Friday, October 16, 2015

My 5x Great Grandfather was a Horse Thief...

No one ever said that you will only find positive things while researching family genealogy... I came across an interesting and unfortunate family story this summer while researching my father's side of the family. Amongst a dozen or more American Revolution veterans in my family who lived during the late 18th century into the early 19th century, is a man by the name of Frederick Briggs. Frederick Briggs (1744-1789) is my 5x Great Grandfather. He was hanged for horse theft on October 16, 1789 in Charlotte County, Virginia.

Below is the copy of a court document I came across that provides the details of the case:

BOOK EIGHT 1789 - 1792

1789 August 31 Pg 33 Court held for the examination of William McElhany and Frederick Briggs, who stands committed to the common jail on the suspicion of feloniously, stealing, taking and leading away on the 2nd day of this instant, two horses, towit, a bay and a sorrel, of the value of ?20, each belonging to John Spencer. The prisoner was led to the bar in the custody of the Sheriff, and being charged with the fact, saith he is in no wise guilty thereof. Whereupon, sundry witnesses were produced, sworn and examined, as well on behalf of the Commonwealth as the sd Briggs/McElhany, and he was fully heard in his own defense. On consideration thereof it is the opinion of the Court, that the prisoner, the said Briggs/McElhany is guilty of stealing the horses in conjunction with the said McElhany/Briggs, and that he ought to be tried at the next district court to be held in the Court House, in the county of Prince Edward in September.
John Spencer, on oath saith that on the 2nd day of August, instant, he was possessed of two horses, one a bay, and the other a sorrel. Which two horses were missing out of his pasture the next morning, and examining his pasture fences, could make no discovery where they got out. On the 5th day of the month, in the evening, came to his house, Mr Walton, with a letter directed to Capt Bedford, that the two prisoners, McElhany and Briggs, were apprehended in the county of Nottaway and committed to the jail of that county, on suspicion of stealing two horses, a bay and a sorrel. Receiving this information, the deponent attended the examining court of Nottaway, and there he saw his two horses in the care of Col Freeman Epps, said to be taken from the prisoners. Which horses, the deponent saith, were his property, and that he never disposed of them to any person whomsoever. Further, deponent saith not. Col Freeman Epps, before the Court, on oath saith that on the morning of the 3rd day of August, about noon, he received information that there were two men in camp, in a neck of woods, near the plantation of Mr Thomas Epps. On this information, he, the deponent, collected together several men to go in search of, and endeavor to apprehend them. Being conducted, with his company, to the camp, he proceeded to apprehend the prisoners. On approaching, the said McElahany and Briggs ran off. Being pursued by the deponent and his company, the prisoners were taken near their encampment. The deponent directed the company to keep the prisoners apart, in order that they might be examined more particularly. On examination, the prisoner McElhany told this deponent, that they, the prisoners, had two horses at the camp, but that the horses had run off. They had taken the horses the evening before at a plantation about two miles below Little Roanoake Bridge. He believed a widow women lived there. One of the company, recollecting the plantation from the description given by the prisoner, asked him if it were not the plantation whereof Mr Bedford formerly lived. He, McElhany, replied, "Yes, that was the name of the person who lived there." The prisoner, McElhany, informed this deponent that one of the horses was a large bay, the other a sorrel. The horses, when found, answered the description given by the prisoners. The deponent saith, the horses were found about 300 or 400 yards distant from the camp, making towards the road. They were pursued and caught about a mile distant from where to prisoners were encamped. The horses were then carried to a house of a Mr Epps, where the prisoners had been sent on before. This deponent then took the prisoners apart, and took McElhany to the horses, and asked if they were the horses he, McElhany had stolen. His answer was, "Yes, the bay horse I had road down, and Briggs, the sorrel." This deponent then returned McElhany to the house and took Briggs to the same horses and asked him if he knew them. He also answered, "Yes,I road the sorrel and McElhany the bay." McElahany, when he was carried to the horses, inquired of this deponent, whether the bridles and saddles were safe. The deponent answered, the saddles were, and the bridle on the bay horse, but the sorrel horse had lost his. McElhany then said he had well secured the bridle on the bay horse, by putting the stirrup through the bridle reins, but that Briggs had carelessly put his bridle over the sorrel horses' neck, which he supposed would be lost. Further this deponent saith not Francis Fitzgerald, of Nottaway County, before the court on oath saith, that on Monday, the 3rd day of August, instant, he was informed by Mr Epps that one of his negroes had discovered some white men in camp, in the woods near his plantation. He, Epps, requested assistance of this deponent, to apprehend them. He, the deponent, went to the plantation of Mr Thomas Epps, and with others, were conducted near the camp, from whence the deponent saith he discovered a man and horse. The horse was either a bay or a sorrel. The deponent then showed himself to the prisoners, he being in front of the company, and ordered the prisoners to surrender. Upon which they, the prisoners, immediately ran off. The company and the deponent pursued them. The prisoners separated, and the deponent went after the prisoner Briggs, and took him, and inquired his name. He answered, "Briggs". After some little pause, the prisoner inquired who had discovered them. The deponent made no answer to the question. The prisoner then said that he supposed the deponent and his party, had pursued them from the place where they had taken the horses. The deponent requested the prisoner to inform him the whole truth of the matter. The prisoner answered he and McElahany had taken two horses a small distance below Little Roanaoke Bridge, from a plantation where there was a large red house. The deponent and the company went with the prisoner, to the house of Mr Epps. After being there some time, Briggs desired to speak to this deponent in private. While together the sorrel horse was produced and the deponent asked Briggs if he knew that horse. Briggs answered that was the horse he road down, and said he was apprehensive that McElhany would swear his life away, as he, McElhany had taken both horses. The deponent then asked McElhany, if he did take both horses. McElhany answered they were both taken together, and that he might have taken hold of both of the horses, but that Briggs had bridled the sorrel. Further, deponent saith not Sterling Rack Thornton, being first sworn saith that on the 3rd day of this instant, having business with Col Epps, and on his way there he met with Thomas Epps, who informed him, that he understood by his boy that there were two men just by his plantation in the woods. He requested this deponent to accompany him, and see who they were. On which the deponent went to Col Epps' and joined the company collected there, to take the men said to be encamped in the woods. After the prisoners, McElhany and Briggs were committed, the deponent was summonsed as a guard. When going to the jail, the deponent asked Briggs what kind of saddle he had. He answered a very indifferent one, but that McElhany's was a very good one, about half worn and that he expected McElhany, would sell it. Two days afterwards the deponent went up to the jail and spoke to Briggs about the saddle. McElhany said he would sell his, and that the deponent might go and see it. If he liked it, then he might give him what he thought it was worth. The deponent inquired where it was, and McElhany answered he supposed at Col Epps'. The deponent later spoke to Col Epps about the saddle and told him McElhany had sold him the saddle if he liked it. Col Epps told the deponent the saddle was at his, (Epps) house. When the deponent went, Col Epps was from home, but from the description of the saddle, the deponent found it, took it away, and offered to pay the said McElhany for it. But he refused to receive pay and desired the matter might be deferred until the evening. Further, deponent saith not. [END] (

