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Early American Criminals: The Race of Johnson Green, Burglar

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Johnson Green was born in Bridgewater, MA on February 7, 1757 to unmarried parents. His father was a servant who worked for Timothy Edson. His mother was a widow named Sarah Johnson. His mother’s maiden name was Green, so he was sometimes called Joseph-Johnson Green. Green’s father was African American; his mother was Irish.

Green grew up to be a prodigious thief and burglar. In his Life and Confession, Green catalogs over 60 criminal acts and omits many others for fear of boring his reader. His mixed racial background certainly played a part in his turn to crime as a profession, but we get little direct evidence that this was the case in his account. The influence that being a “mulatto” had on his life choices is obscured by the conventions of criminal narrative and the limitations of eighteenth-century vocabulary in articulating the prejudice and oppression faced by racial minorities.

Bound into Service

Poor people in early America were often bound into service at a young age, which is precisely what happened to Green. At the age of five, Green’s mother bound him as an apprentice to Seth Howard of Bridgewater to learn agriculture. Given his ancestral background, Green did not have access to public education, so he remained illiterate throughout his life. Green contends that he was treated well in the hands of Howard, who guided him in following Christian values. Green’s mother also maintained at least some presence in his life through this time, because she counseled him not to associate with people who use bad language and discouraged him from joining the army or going out to sea.

At about the age of twelve, Green committed his first act of theft when he grabbed four gingerbread cakes and six biscuits out of a horse cart. Emboldened by his success, he continued to steal small items without being detected. At fourteen, he was finally caught stealing a dozen lemons and a chocolate cake and was reprimanded. Soon afterward, he stole some hens. At this point, his master was so fed up with his behavior that he sold him to a cousin.

Green’s new environment did not put a stop to his thieving ways. At one point, he took his new master’s key and stole two shillings from a chest. His act was discovered, and he was punished. But Green admitted his punishment was not as severe as he deserved.

The Army

Going against his mother’s advice, Green enlisted in the American army to fight against the British during the Revolutionary War. Black soldiers served alongside white soldiers at the time, so perhaps he was drawn to the more egalitarian existence it offered. Unfortunately, though, his tour in the army had the negative effect on him that his mother predicted. While in the army he became “addicted to drunkenness, the keeping of bad company, and . . . lewd women.” He did not abandon his criminal ways, either. While in service, he stole fifteen shillings, a bottle of rum, a dozen biscuits, and a pillow case filled with sugar from a tavern in Sherborn, MA.

In March 1781, Green married Sarah Phillips, who also had African ancestry, and together they had two children. His treatment of her was “exceeding ill.” He frequently abandoned her for long stretches of time and was unfaithful.

One month after his marriage, Green was caught stealing a pair of silver shoe buckles and received one hundred lashes as punishment. In October of that same year, he and two other associates found themselves without any provisions, so they stole three cheeses, butter, and some chocolate. Green, however, was the only one of the three who was caught. He received yet another hundred lashes.

Housing for free African-Americans was generally terrible during this time and prejudice made finding employment difficult. Facing these conditions, free blacks often resorted to crime for simple subsistence. No doubt, Green was already well-versed in thieving before he married, but despite receiving harsh punishments within a six-month time span, he appeared to take up crime more as a profession than as a series of whims after his marriage.

Bolder and Bolder

Over the next year, Green traveled throughout southern New England stealing food, clothing, small amounts of money, and household objects. He eventually sold some of the items he had acquired at the market in Providence, RI.

On April 23, 1785, Green was imprisoned for the first time on Nantucket after attacking a fireman and other bystanders while intoxicated. He was released the next day after paying a fine and prosecution costs.

Green became bolder and bolder in carrying out acts of crime. He broke into Capt. Bent’s tavern in Stoughtonham, MA by climbing down the chimney with a rope. After entering the tavern, Green propped open a window with his jack-knife in case he needed to make a fast getaway from a family member. His forward thinking was for naught.

A man soon came to the tavern calling for the landlord in order to purchase a gallon of rum. The daughter of the house woke up, and in the course of helping the man noticed the knife holding up the window. She figured that it was left there earlier in the evening by some boys who had stopped by the tavern on the way to a community gathering to husk corn. Fearful that he would be discovered if he went out the window when the man initially arrived at the door, Green pulled himself back up the chimney and stood on a crossbar until the man left and everyone in the house had once again fallen asleep. Once he felt the coast was clear, he lowered himself back down the chimney, took three dollars, and escaped up the chimney undetected.

In another close call, Green hid some goods he had stolen in Natick in a barn belonging to Nathaniel Foster of Middleborough and then asked him for some work. Instead, he was arrested for stealing a horse that he had taken four miles away and was put in the Plymouth county jail. Green was let go due to a lack of evidence, but in the mean time Foster discovered the items hidden in his barn and advertised them in order to find their owner. Before suspicion could fall on him, Green quickly sent his wife to retrieve the goods.

