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Early American Criminals: The Harvard-Educated Burglars

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James Ward and Joseph Welde were positioned for success. Both were sons of prominent Puritan church men who were respected members of Massachusetts society, and both were enrolled at Harvard College, which would help them follow in their fathers’ footsteps and become leaders in their community.

One night in March 1644, Ward and Welde burglarized the house of Joshua Hewes. Then they repeated the act one month later in April when they broke into the house of Welde’s uncle, Joseph Welde, who was in London at the time. In the end, both students were caught with eleven pounds in money and about 30 shillings worth of gunpowder taken from the two houses.

The burglaries carried out by Ward and Welde embarrassed the college and shocked the Cambridge and Boston communities, especially given the prominence of the people involved.

Family Backgrounds

James Ward’s father, the Rev. Nathaniel Ward, was educated at Emmanuel College in England. He originally became a barrister, but at age 40 he abandoned the law to go into the ministry. In 1633, Ward was excommunicated from the Church of England, and as a result he traveled to Massachusetts in 1634 at the age of 56, most likely with his son James in tow. Upon his arrival in June, Ward became the minister of Ipswich, MA.

During his tenure as minister, Ward used his knowledge of the law to author the “Body of Liberties,” a kind of early Bill of Rights that outlined people’s civil liberties. While not a legally binding document, it served as the basis for many of the laws passed in Massachusetts and other colonies. Out of the 98 articles written by Ward, number 94, which handled capital crimes, was the only one that outlined specific penalties for offenses. Notably, even though the “Body of Liberties” was written before the burglaries in which his son participated took place, Ward did not list burglary as a capital offense, presumably because the crime was not treated as such under ancient Israeli law.

Just like Nathaniel Ward, the Rev. Thomas Welde, father of Joseph Welde, was excommunicated from the Church of England for nonconformity in 1631. He arrived in Boston in June 1632 and became the first pastor of the Roxbury church.

Trial of Ann Hutchinson

Trial of Ann Hutchinson

Welde was a prominent elder as well as an overseer of Harvard College; he also at times has been described as “a man of intense and narrow mind” and “naturally intolerant.” Welde and John Eliot served as the two clerical witnesses against Anne Hutchinson during her infamous trial for heresy in 1637, when she was sentenced to banishment from the colony. While awaiting her separate religious trial for blasphemy, Hutchinson was placed under the charge of Welde’s brother, Joseph, who was also a prominent resident of Roxbury and one of the victims of the young men’s burglaries. Hutchinson was held in Joseph Welde’s house throughout the winter and spring, and she was regularly tormented by the minister of the Roxbury church throughout the duration of her stay.

In 1641, Rev. Thomas Welde was sent along with Hugh Peter back to England to secure financial aid for the colony. Even though he was successful in his mission, he never returned to America, so he was not present in the colony at the time his son committed the burglaries.

Diminishing Opportunities

How could two Harvard students, who were sons of two prominent leaders of their community, end up committing such an atrocious crime, twice? Were they rebelling against their parents and family? In the case of Joseph Welde, it is quite possible, considering that he broke into his own uncle’s house. Unfortunately, we will never know their true motives.

One factor that may have contributed to their actions, however, was the steep decline in available employment opportunities for Harvard graduates at the time. Starting in 1640, New England experienced its first economic depression when immigration to the colonies practically ceased with the onset of the English Civil War and, at the same time, the birth rate in the colonies suddenly dropped. The colonial job market depended on a growing population to provide new opportunities, so when the population declined, so did the number of jobs.

Second-generation Harvard students, of which Ward and Welde were a part, faced social and economic challenges that the first generation of students never did. Graduates of Harvard, the vast majority of whom were preparing to become ministers (85% of those enrolled at the college), depended on new towns and new congregations for employment. As the growth of towns dwindled, so did the number of open professional positions available to college graduates. The lack of opportunities in New England meant that many of Harvard’s graduates were forced to leave America.

Since Ward and Welde were students at Harvard with most of their needs taken care of, they certainly did not commit the burglaries out of economic necessity. However, with a stagnant economy and bleak job prospects, Harvard students felt fewer ties to the New England community. The two sons faced a colonial world that looked much different to them than to their fathers when they first arrived in America a decade earlier.

By 1640, university men were already feeling the effects of demographic constriction. As a result, between 1640 and 1660 New England lost nearly half of its intellectual leaders as they searched for opportunities in other places. Most of them returned to England where more positions were suddenly available for Puritans thanks to the English Civil War. In the end, a growing sense of indifference towards the New England community among students and graduates of Harvard, who knew that there was a good chance that they would be leaving the colony, could have made a crime like burglary carried by Ward and Welde no longer unthinkable, but also possible.

Note: The story of James Ward and Joseph Welde concludes with the “Punishment of the Harvard-Educated Burglars.”

Read more about burglary in Early American Crime.


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  • Dean, John Ward. A Memoir of the Rev. Nathaniel Ward, A.M. Albany, NY: J. Munsell, 1868.
  • Moore, Kathryn McDaniel. “The Dilemma of Corporal Punishment at Harvard College.” History of Education Quarterly 14.3 (Autumn, 1974), 335-346.
  • Powers, Edwin. Crime and Punishment in Early Massachusetts, 1620-1692. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966.
  • Sibley, John Langdon. Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, In Cambridge, Massachusetts. Vol. I, 1642-1658. Cambridge: Charles William Sever, 1873.
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