William Austin (American writer)

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William Austin (March 2, 1778 – June 27, 1841) was an American author and lawyer, most notable as the creator of the Peter Rugg stories published in the New England Galaxy in 1824–1827. Austin's stories, constructed as long letters signed with the name Jonathan Dunwell, presented the Rugg story as a long-standing New England legend, about a strong and obstinate man who got lost in a thunderstorm in 1770 and wandered the roads ever afterwards.[1]


Austin was born in 1778 in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, where his family had fled after the British burned down their Charlestown house during the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was educated at Harvard College and Lincoln's Inn, London. He married twice, fought one duel with pistols, and had fourteen children.

As a young man he served as Unitarian chaplain aboard the USS Constitution. After the Constitution captured a French ship, the salvage proceedings brought Austin $200 and the acquaintance of Alexander Hamilton, who helped the young man begin his legal studies in London.[2] While studying at Lincoln's Inn, Austin produced a lively series of "Letters from London", describing the politics and personalities in the age of Pitt and Fox. Back in America, Austin was active in local politics in the Boston area, serving in the state senate as a representative of Middlesex in the early 1820s.[3]

Although he was a frequent contributor to local periodicals, on subjects ranging from Unitarian theology to chemistry to legal history, nothing else he wrote had the popularity of "Peter Rugg: The Missing Man" (1824) and its sequels. In 1882, his son, James Walker Austin, gathered the three Peter Rugg stories into a single volume[4] In 1925 Austin's grandson Walter Austin reissued the Rugg tales, this time with a biographical sketch, in the volume William Austin: the Creator of Peter Rugg.[5]


The stories were so popular and convincing they were readily accepted as a recounting of actual legend. Austin's original fiction was forgotten, and Peter Rugg became accepted as a figure of popular New England ghost tales. The Rugg stories are said to have influenced Nathaniel Hawthorne (who read them contemporaneously as a college student) and Herman Melville, among others.[6][7] Professor Thomas Wentworth Higginson of Harvard, writing in 1908, described Austin as "A Precursor to Hawthorne" (essay title), resembling the younger writer not only in "penumbral" atmosphere of dread, but in his preferred era:

The time to which Rugg's career dates back is that borderland of which Hawthorne was so fond, between the colonial and the modern period; and the old localities, dates, costumes, and even coins are all introduced in a way to remind us of [Hawthorne].[8]


  1. ^ Biographical timeline at http://laboratoires.univ-reunion.fr/oracle/documents/biographical_milestones.html
  2. ^ Walter Austin, William Austin: the Creator of Peter Rugg, 1925.
  3. ^ http://laboratoires.univ-reunion.fr/oracle/documents/biographical_milestones.html
  4. ^ James Austin, Peter Rugg: The Missing Man.
  5. ^ Carol Hull's 1981 extract of the biography, with some factual errors corrected, is [here]http://www.austins.org/aarcPublicWebAFGS/p018.pdf.
  6. ^ Alexander Woollcott, [comment in 1937 reprint]http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/PetrRugg.htm
  7. ^ "Peter Rugg, the Missing Man" or The Eclipsing Revolution: an Essay on the Supernatural, from [Oracle]http://laboratoires.univ-reunion.fr/oracle/documents/peter_rugg__the_missing_man__the_eclipsing_revolut.html
  8. ^ T. W. Higginson, in Peter Rugg: the Missing Man, published in 1910. [Archived online.]https://archive.org/details/peterruggmissing00austiala

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