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"House Broke Open" - The Infamous Thief Levi Ames

Last week the Nerds received an inquiry as to whether we were aware of any highly publicized incidents of crime in 18th Century Massachusetts. We dug through our files and came across one individual who received an inordinate amount of attention on the eve of the American Revolution.

Levi Ames was born in 1752 in Groton, Massachusetts. When he was two years old, his father Jacob died. By the time he had reached the age of seven, Ames was stealing petty items, such as eggs, fruit, jack knives and chalk. His mother, unable to control his behavior, secured an apprenticeship with a local tradesman. Levi remained with his master until he was a teenager and then promptly ran away. He turned to theft to support himself.

One of the earliest recorded incidents involving Ames occurred when he was just sixteen years old. The young man let loose a herd of cattle and used the distraction to rob his neighbor’s house. Shortly thereafter, he broke into a Marlborough minister’s home and stole his personal belongings and food. He also robbed a selectman in Waltham.

Ames became so good at housebreaks that by the late 1760s and early 1770s, he was successfully robbing homes in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. He even teamed up with Tom Cook, a notorious New England thief who called himself “The Leveller”. (Some historians have suggested Cook modeled himself after Robin Hood and shared his plunder with the poor.)

Occasionally, Ames got caught. Pursuant to 18th Century law, the illegal breaking and entering into a home was a capital offense punishable by death. However, Ames avoided a death sentence following his first capture and was merely confined to a Cambridge jail.

Following his second apprehension, he was branded on the forehead with the letter “B”.

Nevertheless, Ames’ reputation as a skilled thief continued. In fact, he was so well known in various illicit circles that a “Mr. Meriam” recruited Ames to rob his father-in-law, a “Mr. Symonds of Lexington”. Meriam provided detailed instructions on how to enter the home and where to locate hard currency and valuables. According to the Ames, “I supposed he gave me this information through envy against his father-in-law, through whose means he was then confined for debt.”

As it is with many thieves, Ames eventually became careless. In the Spring of 1773, Ames recruited Joseph Attwood to be his partner. The two initiated a crime spree that began in Woburn and continued in Waltham, Boston, Cambridge, Worcester, Newburyport, Plymouth and Natick. The pair usually struck on Sundays and typically stole coats, tools, currency, firearms, cloth, dry goods and other “sundry articles”.

In May, 1773, the pair arrived in Lexington. The first house they robbed belonged to the Reverend Jonas Clarke. According to the minister, “House broke open. Tankard pepper box &c stole . . . Heard of our plate that was stole!!” Soon after, Joseph Simond’s house was also burglarized. “Mr. Joseph Simond’s House broke open his watch stolen &c.”

In August, 1773, the pair were finally caught after breaking into Martin Bicker’s home. Ames was arrested in the days after the crime and found to be in possession of Bicker's money. Joseph Attwood fled to New Hampshire but was later apprehended. Both men were subsequently prosecuted.

In order to save his own life, Attwood agreed to testify against Ames. During the trial he went into great detail about the pair’s activities, including the burglary of the Reverend Clarke’s home. It was also revealed that Ames also went to great pains to remember the names of his victims. Not only did he provide details about the items he stole but he could also link each item to its owner. Only on a rare occasion he could not “recollect their owners”.

The Court found Ames guilty of burglary. He was ordered to be executed on October 14, 1773.

The Reverend Clarke mentions first learning of the sentence in early September. In response, the Lexington minister traveled to Boston and visited the condemned man. While together, Clarke noted “Levi Ames confessed to stealing my plate! Bro’t my Plate home.” Surprisingly, Ames also informed the minister where he could find the remaining stolen items.

Clarke traveled again on October 7th to meet once more with Ames.

Of course, Jonas Clarke was not the only minister to visit the thief. Word of Ames’ repeated declaration of remorse, his devotion to the Bible and his model behavior as a prisoner attracted many Massachusetts ministers.

To accommodate so many visitors, the Royal Court postponed Ames’s execution one week.

On October 21st, hundreds of spectators gathered to witness Ames’ execution. After being hauled in chains through the streets of Boston in a cart and then led up onto the scaffold, the condemned thief cautioned young onlookers against following in his tragic path. “Ye youth! who throng this fatal plain, And croud th' accursed Tree: O! shun the paths that lead to shame, Nor fall like wretched me.” He was then hung from the neck.

The next day, the Reverend Clarke recorded in his journal “Levi Ames executed!”

Shortly after Levi Ames death, his words of caution were transcribed and published throughout New England. Eventually, the Ames execution provided fodder for a movement to abolish capital punishment for crimes against property.

In 1805, Massachusetts Legislature finally relented and abolished the death penalty for burglary and arson.

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