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Early American Criminals: Joseph Cooper and Philadelphia’s Lime and Onion Burglar

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In May 1744, Elizabeth Robinson was sentenced at the Old Bailey in London to transportation to the American colonies for her involvement in the theft of 104 China oranges from a warehouse. She was loaded onto the Justitia that same month and eventually landed in Virginia. She ended up in Maryland, where she reportedly continued her criminal ways and met a young boy named Joseph Cooper, whom she seduced.

Cooper later moved north to Philadelphia, where in 1750 he learned that Robinson was being held in a prison workhouse in the same city and went to visit her. Apparently, his affections for her continued to run strong, because she convinced him to help her pay her fines so that she could get out of prison. Not having enough money, Cooper sold himself into servitude for a three-year term in order to raise the sum needed to free Robinson.

Robinson appreciated what Cooper did for her, so she proposed a plan to help him raise enough money to purchase his freedom. She introduced him to a gang of burglars and convinced him that if he joined them that he could easily raise the money he needed. Cooper went along with Robinson’s scheme and in due course met Francis McCoy and his wife Mary, John Crow, and John Morrison, the mastermind of the gang.

One of the Gang

Cooper joined Morrison in committing a string of burglaries. He started out small by first accompanying Morrison in stealing some fowls, turkey, and ducks, which they took to the McCoy’s. The two then went on to rob Mr. S—h’s house on Walnut Street, where they took some clothing, two silver spoons, and silver tea-tongs. They brought the items to John Crow, who was a servant at Mr. N—l’s brewhouse, and Crow agreed to stash the goods for them there.

The following night the gang gathered at the McCoy’s to plan their next hit. They proposed robbing Mrs. P—w’s store after learning that it held plenty of valuable goods, ripe for the taking. Mary McCoy served Cooper some rum to help give him courage, and she furnished him and Morrison with a bag in which to carry away any stolen loot.

The two arrived at Mrs. P—w’s at two in the morning, lit a candle, and got to work targeting the best items in the store. They not only completely filled the bag they brought with them, but also filled another bag they found in the shop and two handkerchiefs. They then took some silver, paper money, and pennies from the shop’s till and proceeded to rob the house, where they took some silver spoons, silver and gold buttons, two pistols, and other sundry items. They took the haul to John Crow, who hid the valuables in Mr. N—l’s hay loft, and then went back to the McCoy’s to divide the money. By the time they parted, the sun was just beginning to break over the horizon.

Crime Wave

Around the time that Cooper joined the Morrison gang, Philadelphia was up in arms over a string of robberies, thefts, and burglaries that seemed to come one on top of another. A great quantity of valuable goods was taken from Mr. S—rs’s store. Mr. C—m’s house was broken into and robbed of plate and money. And someone broke into Mr. F—n’s house in the night and took clothing and a gold bead necklace.

All of the burglaries showed a similar skill in execution, which led the authorities to believe that they were carried out by the same person or group. The citizens of Philadelphia began to keep a watchful eye and organized a nightly watch, but these steps proved fruitless. The city had never before experienced such a crime wave.

A break in the case of the serial burglaries finally came in the middle of January when Mrs. P—w’s shop was robbed. Soon after the burglary, Mr. N—l the brewer came to the Chief Justice to tell him that his servant, John Crow, suddenly came into possession of several items of considerable value. When the brewer confronted Crow over how he obtained the items, Crow claimed that he bought them at such a low price that the brewer became suspicious that the goods were stolen.

Crow was brought in for questioning, and indeed the goods were identified as belonging to Mrs. P—w. Crow said that he purchased the pilfered goods from Elizabeth Robinson and identified John Morrison as being present when the transaction took place. The authorities decided to speak with Morrison to find out what he knew about the burglary and learned that he was at the home of Francis McCoy. When an officer arrived at the McCoy house, Morrison ran out the back door, but McCoy falsely told the officer that Joseph Cooper was the one who had slipped away. This lie turned out to be a big mistake.


McCoy and his wife were both brought in for questioning, and since they had named Cooper, he was rounded up as well. All three steadfastly maintained their innocence in the affair, especially McCoy, who continually cried out that he hoped the authorities would find the guilty party. However, when McCoy was being placed in irons, a stolen necklace was found hidden in one of his shoes, which cast an even darker cloud over his claim of innocence.

The three were held in prison for only a short time before Cooper finally broke and agreed to tell the authorities all he knew about the string of burglaries. Cooper disclosed his relationship with Elizabeth Robinson, how she encouraged him to join the Morrison gang, and all of the burglaries he carried out with Morrison.

