Born on May 9, 1801 in Carlisle, Watts was one of 12 children born to David and Juliana Miller Watts. Watts’ Cumberland County roots extended to nearly its founding when his grandfather Frederick Watts emigrated from Wales purchasing a large tract of land in 1760 on the banks of the Juniata River in present day Perry County. Watt’s father, David was a well-known lawyer in the county and a member of the first graduating class of Dickinson College in 1787.
From a confession written a day before his death, Pennsylvania’s Robin Hood recounted the story of David Lewis, better known as Lewis the Robber from his birth on Hanover Street in Carlisle on March 4, 1790 to his capture and eventual death in jail in Bellefone, Pennsylvania on July 13, 1820.1 In Lewis’ first encounter with the law he regales his audience with a trial for desertion from the Army for which he was sentenced to death. His sentence was later commuted to imprisonment by General James Wilkerson of the Carlisle Barracks owing to the fact that he was a minor when he first enlisted. Lewis’ first imprisonment at the guardhouse on the Barracks is followed by his first escape, in which he sawed through the chain attached to his ankle with a 30 pound cannon ball on the other end. Lewis would make his way to the cave that would eventually bear his name along the Condoguinet Creek.2
Following his escape, Lewis made his way to Burlington, Vermont where he learned the trade of counterfeiting bank notes. However, he was not able to join the counterfeiting group in Burlington so he made his way to New York where he was jailed for the second time. His second escape from prison would also have a large impact on his legacy as it was through the help of his soon to be wife Melinda, a friend of the jailors daughter, that he was able to make good his escape.3 From here Lewis would eventually return to the Cumberland Valley.
During this time Lewis based his operations out of the Doubling Gap Hotel outside of Newville where he would hide in a nearby cave to escape attention.4 Lewis attempted to rob a number of well-known figures including Jonas Roop of East Pennsboro and the tavern of Nicholas Kritzer. While at the tavern, Lewis claimed to overhear of the wealth of the Beshore family. Lewis’ luck would run out as Mrs. Beshore blew a horn alerting the neighborhood of the attempted robbery and led to the arrest of Lewis and his partner5. Soon after, Lewis escaped and hid in the cave outside Doubling Gap once again. He returned to Carlisle in disguise one more time before fleeing to Centre County. Lewis and his partners Connelly and Maguire would rob a wagon. After fleeing Maguire was soon caught and Lewis and Connelly soon found themselves engaged in a battle that cost Connelly his life and infection with Lewis losing his life after he refused to have his arm amputated.6
Numerous stories and tales are told of Lewis the Robber, including how he provided money for taxes or rent to poor citizens before robbing the government official of everything he had including Lewis’ recent gift. Many local legends include details of his hideouts from caves, a den in Pine Grove Furnace, to more traditional dwellings on Hanover Street and a hut on South Mountain.7 All of the stories whether real or fiction have contributed to the story of Cumberland County’s own Robin Hood.