Master of Arts (M.A.)
“Will-with-the-Wisp”: Mass Surveillance and the Act of Pretending Among Runaway Laborers in Eighteenth-Century New England Henry Burch first appeared in the Boston News-Letter on the fifth of November in 1705. The next three issues of the paper tell the story of a young man who conned and cheated his New England benefactors under the guise of being an abused indentured servant from London. Burch’s story, including the falsehoods and the truths, reveals that fugitive laborers employed sophisticated means to evade a society that was structured to return them to bondage, by pretending to be something they were not. Parallel to Burch’s, and his fellow fugitives, desire for freedom, was their masters’ desire to retrieve their property. The intersection of these two separate but similar desires is the focus of this study, which will examine the development of mass surveillance and runaway culture in New England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. “May possibly pretend to be a Free Woman”: Cultivating Identity Among Fugitive Laborers in Eighteenth-Century New England Since the publication of Carter G. Woodson’s “Eighteenth-Century Slaves as Advertised by their Masters,” in the Journal of Negro History, runaway advertisements have served as a bountiful source of information for scholars of multiple disciplines. This essay will use runaway notices for all bound laborers—slaves, servants, and apprentices—in eighteenth-century New England. Specifically examining how fugitives cultivated false identities. For the purpose of this essay, identity is defined as a clandestine disguise crafted by fugitive laborers to confuse the people they encountered. In order to acquire freedom, permanent or temporary, fugitives needed to outsmart would be captors. To achieve this end, fugitives cultivated identities based on space, mobility, and social knowledge.
© The Author
Haygood, Tamia Kyana, "“Will-With-The-Wisp”/“May Possibly Pretend To Be A Free Woman”" (2020). Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects. William & Mary. Paper 1616444279.
Available for download on Friday, August 14, 2026