In 1742 Tom Bell was probably the most well known product of Harvard College in America. Everyone knew how he dressed, what he looked like, where he traveled and how he lived. Because he was one of the most wanted criminals in the North American British colonies.
Bell was born in 1713 to a shipowner, Capt. Thomas Bell, and his wife, Joanna. They lived in Boston’s North End. The family sent the precocious Thomas to Boston Latin School, where he received a classical education. He was headed toward Harvard when, in 1729, his father died. The family found itself in debt, but it struggled to pay for Thomas to attend Harvard as planned.
Tom Bell entered the college in the fall of 1730, but by 1733 his college career reached an unceremonious ending. Sanctioned for stealing letters and lying, the final straw came when he stole a chocolate cake from a fellow student. Far behind in his studies, the college had grown tired of his promises to reform and pitched him out in the street.
Hearing the news that Harvard expelled Bell, his creditors pounced on him for unpaid bills. They sued him, winning judgments against him for unpaid debts, including 30 pounds to his tailor for silk suits. With his name dragged through the mud, Bell followed in his father’s footsteps and went to sea. He boarded a ship bound for England.
A Stroller is Born
For the next several years Bell would work at sea, returning to America from time to time. He gradually realized his education and exposure to the wealthier classes at Harvard had not gone to waste. Bell could speak Latin and read Greek, which put his education well ahead of most people in the colonies. He could pass himself off as a gentleman, and no one would suspect he wasn’t.
So Tom Bell simply became Francis Partridge Hutchinson or Thomas Wentworth Bell or Gilbert Burnet or John Rowland or William Bowdoin or whatever name suited him as he traveled up and down the colonies from New England to North Carolina. He gained notoriety as the Boston “Stroller” — a con man who strives to stay one step ahead of the law.
He was not terribly successful, however. In 1738 he was sentenced to be whipped in New York City for defrauding a merchant of 50 pounds. The next year in Philadelphia, he was spotted by a man from North Carolina who he had robbed years earlier. That episode landed him in prison. But Bell also gained some expertise in breaking out of jail — a skill that would serve him well.
Travels in Barbados
With his names and description widely circulating in North America, in 1739 Bell left for the Caribbean. In Speightstown, Barbados he undertook one of his more notorious escapades.
He had passed himself off as Gilbert Burnet, son of Massachusetts’ former governor.
A Jewish family invited the well-spoken governor’s son to a family wedding. But when Bell stole some of the wedding gifts, the young men of the family beat him up. This incensed the Christian residents of Speightstown, and they retaliated by destroying the Jewish synagogue and driving out the Jewish families.
Bell nearly escaped Barbados unscathed. However, a merchant came forward and charged Bell with impersonating the brother of Virginia’s Lord Fairfax and running up an extensive tab. Again Bell was sentenced to a public whipping, but the governor of the island suspended a second sentence to brand Bell with an R on each cheek.
Tom Bell Becomes Rev. Rowland
In 1741 Bell returned to America and made his way to Princeton, N.J. Here a local man stopped Bell in the street and inquired if he wasn’t the Rev. John Rowland, a Presbyterian minister arriving from New England to preach. Bell corrected the man, who still insisted he looked exactly like Rev. Rowland. This presented Tom Bell with a golden opportunity. He proceeded to the next town and introduced himself as the Rev. Rowland. A local family invited Bell/Rowland to their home and offered him a horse to accompany them to the nearby church, where he was to preach.
The grateful “minister” accepted the use of the horse. But after traveling a ways toward the church he announced that he had left his notes behind at the house. He would return to collect them, and he asked the family to ride ahead and explain the delay. Naturally, Bell ransacked the house for any valuables and rode off, stealing the family’s horse.
Horse theft was a serious crime in 1741. Unfortunately for the real Rev. John Rowland, he was in Pennsylvania at the time delivering fiery sermons at religious revival meetings. When Rowland crossed into New Jersey he went to jail, accused of horse stealing. Rowland was eventually cleared of the charges, but the case was another prize for Tom Bell’s trophy case.
Tom Bell, Author
By 1742 Bell had returned to New England, this time to Newport, R.I. But by now the list of victims he had duped was a long one. No sooner had he arrived in the city than he got thrown into jail again, accused by a man he had swindled on a previous visit.
From jail in Newport, Bell issued a public plea for forgiveness. He pledged to reform and promised to write a memoir to help others avoid his criminal path. It was yet another con. By 1743 he had returned to Philadelphia and was thrown in jail again for theft. By now his name was notorious and newspapers from New Hampshire to Virginia carried warnings that Tom Bell might be traveling again, looking for his next victim.
Bell continued his crimes and his sentences got more severe. A Massachusetts court convicted him of theft and sentenced him to be whipped and sold into servitude. Yet Bell always managed to escape. In one case he joined the militia, probably in lieu of jail, but he soon fled. A New Jersey court convicted him of counterfeiting. And later he was sentenced to death in Massachusetts. But he managed to escape the gallows.
In between legal scrapes, Bell made a living as a schoolmaster or tutor. In 1752 he again announced, this time in Virginia and South Carolina, that he planned to publish “The Travels and Adventures of the Famous Tom Bell,” but he never did. Instead, Tom Bell returned to the Caribbean and took up piracy.
The final chapter of Bell’s life came in 1771 in Kingston, Jamaica. Bell had served as chief mate on a pirate ship that had attacked a Spanish schooner, robbing it of $14,000. Bell was arrested and convicted, along with the ship’s captain, and sentenced to hang. Tom Bell repented one last time and killed himself before he went to the gallows.
Thanks to Early Americans by Carl Bridenbaugh.
If you enjoyed this article, you might like: Stephen Burroughs Counterfeiter – A Revolutionary Success Story. This story was updated in 2021.