Prior to his death, Briggs wrote a letter to his wife Mary and his family. Below is a copy of the letter that Briggs wrote prior to his execution:

My Dear Wife --
The hand of Justice has arrested me in Virginia, at a great distance from you and my other dear friends, whom I never more expect to see; I do, therefore, write this to acquaint you with my lamentable fate, and to convey a wretched father’s last request and charge to the children whom my bleeding heart cherishes with a fondness that only death can destroy.
On the third of August, I was taken up, together with my companion, M’Elheney, in Nottoway County, charged with carrying off the horses of a Mr. Spencer, in Charlotte, about fifty miles from the place of our capture. From the jail of Nottoway, we were sent, on the 13th of the same month, for trial, to Charlotte County; where we were detained in prison till the 30th, and then, by the examining court, were sent down to Prince Edward, to be tried before the District Court; on the first of September, our trial came on, and the jury having brought us in GUILTY, on the ninth, we received the awful sentence of DEATH!
What a melancholy scene does the history of a few days present to your view! Surely I must have been infatuated to have brought myself into a situation where every day’s anguish of mind would more than balance the follies and fancied pleasures of all my past days of dissipation; and, yet these distressful days are the prelude to the tremendous day of my excecution, and the most tremendous day of standing at the bar of the eternal God, in judgement.
Oh! my dear, what shall I do? My soul shudders at the Catastrophe to which I am reduced, and which I am unable now to prevent. O! that I had contented myself at home in industrious labor, with you and my dear, DEAR children - then I might have enjoyed peace, with the most homely fare; whereas, now, I am torn violently from you all, forever! and have brought distressing ignominy and reproach upon myself and family.
But this regret is useless now - I have no prospect of any relief, but from the God of mercy and compassion. To Him, I have been attempting to turn my distressed thoughts, and to seek His mercy and grace, ever since my confinement in Charlotte. But the thought of you and my poor dear children, so overwhelms and overburdens my distressed mind, that I scarce can command one calm reflection.
My dear creature; as I never more expect to see you in this world, I beseech and charge you to take care of our poor children as well as you can - let me entreat you, by the love and affection that always subsisted between us, not to suffer any person to use them ill, if you can help it.
I hope that the dying words of a husband that loves you, will prevail with you to keep the children out of the way of bad company, lest the untimely wretched fate of their poor father should be their’s.
Let me also beseech you, to take more care of their precious immortal souls, than we both have done; and that you may the better succeed in this, be engaged for your own salvation - for death may be as near you as it me; it may seize you, at home and in security, as well as it has unexpectedly approached me - and I am sure, if you saw the grim messenger, as plain as I now view him, ready to grasp you in his dreadful arms, you would feel your need of a change of heart, and an interest in Jesus Christ, who, only, can save the lost.
O! fly, fly from the wrath to come, and warn our beloved children, also, to escape the terrors of the law. Bring them up in the fear of God, and keep them from the vile practices of a sinful world; so may you look for a blessing from that merciful God, who is the widow’s guardian and the orphan’s friend.
Oh; if I were a faithful servant of that God, how easily I might leave you under His protection and fatherly care; for He hath promised, in Jeremiah, 49 ch. 11v., “Leave thy fatherless children, I will preserve them alive, and let thy widow trust in me.” Now, my dear, let my entreaties prevail with you to seek the Lord for yourself and for your children; and when I am dead and forgotten, as I soon shall be, let me be considered as yet speaking in this mournful letter.
