When Lies Are Found to be Truth: Henry Tufts’ Final Escape

Salem jail break
Having discovered the actual court records of Henry Tufts’ most harrowing run-in with the law, and found Tufts’ Narrative to not be the paragon of truth which its author claims it to be, Edmund Pearson emerges sounding rather disheartened:

What becomes of the sexton, going on August 14th, at 8 A.M., to dig the grave? And the coffin that put the school-mistress in a tremor? And the sympathetic deputy sheriffs? And the three thousand persons of Ipswich, and roundabout, who came to see a hanging, and had to go home in bitter disappointment?

Are we to think that Governor Adams–who was over seventy years old, and should have been past such pranks–was playing a joke on all these people, by failing to let the Sheriff of Essex know that four weeks earlier he had postponed the ceremony until late the next month, and had almost determined to forbid it altogether?1

Thief though he may have been, the reader wants to trust Henry Tufts, even when his claims are absurd. We want his book to be true, especially when it everywhere claims to be so. One need look no further than the preface to find claims of complete fidelity to truth, and those, furthermore to be most reasonable: “the reasons, that heretofore compelled me to secrecy and silence, have ceased to exist ; concealment has become no longer useful, and the suppression of truth unnecessary. I therefore intend, as my only practicable atonement to those I have injured, to give, with truth and sincerity, a faithful relation of the principal occurrences of my life.”2

Perhaps because of these affirmations of truth (though, one might suspect, Henry Tufts doth protest too much), Tufts’ readers can easily make the mistake of trusting his claims. Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a bit cautious, saying “Of course it is easy to say that he lied ; that probability must steadily be kept in view at every page,”3 though he follows this statement up with “but the general atmosphere of a book is unmistakable, and here the coarse verisimilitude is very great.”

“Coarse verisimilitude,” beyond of course the great entertainment value of the book, is what I have most enjoyed about it from the beginning. Whether the recounted incidents in Henry Tufts’ life really occurred or not, the fact that the book exists at all, and makes these claims, at least speaks to a truth of at least one person’s perspective on life in the late colonial period and the early United States.

That said, having had the advantage of reading the work of Edmund Pearson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson—as well as Mary P. Thompson in Landmarks in Ancient Dover, whose prudish sensibilities kept her from reading Henry Tufts’ book, but who still effectively cautions skepticism about the book’s specific claims—I have largely held myself back from credulity, even, occasionally, wondering if I possessed enough evidence to believe the person described in the Narrative had even existed.

One specific claim of the book that I have always thought too unlikely to be at all true


is of Henry Tufts’ escape—for the entire rest of his life, more than thirty years!—from his sentence of life imprisonment, which he claims came about in the following manner: having been confined in the prison at Castle Island in Boston Harbor for several years, eventually he received an unexpected stroke of luck: “the commonwealth of Massachusetts ceded the castle, with its dependencies, to the government of the United States, on which transaction it was predicated, that the removal of the convicts from the island would be a necessary consequence,”4 so that “it was my lot to be carried and shut up, with five or six other of our worthies, in Salem jail,”5 where “[the jailor] vouchsafed to observe, that the room was in a slender predicament, wherefore, I must behave peaceably, if I intended to tarry long.”

Since Henry certainly did not intend to tarry long, this led to his escape: “it was then about the middle of the afternoon, but scarce had twilight discoloured the face of things, ere I fell to work, and, in half an hour, opened a sufficient breach. This done, I clambered over into the entry, and, in the next minute, gained the open street.”

According to the book, after this, Henry Tufts was never imprisoned again. “Since that period I have carried my dish pretty uprightly ; have been guilty of few or no misdemeanors, but have persevered heroically in regular habits and virtuous resolutions.”6 He even claims, in the preface, that “I no longer dread the scourge of future punishment”!7 And this from a man who is ostensibly writing as a fugitive from a life sentence!

