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The Amazing Legend Of Henry More Smith

By James Donahue

If he had been in a position to promote his skills, Henry More Smith might have gained the level of fame achieved by the late Harry Houdini. But Smith, alias Henry Frederick Moon, Henry Frederick More Smith and William Newman, was a convicted horse thief, accused jewel thief, burglar and confidence man.

Instead of breaking out of boxes, straight-jackets, ropes and handcuffs before admiring crowds, Smith achieved fame among Canadian authorities for his skills in breaking out of jails and for the amazing things he seemed capable of manufacturing out of almost nothing.

Smith’s other titles, according to legend, might have been: master puppeteer, jeweler, hypnotist, seer, and escape artist. If the stories told about him are true, Smith was, above all else, an extraordinary magician.

Little is known about his origins, or what happened to him after he received a pardon from a death sentence for allegedly stealing a horse at New Brunswick, Canada. The pardon was issued on the agreement that Smith would leave the area and never return.

One story said he was born Henry Frederick Moon in Brighton, England, and once served as a Methodist preacher, but Smith told so many stories that his real story remains clouded in mystery.

It was said that Smith got in trouble when a Canadian named Knox accused Smith of stealing his horse.  Smith reportedly showed “proof” that he bought the animal from a third party, Knox pressed charges and Smith was convicted.

Stories vary as to just where this event occurred. One account said he was first imprisoned in Kingston in 1814. While in the jail he claimed that Knox had kicked him so hard he thought he might be dying from internal injuries. He coughed up blood, became sweaty and was running a fever. Some of the women of the town felt so sorry for him they brought food and a mattress to give him comfort while he was lying there possibly dying.

Smith asked for a hot brick to keep himself warm. The jailer’s son agreed to go prepare one, and left the cell door open. That was when Smith made his first escape.

A posse was formed and it combed the countryside for days searching for Smith. On one occasion the posse members realized that Smith had ridden alongside them as a member of the posse until the day before his trickery was discovered.

After he was recaptured, Smith began to perform amazing feats of magic. One day the jailer found that he had used his bed straw and shreds of his clothing to make an elaborate display of 10 marionettes. Smith then put on a show by whistling a tune while one of the puppets clanged a tambourine. All of the other characters danced to the tune.

There were other amazing tricks that were told.

One night the jailer heard noises in Smith’s cell. When he investigated he found the bars of the cell were nearly sawed through. He found that Smith also had magically freed himself from the chains.

New heavy-duty window and door bars and locks were installed. Yet after that, a jailer found that Smith was sharing his cell with a woman. At least that was what it looked like. On closer examination it was found that Smith had built an amazingly convincing figure of the woman out of straw, the wooden trough used to put his drinking water and scraps of bedding.

Smith was chained once more with even heavier irons, but by the next morning the jailer found that he was free again. They said the jailers conducted an elaborate search of the cell and came upon a tiny saw that Smith had apparently made from cutting tiny metal parts from a steel watch spring.

On yet another occasion the jailers found Smith again freed from the chains. Close examination revealed that the iron links were broken and pulled apart, but they had not been cut. Sheriff Walter Bates, who later wrote a book about his encounters with Smith, said he never found out how Smith accomplished that trick. The chains were replaced with seven-foot-long ox chains stapled to the floorboards. Somehow Smith managed to break these as well.

The myth of Henry Smith reads like a Paul Bunion Tall Tale, making us question the truth of all or any of the story.

It was said that Smith’s iron chains were always warm, even though he was imprisoned in a cold cell. Some said he could make fire at any time without fuel or a means to start a blaze and keep it burning. They said he told fortunes using tea leaves, and predicted the arrival of certain important papers on a certain day at four o’clock. That very day and at that very time, the papers arrived that granted Smith’s pardon.

The pardon came because the people of Kingston and the area were so impressed with Smith’s magical deeds, he was pardoned on condition that he leave New Brunswick and never return.

Bates wrote that Smith was last seen in Newgate, Simsbury, in 1816. But his legend continues beyond that date.

One story said Smith was in New Haven, living under the name William Newman, when he was arrested for creeping into a woman’s bedroom and stealing one of her earrings as she slept. In 1817, while serving a three-year prison sentence in an abandoned copper mine in Connecticut, Smith spent his time using the metal to make pen knives, Jew’s harps, rings and various other tiny items.

When he was released, he presented the prison keeper with a pocket knife with a tiny watch embedded in the handle which not only worked, it was said to have kept perfect time.

As the story is told, after his release from prison, Smith wandered about the land, assuming various characters and they say he carried out numerous robberies. Later he returned to New Brunswick and called on the brother of Sheriff Bates. He gave the man a letter for the sheriff. The document was written in strange glyphs that could not be deciphered.

It was said Smith later went south and returned to the ministry under the name Henry Hopkins, and developed a large following. But in 1835 he tried to rob the Northern Mail, was caught, but escaped again and fled to Canada.

He was caught burglarizing a shop in Toronto and thrown in prison again. His trail falls off at this point.

While a master of escape, Smith obviously was unwise in his quest to steal his way through life. He might better have followed the teachings of the book he used during his ministries.

Can we believe the stories? If not for the published book penned by Sheriff Bates, which can be read on line at http://books.google.com/books?id=Ar8EAAAAYAAJ&dq=Henry+More+Smith&source=gbs_navlinks_s, we might just write off the whole thing as a hoax.

 

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