Posts Tagged ‘Long Island Historical Society’

Thomas Wentworth Higginson: Vagabond Lecture

January 3, 2009
Col. Thomas W. Higginson

Col. Thomas W. Higginson

Col. Thomas Higginson, lecturing at the Long Island Historical Society, in 1885:


Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson amazed and amused an audience of churchgoers in the rooms of the Long Island Historical Society last evening by recounting the adventures of a New-England vagabond of a century ago. The speaker explained that the purposed of the lecture was to show the under side of New-England manners and morals about the time of the Revolution. He frescoed them with literary crimson, altogether upsetting traditional views of the sturdy virtues of those days. The material for the lecture had been gathered from a book which Col. Higginson picked up 25 or 30 years ago, entitled “A Narrative of the Life and Adventures, Trials and Sufferings of Henry Tufts.”

Theft was the occupation of the hero. For 30 years he stole everything conceivable, including wives, in winning whom he was as gifted and versatile as a sailor. His operations extended from Canada to Virginia, and he had a wife in almost every town in which he tarried for any length of time. He had a special faculty for getting his pick from sewing circles and prayer meeting. At different times he passed himself off as a clergyman and as a physician. He deserted from the army, and led his pursuers a chase across the hills of Massachusetts, stealing horses for himself as often as he wanted a fresh mount. For stealing a silver spoon and other small articles he was sentenced to death, but on reaching the gallows found a commitment which changed the sentence to imprisonment for life. While in prison he made a record of slang and flash terms to which little has since been added. Finally escaping, he went back to his oldest wife, in Maine, who had borne him nine children, and devoted himself to doctoring, eloping once or twice, and writing his memoirs. The extracts read last night were rich specimens  of the quaint conceit and pomposity of this knight of rascals. “If a picture of the Continental Congree,” said the lecturer, “were to be suddenly transformed before our eyes into a scene from the ‘Black Crook’ the change would hardly be greater than to turn from Washington’s correspondence to the autobiography of Tufts. The autobiography is certainly evidence that rural society at least was degraded and vulgar in large part in New-England in the last century.”

The Rev. Dr. Butler, in moving the thanks of the meeting to Col. Higginson, said that the picture he had drawn was a very astonishing one. Col. Higginson demurely smiled and blushed.

The New York Times (New York, New York) Jan 14, 1885

WANT MORE? Read the chapter Col. Higginson wrote about Henry Tufts:

Travellers and Outlaws by Thomas Wentworth Higgins