1773: Four convict labor escapees in Maryland

We owe this date’s post, as with a number of others on this site, to Anthony Vaver, proprietor of the superb (albeit recently dormant) Early American Crime blog.

Vaver wrote the book on pre-Revolutionary War convict transportation to the Americas, and we were directed to the men featured today in a post Vaver ran on one of the most common resistance strategies — running away.

Being shipped out of Britain to the American colonies where they faced years of involuntary labor and the prospect of being bought and sold like slaves, convicts could hardly fail to ponder the advantages of escape.

Many did more than ponder: colonial newspapers are rife with adverts for absconded convict laborers, whose descriptions of the fugitives also make for a rich source on the everyday accoutrements of the 18th century working class. Pictured here are a very few arbitrarily chosen samples of the genre:

Such self-liberation did not always entail slipping away in an unsupervised moment: more direct means were occasionally employed, a fantasy that many surely entertained counterpoised by the threat of violent state reprisal. The four men who hanged together at Frederick, Maryland, made bold to put the dream into bloody actuality.

These men had been purchased by a merchant specializing in the convict labor trade — part of “a parcel of convicts” as the New York Gazetteer matter-of-factly described it (Aug. 5, 1773) which Archibald Moffman obtained “in order to dispose of them again to advantage.”

Instead it was Moffman who was disposed of. As Moffman and his nonplussed workingman retinue traveled through Maryland,

about two or three miles on the other side of Frederick-Town, one of the servants told his master that he was too much fatigued to go any further; they therefore all rested themselves on an old tree by the side of the main road. After some time, Moffman told them they must proceed on their journey, but they refused and immediately threw him backwards over the tree, dragged him about five steps into the woods, and then cut his throat from ear to ear; took his pocket book and then went over the mountain, calling at every tavern on the road.

But while the proximity of wilderness and the mutability of identity in the 18th century potentially facilitated escape, the colonies’ sparse habitation also made it harder to disappear into the obscurity of plain sight. Maryland was one of the most populous of the New World jurisdictions with barely 200,000 souls in 1770. It wasn’t that everybody knew everybody, but at such scales one could only go so long without engaging by chance the recognition of some acquaintance or busybody.

Seen in this light, the decision of our murderous fellows to call at every tavern on the road looks a mightily ill-considered course of action for men who ought to have felt the scourge of desperation at their backs. At one of these watering-holes, someone who had seem these convict laborers on the road recently as they accompanied the yet-unkilled Moffman now ran into them sans oversight, and made inquiries — justifiably skeptical of the “parcel’s” story that their owner was following a few leisurely clicks behind. Failing to find Moffman on his way down the road, he sent up an alarm and the cutthroat tipplers were soon detained. Confession, conviction, and execution all followed within a matter of weeks.

The newspaper stories about this quartet do not so much as mention their names.