Arts and Leisure

Peter Rugg: The Missing Man Finds a Literary Home

In 1770, Peter Rugg left Boston with his daughter and traveled to Concord, Mass., by carriage. On his return through Menotomy (present day Arlington), an acquaintance hailed him. He urged Rugg to stay awhile with him as a strong storm approached. Lightning was flashing in the sky and thunder could be heard as the wind picked up.

peter ruggStay where it was safe, his friend urged.

Peter Rugg

But Peter Rugg had one flaw. He could be stubborn and ill-tempered, and when he was there was no reasoning with him.

That day he wanted no delays. He wanted to be at home that night with his wife. And so he cursed in anger and said, “Let the storm increase, I will see home tonight in spite of the last tempest! Or I may never see home.”

It was the last time any of Peter Rugg’s friends or family ever saw him or his daughter alive. But it was not, as the story goes, the last of Peter Rugg. Rather, he was condemned to travel ghost-like throughout the country for a generation, asking directions to Boston, but never finding home. The changes taking place constantly awed him as the colonies became a new nation, and he wandered farther afield.

Only many years later was Rugg released from his curse and allowed to find his home. His estate was about to be auctioned because everyone believed he was dead, and his home was decayed by time.

No Home

His situation was explained to him as the auctioneer stood by in disbelief that the man had come to reclaim his home.

You have suffered many years under an illusion. The tempest which you profanely defied at Menotomy has at length subsided; but you will never see home, for your house and wife and neighbors have all disappeared. Your estate, indeed, remains, but no home. You were cut off from the last age, and you can never be fitted to the present. Your home is gone, and you can never have another home in this world.

For several years this story was included in compilations of classic New England folk tales, and was even taken for truth on occasion. It was written, however, in 1824 by Lunenburg, Mass., lawyer William Austin, who penned his fiction under the name Jonathan Dunwell. The story was published in New England Galaxy and presented in the form of letters from someone relating an old mystery.

In reprinting it, other magazines presented it as true (or simply didn’t say that it was fiction). For such an unusual story, the Missing Man is credited with being quite influential. Nathaniel Hawthorne read it and made mention of Rugg in his A Virtuoso’s Collection. Amy Lowell and Louise Imogen Guiney adapted the story as poems. It was reinvented later as the Phantom Flivver in a 1950 Saturday Evening Post. Others have suggested it also influenced Edward Everett Hale and Herman Melville.

As for Austin, he led a relatively sedate life practicing law. Aside from one hot-headed moment when he engaged in a duel as a young man, he was known mainly as a successful lawyer who wrote a few stories on the side.

This story was updated in 2021.

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