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William L. (William Ladd) Chaffin.

History of the town of Easton, Massachusetts (Volume 3) online

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prising number of lawsuits growing out of uncertain boundaries,
trespass, and business troubles of every kind. There seemed to
be a decided appetite for litigation on the part of certain persons
whose names are constantly seen in these court cases. Law-
suits were fought with extraordinary stubbornness, and hundreds
of dollars were sometimes spent merely to postpone yielding a
point whose final surrender was inevitable. It was truly a mil-
lennium for the lawyers. In the year 1800 the total population
of Easton was fifteen hundred and fifty, but the lawsuits for the
preceding year numbered thirty-five, and in 1798 they num-
bered thirty-four. This was in the Bristol County courts alone,
and probably does not represent the whole number actually
engaged in.

The practice of imprisonment for debt was in full force in the
last century, and in the earlier part of the present ; and there



422 HISTORY OF EASTON.

are numerous instances in which payment was forced from un-
willing and impecunious debtors by lodging them in jail until
their debts were paid, payment sometimes being thus extorted
from the unfortunate at a great sacrifice to them.

The unpleasant story of Easton church quarrels has been told
in other chapters, and it is hardly possible to understand the in-
tensity of passion and animosity that divided the opposing par-
ties in the long contention beginning about 1750, which gave
rise to slander, recrimination, to excited church councils, court
trials, legislative hearings, social, and even domestic strife. Be-
ginning with the Rev. Matthew Short, there were during the
first century after the incorporation of Easton seven ministers
of the parish church, and all but two of these were obliged to
extort their salaries from the town by legal process ; and these
two, Mr. Short and Mr. Reed, were patient enough to endure
long and embarrassing delays. Several others who preached
as temporary supplies had a similar experience with the town.
These facts seem to disprove the commonly made assertion, at
least so far as Easton is concerned, that the clergy were once
regarded with special reverence. It must be confessed, however,
that some of them did not deserve to be so regarded. True
ministers may well be thankful that they are now judged as
other men are, not by some artificial standard of official respect,
but solely on their personal merits and their fidelity to their
chosen calling.

The following action of the town which was taken in town-
meeting in 1810, is a plain indication of the existence of con-
siderable vagabondism here early in this century : —

"Voted that the selectmen post up all persons who are likely to be-
come chargeable to the town by means of idleness and excessive
drinking, headed Vagabond List."

This list was exhibited at stores and other conspicuous places.
Mr. Simpson remembers being in Elijah Howard's store when a
man whose name was thus posted entered, and tried to buy some
liquor. " See there ! " thundered Mr. Howard, as he pointed to
the Vagabond List where the man's name appeared ; and he
slunk away in shame. Store-keepers and retailers of liquor
were forbidden to sell to such persons.



SHADOWS.



423



At the date referred to, the town also "Voted that the select-
men commit Idle Vagabond persons to the house of Correction,
there to be detained and imployed till they pay all charges which
have been made to the town on acount of their Idleness and
imprudent conduct." It was also "Voted that those persons
going to gaol for debt and making expense for the town should
be excluded from the pauper list."

CRIMES AND PENALTIES.

The fact has already been explained that Easton did not
have a very enviable reputation among her neighbors during
the latter part of the last century. One thing that contributed
to this result was the existence here, about 1800, of an organ-
ized gang of thieves. They were mainly located in the west
part of the town, and carried on their nefarious business by
wholesale. The names of about a dozen of them and of some
of their confederates are known, but these names, with one ex-
ception, are for obvious reasons not given here. This gang is
reported by tradition to have been one link in a chain of evil
conspirators reaching to Canada ; they are represented also as
a band of horse-thieves. The writer's acquaintance with their
doings has been made chiefly through the court records at
Taunton, this thieving organization having been unearthed in
1803, and its members arrested, tried, and sentenced. In those
trials there is no case of horse-thieving reported ; but as these
criminals stole nearly all other kinds of merchandise, they are
not likely to have made an exception of horses ; in fact there
are authentic traditions of their horse-thieving.