Call my dear fatherless children around you, to hear what their miserable father has to say to them: Come, my fatherless, unfortunate little ones: come, listen to your dying parent’s last request and charge. I have been too negligent of your precious perishing souls, while I was with you - I now confess it, before God and you, and would try to make one feeble attempt, before I die, to say something to you for your good. I beseech, I conjure, I command you all, to seek the Lord in the days of your youth; quit the follies of the idle and thoughtless, and try to give yourselves up to God in time, lest His wrath burn fiercely against you forever. Don’t give way to frolicking and company-keeping; these ruin and destroy many a soul. Be resolved to seek God’s mercy, let others do what they will; pray much, avoid the wicked, and all of you carefully associate with people of good characters. Be industrious, for idleness leads into bad company, extravagance and wickedness of every kind; it often leads into dishonesty and RUIN.
My dear daughter, my beloved Nancy Goodrich, I think I see you weeping by your mama’s side, while she reads; let me address you particularly; you are grown up to be a woman; remember that virtue and religion will be your greatest ornaments. If you behave well and shun bad company, you may be happy and esteemed, though your unfortunate father is not. Assist your dear distressed mother; obey her, and try to comfort her in her afflictions - may the almighty God bless you, my dear child, and make us meet in a better world. How can I support under the grief that wrings my heart while I bid you a long farewell.
My poor Howell and Edward, will you remember your poor father’s words; my heart bleeds for you, my poor dear fellows, lest you should live wickedly and die miserably - resolve to be good boys, and obey your poor dear mother in all things; do your best to help her, in an honest way. If you behave well, and be industrious, you will always be encouraged by good people. Never associate with idle, wicked company, lest you come to the unhappy end of your unfortunate father - my poor boys, seek and serve the Lord, and He will bless you. Oh! that He will pity your youth and teach you His ways - farewell, my dear fellows, farewell!
Clerimon and Dolly, little Tommy and Queen Polly; dear babes and children, how I could press you to my bosom, if you were here; but, oh no, my rough irons would hurt your tender limbs.
Oh, for one parting kiss from my dear children, but that cannot be; I am to die without seeing you; then, remember what your dear daddy says to you - be good children, pray to God every day, do what your mama bids you, and as you grow up, help her with alI your might to provide and maintain you all in an industrious way. My sweet little children, I am not fit to bless you, but I hope the God of Mercy will.
My blessed wife, if you have had another child since I left home, let it also know my fate when it gets old enough, and warn it thus to avoid an end like mine.
Tell my poor mother, that her hapless son is just about to be hurried out of this world - I expect she will be shocked and distressed, but I hope God will support her.
I hope my brothers and sisters will have compassion on my distressed family, and not grudge to do them every kindness in their power - the Lord will reward their kind hearts, if they act thus and also serve Him. I here bid them all an affectionate farewell.
My dear soul; it is but justice that, with my dying hands, I record how I regard you, and declare, that I never saw a woman on whom I could better depend. May God reward your FAITHFULNESS.
Let Howell be bound apprentice, when about nineteen, to some trade; let him have his choice. If you ever marry again, bind out all the boys; but if you live a widow, you cannot do without them - keep what little there is together for your needy rising family. And now, as it appears probable that we shall never see each other in the face again in this world, let us try to cast ourselves into the arms of God’s mercy, and seek His favor, that we may be allowed to meet in a happier world hereafter.
And now, my dearest love, how shall I take my last leave of you on earth! Oh, how shall I say that we must meet no more, until the Heavens and the Earth pass away - there must we meet before the JUDGMENT SEAT!
How can I bear to think that I am dead to you forever! My God, support my wife - and, oh, have mercy upon her wretched, but most affectionate husband.
P. S. The time appointed for our execution, is the 16th October. Keep this letter to show to the children as they grow up, and take a copy of it, which I wish you, for my sake, to read often to them. Farewell, my dearest wife, farewell!
F. Briggs

