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Early American Criminals: Henry Tufts’s Partners in Crime


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Note: This post follows “Henry Tufts’s Thanksgiving.”

Henry Tufts returned to his family in Lee, NH after slipping away from Mr. Pickard, who in good faith had released him from the Old York jail. When Tufts arrived in his home town, though, he discovered that his reputation was as bad as ever, especially when word of his recent exploits reached the gossip circles. To make matters worse, a group of drunken soldiers who were returning from training passed by Tufts’s property and decided to pull his house apart. Tufts threatened the ruffians with a musket, and even though the gun “snapt in the pan” when he took aim at the ringleader, it was enough to scare the group away.

This experience convinced Tufts that he once again needed to leave his family.

Back on the Road

While back on the road Tufts met James Smith, and the two became partners in crime by stealing hens, turkeys, sheep, and other food from farmers for their subsistence. Their carefree lifestyle lasted long enough, until they eventually needed new clothes and other necessities that were not as easy to acquire. A gentleman, who was an acquaintance of Smith, suggested that the two could easily break into a store owned by Smith Gilman and Levi Chapman in Newmarket, NH and even offered them help in doing so. The two partners decided to give it a try.

Using the knowledge they gained from the gentleman, Tufts and Smith forced their way through a window of the store and took clothes, money, pieces of silver, and other goods. They returned to Smith’s friend, gave him some of the booty in compensation for his help, and hit the highway towards Massachusetts, where they proceeded to sell the illicit goods. Unbeknownst to the two burglars, Gilman and Chapman were pursuing them. The two shopkeepers caught Tufts and Smith by surprise and had them arrested. As it happened, the gentleman who aided the burglary and enjoyed some of the spoils from it had turned informant and tipped off Gilman and Chapman about the burglars’ probable route of escape.

Tufts and Smith landed in jail in Exeter. Smith was held in the common prison ward, but Tufts’s reputation earned him solitary confinement in the dungeon with heavy shackles and chains attached to his feet and to a huge iron staple in the floor.

Total Darkness

Tufts remained in total darkness with almost no human interaction while waiting for the Superior Court to meet and hear their case. The effluvia that built up in the chamber, the nipping of vermin, and a lack of adequate food and clothing kept Tufts from sleeping well. After three months of enduring these conditions, Tufts and Smith were finally brought to trial and found guilty. As punishment, they received thirty-five lashes, which were administered by one of the other prisoners. They were also ordered to pay costs and damages for what they stole, and if they could not meet the sum, they were to be sold into servitude to help make up the difference. In addition, they were sentenced to thirty-one more days in prison. This time, though, Tufts was placed in a regular jail cell.

While the two were being held, some friends smuggled a few instruments into the prison, and Tufts used them to drill a hole through the wall. Smith was held in a cell immediately above Tufts, and when he learned of his partner’s plan, he asked Tufts to help him escape as well. Tufts agreed to do so. That night, Tufts called up to Smith and told him that the first thing they needed to do to escape was strip off their clothes, turn them inside out, and throw them out the window. After the two accomplished this act, Tufts crawled out of his cell, gathered up the clothes, and sped away. Tufts figured that Smith’s clothes could come in handy after his escape and left his poor partner to his own devices in a naked state.

The Root Cellar

At one point Tufts traveled to Portsmouth in the hope that he would stumble into some kind of windfall, but not meeting with any success he left the city and headed toward Stratham in the darkness of night. Along the way, he grew hungry and remembered that he knew of a horde of apples and pears stored on a nearby property. He stumbled through the darkness, found the entrance to the root cellar, and broke into it with little effort.

Tufts could not immediately locate the cache of fruit in the pitch black, so he felt around and fell upon a box that gave a hollow sounding noise when he hit it. He continued fumbling about until he hit yet another box, which he came to realize was a great coffin. He had inadvertently broken into a crypt that held a grandmother and her daughter. The shock of his discovery froze him and stood his hair on end, but he eventually recovered and fled the grisly space.

Another Partnership

Tufts formed another criminal partnership with someone he met on the road named Ebenezer Hubbard. The two agreed to split the spoils of their larcenies, but they did not meet with much success. Tufts wanted out of the relationship, but Hubbard convinced him to join a plan to break into a fulling mill and steal a quantity of milled cloth. Suspicion immediately fell on the two rogues, and when they were brought in for questioning about the burglary, Hubbard broke down and confessed everything. Tufts found himself back at the Exeter jail, where he received twenty lashes, was held for twenty days in prison, and even though he was ordered to compensate the victim, he was let go after no one stepped forward to purchase his servitude.

Burglar's Tools

Despite the punishments he received during his stints in the Exeter jail, Tufts decided to throw himself into the burglary profession. He systematically collected a number of burglary tools—including augers, saws, and false keys—and then deposited them in several places, so that he could have easy access to them. Tufts was especially proud of his false keys:

I imagine my keys must have been viewed, as a curiosity, by such as were unused to the sight of such rarities; the construction of them, however, is so simple, as to easily be imitated or made by any smith of common ingenuity; and when judiciously fashioned, are of such extensive application, that one key will fit a great variety of locks. I am positive, that, with this assortment of keys, I could have opened, without violence, almost any lock I ever saw; this I am assured by experience, which is indeed the touchstone of truth.

Tufts also began carrying vitriol, aqua fortis, and other corrosive liquids that could soften or eat through iron.

Even though Tufts provides a detailed account of his preparations for becoming a professional burglar, his narrative from this point forward is filled with claims of false accusations of burglary against him. One of these apparent false accusations eventually landed him on the notorious Castle Island in Boston Harbor.

Note: The story of Henry Tufts concludes with “Henry Tufts in the Castle.”


  • Tufts, Henry. A Narrative of the Life, Adventures, Travels, and Sufferings of Henry Tufts. Dover, NH: Samuel Bragg, 1807. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

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