America’s First “Sherlock Holmes,” Philadelphia, 1688-1690 (updated)

The fictional Sherlock Holmes has nothing on William Clayton Jr., in 1690.

These three cases from 1688-1690 involve one thief: John Martin, indentured servant of James Brown, all of whom lived just outside Philadelphia, in Chester County. Nathaniel Thornton is also involved in one case because he stands accused of knowingly receiving stolen money from Martin.

Martin was a weaver, and Brown, also a weaver, was training him as an apprentice of sorts.

How the third case against Martin was solved needs some sleuthing from William Clayton Jr., son of William Clayton Sr.

But before we get to that case, we need to set the stage with the first two trials in 1688.

First Trial

Chester County Court, 3rd day, 1st month, 1688 (March 3, 1688)

First, Thornton is called to the bar to stand trial.

The witnesses are “attested,” not sworn in, because this is a Quaker community.

The (modernized) Court minutes read:

Nathaniel Thornton being convicted before [Presiding Judge] John Bristow for receiving stolen money of John Martin, servant to James Brown, was for the same at this Court, indicted.

The Grand Inquest Finds the Bill

Whereupon he is called to the bar and pleads not guilty and refers himself to God and the Country.

The names of the Petty Jury all accepted by the prisoner:

John Bartum, Michaoli [sic] Blunstone, Thomas Worth, Richard Tucker, John Child, John Beales [married Mary Clayton, daughter of William Clayton, Sr.], Robert Barber, Edward Beasor [his sister married William Clayton Jr.], Caleb Pusie, Albert Hendrickson, Thomas Bowiter [sic], Randel Mayleu [sic]

Witness and prosecutrix Elizabeth Locke

Jeremy Collett being attested declares that he did hear Nath. Thornton say when he was examined before John Bristow that he did receive 6s of John Martin and that Martin had told him he came honestly by the money.

Elizabeth Locke being attested says that Nathaniel Thornton being examined denied that he received 25s of John Martin, but confessed to 8s and further said he knew not where Martin had it.

James Brown being attested declares that upon examination Nathaniel Thornton did confess that he had of John Martin 6s; afterwards he confessed to 9s; then again to 12s; then again to 6s and further saith not.

The Jury’s verdict the 6th of the 1st month, 1688 (March 6, 1688)

We of the Petty Jury do find Nathaniel Thornton to be guilty of the indictment he stands indicted of ….. John Bartum, foreman

Judgment is hereupon granted that he pay unto Elizabeth Locke the Party 24s/ with all court charges.

Transcription of the first case ends.

Nathaniel Thornton knew the money was stolen and took it.

Second Trial

On the same day the next case involves John Martin, the source of the troubles.

The (modernized) court minutes read:

John Martin, servant to James Brown of Chichester, being convicted before [Presiding Judge] John Bristow for feloniously breaking open the box of Elizabeth Locke and taking thence 44s in money or thereabout was for the same at this Court indicted.

The Grand Inquest finds the Bill

Whereupon he is called to the bar and arraigned, he confesses the fact; thereupon judgment is awarded that he receive twenty-one lashes on his bare back at the common whipping post at Chester and that his master James Brown pay Elizabeth Locke the party wronged the sum of 5£ 8s with all court charges and that he have power to dispose of him for such time as may be thought fit and reasonable for his satisfaction.

Transcription of the second trial ends.

In other words, John Martin will remain James Brown’s indentured servant for a long, long, long time.

But does Brown want him?

Third Trial

To solve whether John Martin stole dressed deerskin two years later deserves some “fancy footwork” detecting.

It’s this case that qualifies William Clayton and George Foreman to be the first two “Sherlock Holmes.”

Modernized transcription begins:

At a Court held at Chester for the County of Chester the 1st 3rd day in the 1st week of the fourth month, 1690 [June 1-3, 1690]

John Martin being prosecuted by the Grand Inquest that the said John Martin of Chichester, weaver, for that he the said John Martin having not the fear of God before his eyes did on the one and twentieth day of the first month last past [March 20, 1690] feloniously take, steal and carry away out of the swelling house of Thomas Brown John in Chichester fourteen dressed deerskins at the value of thirty shillings in contempt of the King and Queen and their laws and the Proprietary and Governor, his dominion and government.

Upon which the said John Martin was called to the bar and pleaded not guilty and put himself upon God and Country.


Thomas Brown John being attested declares that John Martin himself told him that he stole the skins and that he did intend to go in 3 days time; and the print of his foot nails and clamps was like the print that was upon the earth and that two nails were towards the back of his toe.

