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Early American Criminals: Matthew Cushing, the First Celebrity Burglar

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All of you who read these Lines may see
The sad and dire Effects of Sin:
Therefore if Sinners still you’l be,
Leave off to read ere you begin. (from A Few Lines)

These lines form the opening of A Few Lines upon the Awful Execution of John Ormesby & Matthew Cushing, one of two poems written and sold about the execution of these two criminals in 1734. Ormsby was convicted of murder for beating a man to death with a quart pot, and Cushing was found guilty of burglary.

Cushing’s burglary and trial created a sensation at the time. Rev. Cooper, who counseled Cushing up until his execution, noted that people could not stop talking about the circumstances of his crime and the result of his trial. Indeed, Cushing’s case created so much interest that in addition to the two poems published about him and Ormsby, Cushing’s own confession was printed and sold at the time of his execution. A sermon given by Rev. John Webb on the day of the execution, which also contained an appendix written by Rev. Cooper about Cushing’s behavior and state of mind while he was held in prison, also appeared around this time. This kind of attention in the press was normal for criminals back in England, but Cushing’s case was one of the first to receive such treatment in America.


Oh! May the Fate of this young Man
scarce turn’d of Twenty Three,
A Warning prove to all our Youth,
of high and low Degree. (from A Mournful Poem)

Matthew Cushing was born around December 25, 1712 in Limerick, Ireland to Roman Catholic parents, although Rev. Cooper maintained that Cushing received little religious instruction. Cushing apparently did not receive much, if any, formal schooling either, for he was illiterate at the time of his execution.

Cushing was head-strong and rebellious from an early age, and his parents could barely control him. He left home at 16 and traveled to Dublin, where he landed a position as a servant at the country house of Lord Carbury. After serving two and a half years in this position, he returned to Dublin and lived for six months on whatever money he had managed to save. Once his money ran out, he went back to his parents.

After spending an unproductive year at home, Cushing’s grandfather died and left him a small estate. However, his father refused to allow him to take his inheritance until he came of age, so Cushing left home for good and traveled to Cork, where he sold himself into indentured servitude to a Captain Cox who was bound for Boston.

Once Cushing arrived in America, he decided instead to serve five years at sea, rather than the four on land for which he was originally contracted. Captain Cox sold him to a Man of War, where Cushing served for seven months until he was accused of stealing a watch. Cushing claimed to be innocent of the act up until his death, although he admitted that there were circumstances that made it appear that he was guilty.


He thought (no doubt) the darksome Night
would have conceal’d his Crime,
But it was brought to open Light
within a little Time. (from A Mournful Poem)

After being discharged from the ship, Cushing spent his time on shore “in Drinking, Swearing, Whoring, and almost all other Vices.” He later confessed that he “was much addicted to lewd Women, and found many of them here to suit my mind; from whence I was led on to Stealing.”

One night in August 1734, Cushing broke into the house of Joseph Cook, a shoemaker. He stole some clothing and two gowns belonging to Cook’s wife. Cushing was soon caught and tried at the Superior Court in Boston, and since burglary was a capital offense, he received the death penalty. He was 22 at the time.

Why Cushing’s case created such a sensation isn’t exactly clear. He was not the first burglar to be sentenced to death in Massachusetts, and the circumstances of the burglary were hardly noteworthy.

Perhaps the unremarkable nature of his crime was one of the reasons it generated so much attention. Both poems written about Cushing and Ormsby note that the former’s crime was not that great, at least when compared with the latter’s. Yet both poems acknowledge that the law clearly states that anyone guilty of burglary must die. The execution of one criminal for a heinous murder, that in itself generated a great deal of interest, right next to another criminal for stealing a few articles of clothing perhaps created debate within New England society and brought added attention to Cushing’s case.


Avoid lewd Women, ever shun
Their Company, entangling Snares,
By them, poor Youths are oft undone,
The Truth of this Cushing declares. (from A Few Lines)

While being held in prison, Cushing was visited by Rev. Cooper to prepare him spiritually for his execution. Cooper reported that Cushing was receptive to his religious instruction, but he was also visited by friends, who got him drunk several times. These occasions caused Cushing to fall into “violent transports of passion, wherein the language of hell which he had so us’d himself to before, was utter’d by him in a most shocking manner, and under a kind of satanic impression.”

In his printed confession, Cushing attributed his disregard of his parent’s authority as the root cause that led him into associating with bad company and into crime, and he warned readers not to follow his example. He also carefully pointed out that he was not a transported convict, that he had never been put in jail until now, and that he had not committed an act of theft before coming to America.


An early map showing Boston Neck, which runs along present-day Washington Street.

They to the fatal Place must ride
Each Man his Coffin in the Cart,
With Guard of Soldiers on each side:
The Sight enough to pierce one’s Heart.

Then they arrive at th’ Gallows Tree,
While Spectators lament and cry;
Alas! how hard it is to see,
Much more to feel their Destiny. (from A Few Lines)

The execution of Cushing and Ormsby was scheduled to take place on Thursday, September 26, 1734, but the two received a reprieve from execution until October 17 from the Governor.

When their day of reckoning finally arrived, Cushing and Ormsby were led to the gallows at Boston Neck, a narrow strip of land that connected Boston to Roxbury and corresponds with Washington Street today. The press reported that they were accompanied by Rev. Cooper and that Cushing behaved with “much Courage and Resolution.” After he arrived at the gallows, Cushing made a speech where he confessed his crime, warned those in the crowd from committing the sins that led him to his fateful end, and asserted his faith in Jesus Christ. The two criminals were executed at 4 p.m.

Washington Street in Boston, the present-day site of Boston Neck.

Cushing’s printed confession and warning to his readers wasn’t his only lasting legacy. After Cushing’s execution, one newspaper reported that “Several of the Town Physicians are now Anatomizing his Body, for the Benefit and Use of the Students in Physick and Natural Philosophy.”


  • “Boston, October 21.” The Weekly Rehearsal (Boston, MA). No. 160. Monday, October 21, 1734, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Cushing, Matthew. The Declaration and Confession of Matthew Cushing. [Boston, 1734?]. Database: Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800), Readex/Newsbank.
  • A Few Lines upon the Awful Execution of John Ormesby & Matthew Cushing, October 17th, 1734. Boston: Printing House in Queen-Street, [1734]. Database: Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800), Readex/Newsbank.
  • A Mournful Poem on the Death of John Ormsby and Matthew Cushing . . . Appointed to be Executed on Boston Neck, the 17th of October, 1734. Boston: [Fleet, 1734]. Database: Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800), Readex/Newsbank.
  • New England Weekly Journal (Boston, MA). September 30, 1734, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Webb, John. The Greatness of Sin Improv’d by the Penitent as an Argument with GOD for a Pardon: A Sermon . . . Preach’d in the Hearing of John Ormesby and Matthew Cushing . . . on the Day of Their Execution. Boston: S. Kneeland and T. Green, 1734. Database: Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800), Readex/Newsbank.

Read more about burglary in Early American Crime.

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