Peter Rugg, The Missing Man

Peter and Jenny Rugg, from "A book of New England legends and folk lore in prose and poetry" by Samuel Adams Drake, 1888.

Yesterday morning we had some odd weather.  I heard it poured in Boston. Violent thunder and lightning in the early morning, which is a peculiar thing. In Plymouth the thunder was ominous, but it never rained. I expected the skies to open at any moment, but it simply passed by. I suppose Peter Rugg was out and about.

October is coming.  Good time for ghost stories. One of New England’s oldest is also one of my favorites:  Peter Rugg, the so-called “Missing Man.” William Austin, a writer and lawyer, penned the story for the New England Galaxy in 1824. Austin’s family had been burned out of their home in Charlestown by the British during the Battle of Bunker Hill. He served as the chaplain on board the Constitution during the War of 1812. Interesting fellow. He wrote a story that’s still being told today.

It’s too long to fully recount here, but the gist of it is something like this: Austin wrote about a fictitious traveler named Dunwell. On a stage coach trip from Providence to Boston, Dunwell, sitting next to the driver because there was no room in the coach, encountered something he never forgot. A violent storm approached on the horizon and the driver cautioned him to prepare himself for a drenching…the “storm-breeder” was nearby. Soon enough a wild-looking man driving an open chaise raced past them. In the chaise with him was a terrified young girl. As soon as they had gone, the storm broke upon them. Dunwell asked the driver if he knew the man.  The driver responded, “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. Let him be where he may, he will tell you he cannot stay a moment, for he must reach Boston that night.”

Three years later, Dunwell, staying at a Hartford inn, encountered a traveler who had also seen the mysterious man. Many times, in fact. The stranger told Dunwell that the man’s name was Peter Rugg. “He looks like time broken off from eternity,” the stranger said. “I have heard it asserted that Heaven sometimes sets a mark on a man, either for judgment or a trial.  Under which Peter Rugg now labours, I cannot say. I am rather inclined to pity than to judge.” Peter Rugg, it seemed, always asked the way to Boston. And when told he was driving away from Boston, he would grow angry and press on. Only to wander further and further from his destination.

Dunwell, now somewhat obsessed with the mystery, tracked down individuals who had either known or encountered Rugg. And he learned the Missing Man’s story. In 1770, Rugg had left his home in Boston with his 10 year old daughter, Jenny, to do business in Concord. On the way back, he stopped at an inn in Menotomy (now Arlington). The innkeeper knew a terrible storm was coming and implored Rugg to stay the night. Frustrated, Rugg growled, “Let the storm increase. I will see home tonight, in spite of the last tempest, or may I never see home!”

And he never did. According to Dunwell, Rugg wanders the roads of New England, always asking the way to Boston and never heeding any directions, wondering why the rivers seemed to have changed their courses and why Boston seemed to shift with the wind. He is always followed by a thunderous storm that comes and goes as fast as the cursed man and his chaise. The character in this story that few stop to think about is little Jenny. Doomed forever to hold tight next to her maniacal father. Poor girl!

At any rate, Austin wrote the story so realistically from “Dunwell’s” point of view that many believed it to be a true account and Dunwell an actual person who had witnessed astounding things. And soon more and more claimed to have seen Rugg.

You would suppose that by this time, Peter Rugg is further from Boston than ever. But those storms yesterday seemed peculiar indeed.

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, and quondam Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

2 responses to “Peter Rugg, The Missing Man

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