Peter Rugg, the Missing Man by William Austin

Sir—Agreeably to my promise, I now relate to you all the particulars of the lost man and child which I have been able to collect. It is entirely owing to the humane interest you seemed to take in the report, that I have pursued the inquiry to the following result.

You may remember that business called me to Boston in the summer of 1820. I sailed in the packet to Providence, and when I arrived there I learned that every seat in the stage was engaged. I was thus obliged either to wait a few hours or accept a seat with the driver, who civilly offered me that accommodation. Accordingly I took my seat by his side, and soon found him intelligent and communicative.

When we had travelled about ten miles, the horses suddenly threw their ears on their necks, as flat as a hare’s. Said the driver, “Have you a surtout with you?” “No,” said I; “why do you ask?” “You will want one soon,” said he; “do you observe the ears of all the horses?” “Yes, and was just about to ask the reason.” “They see the storm-breeder, and we shall see him soon.” At this moment there was not a cloud visible in the firmament. Soon after a small speck appeared in the road. “There,” said my companion, “comes the storm-breeder; he always leaves a Scotch mist behind him. By many a wet jacket do I remember him. I suppose the poor fellow suffers much himself, much more than is known to the world.” Presently a man with a child beside him, with a large black horse, and a weather-beaten chair, once built for a chaise body, passed in great haste, apparently at the rate of twelve miles an hour. He seemed to grasp the reins of his horse with firmness, and appeared to anticipate his speed. He seemed dejected, and looked anxiously at the passengers, particularly at the stage-driver and myself. In a moment after he passed us, the horses’ ears were up and bent themselves forward so that they nearly met. “Who is that man?” said I; “he seems in great trouble.” “Nobody knows who is he, but his person and the child are familiar to me. I have met them more than a hundred times, and have been so often asked the way to Boston by that man, even when he was travelling directly from that town, that of late I have refused any communication with him, and that is the reason he gave me such a fixed look.” “But does he never stop anywhere?” “I have never known him to stop anywhere longer than to inquire the way to Boston; and, let him be where he may, he will tell you he cannot stay a moment, for he must reach Boston that night.”

We were now ascending a high hill in Walpole, and as we had a fair view of the heavens, I was rather disposed to jeer the driver for thinking of his surtout, as not a cloud as big as a marble could be discerned. “Do you look,” said he, “in the direction whence the man came, that is the place to look; the storm never meets him, it follows him.” We presently approached another hill, and when at the height, the driver pointed out in an eastern direction a little black speck as big as a hat. “There,” said he, “is the seed storm; we may possibly reach Polley’s before it reaches us, but the wanderer and his child will go to Providence through rain, thunder, and lightning.” And now the horses, as though taught by instinct, hastened with increased speed. The little black cloud came on rolling over the turnpike, and doubled and trebled itself in all directions. The appearance of this cloud attracted the notice of all the passengers; for after it had spread itself to a great bulk, it suddenly became more limited in circumference, grew more compact, dark, and consolidated. And now the successive flashes of chain lightning caused the whole cloud to appear like a sort of irregular network, and displayed a thousand fantastic images. The driver bespoke my attention to a remarkable configuration in the cloud; he said every flash of lightning near its centre discovered to him distinctly the form of a man sitting in an open carriage drawn by a black horse. But in truth I saw no such thing. The man’s fancy was doubtless at fault. It is a very common thing for the imagination to paint for the senses, both in the visible and invisible world.