After Cooper spilled the beans, a great search went out to find Morrison, and a reward of fifty pounds was offered for catching him. The prisoners insinuated that Morrison frequented Jack Stinson’s tavern on Water Street, and, sure enough, the authorities discovered him in a room of the tavern lying in bed pretending to be sick.

Stinson denied knowing Morrison, even though evidence clearly showed the contrary, so he also was taken into custody. While being held, Stinson finally admitted that Morrison was living with him, but he claimed that he did not know Morrison well and had no idea that he was suspected of breaking into houses.

John Crow was the next to crack and added his confession to Cooper’s. He admitted participating with Morrison in the theft of 5 shirts from a hedge and to receiving and concealing various stolen goods from Morrison. He also related how he often saw Morrison and Elizabeth Robinson together and how Morrison commended Robinson for being worth the equivalent of two men in his gang with her ability to go up and down chimneys with great dexterity.

With so much evidence mounted against him, Morrison decided that he could no longer maintain his innocence. He gave detailed confessions for 17 separate crimes that he had committed either alone or with the help of his associates who were all being held in jail. During his last robbery, he entered Mr. R—s’s kitchen and took some venison, ham, and bacon. Spotting a barrel of flour, he took off his shirt, tied up the sleeves, and filled it with as much flour as he could. His biographer noted that even though he was in possession of a great quantity of money, plate, and valuable goods at this point, Morrison continued to steal petty items, “so strong was his Propensity to Thieving!”


While being held in jail, the prisoners attempted to execute an escape, but their plan was thwarted when a boy was found trying to enter the prison with files and other tools meant to help them break out. Morrison then pretended to be a Quaker and requested that some preachers be brought in to speak with him, but they soon found out that he had never been a Quaker and that he was only trying to use them to help his case.

At their trial, Morrison pleaded guilty of burglarizing Mrs. P—w’s. Elizabeth Robinson, Francis McCoy, Mary McCoy, John Crow, and John Stinson all pleaded not guilty. The jury, however, disagreed and quickly found all of them guilty of being accessories to the burglaries, with the sole exception of Mary, who the jury assumed was coerced by her husband. The next day, Morrison, Robinson, McCoy, and Crow all received a death sentence, and Stinson was burned in the hand for his role in harboring Morrison.

Before their execution, more information about the backgrounds of the gang members began to emerge. John Morrison was 24 years old at the time of the trial. He was born in Ireland and came to America as an indentured servant at age 14. Stinson apparently had bought Morrison when he first arrived, but Morrison was so badly behaved that Stinson sold him to someone else in the country. When Morrison eventually returned to Philadelphia, he sold limes and onions from house to house and used this trade to examine how windows and doors were fastened. If he knocked at a door with no answer, he used the opportunity to steal whatever he could find in the entryway.

In addition to her time in the prison workhouse, Elizabeth Robinson had been prosecuted once before in Philadelphia for shoplifting and stealing and had received a whipping as punishment. Francis McCoy and his wife were both born in Ireland and had lived in Philadelphia for a long time with several children. They supported themselves and their family by stealing for many years.

On Wednesday, February 13, the four gang members who were sentenced to death were carried in two carts along with their coffins to their place of execution. They said little along the way, as they were engrossed in reading and praying. A great number of people showed up to witness the drama, and they weren’t disappointed. As Robinson was being tied to the gallows, the rope attached to her accidentally fell down. For a brief moment, she believed that she had received a pardon, but her hope was dashed as the rope was taken up and retied. At the last moment, a reprieve arrived for Crow, so he was returned to the prison, where he shed tears and thanked God and the Governor for their mercy in sparing his life.

Finally, the moment everyone was waiting for arrived, and the cart drove away, leaving the three gang members hanging. Robinson died immediately, but McCoy struggled for a long time before finally passing on.

Joseph Cooper was never brought to trial for his role in the burglaries. He received immunity as a reward for serving as a witness.


  • An Account of the Robberies Committed by John Morrison, and His Accomplices, In and Near Philadelphia, 1750. Philadelphia, 1750-1. Database: Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800), Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Feb. 5.” The New-York Gazette. February 11, 1751. No. 421, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank
  • Marietta, Jack D. and G. S. Rowe. Troubled Experiment: Crime and Justice in Pennsylvania, 1682-1800
    . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
  • Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, 18 January 2010) May 1744, trial of Elizabeth Robinson and Mary Davies (t17440510-40).

Read more about burglary in Early American Crime.

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