Vaver uncovers the dark, compelling, and even humorous stories from America’s earliest criminal underworld: a New England burglar who walked through the unlocked door of a goldsmith to rob his store a second time; a man who sat all morning on his roof in fear that someone walking by might harm him, but who ended up committing murder by day’s end; a transported convict who charmed her young lover into selling himself into servitude to raise money for her release from prison.
In telling the stories of these and other criminals, Vaver shows how early Americans both thought about and punished criminals differently than we do today. Poor parenting, abusive masters, and the influence of “The Devil” were often cited as motives for criminal behavior. Punishments that included the pillory, whipping, and hanging all took place in public so as to warn others not to follow a criminal path. Nowadays, we look to psychology to explain criminal behavior, and we punish our criminals behind closed doors. But, as Vaver makes clear in his book, even though our treatment of criminals differs from the past, the crimes that early Americans worried about are strikingly familiar to us today.