Henry Tufts Wrote First American Criminal Autobiography
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson


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.

htufts01It’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.


Starting young

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

America's First Career Criminal was from Seacoast NH



Rake’s progress

But as Henry Tufts reveals throughout his book, he could never resist a pretty woman or an unprotected object that attracted his fancy. Within days of abandoning his family, he fell in with bad company, robbed a store in Saco, ME, and was caught with the loot in bed with the wife of one of his partners. After 15 days in a Portland jail, he attempted to burn a hole in his cell, but nearly died from the smoke and had to call for help. He was transferred to the historic “Old Gaol” that still stands at the Museums of Old York.

It is clear that Tufts did not pen every word in the book. He admits to having a ghost writer who took down his wild accounts of wine, women, and wrong-doing. Other American criminals have written books, including the notorious Stephen Burroughs, also of New Hampshire – but Tufts did it first, and some say best.

Over the next 300 pages, the ex-con recounted his underground adventures and amours in detail, sometimes with humor, and always smothered in self-pity and regret. He lived among Native Americans in Maine, fought in the American Revolution, learned to counterfeit money from a British spy, and conned his victims using a creative array of false identities. Over 20 years, according to historian Higginson, Tufts took on 20 disguises “appearing as rake, tramp, bully wrestler, burglar, horse-thief, freebooter, bounty-jumper, fortune-teller, Indian doctor, and a preacher.”  He was apparently so convincing as a doctor, that a number of his patients were actually healed.



Tragi-comic travels

Tufts was adept at getting captured. His travels offer a detailed inside tour of New England jails, many of which he escaped from only to be recaptured. He became so well known that his name was assigned to crimes even though he was incarcerated miles away. His name also appeared in newspapers and, eventually, in local town histories. From a Dover town record we get this rare description of the thief as “about six feet high and forty years of age, wears his own hair short and dark coloured, had on a long blue coat.” Not much to go by, yet the bandit was frequently recognized the moment he arrived in a town.

During one visit to Portsmouth, Tufts was arrested and sent to Exeter jail on reputation alone when Jacob Shaefe reported a robbery. Knowing he was innocent, Shaefe offered to pay Tufts a dollar for every day he agreed to stay in jail. The fee from the Portsmouth businessman, one historian has suggested, was “a sort of retaining fee for not thieving.”

The Autobiography of a Thief is an alluring and believable memoir. Tufts does not grow as a character, but simply stumbles along. One moment the narrator is on top of the world, flush with cash, and captivated by a new lover. Next he is captured and wounded in a filthy dungeon, starving, manacled, and then a fugitive on-the-run. We see him reduced to a homeless bum living in the woods foraging for food, eating garbage, or waking up in a cemetery tomb next to a decaying corpse.

The see-saw narrative is made bearable by wonderfully comic moments, like the time Tufts stole a large dog in Hampton Falls and quickly sold it across the river in Newbury, MA for 10 shillings. Taking the ferry back across the Merrimac, he discovered the dog swimming close behind. In Newburyport Tufts sold the dog again for six shillings. When it followed him a few miles to Bradford, MA, he sold it a third time in the same day before the two parted company. In another anecdote, Tufts became fascinated with the green pillows he saw in a chair on a church altar. He later broke into the church, stole the pillows, and had the fabric made into a velvety pair of green pants.

Old York Gaol

Flawed to the end

There is no happy ending. As he aged and his criminal reputation grew, Tufts was increasingly a man in fear running from his past, hiding in the shadows, yet still pathologically unable to resist temptation. Again and again he found his way home to his first wife Lydia in Lee, who accepted him back with maddening consistency, often while nursing their newest child. Even then Tufts could not resist an affair with Abigail Kennison of nearby Greenland, a widow who was soon pregnant. Tufts eloped with “Dear Nabby,” but was eventually captured and sentenced to death for thievery. Pardoned at the eleventh hour, Tufts served six horrific years in a harsh Salem prison called “The Castle” before he managed to escape.

But no, he did not return to Nabby, the woman who stood by him during his imprisonment. He never again saw Abigail or their four children in Greenland. A broken man, Tufts elected to move to Maine where his first five children and first wife had established a successful farm without his support.  In his mid-50s, Tufts finally repented his lascivious and criminal life, but not for long. After healing an 18-year old woman of what appears to be a case of anorexia, the two unlikely lovers eloped. In five months they travelled 1,000 miles while Tufts covered their expenses with “Indian doctoring” and telling fortunes. But the author’s self-destructive nature brought them back perilously close to their starting point.  Just 20 miles from home the two were discovered in flagrante delicto by the young woman’s enraged father who attempted to murder Tufts with a wooden bat.

But the old crook survived, and once more crawled back to his first wife and children. This time, however, the reception was decidedly cooler. They came to tolerate him, but barely. Tufts published his book and survived another 25 years in a loveless family prison of his own making.

In the final sentences of his autobiography, the author offers a half-hearted moral message to younger readers. “Learn to avoid those quicksands of life,” he concludes, “on which I have been so often wrecked.”  But there is no escaping the feeling that, in recounting his wicked ways in lush detail, Henry Tufts was more interested in fame than forgiveness.


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is editor of the popular history Web site SeacoastNH.com where this article appears exclusively online.