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May 30, 2012

Peter Rugg, the Missing Man by William Austin- Summary

Peter Rugg, the Missing Man by William Austin- Summary

Peter Rugg is a New England literary/folk character that has appeared in several American short stories and poems. Rugg is a stubborn man, who was born around 1730. He rides out into a thunderstorm in the year of the Boston Massacre (1770), and is cursed to drive his carriage until the end of time. William Austin made him up in 1824 using the pseudonym Jonathan Dunwell. The epistolary style of the narrative suggests reportage. Initially, the story appeared in The New England Magazine, but it was reprinted by The New England Galaxy. People thought that this was a real story, and wrote into the magazine for further news, which inspired Austin to write two further tales.

Peter Rugg lined on Middle Street in Boston with his wife Catherine and their daughter Jenny. Peter was an honest, good mannered man except for his bouts of swearing. He would work himself into a fits of passion, and was known to kick through doors, bite through nails, and curse his wig off (at this time men wore white wigs) during these bouts.

In the autumn of 1770, in the midst of the Boston Massacre, Peter and Jenny (aged 10) set out in their horse drawn carriage to visit friends in Concord, Massachusetts. On their way home they were overtaken by a violent storm. They stopped at Mr. Cutter’s house (a friend of his) in Menotomy (now Arlington, Massachusetts). Mr. Cutter urged them to stay the night, because the storm was only getting worse. Rugg declined, and stating “I will see home to-night, in spite of the last tempest, or may I never see home!” (42). He never reached home.

Every dark and stormy night, Catherine thought she heard the crack of a whip, horse hooves, and the rattle of a carriage pass her house. The neighbors also heard the noises, so one night they waited with lanterns and saw Rugg pass by. He looked at the door, but was unable to stop his horse. The next day, Catherine’s friends tried to help her find her husband and child to no avail. No one ever looked for him again, and chalked up the sighting of Rugg as a delusion. Mrs. Rugg died within the year.

Stories of a wet and weary man with his daughter and horse riding rapidly along the highways only furthered the mystery. He only stopped to inquire, which way to Boston. Half the time he was headed in the wrong direction or in a different location than he thought he was and when corrected would become very upset and relate that it was wrong to deceive a traveler.

He became known as “the stormbreeder” along the Northeastern states, because within an hour of his passing there would be a great storm and darkness.

Jonathan Dunwell first encountered Rugg in the summer of 1820 while sitting next to the driver on the stage coach (all of the other seats were filled). The horses sensed him first and put their ears flat back on their necks. He asked the driver who that man in the buggy was, to which he was told “nobody knows,” even though he had been seen in those parts many times. He never stops longer than to ask which way to Boston. A black cloud came along behind him. Dunwell and Rugg encountered each other several times after that, and each time Dunwell was left feeling unsatisfied because he had no answers.

It came that the estate of Peter Rugg had fallen to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, because there were no heirs. It was to be sold at a public auction. Dunwell was in town at the time and curiosity drew him to the event. The estate encompassed half an acre and included a mansion-house; the building was dilapidated due to the lack of maintenance.

The auctioneer began by stating that the rumors of Peter Rugg being alive were false. Especially because he would now be near one hundred years old. He then began his sales pitch, throwing in that the city wants a large piece of the land to widen Ann Street. The bidding began at fifty cents per square acre and ended at one dollar per square acre. The auctioneer was about to bang his ivory hammer when Peter Rugg appeared out of nowhere. He was confused at the sight of his dilapidated house and all of the strangers about him. The auction was over. He asked what had happened to his house and neighbors. A voice from the crowd said:

"There is nothing strange here but yourself, Mr. Rugg. Time, which destroys and renews all things, has dilapidated your house, and placed us here. You have suffered many years under an illusion. The tempest which you profanely defied at Menotomy has at length subsided; but you will never see home, for your house and wife and neighbors have all disappeared. Your estate, indeed, remains, but no home. You were cut off from the last age, and you can never be fitted to the present. You home is gone, and you can never have another home in this world” (61).


Austin, William. "Peter Rugg, The Missing Man." The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992. 33-61.