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According to a mysterious document in the Library’s holdings, an interstate crime ring consisting mostly of Virginians operated from Maryland to South Carolina in the era of the American Revolution. Titled “Bentley’s Account of divers[e] Robberies” and dated March 12, 1782, the document is cataloged as an individual item but may have once been part of the governor’s executive papers. Authored by one Bentley (first name unknown), who described himself as a member of the gang, it outlines crimes committed over a period of nine years. Most of the crimes were horse theft and receiving stolen horses, but the gang also abducted and resold enslaved men; stole cattle, wheat, cloth, and currency; and circulated counterfeit money.

Excerpt of “Bentley’s Account of Divers Robberies,” 1782, p. 2

In some cases, Bentley goes into remarkable detail about stolen property, gang members, their families, and their victims. Here are some examples:

“Charles Scaggs of Montgomery County stole a roan Colt which used to accompany a grey mare of his own and said it was a stray. He drove them both up to the House of one John Lispain’s, and swapped them for my Horse which was also stolen. John Lispain lives in Montgomery near Scaggs….”

“David Burton of Cumberland County stole a black Horse from the Plantation of one [blank] Hutchinson who lives near Lunenburg Court House and delivered them to my Negro Fellow in my presence. He rece[ive]d Col. Blackburn’s Negro Man who was stolen by the divertion of Wm. Nugent [illegible] Smith now in confinem[en]t and gave me in lieu of him a Negro Fellow belonging to Mr. Harry or Henry Meekins of Cumberland Co[unt]y.”

“Joseph Wray, or Ray, travels thro’ the Country passing counterfeit Money—I saw in his possession more than a hundred 60 Dollars Bills which he signed and circulated. His Father lives near the old Court House in Powhatan County, and may be found there.”

Bentley named over forty alleged gang members and accomplices who lived in eleven Virginia counties plus Maryland and South Carolina. Some of these people, according to Bentley, were known as respectable citizens with “large Tracts of Land” and “many Slaves.”

Among those mentioned in Bentley’s account were Frederick Briggs and his relatives Jesse and Gray Briggs, all of Brunswick County. A broadside (right) in the Library’s Special Collections department sheds more light on Frederick Briggs: a printed copy of his last letter to his wife, written shortly before his execution on October 16, 1789. Briggs tells of his trial in Prince Edward District Court for stealing horses in Charlotte County, warns his spouse to “keep the children out of the way of bad company” and “bring them up in the fear of God,” and pleads with his seven children to “pray much, avoid the wicked, and all of you carefully associate with people of good characters.”1 The typeface of the broadside dates from the early nineteenth century, indicating that the letter was reprinted long after Frederick Briggs’s death as a warning to young people.

Frederick Briggs’s relative Jesse Briggs had previously run afoul of the law, being sent from Brunswick County to be tried by the General Court in Williamsburg in early 1778, but the destruction of the General Court’s records in Richmond in 1865 makes it difficult to ascertain Jesse’s story.2 The fate of Bentley himself is just as uncertain. Sometimes records raise as many questions as they answer!

I would like to thank my fellow reference archivist Dawn Tinnell for bringing the Bentley manuscript and the Briggs broadside to my attention.


[1] A brief minute of the trial, Sept. 1-9, 1789, is found in Prince Edward County District Court Order Book 1789-1792, (Prince Edward County Microfilm Reel 33, LVA), p. 5 and 48.

[2] Examination of Jesse Briggs and others, Feb. 28, 1778, Brunswick County Order Book 13 (Brunswick County Microfilm Reel 33, LVA), p. 191.

Header Image Citation

Henry Fairfax Family Photograph Collection, Alexandria, VA, Visual Studies, Library of Virginia.

Bill Bynum

Former Reference Archivist

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