There does not seem to be  much truth, or, in fact, even, “coarse verisimilitude” in this claim. For this to be true, one would have to accept that a man could escape from life imprisonment, and publicly advertise the fact later, under his own name, without any repercussions whatsoever.

Yet this, it turns out, is exactly what happened. While previous generations of researchers have struggled to find any primary sources to corroborate Tufts’ claims—with Pearson finding only a single mention in a newspaper8—internet-aided primary source research has allowed me to uncover the truth of this claim.9

An article from the Salem Gazette—in fact the same paper in which Pearson found his only example of Henry Tufts in the news—dated November 20, 1798, reads, in full:

Broke Jail, in Salem,

On the night of the 10th inst. the following persons, being Convicts from Castle Island, viz. HENRY TUFTS, 5 feet 10 inches high, 53 years old, and of a light complexion; JAMES HALLYWELL, 5 feet 6 inches, 25 years old, marked B on each cheek; MILES RILEY, 5 feet 8 inches, 25 years old, light complexion, and squint-eyed; WILLIAM BROWN, 5 feet 9 inches, 35 years old, dark complexion.

A reward of Five Dollars will be paid, for each of any of the above named Criminals, whom any person may secure in either of the jails in this Commonwealth.


All of the salient details are here, minus the narrative flair of the book: The jail being in Salem; The convicts being from Castle Island; and, most importantly, Henry Tufts being among the escaped.

Furthermore, no record exists in any paper of Tufts ever being arrested ever again. Apparently, the five dollar reward offered by Joseph Turell was never collected.11

The story as told by Henry Tufts himself, however, is borne out. Years later, in 1821, even after the book was published (and frankly admitting Tufts to be a resident of “L[i]mington, in the district of Maine,”12) an article in the Newburyport Herald, of Massachusetts, discussing the death penalty, writes “Henry Tufts was convicted of burglary, and sentenced to suffer capitally, but his punishment was commuted to imprisonment for life at castle William, in Boston harbor, from which he afterwards escaped.”13

So Henry Tufts really did live out the rest of his life in peace. And when he died—confirming his statement that “I still budge about, as a travelling physician”14—he was recorded in the paper as “Dr[.] Henry Tufts.”15

What are we to make, then, of the Salem jailor, now known to be Joseph Turell, and his unpaid five dollar reward? Are we to really believe that he invited Henry Tufts to escape from the Salem jail? What of all the countless people who knew that Henry Tufts had escaped, as well as where he lived? Was justice so easily avoided in that time and place?

I have no easy answers, but I have evidence. A seeming lie has been unmasked as truth.

Daniel Allie



1 Pearson, Edmund. “The Six Silver Spoons.” HenryTufts.com, 2017. Web. 9.

2Tufts Henry. The Narrative of Henry Tufts. Charleston: CreateSpace, 2017, 10.

3Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “A New England Vagabond.” HenryTufts.com, 2017. Web. 14.

4Tufts, Narrative, 246.




8“At last, one day, after a dozen failures, I opened the pages of the Salem Gazette, and found the record of his conviction,– probably the first time that Henry Tufts ever got his name in the papers.” “The Six Silver Spoons,” 9.

9Many thanks to Thomas W. Tufts of tuftsgenealogy.blogspot.com for bringing the following evidence to my attention.

10“Broke Jail, in Salem.” Salem Gazette, Vol. XII, Iss. 761, Pg. 4 (November 20, 1798). GenealogyBank. Web. Accessed 15 August 2017.

11Nor have I found any confirmation that the three other “worthies” were ever captured again, either.

12Tufts, Narrative, 1.

13“Since our revolution. . . “ Newburyport Herald, Vol. XXIV, Iss. 97, Pg. 3 (March 6, 1821). GenealogyBank. Web. Accessed 15 August 2017.

14Tufts, Narrative, 279.

15“Deaths.” Eastern Argus, Vol. XXVII, Iss. 1462, Pg. 3 (February 22, 1831). GenealogyBank. Web. Accessed 15 August 2017.


