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William Austin was born on March 2,1778, in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, where his family fled after their house in Charlestown was burned down during the Battle of Bunker Hill. Austin was educated at Harvard College in a class of forty-nine students that included William Ellery Channing, and he studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, London, thanks to assistance from Alexander Hamilton. He married twice, fought one duel, had fourteen children, as well as briefly serving as a Unitarian chaplain and teacher aboard the USS Constitution. He was mainly known as a respected lawyer, a representative to the State House of Massachusetts, and a staunch member of his local Unitarian church of Charlestown.
During his life, he published a work of Unitarian theology (The Human Character of Jesus Christ, 1807), a depiction of his travels, and a few fictional tales. His most successful work by far was “Peter Rugg, the Missing Man.” This story, published in three parts, depicted Peter Rugg, a resident of Boston, who sets out for home at night in the middle of a terrible storm, only to get lost (largely due to supernatural causes) for fifty years, doomed to roam up and down the Eastern seaboard in a chaise drawn by his black horse, “Lightfoot.” The story was so compelling variations on the Peter Rugg stories were confused for authentic New England folktales.
Austin did not publish under his own name, seeing his writing mainly as a vehicle for the transmission of Unitarian values, especially the belief that human nature includes the capacity for positive moral agency. The Peter Rugg tales can be read as a specifically Unitarian anti-Calvinist allegory. Peter Rugg, a troubled Calvinist with a possibly demonic horse, cannot find his way home because the Boston he once knew is now unrecognizable, having thrown of Calvinism for the new liberal religion, Unitarianism. The Peter Rugg tales were originally published in The New England Galaxy, 1824–1826.