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Early American Criminals: The Curse on Joseph Lightly

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Joseph Lightly relates in his Last Words and Dying Speech that when his mother learned he had enlisted in the British army, “she told me she hoped she should hear of my being hanged, for my Cruelty of going to leave her against her Will.” Lightly’s mother may simply have been reacting to the moment, but her words nonetheless seemed to serve as a curse on her son.

All Manner of Vice and Wickedness

Joseph Lightly was born in Newcastle, England in 1739 to poor, but “benevolent and kind” parents. He received a common education before he was apprenticed to a weaver at the age of fourteen. Four years later, he left his master to join the British army during its engagement in the Seven Years’ War and was sent to Dublin, Ireland. He was stationed in Ireland for four or five months until his regiment received orders to march to Cork, where he and his fellow soldiers boarded a ship and headed to America.

Like many early American criminals, Lightly’s turn to crime can be traced to his military service. Lightly says he enjoyed the good will of his officers before embarking for America, but after landing in Philadelphia he “began to forget God, not having the Opportunities of religious Worship, as I had in my own Country.” The army turned out to be a place where “all Manner of Vice and Wickedness prevail’d,” and Lightly quickly “fell into Cursing and Swearing, taking great Delight therein; as also in contriving all Sorts of Mischief.”

British soldiers fighting in the Seven Years' War - 1756-1763


Lightly’s distaste for the soldier’s life prompted him to run away from his regiment, but he soon returned. Lucky for him, he did not receive punishment for his unsanctioned leave on account of the bravery he had previously displayed on the battlefield. But after he and his captain drew swords over the affections of a young woman, Lightly deserted the army once again, even though he won the duel and sent his captain running.

This second time around Lightly was easily taken up as a runaway soldier owing to the poor condition of his clothing. And because he put up a fight during his arrest, he was thrown in prison for 13 months. Upon his release, Lightly was sold into servitude for three years to recoup the costs of his confinement, but after three weeks of service, he stole his master’s horse and ran away.

After “taking a small Tour thro’ the Country,” Lightly reenlisted and returned to his regiment a third time before leaving the army for good. He then traveled the country in order to acquaint himself with the roads and prepare for his newly chosen career: highway robber and thief. As part of his “apprenticeship,” Lightly stole two shirts and two pairs of trousers.

Fortunes and a Farm

During the course of his travels, Lightly met Elizabeth Post, who became captivated by his claim that he could tell fortunes. He also led her and her family into believing that he owned a farm. Post joined Lightly on the road in the belief that the two would eventually get married, but Lightly had a different plan: convince her to sell her cows and her estate, take control of the money from the sale, and then abandon her.

As they proceeded in their journey to his fictional farm, Lightly claims that Post “behaved in a most adulterous Manner, which caused me to be more gross with my Tongue, and use her with bad Language.” Post openly complained about the way Lightly freely spent her money, which infuriated Lightly, who believed that her accusations “caus’d the People to give me a worse Name than I deserved.”

In the winter when the two reached Ware, MA, Post fell sick and died—or so Lightly claims. In January 1765, Lightly was arrested in Hartford, CT on suspicion that he had murdered her. At the time, Lightly was described in the Boston News-Letter as a “transient Person, who one time says his name is Joseph Lightly, and at another, Joseph Pritty, neither of which names is supposed to be his right one. . . . He is of a ruddy complexion, about five feet nine inches high, [and] well built.”

Lightly was transferred to Cambridge, MA and stood trial in front of the Superior Court on November 4 for the murder of Post. He was found guilty, even though he maintained in his Last Words and Dying Speech that he was innocent and that the four men who testified against him perjured themselves.

Lightly may have lacked the true powers of a fortune teller, but his mother’s curse turned out to be prophetic: Lightly was executed on November 21, 1765 in Cambridge. One newspaper reported that before he was hanged, Lightly sold his body to a surgeon for three dollars, although a different newspaper said it was for ten. What he did with the money during the short time he had to enjoy it is anybody’s guess.


Boston Newsletter. November 7, 1765, supplement, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

“Boston, Nov. 4.” Boston Post-Boy. November 4, 1765, issue 429, supplement, p. 1. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

Cohen, Daniel A. Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature And the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.

“Hartford, January 28.” Boston News-Letter. February 7, 1765, issue 3181, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

Lightly, Joseph. The Last Words and Dying Speech of Joseph Lightly. [Boston, 1765]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.

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