Green’s life as a professional criminal does not match the humorous picaresque existence commonly represented in literature. While reflecting on his criminal methods and motives in his Life and Confession, he discloses the hardships he often faced:

Some of the things I have stolen I have used myself—some of them I have sold—some have been taken from me—some I have hid where I could not find them again—and others I have given to lewd women, who induced me to steal for their maintenance. I have lived a hard life, by being obliged to keep in the woods; have suffered much by hunger, nakedness, cold, and the fears of being detected and brought to justice—have often been accused of stealing when I was not guilty, and others have been accused of crimes when I was the offender. I never murdered any person, nor robbed any body on the high-way.


In 1786, Green made his way to Shrewsbury where he lodged in a barn belonging to a Mr. Baldwin. The next evening, he broke into Baldwin’s house and stole three shillings, three pence, and nine dollars worth of clothing. That same night, he broke into the houses of Mr. Farror and Mr. Ross Wyman.

Green hid in the woods through the next day and headed off to Boston in the evening. He did not get far. Green was taken up by a guard patrolling a bridge at the edge of Westborough. Green confessed to the burglaries and was thrown in the Worcester jail. He was only tried and found guilty of burglarizing Mr. Baldwin’s house, because this act alone was enough to sentence him to death.

While being held in the Worcester jail, Green was visited by ministers and “other pious persons” to prepare him for his execution. At one point, his cell was deemed in need of repairs, so the Under-Sheriff secured Green to the floor with chains to keep him in place while the workmen went in and out of the room. During this time, Green freed himself from his irons and “went off undiscovered among a number of people, who were in and about the goal.” A thirty dollar reward for his return was promptly offered by the jailor.

Salem Chronicle, June 15, 1786 - From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.

After breaking out of prison, Green returned to his “vicious practices, ‘like the dog to his vomit, and the sow that is washed, to her wallowing in the mire.’” He lived in the woods and continued breaking into houses and stealing as he made his way to Providence. He had a close call in Easton when two men tried to seize him on suspicion that he had broken out of jail, but Green escaped from them.

While in Providence, Green broke into the cellar of Justice Belknap and stole 30 pounds of salt pork, one neat’s (calf) tongue, and some tools. On July 13, 1786, Green was arrested for this crime and one week later transferred back to the Worcester jail. Coincidentally, the day he was arrested was the very day that he was originally scheduled to be executed back in Worcester.

Last and Dying Words

While awaiting his execution, Green dictated his life story, which he signed with an “X.” The content of his account was a bit unusual for the time. During the eighteenth century there was an incremental rise in the number of criminal narratives involving rape, and increasingly these accounts involved African-Americans. Before 1765, all criminal narratives involving African-Americans were cases of property crime or murder. After 1765, only three out of twenty accounts about black criminals fail to mention rape. Green’s account is one of them.

But Green’s sexuality is not entirely absent from his tales of travel and crime. Near the end of his Life and Confession, Green can barely conceal in pious terms his boasts about his sexual prowess:

I have had great dealings with women, which to their and my shame be it spoken, I often too easily obtained my will of them. I hope they will repent, as I do, of such wicked and infamous conduct. I have had a correspondence with many women, exclusive of my wife, among whom were several abandoned Whites, and a large number of Blacks; four of the whites were married women, three of the blacks have laid children to me besides my wife, who has been much distressed by my behaviour.

If Green’s life reveals the economic difficulties that often pushed people with African ancestry into a life of crime, it also shows that such a background was hardly an impediment to sexual relations in the eighteenth century. But the circumstances of Green’s parents also demonstrate that sexual relations between races failed to translate into equal social relations.

Green was executed in Worcester, MA on August 17, 1786 at the age of 29. Newspapers described him as being “as great a villain for house-breaking and stealing as ever was hung in this commonwealth.”


  • Green, Johnson. The Life and Confession of Johnson Green. Worcester, [1786]. Database: Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800), Readex/Newsbank.
  • Greene, Lorenzo J. “Johnson Green—Burglar.” Phylon 7:1 (1st Qtr., 1946), 71-77.
  • “Massachusetts.” Salem Chronicle. June 15, 1786, vol. 1, issue 12, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Massachusetts Centinel. June 3, 1786, vol. V, issue 22, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Massachusetts Centinel. July 22, 1786, vol. V, issue 36, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Slotkin, Richard. “Narratives of Negro Crime in New England, 1675-1800.” American Quarterly 25:1 (Mar., 1973), 3-31.
  • Williams, Daniel. Pillars of Salt: An Anthology of Early American Criminal Narratives. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1993.
  • “Worcester, Aug. 17.” American Recorder. August 18, 1786, vol. 1, issue 70, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

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