The Library of Virginia put together a guide to this letter. You can review the guide via the below link:

This letter shows that Briggs certainly had a gift for writing. Various parts of the letter can be described as poetic. This makes me wonder if Briggs was an educated man. If so, what was he doing stealing horses? Could he have been set up or wrongly accused? Perhaps Briggs was simply a criminal whose crime spree came to an unfortunate end in Charlotte County, Virginia. These are only a couple of the questions I have about this man...

The conviction and death of Frederick Briggs brings to light a time in this nation's history when horse theft was a serious crime that was punishable by death. For most people, it may be hard to believe that a person could be executed for stealing the equivalent of a motor vehicle in modern times. When reviewing capital punishment in the 18th century, it is important to avoid judging the past based on today's standards. Officials in 18th century Virginia had a different perspective on crime and justice. We should take the events as a building block to learn and improve society.

RIP Frederick.



  1. Yes, Frederick Briggs makes me question my genealogy. By my count, his father was an officer in the Revolution, and the child of a family that had a 2100 acre plantation 3 generations prior, and at least "little Tommy" became a doctor. Why EVER would he become a horse thief?

    It makes me wonder about the documentation connecting those two parts of the genealogy. Which one of his children are you related to?

    1. Hi Bob, my apologies for the delayed response! Thank you for the comment! The story of Frederick Briggs is very strange in many ways. I have many questions revolving around his arrest and trial, as I'm sure you do as well! I fear these questions may never be answered though. I'm related to his son Edward Briggs. My great-grandmother was Lillian Mae Briggs, the wife of Grant Ward. If you would like to further discuss our Briggs ancestors please send me an email at: -Matt