In Defense of Henry Tufts

Click on over to Tufts Genealogy for a piece Chapter 1-5I wrote about my edition of Henry Tufts! Here learn how, while Henry Tufts was a villain, he’s still worth learning about for that very reason.

Many thanks to Thomas W. Tufts for publishing this.

The Second Complete Edition: The How and Why of It

The Second Complete Edition represents the fourthJustTheBook time Henry Tufts has ever appeared in print. Considering this, you might be wondering—especially if you already own one of the editions titled Autobiography of a Criminal—if this edition was necessary.

Yes, it definitely was.

The 1807 edition is very rare, can’t be bought, and is only found in its physical form in thirty-eight libraries in the entire country.

There are two reprint editions, but beyond the fact that the reprint editions are out of print and getting more expensive, they are abridged. If you’re reading Autobiography of a Criminal, you’re not really reading The Narrative of Henry Tufts. You’re reading Edmund Pearson’s idea of what reading The OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANarrative of Henry Tufts should be. He cuts out bits he thinks are boring, unnecessary, or simply taking up too much space. Pearson cuts out the entire preface, cuts verse digressions down by more than half, cuts up dialogue scenes, and even leaves out important descriptions of events preceding Henry Tufts’ actions. One reading Autobiography of a Criminal will be able to read all of the important events in Henry Tufts’ life, but something is missing. The feel of the book has been taken away, and stripped down to the bare-bones narrative.

I discovered Tufts’ Narrative while a senior in college, at which point I was working on a project researching and then presenting strange and obscure old books held in the university archives. My piece is still posted here. I happened upon the original, and was amazed at what I was reading. This was a book like no other: an early American narrative that did not overly moralize, and did not shy away from presenting the very worst of actions. I then discovered the reprints, and ordered both, as I wanted to own the Narrative, and didn’t know which reprint OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAedition was better.

When they both arrived in the mail, I knew that neither was better—they were both not the text I had just read in the archives. They had some good supplements, sure—particularly Edmund Pearson’s Introduction and Appendix, but they weren’t really the book I had read. They were instead the unseasoned bread-without-the-salt version of the text—all that you needed for nutrition, but flavorless.

That was when I decided to make this edition. Since I had already discovered

One of the images used in the transcription.

that the book has received very little academic or popular attention over the years, I wanted to do something with it, but I wasn’t sure what that was. My disappointment with Pearson’s edition gave me the answer: someone needed to reprint the book, and do it right this time.

I started by visiting the archives again, and photographing every page of the text for my own reference. I knew I would never be able to finish the job if I didn’t have access to the book at my convenience.

From there, I started transcribing. With the image of the page on one side and a text document on the other side of my screen, I typed everything, line by line, stopping at the end of every page

A screen capture of the transcription process.

to make sure I wasn’t missing any lines of text. This process eventually finished, after a particularly intensive couple of weeks in which I was probably spending some four hours a day typing.

This left me with a complete (and searchable!) text on my computer, but which was riddled with typographical errors, and wholly unready for printing.

The loose-leaf printing.

I started reformatting the text to make it appear well in print, using the internet typesetting program ShareLaTeX, but of course this was not the best way to read for errors, so I eventually had the whole text printed up in loose-leaf, so that I could proofread it. I finally finished the proofreading in January of this year.

At that point, it was the beginning of the end. I fixed my errors, and started working in LaTeX to make the text display as nicely as possible, and I added in the original illustrations. The most difficult

A sample of the Flash language table as appears in the original.

of the final typesetting steps was to make The Nomenclature of the Flash Language appear correctly without taking up too much space on the page.

Then was a final whirlwind of activity—designing the cover (using only printed assets found withing the book itself), writing an explanatory note for the beginning of the book, recording all of the original typographic errors, and ordering OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAa proof copy to make sure all was in order.

The process is finally complete, three years later. My order invoice for Autobiography of a Criminal reads March 18, 2014.

And now, for the first time since 1807, you can buy a brand-new copy of the full text of The Narrative of Henry Tufts.

Buy yours today!