East of the Bay road, in the then thick woods not far south of
the Stoughton line, this gang is said to have had a secret ex-
cavation, or cellar, far enough from the road to prevent risk of
discovery by persons travelling past; and in this place of con-
cealment there were once found seven stolen horses. The
thieves were well organized, and carried on their work so
shrewdly as to secure a vast amount of booty before they were
finally brought to punishment. They had skilful means of con-
cealing stolen goods. At one place was a house the cellar of
which is said to have been so arranged as to enable one to



424 HISTORY OF EASTON.

drive a horse and wagon into it, so that if pursued a team might
suddenly disappear.

Some distance southwest of the Tisdale Harlow house may
be seen the old Fuller place. The dwelling-house that once
stood there long since disappeared ; but the site it occupied at-
tracts special notice from its having two cellars, unconnected
with each other, with several feet thickness of earth between
them. One of them was a secret cellar. At one time there was
the strongest evidence that stolen goods had been taken to this
house ; but when the officers came and made a thorough search
from cellar to garret, nothing was found. The housekeeper was
washing clothes when they came, and it was afterward remem-
bered that her tub was stationed upon a trap-door which formed
the entrance to the secret cellar.

This gang of thieves had their confederates in other places,
by whom they were enabled to dispose of their stolen goods.
They had their passwords and secret signs, and were the terror
of the neighborhood for miles around. The stores of Easton,
Norton, and Mansfield, as well as the mills and foundries of the
vicinity, were robbed of large amounts of goods at different
times. At length a young man who had set up a store and been
robbed of many things, vowed that he would do no more work
until he had rooted out this gang of thieves. He drove to the
double-cellared house before alluded to, and represented that he
had some goods he would like to have concealed. As he had
acquainted himself already with some of their secret signs he
was welcomed, and joined the gang, and even accompanied them
on some of their thieving excursions. Meantime, not being in
good health, he occasionally went to Dr. Samuel Guild at South
Easton, ostensibly for medical consultation, but really to com-
municate with him on this business. Dr. Guild being then justice
of the peace. When the plans and operations of the thieves
were thus fully disclosed, it was determined to arrest them ; but
here a difficulty presented itself. The Easton constable to whom
they would have applied was himself a member of the gang, and
the deputy sheriff was a receiver of stolen goods. With some
trouble other officers were procured, a raid was made upon the
thieves, and a large amount of stolen goods recovered. This was
in 1803. Several of the gang, including at least one woman, were



SHADOWS. 425



arrested, and were charged with numerous thefts. They had
stolen from Jonathan Smith, Edward Kingman, and Abiezer
Alger, of Easton ; Isaac Barrett, George Gilbert, and others, of
Norton and Mansfield. Indictment after indictment was pre-
sented against them, nearly all of which resulted in conviction.
The matter had been so thoroughly worked up that the num-
ber of cases finally tired out the district attorney, and several of
them were therefore not presented at all. Many kinds of goods
were included in the stealing ; there were broadcloth, linen,
towels, shirts, spoons, crockery, cutlery, combs, brandy, rum,
razors, nail-rods, cast-iron ware, meal-bags, corn, etc. The
woman alluded to was convicted of stealing from Edward King-
man, July I, 1802, thirteen earthen plates, one half-dozen
cups and saucers, and one mug. She was fined five dollars
and costs, and also made to pay Mr. Kingman ^3.42, the treble
value of the goods. In 1842 she and two of her daughters were
prisoners in Taunton jail in punishment for various offences.
They were there seen by Easton visitors, showing no shame
whatever, but appearing to feel perfectly at home.

The sentences of some of the gang were severe. The leader
was on several different counts, as will soon be more particularly
described, condemned not only to pay costs and damages, but
also " to sit on the gallows for the space of one hour with the
rope about his neck, and one end thereof cast over the gallows,
and be whipped twenty stripes, and that he be confined to hard
labor for five years." These convictions show that public expo-
sure of criminals upon the pillory or gallows, and public whip-
ping for ordinary crimes have been practised in our vicinity
during the present century. It must have been felt by some to
be a terrible disgrace to sit thus exposed to public view, sneered
at and insulted by lookers on, a rope ignominiously hanging from
the neck to the ground, at which doubtless those so disposed
might give many a vicious jerk. The sherifT before alluded to
was sentenced to this punishment, but presented a powerfully
backed petition to the Governor and Council asking that so
much of his penalty as related to sitting on the gallows and the
whipping be remitted. The petition was granted. A promi-
nent confederate of this gang by means of suicide transferred
the scene of his trial to a higher court.



426 HISTORY OF EASTON.

The ringleader of this band of thieves was so remarkable a
man in his way as to call for a more extended personal notice
here. As he was unmarried and left no descendants to blush
for his crimes, and as his kindred have seemed proud to narrate
his achievements, and as, moreover, his name is an open secret
known to many citizens of Easton, there is no impropriety in
stating that the ringleader under notice was George White. He
was a most ingenious and notorious scamp, to whom stealing
was a profession, and whose biography, if written, would rank
with that of the shrewdest and boldest of his class, delighting
the hearts of dime-novel readers.

White was once fleeing on horseback from two mounted offi-
cers ; finding that they were gaining on him, and coming to a
turn in the road he hastily dismounted, gave the horse a cut
with the whip so as to start him on, threw away his hat and
donned a small cap, assumed other disguises kept ready for such
occasions, and then coolly started back on foot. He was im-
mediately met by the officers, but was not recognized by them.
In answer to their question, "Did you see a man on horseback
running away .-' " he replied, " Yes, I saw him going as though
he thought the Devil was after him." White escaped this time,
and had another good story to tell.

There was no audacity of which this artful rogue was not
capable. At one time he stole a horse, trimmed his mane,
shortened his tail, and painted or dyed his hair in such a skilful
way as thoroughly to disguise the animal, and then led him
innocently to the man from whom he had stolen him, and,
saying that he had heard he wanted a horse, actually sold him
to his owner. The horse appeared so much at home and showed
such evident acquaintance with his master that suspicions were
soon aroused, and the fading out of the colored spots revealed
the trick. But the quickwitted thief found some easy way out
of his unpleasant situation.

George White was at one time on a journey in search of
profitable adventure, and turned up at a tavern in New York
State. He was out of money, and being a great gambler tried
to make something by this occupation, but found no victims. He
began to look about him for means whereby to pay his tavern-
bill, — though why he had any scruples about leaving it unpaid



M



SHADOWS.



427



Iocs not appear. The innkeeper had taken him to a pasture
md showed him a noble black horse of which he was very proud,
md which suggested a stroke of business to the fertile mind of
;he guest. Telling his landlord he was going to a neighboring
)lace for a day or two, he left his things behind him, having first
secreted a bridle in a wood near the pasture. He stayed in the
vood until early daybreak, when he bridled the horse and was
loon far away. He sold the horse during the day, stole him
igain the same night, and repeated the operation the next day
md night, coming back a few days afterward with the horse,
Afhich he restored to his pasture. He then paid his bill with the
noney thus acquired, the owner in the mean time not having
nissed the animal. Before leaving, White said to the innkeeper
;hat he would like one more sight of his fine horse ; and they
^'ent to the pasture together, talked over the good points of the
lorse, and bade each other farewell. Such is the story, and it
s implicitly believed by elderly people who heard it in their
y'ounger days. The only serious doubt of its truth lies in the
:haracter of the original story-teller, who was probably the thief
limself. He loved to boast of such achievements, and his
iindred took great pride in repeating the story of his deeds.

White was a hard man to catch, and a harder one to keep
ivhen caught. Handcuffs were purely ornamental to him, for
:iis wrists were large and his hands were small, so that he could
slip off these steel bracelets at pleasure. He had a perfect
understanding also with jail-doors, or with their keepers. He
was regarded as so dangerous a person that in order to ad-
vertise his character his forehead was branded with the letters
H. T. ; that is, Jiorse-tJitef. To conceal this brand he wore his hair
low on his forehead, and was thus perhaps the first person to in-
troduce into Easton the fashion of wearing "banged" hair.

At the October term of the Superior Judicial Court at
Taunton, for 1803, George White was convicted of theft on six
several indictments, sentenced on each to be whipped and set
on the gallows, "confined to hard labor in our State Prison
for the terms in the aforesaid sentences expressed, making an
aggregate number of twenty-five years." ^ He was confined in

^ See "Commissions, Proclamations, Pardons," etc., 1799-1813. The pardon
from which the above quotation is made makes a mistake of a year in stating that
his trial was in 1802 ; it was in 1803.



428 HISTORY OF EASTON.

the State Prison at Charlestown, Massachusetts. His first term
of five years ended October 22, 1808 ; he served nearly three
years on his second term, and was then on supplication for
mercy pardoned, and "the residue of the punishment which by
the sentences aforesaid he is still liable to suffer" was remitted.
The date of the pardon is June 4, 181 1, and it took effect June
26. Thus he served for only one third of the time for which
he was sentenced.

To secure his pardon White had made many promises of
amendment, and for some time he either really kept those
promises or managed to escape detection for his crimes. But
five years afterward we find him again in the Superior Court,
and this time at Greenfield, Massachusetts, where he was tried
for larceny and condemned " to be punished as a common and
notorious thief by solitary imprisonment for a term of twenty-
one days, and by confinement afterward to hard labor for the
term of ten years." This term he served out, and was dis-
charged July 5, 1827.

But this man was too inveterate a thief to reform. Choosing
a new field of operations where he was not known, we next hear
of him in the Superior Court at Plymouth, where on the second
Tuesday of May, 1830, he was tried and convicted of larceny, and
was sentenced to two days of solitary confinement and one year
of hard labor in the State Prison. The danger of having such an
inveterate criminal at large in the community induced some one
to take advantage of a law then in force, which rendered a per-
son who had serv^ed three terms of years in State Prison liable
to imprisonment for life. In the Municipal Court of Boston,
therefore. May 12, 183 1, only one day before his term of impris-
onment had expired. White was sentenced for life for having
served three terms. To all appearance he now had a dreary
enough prospect before him ; but after being in prison for a little
over two years he was taken out on a writ of habeas corpus, and
June 27, 1833, was discharged by the Superior Court of Boston
and set at liberty. He petitioned for this on the ground that
his last sentence was for one year alone and not for "a term of
years," and hence that he had not served for " three terms of
years." This point, verbal and technical as it seemed to be, was
nevertheless sustained by the court, which is said to have ad-



SHADOWS.



429



monished him to leave the State. Not much more is heard of
him until finally (at what date cannot be determined) he wrote
from the Ohio Penitentiary, where he had been imprisoned for
another crime, requesting some of his relatives in Easton to visit
him, as he was on his dying bed. But they did not go, for they
distrusted any word coming from him, and he died alone and in
misery. He must have taken another name when he went West,
for application by the writer to the clerk of the Ohio Penitentiary
brought the answer that no George White had been imprisoned
and died there since the time of his discharge from the State
Prison at Charlestown, Massachusetts. Thus ended the strange
:areer of this notorious criminal.

The persistence of family traits through several generations
tias been painfully illustrated in the fact, that several of the
descendants of this gang have been notoriously immoral, being
guilty of similar thieving operations in later times ; and only
-ecently one of them ended his days in jail. To relate here the
miserable career of some of them, of the women especially ;
:o describe the wretched end of several and the foul mischief
:hey have caused, — would make a revelation of depravity unfit
"or these pages.

It would not be just to give the impression that such charac-
;ers as have been described lived in the west part of the town
)nly. December 2, 1774, there was born, probably not far north
)f Easton Centre, an innocent babe who was destined to do the
Tiost scientific act of stealing ever accomplished by any son of
Easton. In 1818 he had become a junk-dealer in Portland, near
:he head of Long Wharf. He was one day in Ellis's blacksmith
shop, and saw there the locks of the Cumberland Bank, which
:he directors had sent to Ellis for repairs. Our Easton man
Aras a shrewd fellow, and he went to Joseph Noble's foundry,
sorrowed some moulding sand, and succeeded in getting a good
mpression of the keys. At this point we will allow another to
:ontinue the narrative: —

" One Monday morning not long after, when Joseph Swift the
:ashier [of the bank] opened his vault, he was surprised to find all
he valuables gone, absolutely nothing left in the way of money but
I little loose change. The excitement ran high throughout the town,
rhe bank had not failed, but had been cleaned out. Who did it ?



430



HISTORY OF EASTON.



I



" From the fact that no violence was shown upon the doors, it was
evident that the entrance had been made by false keys. Suspicion
turned to the blacksmith, but he was found to be innocent. It occurred
to one of the directors that some one had possibly cast a key, and by
inquiry at the foundries in town it was ascertained that the unsavory
M. had borrowed a little moulding sand a short time before at Joseph
Noble's foundry. Everybody who had a Cumberland bank-bill was
looked upon with suspicion ; if a person had several such bills he had
to give an account of where he got them. From one and another cir-
cumstance it was evident that M. would bear watching. A canvas
bag, such as was used to hold specie, was found in M.'s back-yard, and
strengthened suspicion. He had with him a man whose reputation
was not good ; and this man, Rolf, was connected with M. in some
way with the robbery. Some of the managers of the bank persuaded
Rolf that he was in danger of being arrested for the burglary. They
told him if he would turn State's evidence they would shield him.
Accordingly, he started off in secrecy with one or two of the directors,
promising them that he would show them where the money was buried.
M. had got a hint that all was not right, and he started ahead and dug
up the money. Rolf goes with his party down to a spot between the
present location of the Portland Company's Works and Fish Point,
and tells them to dig up the buried treasure ; when, lo ! the hole is
empty and the game is gone ! Rolf had not been without distrust of
his confederate. He had doubtless feared that M. would beat him,
and thus his story would have no proof. Seeing his position and find-
ing that he was in a very sorry plight, he takes a small pistol from his
pocket, puts it to his head and shoots himself, falling lifeless over the
empty spot where in a dark night they had put all the valuables of the
Cumberland Bank.

" The case now looked more dark for the recovery of the money.
But th6 quick-witted old men who managed the case for the bank went
at once to M. before he could in any way hear of Rolf's death, and
told him that Rolf had confessed all, and that to save himself he might
as well own up, which he did. The bank h'ad offered a considerable
reward for the stolen treasure, and M. was bargained with that if he
would deliver the goods he should receive the reward. Accordingly he
informed the directors that if they would accompany him to a place in
Scarborough, they might possibly find something valuable. They went
along the road until they came to a spot where M. remarked that it
looked to him as if this would be a good place to bury money. There
were some men named Libby, who living near were attracted by the
strangers, and hearing the remark remembered some recently upturned



SHADOWS.



431



earth which they had not been able to account for, hastened to the
spot and unearthed the buried treasure before M. could reach the place.
One screamed out to his father, 'Dad, I've found it!' Of course
the Libbys claimed the reward. But it was afterward divided, so that
M. received one half as the reward of his own wickedness. The bank
recovered all but one small bag of pistareens. M. was afterward
tried and sentenced to the prison at Charlestown, Massachusetts, for
twelve years. His latter days were spent in this city, where he lived
for years apparently quite unmoved by his former career."^

This man whom we have designated as M. is said to have
built the Thatcher Pierce house, so called, opposite the home-
stead of the late Edwin Russell. An exciting incident occurred
there when Samuel Wilbur, a sheriff of Raynham, came to arrest
him for some offence against the law. He had secreted himself
upstairs, and his wife, who was a congenial mate for such a man,
was to oppose the sheriff's progress if he attempted to ascend
the staircase. When he insisted on going up and endeavored
to force his way, she stoutly opposed his passage, and hanging
by her hands on a cross-piece over the staircase, she suddenly
planted both her feet against the sheriff's chest and knocked him
down. Before he could manage to overcome this Amazon and
make his way upstairs, M. had let himself down from the east
chamber window and made his best paces towards the Stoughton
line, which he reached in advance of the sheriff ; and being then
in another county, this officer could not arrest him.

Penalties for crime were not only different in character a cen-
tury ago from what they are now, they were also more severe.
On another page is given some account of Benjamin Benoni, or
" Old Bunn " as he is known by tradition. One of his children,
Benjamin Benoni, Jr., in November, 1782, stole a silk handker-
chief from Eliphalet Leonard, for which theft he was sentenced

1 The above is from an historical sketch of the Portland (Maine) banks, written



Online LibraryWilliam L. (William Ladd) ChaffinHistory of the town of Easton, Massachusetts (Volume 3) → online text (page 40 of 78)