David Robbins was nobody’s idea of a good man. But he was a legend of the New Hampshire woods, made infamous by his own black-hearted deeds.
Robbins was a murderer, and 175 years ago he struck fear into the hearts of the people of Northern New Hampshire and Maine – few as they were.
In the fall of 1826, David Robbins, Abner Hinds of Milan and Hezekiah Cloutman ventured down along the Androscoggin River, which winds through Northern New Hampshire and Maine. They were trapping sable.
These were relatively early days for settlement in Coos County, N.H. Hinds was described as one of the wealthiest settlers in the area, well-liked and successful. Cloutman hailed from Rochester, N.H. He lived on his own in the North Country because his wife declined to join him. She preferred the comforts of civilization.
David Robbins, on the other hand, came from an established, if somewhat frightening, family. Originally from Beverly, Mass., one member of the family was long considered insane, and his neighbors up north would sometimes have to stay up nights watching for him out of fear that he would light fire to their property.
Robbins was a skilled hunter and trapper, but also the subject of unsavory rumors. One story holds that he had killed a child and used him as bait.
The three men proceeded along the Androscoggin River, deep into the north woods. There they laid out a line of traps 20 miles long and proceeded to have a successful summer.
As the first snow flew, Hezekiah Cloutman and Abner Hinds made one last trip to check their traps, leaving Robbins behind at their base camp to guard over the furs. When they returned, they would all proceed 60 miles back to civilization in Lancaster, N.H. But things didn’t go according to plan.
When Cloutman and Hinds returned to the camp, they found it completely burned. Robbins had loaded up the furs and left them with no supplies in the freezing late autumn. Cloutman and Hinds, however, were tough characters in their own right and they didn’t perish in the woods. When they got back down to Lancaster, they sued Robbins and prevailed. Some accounts say Robbins owed them as much as $350 for what he had done.
In 1828, Robbins made a proposition. He would go trapping and hunting again with the men and use the proceeds of the trip to pay his debts. Abner Hinds took him up on the offer, and this time the two men headed into the woods accompanied by Hinds’ 15-year-old son. Hezekiah Cloutman did not join them. The journey met with early success. However, Robbins had darker plans this time.
The men had traveled roughly 50 miles up to Little Kennebago Lake in Maine when Robbins turned on Hinds and shot him. He then killed the boy with a hatchet. When the two bodies were found, it didn’t take long to put two and two together, and the local officials raised a party to go find Robbins, which wouldn’t be easy as he knew the woods well.
But Sheriff Lewis Loomis was the man for the job. Described as strongly built and muscular, he had a reputation as a strongman. He would wrestle all comers at annual musters and fairs, and was undefeated. He recruited two men, Hezekiah Parsons, Jr., and Daniel G. Ellingwood to join him. (The town paid $15 for the work.)
They turned to Hezekiah Cloutman, who knew Robbins’ habits from their past trips, to assist as a guide. The men went in to the woods and for the next 30 days searched for Robbins. As autumn approached, they heard word that Robbins had surfaced at his home, but by the time they got there he had left. Then they heard he was travelling up the Magalloway River. They went after him, and the men found his belongings. They managed to get between Robbins and his rifle. Loomis jumped on Robbins’ back and the men tied up the prisoner.
Robbins fought furiously, and the men had to tie him in the floor of their boat as they returned via the river out of fear that he would try to tip the craft over and drown them all.
The arrest was celebrated and Robbins was locked in the jail in Lancaster to await trial. Robbins had friends and family that stood by him, however. They managed to slip him some tools, and he steadily picked away at the bars in his cell. As the day of his trial neared, one morning the jailer found the cell empty. Robbins had broken the bars out of his window and escaped.
Out of Jail
The jailer explained that Robbins had successfully hidden his work by hanging a blanket over the window, complaining of cold drafts. Few people believed the jailer wasn’t in on the escape.
No one else in the area ever saw David Robbins again, other than perhaps his confederates. People lived in fear of his returning for years. Some stories circulated that he had murdered someone in Canada and hanged there, but no official record turned up to support it.
His story was a popular tale for the newspapers of the era. It even appeared in fictionalized form in 1857’s Gaut Gurley: Or, The Trappers of Umbagog. A Tale of Border Life by David Thompson.
Tip of the hat for details of Robbins life goes to History of Coos County, New Hampshire. W. A. Fergusson & Co. This story was updated in 2021.