Colonial Crime in the Eighteenth Century

Crime had gone from a nuisance in the early days of colonization to a serious colonial problem by the end of the seventeenth century. Between 1700 and the coming of the American Revolution, it went from being a serious problem to a veritable plague. According to Carl Bridenbaugh, instances had occurred of nearly every known offense against society even before the eighteenth century had reached its midpoint. By 1715, there were so many pickpockets, burglars, and shoplifters operating in Boston that one colonial observer noted scarcely a night went by without some kind of crime being perpetrated. Philadelphia, infamous by 1720 for its pirates and highwaymen, was plagued by all manner of crimes, both victimless and violent. But the changes in the frequency, variety, and severity of the crimes being committed in eighteenth-century colonial North America were not really changes at all; rather, the rising crime rate and escalating violence after 1700 were simply a continuation of the general trend in deviant behavior. The real changes occurred in the nature of crime; it was becoming organized and intercolonial. Although ordinary street crimes and petty crimes of opportunity were still the most commonly committed offenses in eighteenth-century colonial North America, crime in all of the colonies showed traces of organization as early as 1663. The organized underground networks of thieves and fences that had operated so successfully in places such as London’s Whitechapel district had been unknown in the colonies prior to that time. By 1700, however, such criminal groups had begun appearing in both rural and urban areas. By 1750, they were in full swing. Some gangs operated without a single base of operations, roving from one unsuspecting neighborhood to another, pilfering and plundering as they went. Others showed an extraordinary degree of sophistication and organization. One gang of thieves in particular, with a base in the Carolina backcountry and associates in every colony, had developed a system of theft and transportation that made detection and suppression of their illicit activities a serious problem for colonial authorities. The goods pilfered by the gang in the South were sent to their accomplices in the North for distribution, and the goods pilfered in the North were, likewise, sent to the South. That way, stolen property was never resold in the area from which it came, thereby lessening the possibility of detection. Counterfeiters and con men were similarly sophisticated, organized, and intercolonial. Con men such as Tom Bell (a Harvard-educated ne’er-do-well who made a living impersonating the son of one colony’s leader while visiting the prominent families of another colony) generally worked alone. Counterfeiters such as Peter Long and John David, on the other hand, frequently operated in gangs with associates in numerous locations and made use of various underground networks for the distribution of their coins and notes, as well as for the provision and maintenance of safe houses and workshops. By one colonial newspaper’s estimation, there were more than 500 counterfeiters scattered throughout the colonies by 1768; in 1773, counterfeit currency had become such a problem in colonial Virginia that business there almost completely shut down. Owen Sullivan, one of the most infamous, prolific, and mobile colonial counterfeiters, based his gang (the Dover Money Club) in Dover, New York, but lived and worked with counterfeiters all over New England. Over the years, many of Sullivan’s associates were brought to justice, and, when four of them were apprehended in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1755, they admitted to having printed bogus currency valuing 50,000 pounds from plates supplied to them by Sullivan. Sullivan himself was brought to justice and hanged in 1756. Con men, while infinitely more flamboyant, never impacted colonial society to the extent that the counterfeiters and thieves did. Still, their exploits made great copy and went a long way toward making crime and the criminal lifestyle seem attractive, something it had not been before the eighteenth century. Early American Crime º An exploration of crime, criminals, and … Crime and Empire: The Colony in Nineteenth-Century Fictions of … Crime & Print Culture in 18c London Dissertation Reviews

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