Few criminals built a record as long or as celebrated as Henry Tufts. While history of the colonial era tends to focus on the heroes, there were also miscreants. There’s little doubt Henry Tufts was one of them. It’s a fact that he celebrated in his autobiography: A narrative of the life, adventures, travels and sufferings of Henry Tufts : now residing at Lemington, in the district of Maine.
Though parts of Tufts’ autobiography are undoubtedly exaggerated – the man bragged of being an expert liar – there’s a good deal of truth in it as well, telling the story of a horse thief, con man and stealer of ladies hearts from Maine to Virginia.
Henry Tufts was born in Newmarket, N.H. in 1748, son of a tailor and his wife. His earliest crimes were theft of apples, pears and other “fruits of the earth.” But his 21st year proved a turning point: It was the year he stole his first horse and met his first wife – Lydia Bickford, whom he married when he reached age 22.
He wrote: “Being once initiated into the mysteries of this Cyprian goddess, a natural warmth of temper enrolled the name of Tufts among the number of her votaries ever afterwards . . . my inclination, always fervid,, but now fired with new incentives, impelled me, more strongly than formerly, to sacrifice the shrine of Venus, nor could I resist the impulses of so bewitching deity.”
And Lydia was no doubt bewitching: she would have nine children with Henry before they were through. The couple moved to the small town of Lee, N.H. and Tufts was soon in trouble for robbing a store. Despite trying to burn the jail in an escape attempt, the prosecutor offered him a deal. If he would serve three months on a ship and pay his wages as a fine, he would avoid further punishment. Tufts eagerly agreed, but then detoured on the way to the ship to head to western New Hampshire instead, where he worked as a driver at Fort Number 4. From there he went to Claremont and worked clearing land for Enoch Judd.
Enoch Judd had two unmarried daughters and Henry, naturally enough, married one. The marriage was a short one, as news soon reached Enoch that his son-in-law already had a wife. He wrote: “Such being the state of things, I though it wise to decamp seasonably, so I left Claremont that very evening.”
Returning to Lee, he discovered that unfortunately news of his second marriage had also reached Lydia and she gave him an “uncouth welcome.”
Tufts robbed another store, for which he received 20 lashes and was clapped in irons. But he had hidden some tools in his clothes and escaped. Tufts made it a point to accumulate an assortment of lock-picks, saws and small tools that he always hid in his clothes, and he credits this for many jail breaks over the course of his career.
Fleeing to Maine, Tufts suffered an injury to his thigh during a game played with a knife and was treated by the Maine Abenaki healer, Molly Ockett. Living with the American Indians, Tufts again won the heart of a young woman – Polly Susap. But Polly’s parents were pressing for a wedding, and Tufts preferred not to repeat that particular mistake. So, he threw a party for his Indian friends that included five gallons of rum and promised Polly that he would return as soon as possible.
The year was now 1775, and Tufts concluded that is best hope for procuring some support for his wife Lydia and his children lay in serving in the army, which he did. He did not, however, leave behind his thieving ways. When his unit was complaining of hunger, he managed to light-finger extra rations for them.
After the war, Tufts turned his talents to impersonation. First he posed as a medicine man, using some of the training he had received while with the Indians. Then he became a minister, for which he relied on his gift of bluster and bull****.
Tufts’ ministering produced an interesting confrontation in Maine. He rose to give a stirring sermon to the congregation, which was enraptured except for one woman. She said that when Tufts first entered the service: “he first surveyed my face, then my feet, then my whole person in such a carnal way and manner, that I perceived he had the devil in his heart.”
The young woman clearly had pegged Henry Tufts, but he escaped the scandal and pressed onward. He wandered New Hampshire, Vermont and travelled all the way to Virginia, operating as a medicine man, a doctor and a thief – depending upon which skill set served the needs of the moment.
For a while he employed a lobster claw as a prop to draw a crowd, and he claimed it was an enchanted horn that enabled him to see into the future. Operating under the name Gideon Garland, he managed to snag one more wife in Vermont and worked for several years as a farmer, keeping his thievery to a minimum.
But returning to his wandering he travelled to Marblehead, Mass. and was caught stealing spoons. He swore he was innocent on this occasion, but his reputation sank him. This was nearly his final brush with the law as he was imprisoned on Castle Island in Boston Harbor, where his pick-locks would do him no good.
After serving five years, he was released and learned that his final wife had remarried. So Henry Tufts returned to Lydia and their nine children. If you can believe his 1807 autobiography, Tufts said he then spent his remaining years in Limington, Maine as a farmer and healer -- his criminal career finally ended.