William Austin Edit Profile
He was educated at Harvard College and Lincoln's Inn, London.
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. His family childhood was where his family had fled after the British burned down their Charlestown house during the Battle of Bunker Hill. As a young man he served as Unitarian chaplain aboard the USS Constitution.
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. 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.
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.
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.
Member Massachusetts Senate from Middlesex County, 1821-1823.
Married Charlotte Williams, June 17, 1806. Married second, Lucy Jones, October 3, 1822.