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 Tufts undoubtedly exaggerated parts of his autobiography – the man bragged of being an expert liar – there’s a good deal of truth in it as well. He told 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 criminal career began with the theft of apples, pears and other “fruits of the earth.” But his 21st year proved a turning point: He stole his first horse and met his first wife – Lydia Bickford, whom he married when he reached age 22.
“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,” he wrote. “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 no doubt bewitched him. She would have nine children with Henry before they split up. The couple moved to the small town of Lee, N.H., and Tufts soon got into trouble for robbing a store. Though he tried 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. There he worked as a driver at Fort Number 4. From there he went to Claremont, N.H., and worked clearing land for Enoch Judd.
Enoch Judd had two unmarried daughters and Henry, naturally enough, married one. The marriage didn’t last long, as news soon reached Enoch that his son-in-law already had a wife. Tufts 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 news of his second marriage had unfortunately reached Lydia. She consequently 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. He credits that practice for his 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. The Maine Abenaki healer, Molly Ockett, treated him. Living with the American Indians, Tufts again won the heart of a young woman – Polly Susap. But Polly’s parents pressed for a wedding, and Tufts preferred not to repeat that particular mistake. So, he threw a going-away party for his Indian friends that included five gallons of rum and promised Polly he would return as soon as possible.
The year was now 1775, and Tufts concluded that the army offered his best hope for supporting his wife Lydia and his children. He did not, however, leave behind his thieving ways. When his unit complained of hunger, he managed to light-finger extra rations for them.
The Devil In His Heart
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, 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 traveled all the way to Virginia. He operated as a medicine man, a doctor and a thief – depending upon which skill set served the needs of the moment.
For a while Henry Tufts 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. He then worked for several years as a farmer, keeping his thievery to a minimum.
But returning to his wandering he traveled to Marblehead, Mass., and got 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.
Upon his release after five years, he 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.
This story about Henry Tufts was updated in 2020.