Frances Chads being attested declares that he mended John Martin’s shoes with two nails and two pleats towards the toes of his shoes.

James Brown being attested declares [the] morning the skins were stolen, the courier was running past our house and Martin seemed to have a great choler in his face; and he pressed several times upon him to tell him whether he had stolen them; and said Brown to Martin, “Thou are guilty of stealing the said skins”; then he seemed to have guilt in his face; and then said Martin if I should confess, then I should bring myself to public shame.

William Clayton being attested declares that when Tho. Brown John and he were discoursing said I will not confess before evidence [is presented] so we went to Thomas Brown John’s house and there we saw the print [of] a shoe, and we followed it, and we perceived it to be the print with nails and a pleat with nails, and we followed it to the swamp and there in a hollow of a tree we found the skins; and afterwards we took the measure and went to James Brown’s and compared it with John Martin’s and it seemed to be the very same.

George Foreman being attested declares that the same morning that the skins were missing Thomas Brown John came to my house and made his complaint and said that he had lost sixteen [sic] dressed skins and that his house was broken open and withal desired me to write him a warrant to make search through the neighborhood which accordingly I did; but afterward he made a search, but could none; so I bid him go to his house and whether there was no tracking of anybody, so he immediately went and returned to my house that there was a print of a foot. Then I went to his house myself, and there I saw the window open and upon the ground there was a print of a shoe with nails and clamps of iron. So we followed the tracking down the side of the fence; and then along the swamp until we came upon William Clayton, new[ly] cleared field, and there in the swamp in a hollow tree we found fourteen [sic] skins. Then we went to James Brown’s house and took along with us the print of the shoe and measured John Martin’s, and it seemed to us to be the very same, and the said Martin seemed to be startled at my taking his shoe off.


The Jury finds him guilty of the indictment. John Martin being called to the bar and judgment awarded that he be sold into another province to make good all damages of the person aggrieved and his master’s charge with all lawful charges and threefold, according to Law and receive 39 lashes well laid … on his bare back at Cart’s Tayl. [sic, tail]

Ordered that John Martin be sold for eight years’ service to make satisfaction threefold to Thomas Brown John, for stealing 14 deerskins and the charges of the Court being 6£, 12s 2 ½d, due the sheriff Clarke’s witness and King’s attorney and 17£ 07s and 9 ½ d due before to his master James Brown for service due on indenture and moneys paid to Elizabeth Locke to make satisfaction for goods stolen by John Martin from her.

Transcription ends.

It looks like Will Clayton and George Foreman dug around the shoe print in the mud and lifted it out and took it to Brown’s house and compared it with Martin’s shoe. Call it the first plaster mold evidence, of sorts.

William Clayton could be considered the first Sherlock Holmes because it seems he tracked the shoe print first to the hollow of the tree in the swamp.

Application for Today

For the investigation phase, all truth-in-humor aside, it was the case of people using sound reason. Our seventeenth-century Founders, one hundred years before the eighteenth-century Founders, were true and reliable. We owe them a lot.

As for the punishment phase, our forefathers did not show much wisdom. They applied Deut. 25:1-3 literally, which says a judge has to stand and watch the lashes, no more than forty. I for one am glad we have moved past this punishment, but if you feel differently, I hope you never become a judge and a relative of mine has to stand for trial in your courtroom!

I still say, however, we can learn a lot from these seventeenth-century “proto-Founders.”



9th day, 7th month, 1696 (September 7, 1696)

The modernized court record reads:

Francis Chadsey passed a deed to John Martin, laborer, for one hundred and twenty-five acres of land and premises, it being in the township of Concord, the deed bearing date the seventh day of September Anno Domi. 1696.

Transcription ends.

Chadsey was often involved in the Clayton and Brown records, so it looks like he wanted to give Martin a chance to grow up and earn an honest living. The common laborer became a landowner. I like to think the whole community, including the Claytons and Browns, helped him get the farm going, so he could eventually pay off the debt and own it free and clear.

Life was great in baby America for those who took hold of her.


Positive Lessons from Indentured Servants in Colonial America

One Troubled Indentured Servant in Chester County, Pennsylvania

How to Punish a Servant for Slander

Indentured Servants, Indians and Rum in Philadelphia 1684-85 


Record for the Courts of Chester County, Pennsylvania, Begun the 13th of September, 1681, Ending the 10th day of March 1696/7 (Patterson and White, 1920) pp. 150-52; 199, 203-06; 394.

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