In the meantime the distant thunder gave notice of a shower at hand, and just as we reached Polley’s tavern the rain poured down in torrents. It was soon over, the cloud passing in the direction of the turnpike toward Providence. In a few moments after, a respectable-looking man in a chaise stopped at the door. The man and child in the chair having excited some little sympathy among the passengers, the gentleman was asked if he had observed them. He said he had met them; that the man seemed bewildered, and inquired the way to Boston; that he was driving at great speed, as though he expected to outstrip the tempest; that the moment he had passed him a thunderclap broke distinctly over the man’s head and seemed to envelop both man and child, horse and carriage. “I stopped,” said the gentleman, “supposing the lightning had struck him, but the horse only seemed to loom up and increase his speed, and, as well as I could judge, he travelled just as fast as the thunder cloud.” While this man was speaking, a peddler with a cart of tin merchandise came up, all dripping; and, on being questioned, he said he had met that man and carriage, within a fortnight, in four different States; that at each time he had inquired the way to Boston; and that a thunder shower like the present had each time deluged him, his wagon and his wares, setting his tin pots, etc., afloat, so that he had determined to get marine insurance done for the future. But that which excited his surprise most was the strange conduct of his horse, for that, long before he could distinguish the man in the chair, his own horse stood still in the road and flung back his ears. “In short,” said the peddler, “I wish never to see that man and horse again; they do not look to me as if they belonged to this world.”

This is all that I could learn at that time; and the occurrence soon after would have become with me like one of those things which had never happened, had I not, as I stood recently on the doorstep of Bennett’s Hotel in Hartford, heard a man say, “There goes Peter Rugg and his child! he looks wet and weary, and farther from Boston than ever.” I was satisfied it was the same man that I had seen more than three years before; for whoever has once seen Peter Rugg can never after be deceived as to his identity. “Peter Rugg!” said I, “and who is Peter Rugg?” “That,” said the stranger, “is more than anyone can tell exactly. He is a famous traveller, held in light esteem by all inn-holders, for he never stops to eat, drink, or sleep. I wonder why the Government does not employ him to carry the mail.” “Ay,” said a bystander, “that is a thought bright only on one side. How long would it take, in that case, to send a letter to Boston? For Peter has already, to my knowledge, been more than twenty years travelling to that place.” “But,” said I, “does the man never stop anywhere, does he never converse with anyone? I saw the same man more than three years since, near Providence, and I heard a strange story about him. Pray, sir, give me some account of this man.” “Sir,” said the stranger, “those who know the most respecting that man say the least. I have heard it asserted that heaven sometimes sets a mark on a man, either for judgment or trial. Under which Peter Rugg now labours I cannot say; therefore I am rather inclined to pity than to judge.” “You speak like a humane man,” said I, “and if you have known him so long, I pray you will give me some account of him. Has his appearance much altered in that time?” “Why, yes; he looks as though he never ate, drank, or slept; and his child looks older than himself; and he looks like time broke off from eternity and anxious to gain a resting-place.” “And how does his horse look?” said I. “As for his horse, he looks fatter and gayer, and shows more animation and courage, than he did twenty years ago. The last time Rugg spoke to me he inquired how far it was to Boston. I told him just one hundred miles. ‘Why,’ said he, ‘how can you deceive me so? It is cruel to deceive a traveller. I have lost my way. Pray direct me the nearest way to Boston.’ I repeated it was one hundred miles. ‘How can you say so?’ said he. ‘I was told last evening it was but fifty, and I have travelled all night.’ ‘But,’ said I, ‘you are now travelling from Boston. You must turn back.’ ‘Alas!’ said he, ‘it is all turn back! Boston shifts with the wind, and plays all around the compass. One man tells me it is to the east, another to the west; and the guide-posts, too, they all point the wrong way.’ ‘But will you not stop and rest?’ said I; ‘you seem wet and weary.’ ‘Yes,’ said he, ‘it has been foul weather since I left home.’ ‘Stop, then, and refresh yourself.’ ‘I must not stop, I must reach home to-night, if possible, though I think you must be mistaken in the distance to Boston.’ He then gave the reins to his horse, which he restrained with difficulty, and disappeared in a moment. A few days afterwards I met the man a little this side of Claremont, winding around the hills in Unity, at the rate, I believe, of twenty miles an hour.”

