July 20, 2020

Henry Tufts: Wizard, Fortune-Teller, and Criminal

Henry Tufts (1748 - 1831) led what might euphemistically be called a colorful life. Tufts was born in Newmarket, New Hampshire and spent many years as a criminal, earning his living as a thief, con-man, gambler, and counterfeiter across New England. He also was a bigamist, marrying a woman named Lydia Bickford around 1770 and then several other women after that without divorcing any of them. This doesn't include the many, many other women he also slept with as he bamboozled his way across the countryside.

At least that's what he claims in his 1807 autobiography, which is titled A Narrative of the Life, Adventures, Travels and Sufferings of Henry Tufts, Now Residing at Lemington, in the District of Maine. In Substance, As Compiled from His Own Mouth. I think any suffering that Tufts endured came mostly from his own sociopathic nature and chronic lying, but that's me. Your opinion may differ. The book was reprinted in 1930 with the shorter and blunter title The Autobiography of A Criminal. 

Woodcut of an 18th century criminal

I'm not sure it's all 100% true, but Tufts's autobiography is a very entertaining read. It's well-written, quite funny, and consists mostly of how he gets himself into (and then out of) bad situations. What's most interesting though, at least to readers of this blog, was that Henry Tufts often made money as a traveling wizard and fortune-teller. Even though Tufts was a scam artist, A Narrative of the Life etc. provides information into how 18th century New Englanders viewed the occult and magic. 

For example, while tarrying briefly in Norwich, Vermont, Tufts let the locals know he could predict the future. Young people visited him to get their fortunes told, while "sometimes, too, did the elderly approach my levee to enquire for lost goods, so that I had business enough, and was generally received with a hearty good welcome, go whither I would. Indeed I found it in no way difficult to cajole my ignorant followers into the belief of whatever idle tale I was pleased to fabricate..."

His services as a fortune teller were much in demand. Even while he was imprisoned in Exeter, New Hampshire (for desertion from the Continental Army) several young women visited him to get their futures told. Tufts would normally be happy to make money off them, but in this case he had just cut a hole in the wall of the jail and was preparing to escape. Rather than indulge the women, he chased them off with "unseemly language, as caused them to scamper down the stairs with more than customary agility." Spoiler alert: he escaped from jail and embarked on more criminal endeavors. 

Engraving of a lobster
It's not always clear what method Tufts used to tell fortunes, but during one period he used a small lobster claw. 

I had picked up, by chance, the small claw of a lobster, which I informed the people as I passed along, was an enchanted horn; by virtue of which I could predict future events; but that, unfortunately, I had lost another horn, its counterpart, to which had been attached the rare property of enabling its possessor to foretell past events. This ridiculous tale was accredited by many; I therefore gained much celebrity, as a conjuror; sometimes my fee amounting to eight shillings in an evening.

Tufts led people to believe he was a "Salem wizard." Being a wizard was no longer a criminal offense in the 1700s, and by that time it seems Salem already had the reputation for being the source of powerful magic, a reputation it maintains to this day. If Tufts had claimed to be a Salem wizard in the 1690s he would have been hanged; in the 1770s it was a way to market his talents. 

Tufts also let people think he worked with the Devil. Again, this would be a dangerous claim to make in the the 1600s but was good marketing in the 1770s, giving Tufts an aura of mystery and danger. 

In respect to myself, it was the concurrent opinion, that I must be an extraordinary wizard, complete master of the black art, and able to employ the agency of the devil, whenever I saw fit. The belief of those things I endeavored to cultivate, well knowing, that reputation is sometimes of more advantage, in our intercourse with the generality of mankind, than are real requirements, because a fool may possess it. 

The Devil was invoked when Tufts found himself once again in Exeter jail, this time for stealing livestock with an accomplice, James Smith. The jailers put Tufts and Smith in adjacent cells. Friends smuggled tools to Tufts which he used to secretly drill a hole through the wall, and not even Smith knew he had made the hole. 

As Tufts prepared to escape, he whispered to Smith through the wall they shared that he was leaving the jail "by the help of the devil, who is now at my beck and call, whenever I need his assistance." Smith already believed that Tufts was a wizard and begged him to free him using his magic. Tufts agreed, saying that first Smith must throw his clothes out the window of his cell, which he did. 

Tufts then told Smith he must repeat the following spell to escape the jail:
Come in old man,
With that black ram,
And carry me out,
As fast as you can
Smith did as he was told. While he repeatedly recited the spell Tufts escaped through the hole he made and put on Smith's clothes, which were lying on the ground outside. Tufts fled into the countryside wearing Smith's clothing while poor gullible Smith was left naked in jail reciting the spell. 

Henry Tufts eventually gave up his life of crime and settled in Lemington, Maine, where he made a living as a physician. He had learned to be a physician from Molly Ockett, an Abenaki woman whose medical skills he required when he was suffering from a knife wound. Tufts lived among the Abenaki for several years and learned how to use local herbs and roots to treat illnesses. 

Indian doctors (as they were called) were in high demand at the time, much like Salem wizards, but happily the practice of medicine involved much less deception. If Tufts is to be believed, he was an honorable doctor who devoted himself to healing the sick. I'm just not sure we can believe anything he wrote...


Robert Mathiesen said...

There's a new edition out of his "Narrative" now:


Peter Muise said...

Hi Robert! Yes, I just got it on Kindle. I usually prefer physical books but the Kindle has a nice search feature which is really helpful writing these posts. Regardless of format, though, it's a pretty entertaining book. Basically just a series of bad decisions, petty crime, and a little bit of folk magic.