Henry Tufts Wrote First American Criminal Autobiography
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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Henry Tufts was no common criminal. The 50 homes he robbed and 50 horses he stole barely scratch the surface. He was jailed regularly from Maine to Virginia, and he frequently escaped. He was nearly hanged in 1794 for stealing six silver spoons. A crowd of 3,000 reportedly gathered to watch him die, but Tufts was saved from the gallows by the intervention of his mistress Nabby. (Continued below)
Tufts was a career thief, a counterfeiter, a grifter, a deserter, and a bigamist, and the father of nine children. But unlike his cell mates, Tufts was also an author. His hard-to-find autobiography, published in nearby Dover in 1807, is the first known history of an American criminal. And he’s all ours.
It’s a dubious Seacoast distinction, but Henry Tufts was born in Newmarket, NH in 1748, and grew up in the town of Lee. We need Tufts, according to historian Thomas Wentworth Higginson, because without his “reprobate” view, our picture of America is “imperfectly understood.” Most early biographies feature successful men. Tufts provides us with a rare and important peek into “the desperate and lawless minority” of our nation during its formative years.
“This is probably the first extensive American criminal biography,” according to Edmund Pearson, a prolific writer of true crime accounts. Pearson, a librarian and Harvard grad could only find a single copy of the Tufts book in the early 20th century. Few were printed and, according to rumor, family members bought them up and burned them. Pearson reprinted the picaresque volume in 1930 as The Autobiography of a Criminal. But it has not been widely circulated. A copy found in the Portsmouth Public Library had been taken out exactly once in 80 years.
If we can believe Henry Tufts, he came from a poor, but honest family. His grandfather, he claimed, was a clergyman and a graduate of Cambridge University. Like most kids, Tufts says, he poached fruit and vegetables from his neighbor’s gardens. He stole a single piece of paper currency as a teen, but got caught. Tufts had very little schooling, worked odd jobs, and turned his earnings in to support the family. When he turned 21 and his father refused to give him his share of the family savings, out of spite, Henry stole his father’s horse, sold it to a man in Chester for $30, and lived off the proceeds for months. He then impregnated a young woman from Northwood named Sally Hall and paid her father $10 to escape a shotgun wedding.
At 22 Tufts married a woman from Durham named Lydia Bickford and made amends with his father. The couple moved in with the Tufts family in Lee and for six happy months Henry resolved to go straight. But when a neighbor claimed two bushels of rye were missing from his barn, Henry’s reputation made him the likely suspect. Unable to defend himself, Tufts fled, leaving his wife and new child behind. This, Tufts complained, was the event that ruined his life. Had he not been wrongfully accused by his neighbor, he wrote, he might have lived a blissful and law-abiding life in Lee.
CONTINUE: America's First Career Criminal
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