“Is Peter Rugg his real name, or has he accidentally gained that name?” “I know not, but presume he will not deny his name; you can ask him, for see, he has turned his horse and is passing this way.” In a moment a dark-coloured, high-spirited horse approached, and would have passed without stopping, but I had resolved to speak to Peter Rugg, or whoever the man might be. Accordingly. I stepped into the street, and as the horse approached I made a feint of stopping him. The man immediately reined in his horse. “Sir,” said I, “may I be so bold as to inquire if you are not Mr. Rugg? for I think I have seen you before.” “My name is Peter Rugg,” said he; “I have unfortunately lost my way; I am wet and weary, and will take it kindly of you to direct me to Boston.” “You live in Boston, do you, and in what street?” “In Middle Street.” “When did you leave Boston?” “I cannot tell precisely; it seems a considerable time.” “But how did you and your child become so wet? it has not rained here to-day.” “It has just rained a heavy shower up the river. But I shall not reach Boston to-night if I tarry. Would you advise me to take the old road, or the turnpike?” “Why, the old road is one hundred and seventeen miles, and the turnpike is ninety-seven.” “How can you say so? you impose on me; it is wrong to trifle with a traveller; you know it is but forty miles from Newburyport to Boston.” “But this is not Newburyport; this is Hartford.” “Do not deceive me, sir. Is not this town Newburyport, and the river that I have been following the Merrimac?” “No, sir; this is Hartford, and the river the Connecticut.” He wrung his hands and looked incredulous. “Have the rivers, too, changed their courses as the cities have changed places? But see, the clouds are gathering in the south, and we shall have a rainy night. Ah, that fatal oath!” He would tarry no longer. His impatient horse leaped off, his hind flanks rising like wings—he seemed to devour all before him and to scorn all behind.

I had now, as I thought, discovered a clue to the history of Peter Rugg, and I determined, the next time my business called me to Boston, to make a further inquiry. Soon after I was enabled to collect the following particulars from Mrs. Croft, an aged lady in Middle Street, who has resided in Boston during the last twenty years. Her narration is this: The last summer a person, just at twilight, stopped at the door of the late Mrs. Rugg. Mrs. Croft, on coming to the door, perceived a stranger, with a child by his side, in an old, weather-beaten carriage, with a black horse. The stranger asked for Mrs. Rugg, and was informed that Mrs. Rugg had died, at a good old age, more than twenty years before that time. The stranger replied, “How can you deceive me so? do ask Mrs. Rugg to step to the door.” “Sir, I assure you Mrs. Rugg has not lived here these nineteen years; no one lives here but myself, and my name is Betsey Croft.” The stranger paused, and looked up and down the street and said, “Though the painting is rather faded, this looks like my house.” “Yes,” said the child, “that is the stone before the door that I used to sit on to eat my bread and milk.” “But,” said the stranger, “it seems to be on the wrong side of the street. Indeed, everything here seems to be misplaced. The streets are all changed, the people are all changed, the town seems changed, and, what is strangest of all, Catharine Rugg has deserted her husband and child.” “Pray,” said the stranger, “has John Foy come home from sea? He went a long voyage; he is my kinsman. If I could see him, he could give me some account of Mrs. Rugg.” “Sir,” said Mrs. Croft, “I never heard of John Foy. Where did he live?” “Just above here, in Orange-Tree Lane.” “There is no such place in this neighbourhood.” “What do you tell me! Are the streets gone? Orange-Tree Lane is at the head of Hanover Street, near Pemberton’s Hill.” “There is no such lane now.” “Madam! you cannot be serious. But you doubtless know my brother, William Rugg. He lives in Royal Exchange Lane, near King Street.” “I know of no such lane; and I I am sure there is no such street as King Street in this town.” “No such street as King Street? Why, woman! you mock me. You may as well tell me there is no King George. However, madam, you see I am wet and weary. I must find a resting place. I will go to Hart’s tavern, near the market.” “Which market, sir? for you seem perplexed; we have several markets.” “You know there is but one market, near the town dock.” “Oh, the old market. But no such man as Hart has kept there these twenty years.”

