bedroom where Cole was sleeping while the other served as a lookout. Once inside the bedroom, the robber held a pistol to Cole’s head and threatened to blow his brains out if he stirred or made a noise. He then tied Cole up and began to beat him, saying that he wanted his money.

Meanwhile, one of Cole’s servants, who was sleeping in a nearby house, heard some noise and peeked out his window to investigate. The lookout at the bottom of the ladder spotted the servant and threatened to shoot him dead if he made any noise. Undeterred, the servant grabbed a gun and fired it at the lookout, but missed. The lookout fired back, but he missed as well. The shooting alarmed the man in the house, and the two robbers got away, leaving Cole tied up in his bed. As of the writing of the article, the two armed men were still at large.

Almost a month later, the same newspaper reported that a convict servant named John Connor confessed to the robbery of Charles Cole. He told a magistrate that he was the one who served as the lookout, while another convict servant, Thomas Bevan, went up into Cole’s bedroom. After the two escaped, they hid in the pine forests and continued to rob several people. At this point the search for them became so fierce that Connor decided to return to his master, who turned him over to the authorities.

Bevan, not knowing that he had been impeached by his partner, also returned to his master, but he tried to threaten his owner into helping him escape by water, presumably back to England. Bevan’s master managed to stow him away in a cellar, where he was later taken custody by several people loaded with pistols. The article assures the reader that Bevan is now in Jail, “strongly iron’d, and chain’d to the Floor.”

The assurance that Bevan is safely secured in prison is brought into some doubt by a report that immediately follows the account of his capture. Two men, the story reads, who were apprehended in New England and were brought back to St. Mary’s County in Maryland for the murder of a master and mate of a vessel both broke out of jail and are still at large.

Resources for this article:

  • “Annapolis, April 16.” Pennsylvania Gazette May 7, 1752. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Newsbank/Readex.
  • “Annapolis, December 6.” Boston Post-Boy December 24, 1770. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Newsbank/Readex.
  • “Annapolis, in Maryland, August 14.” New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy August 26, 1751. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Newsbank/Readex.
  • “Annapolis, in Maryland, June 12.” New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy July 1, 1751. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Newsbank/Readex.
  • “Annapolis, in Maryland, June 26.” New-York Gazette, or Weely Post-Boy July 15, 1751. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Newsbank/Readex.
  • Jones, Hugh. The Present State of Virginia. New York: Reprinted for Joseph Sabin, 1865.
  • Middleton, Arthur Pierce. Tobacco Coast: A Maritime History of Chesapeake Bay in the Colonial Era. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1953.
  • Morgan, Kenneth. “Convict Transportation to Colonial America (Review of A. Roger Ekirch, Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775).” Reviews in American History 17.1 (1989): 29-34.
  • “Philadelphia, April 11.” Pennsylvania Gazette May 11, 1751. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Newsbank/Readex.
  • “Philadelphia, May 9.” New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy May 13, 1751. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Newsbank/Readex.
  • Sollers, Basil. “Transported Convict Laborers in Maryland During the Colonial Period.” Maryland Historical Magazine March 1907: 17-47.

Learn More About Convict Transportation

Learn more about convict transportation to colonial America by reading my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America. Paperback ($16.99) and Kindle ($4.99).

Smashwords: All e-book formats ($4.99).

Most people know that England shipped thousands of convicts to Australia, but few are aware that colonial America was the original destination for Britain’s unwanted criminals. In the 18th century, thousands of British convicts were separated from their families, chained together in the hold of a ship, and carried off to America, sometimes for the theft of a mere handkerchief.

What happened to these convicts once they arrived in America? Did they prosper in an environment of unlimited opportunity, or were they ostracized by the other colonists? Anthony Vaver tells the stories of the petty thieves and professional criminals who were punished by being sent across the ocean to work on plantations. In bringing to life this forgotten chapter in American history, he challenges the way we think about immigration to early America.

The book also includes an appendix with helpful tips for researching individual convicts who were transported to America.

Visit Pickpocket Publishing for more details.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *