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The Colonies Swarmed With Rogues, Tricksters, Impostors, And Con Men

A new country offers new opportunities. Colonial America appealed to people because it offered them a fresh start, a chance to begin life anew. In the New World a person could establish a new identity, free from the onerous traditions and snobberies of the Old. And it pleased Americans to think of themselves as the sort of people who gave strangers the benefit of the doubt, who judged men by their characters and achievements rather than by family ties and pedigrees.

But the liberty honest folk had to reinvent themselves gave the same opportunity to the less scrupulous. Knaves and rascals learned to take advantage of this characteristically American trust: the colonies swarmed with rogues, tricksters, impostors, and con men. Their stories are often entertaining—narratives about their adventures circulated widely in their lifetimes and long afterward—but they're also informative. These cheats, or "sharpers" as they were known at the time, show how fluid identity could be in the eighteenth century.

Some of these scoundrels were imports from the mother country. Bampfylde-Moore Carew, for instance, was the wayward son of a Devonshire minister. He traveled around southwest England under such false identities as a lunatic called "Mad Tom," a sailor, a preacher, and an old woman, bilking people of their money. Caught in 1739, he was transported to Maryland, where he quickly escaped from authorities and traveled to Connecticut to resume his cheats and cons. Now a Quaker, now a shipwrecked sailor, now a sufferer from smallpox, he imposed on uncounted dupes. His inventiveness made him legendary—he was willing to take risks, even foolish ones, because it made for a better story. His association with a band of Gypsies added to his mystique hints of occult knowledge and outlandish rituals. After a crime spree across the colonies he returned to England, was captured and sent back to Maryland, escaped again, and returned once more to England.

After that it becomes difficult to disentangle fact from fiction. By some accounts he traveled with the forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie, though some historians are dubious. As often happens with larger-than-life criminals, rumors grew into legends, and speculation was passed off as fact. Several supposed confessions and memoirs, like The Life and Adventures of Mr. Bampfylde-Moore Carew, Commonly Called the King of the Beggars, told the story of the famous "mumper," in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, "a person who sponges on others." These books went through many editions, and kept the story of Carew and his "fourberies"—deceptions, frauds, tricks, and impostures—in circulation for decades. So widespread and so lasting was his fame that as late as 1818, more than seventy years after his exploits, John Adams could write to Thomas Jefferson about Jesuits traveling the country "in as many shapes and disguises as ever a king of the gypsies, Bampfylde-Moore Carew himself, assumed."

For every hero in American history, there must be a hundred scoundrels—con men, Ponzi schemers, cat burglars, greedy gigolos, jewel thieves, loan sharks, phony doctors, phony charities, phony preachers, body snatchers, bootleggers, blackmailers, cattle rustlers, money launderers, smash-and-grabbers, forgers, swindlers, pickpockets, flimflam artists, stickup specialists and at least one goat-gland purveyor, not to mention all the high-tech varieties made possible by the internet.

Most of these vandals have been specialists who stuck to a single line of skullduggery until they got caught, retired or died. Some liked to brag to admirers about their enterprises, and a tiny few dared to write and publish books about them; Willie Sutton, for example, the Tommy Gun-wielding "Slick Willie" who heisted some $2 million robbing banks back in the first half of the last century (when that was a lot of money), wrote Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber in 1976. There was Xaviera Hollander, the Park Avenue madam whose memoir, The Happy Hooker, inspired a series of Hollywood movies and helped encourage the sexual frankness of recent decades.

Occasionally, one of these memoirists tells of diversifying, spreading out, trying this dodge if that one doesn’t work. Sutton's lesser known contemporary, Frank Abagnale, who was portrayed in the movie Catch Me If You Can, wrote of bilking wealthy innocents of some $2.5 million by posing as a lawyer, teacher, doctor and airline pilot before going straight. Other such confessors are hiding in the archives.

But there has been only one Stephen Burroughs, a poseur whose life would make a fabulous movie if today’s audiences were as interested in early American history as in robotic space monsters. His exploits began during the Revolutionary War when he ran off to join—then depart—the Continental Army three times at the age of 14. By the time he was 33, he had lived and misbehaved vigorously enough to make up the first version of his autobiography. So far, Memoirs of the Notorious Stephen Burroughs false has been published with slightly differing titles in more than 30 editions over a span of more than 216 years. 

The New England poet Robert Frost wrote that Burroughs's book should stand on the shelf beside the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. To Frost, Franklin's volume was "a reminder of what we have been as a young nation," while Burroughs "comes in reassuringly when there is a question of our not unprincipled wickedness…sophisticated wickedness, the kind that knows its grounds and can twinkle…Could we have been expected to produce so fine a flower in a pioneer state?"

“Sophisticated wickedness that can twinkle” sounds like a review of one of Shakespeare’s greatest hits, his sublime caricatures of English nobility. But in Burroughs we find no nobility, only 378 or so flowing pages by the only son of a harsh Presbyterian preacher in a colonial New England village; a memoirist who lived his adventures before he wrote about them with such jolly sophistication. Or at least he said he did.

Stephen Burroughs was born in 1765 in Connecticut, and moved as a child to Hanover, New Hampshire. At home and briefly away at school, he earned and proudly wore a reputation as an incorrigible child, stealing watermelons, upsetting outhouses, restlessly looking for trouble.

He explained his boyhood thus: “My thirst for amusement was insatiable…I sought it in pestering others…I became the terror of the people where I lived, and all were very unanimous in declaring that Stephen Burroughs was the worst boy in town; and those who could get him whipt were most worthy of esteem…however, the repeated application of this birchen medicine never cured my pursuit of fun.”

Indeed, that attitude explained most of Burroughs’s imaginative career. 

When he was 16, his father enrolled him at nearby Dartmouth College, but that didn’t last long—after another prank involving watermelons, he was sent home. Young Burroughs proved that schooling was not necessary for a quick-witted young man zipping between gullible New England communities so nimbly that primitive communications couldn’t keep up with him.

At 17, he decided to go to sea. Venturing to Newburyport, Massachusetts, he went aboard a privateer, a private vessel authorized to prey on enemy shipping. Having no pertinent skills, he picked the brain of an elderly medicine man before talking himself aboard as the ship’s doctor. This produced a dramatic account of surgery amid storms, battling a British gunship and later being jailed for improperly issuing wine to the crew, a series of adventures that would strain even Horatio Hornblower.

The historian Larry Cebula recalls two unacquainted travelers sharing a coach in 1790 New England when one of them, a Boston lawyer, discoursed about a famed confidence man named Burroughs. This Burroughs, he said, had “led a course of the most barefaced and horrid crimes of any man living, including stealing, counterfeiting, robbing and adultery, escaping prison, burning the prison and killing guards.” He did not realize that the fellow listening quietly to all this was Stephen Burroughs himself, who by then, at the age of 25, had a log of misdeeds stretching well beyond the lawyer’s account.

A hundred years after Burroughs first tried to become a boy soldier, Harper’s Magazine described him as “a gentleman who at times came in somewhat violent contact with the laws of his country.”  Yes: after his seafaring adventure, he snitched some of his father’s sermons and headed out pretending to be a preacher; he got away with it until the congregation caught on and chased him out of town. Skipping from village to village, he briefly occupied pulpit after pulpit.

When that career dwindled, he branched into counterfeiting. Printing phony money was a popular crime in those days, before common currency was established, and Burroughs was a master. Artful but not quite perfect, he was caught and jailed, but broke out and moved on, becoming a schoolteacher. Convicted of seducing a teenage student, he was sentenced to the public whipping post. He escaped again and took his tutorial talents to Long Island, where he helped organize one of the nation’s first public libraries. After failing at land speculation in Georgia, he returned north and settled across the border in Quebec, nominally a farmer but still counterfeiting till he was caught and convicted yet again. But there he settled down, converting to Catholicism and living as a mostly respectable citizen until he died in 1840.   

This race through some of the high/low spots of Burroughs’s life can barely hint at the richness of his memoirs, which scholars accept as mostly, or at least partly, true. Whatever their factual percentage, they remain an affectionate, sometimes hilarious, extremely readable meander voyage through provincial life in the brand-new republic.

Other early American impostors were homegrown. Stephen Burroughs, born in 1765, grew up in New Hampshire and Vermont, and tells us he spent his youth "almost perpetually prosecuting some scene of amusement." His amusements turned criminal. After two years at Dartmouth College he dropped out and began what historian Larry Cebula calls "a colorful career of thief, counterfeiter, schoolteacher, and seducer of schoolgirls." Like Carew, he was a master of the assumed identity, a trick he learned when he pretended to be someone else to avoid detection after one of his adventures.

When as a young man, Burroughs stole watermelons from a farmer, he had the audacity to join the search party that set out to find the criminal. He ran a counterfeiting operation, and smuggled phony currency from Canada into America. His wit and daring were legendary: he wrote in his popular volume of memoirs that he set fire to the prison where he was confined, resolved to escape or die. No one was killed. His mythical standing grew. "It was currently reported," Burroughs wrote, "that the devil had assisted me, in my attempts to break jail."

As Cebula says, "So great was his fame that unsolved crimes were routinely ascribed to him and other criminals sometimes gave the name 'Stephen Burroughs' when they were arrested."

The most notorious colonial impostor of all was Tom Bell. He featured in more than a hundred newspaper articles between 1738 and 1755, making him one of the most famous men in early America. Born in Boston in 1713, Bell was enrolled in Boston Latin School and Harvard, and used his education to ingratiate himself with the wealthy and powerful. During a career of fifty years, historian Carl Bridenbaugh "pursued him in the colonial newspapers as resolutely as Inspector Javert did Jean Valjean," and Bridenbaugh offers the best description of this "uniquely American mountebank."

Not long after arriving at Harvard, Bell was in trouble. In December 1732, his second year, he was publicly admonished for stealing. A few months later he was expelled for "other acts of theft, particularly of stealing private Letters ...and . . . a cake of chocolate," an offense he compounded with "the most notorious, complicated lying."

With just over £8 in hand, he faced bills of about £50. His tastes were extravagant. He owed £30 to his tailor alone. When his creditors turned to the courts to recover their money, Bell fled Boston, sailing to London, then to Jamaica. The first sign we have of his illicit adventures appears in Williamsburg in July 1738, when the Virginia Gazette ran a notice: On the 2d of this instant July one Thomas Bell, alias Francis Partridge Hutchinson, who was committed to the Isle of Wight Gaol, for Felony, made his Escape...This is therefore to desire all Persons to aid and assist in taking up the said Felon, so that he may be brought to Justice.

Justice caught up with him four months later in New York, when he was convicted "for falsely, unlawfully, unjustly, knowingly, fraudulently, and deceitfully, composing, writing, and inventing a false, fictitious, Counterfeit, and invented Letter . . . to Robert Levingston and Peter Levingston, ...to defraud the said Levingstons of £50 Sterling." He was sentenced to "19 Lashes at a Cart's Tail, and ...drawn through the principal Streets" of the city.

Public chastisement failed to reform him, and he continued his exploits, spawning Robin Hood-style legends as he went. Bell sometimes resorted to straightforward theft and counterfeiting, but his usual modus operandi was that of the impostor and confidence man. He impressed people with his classical learning, his genteel manners, and his fancy clothes. And he usually arrived with some tale of woe, which prompted trusting people to invite him into their homes and to offer him money or whatever else he needed. All he really needed was their trust, for he knew that was the key to all the rest. As the Pennsylvania Gazette reported in February 1743: He has it seems made it his Business for several Years to travel from Colony to Colony, personating different People, forging Bills, Letters of Credit, &c. and frequently pretending Distress, imposed grosly on the charitable and compassionate.

Many of Bell's stories are entertaining, but sometimes his behavior had grave consequences. In 1739 he fled to Speightstown, Barbados, where he passed as Gilbert Burnet, son of a late Massachusetts governor and grandson of a famous English historian, and got himself invited to high-profile social events. When he fled from a Jewish wedding carrying off the guests' money, he was captured and beaten; the spectacle of Jews beating a Christian, especially one supposedly so respectable, prompted hotheaded locals to burn down their synagogue. Bridenbaugh calls the synagogue burning "the earliest anti-Semitic riot on record in the New World."

Another time Bell nearly cost an innocent man his life. Traveling in New Jersey in 1741, he was told he looked very much like the famous Reverend John Rowland of Boston. Never one to pass up an opportunity for mischief making, he took advantage of the coincidence. Kindly New Jerseyans, delighted to meet such a prestigious clergyman, invited him into their homes, and asked him to preach on Sunday. He agreed, but, as he approached the church, he said he remembered that he had left his sermon at the house. He quickly rode home—and made off with his host family's horse, money, and papers, a capital offense. This would be bad enough, but the real Rowland was soon taken up and charged with the theft. Rowland escaped prosecution only when witnesses were able to prove he had been preaching in Pennsylvania on the day of the robberies.

What can we learn from these tales of deception and imposture? They show us that personal identity was fluid in the colonies. The self-made man is a mainstay of our early history: the archetypal American hero is born not in a palace but in a log cabin, and makes his way in the world by the force of his personality. But while we often dwell on the advantages that come from self-creation, we should remember that imposters thrive in a republic in which a person's identity is what he or she makes it.

Some of the cheats used that distinctively American idiom to justify their careers: Stephen Burroughs, for example, wrote in his Memoirs, "I consider a man's merit to rest entirely with himself, without any regard to family, blood, or connection." Stirring words—until we realize what he made of this admirably democratic sentiment, for the charlatan is the other side of the republican coin.

This may be why the con man is central in so many works of American literature. The public has adored dashing criminals since Robin Hood, but the clever outlaw who assumes identities and profits from the trust of the innocent is an essentially American figure. Herman Melville's satire The Confidence Man is but the most prominent work in a genre concerned with the need to balance trust with caution.

Some approached this balance cynically, suggesting there's no difference between honesty and deceit. Bampfylde-Moore Carew said that everyone, deep down, is a fraud. He dared his readers, "Lay thy Hand on thy Heart and consider if thou hast not impos'd upon Mankind." Dishonesty, he suggested, is the universal condition of humankind: Perhaps my Reader is some Gentleman of the Law, if so, let him consider ...if he never took in Hand a bad Cause, and assur'd his Client of the Goodness of it...Perhaps some plodding honest Tradesman is reading my Memoirs ...but he must be much better than his Neighbours ...if he has never put off a bad Commodity for a good one, or made his Goods weigh heavier than when he bought them. In a Word, most gentle Reader, every Profession has its Fourberies and Impostures; even the Printer of these Memoirs intends to print them on a large Letter, and with a broad Margin, ...to make thee pay the more for them.

By this logic, Carew's impostures were no different from American life in general: all appearances are put on to win people's trust; everyone is an impostor.

But most people recognized that, however thin the line may be between legitimate reinvention and deception, it is real; that one is a virtue, the other a vice. And much of America's story from the colonial era to the present is about working to distinguish the two, trying to preserve what is valuable about self-creation while warding off those who would take advantage of it.

Ernest B. Furgurson. The Entertaining Saga of the Worst Crook in Colonial America. Smithsonian magazine. July 27, 2015.
Jack Lynch. Of Sharpers, Mumpers, and Fourberies. The Colonial Williamsburg Journal Spring 2005.

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