Here the stranger seemed disconcerted, and muttered to himself quite audibly: “Strange mistake! How much this looks like the town of Boston! It certainly has a great resemblance to it; but I perceive my mistake now. Some other Mrs. Rugg, some other Middle Street.” Then said he, “Madam, can you direct me to Boston?” “Why, this is Boston, the city of Boston. I know of no other Boston.” “City of Boston it may be, but it is not the Boston where I live. I recollect now, I came over a bridge instead of a ferry. Pray what bridge is that I just came over?” “It is Charles River Bridge.” “I perceive my mistake; there is a ferry between Boston and Charlestown, there is no bridge. Ah, I perceive my mistake. If I was in Boston, my horse would carry me directly to my own door. But my horse shows by his impatience that he is in a strange place. Absurd, that I should have mistaken this place for the old town of Boston! It is a much finer city than the town of Boston. It has been built long since Boston. I fancy Boston must lie at a distance from this city, as the good woman seems ignorant of it.” At these words his horse began to chafe, and strike the pavement with his fore feet; the stranger seemed a little bewildered, and said “No home to-night,” and, giving the reins to his horse, passed up the street, and I saw no more of him.

It was evident that the generation to which Peter Rugg belonged had passed away.

This was all the account of Peter Rugg I could obtain from Mrs. Croft; but she directed me to an elderly man, Mr. James Felt, who lived near her, and who had kept a record of the principal occurrences for the last fifty years. At my request she sent for him; and, after I had related to him the object of my inquiry, Mr. Felt told me he had known Rugg in his youth; that his disappearance had caused some surprise; but as it sometimes happens that men run away, sometimes to be rid of others, and sometimes to be rid of themselves; and as Rugg took his child with him, and his own horse and chair; and as it did not appear that any creditors made a stir, the occurrence soon mingled itself in the stream of oblivion; and Rugg and his child, horse and chair, were soon forgotten. “It is true,” said Mr. Felt, “sundry stories grew out of Rugg’s affair, whether true or false I cannot tell; but stranger things have happened in my day, without even a newspaper notice.” “Sir,” said I, “Peter Rugg is now living. I have lately seen Peter Rugg and his child, horse and chair; therefore I pray you to relate to me all you know or ever heard of him.” “Why, my friend,” said James Felt, “that Peter Rugg is now a living man I will not deny; but that you have seen Peter Rugg and his child is impossible, if you mean a small child, for Jenny Rugg, if living, must be at least—let me see—Boston Massacre, 1770—Jenny Rugg was about ten years old. Why, sir, Jenny Rugg if living must be more than sixty years of age. That Peter Rugg is living is highly probable, as he was only ten years older than myself; and I was only eighty last March, and I am as likely to live twenty years longer as any man.” Here I perceived that Mr. Felt was in his dotage, and I despaired of gaining any intelligence from him on which I could depend.

I took my leave of Mrs. Croft, and proceeded to my lodgings at the Marlborough Hotel.

If Peter Rugg, thought I, has been travelling since the Boston Massacre, there is no reason why he should not travel to the end of time. If the present generation know little of him, the next will know less, and Peter and his child will have no hold on this world.

In the course of the evening I related my adventure in Middle Street. “Ha!” said one of the company, smiling, “do you really think you have seen Peter Rugg? I have heard my grandfather speak of him as though he seriously believed his own story.” “Sir,” said I, “pray let us compare your grandfather’s story of Mr. Rugg with my own.” “Peter Rugg, sir, if my grandfather was worthy of credit, once lived in Middle Street, in this city. He was a man in comfortable circumstances, had a wife and one daughter, and was generally esteemed for his sober life and manners. But unhappily his temper at times was altogether ungovernable, and then his language was terrible. In these fits of passion, if a door stood in his way he would never do less than kick a panel through. He would sometimes throw his heels over his head, and come down on his feet, uttering oaths in a circle. And thus, in a rage, he was the first who performed a somerset, and did what others have since learned to do for merriment and money. Once Rugg was seen to bite a tenpenny nail in halves. In those days everybody, both men and boys, wore wigs; and Peter, at these moments of violent passion, would become so profane that his wig would rise up from his head. Some said it was on account of his terrible language; others accounted for it in a more philosophical way, and said it was caused by the expansion of his scalp, as violent passion, we know, will swell the veins and expand the head. While these fits were on him, Rugg had no respect for heaven or earth. Except this infirmity, all agreed that Rugg was a good soft of a man; for when his fits were over, nobody was so ready to commend a placid temper as Peter.

