J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Murder of Archibald Moffman

Last month at Early American Crime, Anthony Vaver recounted how some of the British convicts transported to the American colonies then ran away; sometimes these are the only way they reentered the public record. He described one unusually violent case:

In July 1773, Archibald Moffman, a soul-driver from Baltimore, purchased a group of convicts with the intention of reselling them for a profit further inland. He managed to sell all but four of the convicts by the time he reached the town of Frederick and was continuing on to Hagerstown to sell the rest. 

About two or three miles outside of Frederick, one of the convict servants complained of fatigue, so the party stopped under a tree alongside the main road. When Moffman decided that they needed to continue on their journey, the convicts refused to move. Instead, they threw him backwards, dragged him into the woods, and cut his throat from ear to ear.
But the four killers didn’t get far, as Vaver describes. An article from Wallace Shugg, a Maryland penitentiary historian, states that this case produced the “earliest recorded Maryland execution.” However, the Archives of Maryland chronicle numerous death warrants issued before this one, and it would have been quite remarkable if none of those had been carried out. Perhaps Shugg meant that the Moffman case produced the first execution in Maryland that newspapers reported in any detail.

Shugg’s article also identifies the victim of that 1773 killing as “Archibald Hoffman,” citing the Virginia Gazette, 26 July 1773, and Boston News-Letter, 26 Nov 1773. There were two newspapers titled Virginia Gazette being published that year, both appearing on Thursdays; 26 July was a Monday, so I can’t find that item. The Boston News-Letter article cited actually spells the man’s name Moffman, as do these other reports:
  • The crime and the apprehension of the culprits in Rivington’s New York Gazetteer, 5 Aug 1773.
  • The sentencing in the New-Hampshire Gazette, 17 Sept 1773.
  • The hanging in the Boston Post-Boy, 15 Nov 1773.
The root of the problem seems to be the easy confusion of M and H in flaking type, and the fact that “Hoffman” is a more common name today

Notably, none of those newspaper reports give the names of the four convicted men.

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