“It was late in autumn, one morning, that Rugg, in his own chair, with a fine large bay horse, took his daughter and proceeded to Concord. On his return a violent storm overtook him. At dark he stopped in Menotomy (now West Cambridge), at the door of a Mr. Cutter, a friend of his, who urged him to tarry overnight. On Rugg’s declining to stop, Mr. Cutter urged him vehemently. ‘Why, Mr. Rugg,’ said Cutter, ‘the storm is overwhelming you; the night is exceeding dark; your little daughter will perish; you are in an open chair, and the tempest is increasing.’ ‘Let the storm increase,’ said Rugg, with a fearful oath, ‘I will see home to-night, in spite of the last tempest! or may I never see home.’ At these words he gave his whip to his high-spirited horse, and disappeared in a moment. But Peter Rugg did not reach home that night, nor the next; nor, when he became a missing man, could he ever be traced beyond Mr. Cutter’s in Menotomy. For a long time after, on every dark and stormy night, the wife of Peter Rugg would fancy she heard the crack of a whip, and the fleet tread of a horse, and the rattling of a carriage, passing her door. The neighbours, too, heard the same noises, and some said they knew it was Rugg’s horse; the tread on the pavement was perfectly familiar to them. This occurred so repeatedly that at length the neighbours watched with lanterns, and saw the real Peter Rugg, with his own horse and chair, and child sitting beside him, pass directly before his own door, his head turning toward his house, and himself making every effort to stop his horse, but in vain. The next day the friends of Mrs. Rugg exerted themselves to find her husband and child. They inquired at every public house and stable in town; but it did not appear that Rugg made any stay in Boston. No one, after Rugg had passed his own door, could give any account of him; though it was asserted by some that the clatter of Rugg’s horse and carriage over the pavements shook the houses on both sides of the street. And this is credible, if, indeed, Rugg’s horse and carriage did pass on that night. For at this day, in many of the streets, a loaded truck or team in passing will shake the houses like an earthquake. However, Rugg’s neighbours never afterward watched again; some of them treated it all as a delusion, and thought no more of it. Others, of a different opinion, shook their heads and said nothing. Thus Rugg and his child, horse and chair, were soon forgotten; and probably many in the neighbourhood never heard a word on the subject.

“There was indeed a rumour that Rugg afterward was seen in Connecticut, between Suffield and Hartford, passing through the country like a streak of chalk. This gave occasion to Rugg’s friends to make further inquiry. But the more they inquired, the more they were baffled. If they heard of Rugg one day in Connecticut, the next day they heard of him winding around the hills in New Hampshire; and soon after, a man in a chair, with a small child, exactly answering the description of Peter Rugg, would be seen in Rhode Island, inquiring the way to Boston.

“But that which chiefly gave a colour of mystery to the story of Peter Rugg was the affair at Charlestown bridge. The toll-gatherer asserted that sometimes, on the darkest and most stormy nights, when no object could be discerned about the time Rugg was missing, a horse and wheelcarriage, with a noise equal to a troop, would at midnight, in utter contempt of the rates of toll, pass over the bridge. This occurred so frequently that the toll-gatherer resolved to attempt a discovery. Soon after, at the usual time, apparently the same horse and carriage approached the bridge from Charlestown square. The toll-gatherer, prepared, took his stand as near the middle of the bridge as he dared, with a large three-legged stool in his hand. As the appearance passed, he threw the stool at the horse, but heard nothing except the noise of the stool skipping across the bridge. The toll-gatherer on the next day asserted that the stool went directly through the body of the horse, and he persisted in that belief ever after. Whether Rugg, or whoever the person was, ever passed the bridge again, the toll-gatherer would never tell; and when questioned, seemed anxious to waive the subject. And thus Peter Rugg and his child, horse and carriage, remain a mystery to this day.”

This, sir, is all that I could learn of Peter Rugg in Boston….