1541: Thomas Fiennes, 9th Baron Dacre 1346: Simon Pouillet

1704: John Quelch, pirate

June 30th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1704, John Quelch was hanged on a Boston wharf for piracy.

Quelch had re-appeared in New England less than a year after hastily absconding with a new privateering vessel while the owners tried to sort out the captain’s sickness.

(The captain suspected his crew were up to no good, but the mutineers locked him in his cabin and set sail before the investors could act on the information. The ill captain died at sea and was pitched overboard — in what order, no one can say.)

The privateer Charles had been tricked out and licensed to raid French shipping off Newfoundland, but the avaricious mutineers saw much better buccaneering prospects preying on the gold-laden Portuguese possessions in South America.

One small problem: Portugal had formed an alliance with England.

So when the Charles re-appeared, heavy with the sort of mineral wealth not to be found in North America, authorities could not fail to notice that its crew

Have lately Imported a considerable Quantity of Gold dust, and some Bar and coin’d Gold, which they are Violently Suspected to have gotten & obtained by Felony and Piracy, from some of Her Majesties Friends and Allies …*

This all looks very neat on the legal docket (and it certainly did to the jury-less Admiralty court, the first time this instrument had been used outside of England), except that pirates and piracy were far more integrated into the fabric of the colonial frontiers than their desperado reputation might suggest. Pirates shifted in and out of their outlaw careers; even the strictly law-abiding colonists traded knowingly with these freebooters. Certainly some momentary mutual convenience between London and Lisbon for reasons of continental politics was very far from most colonists’ scope of care.

John Quelch seems to be among those operating in the grey economy, and in this case bringing “gold and silver to specie-starved colonial economies.”**

Hunger for hard currency in an environment of wartime depreciation of various sketchy paper notes helps explain why Quelch’s trial raised hackles in New England. Here were men who had by dint of enterprise and adventure plucked nearly 1,000 pounds of gold from faraway Brazil and hauled it back home to New England, honestly paid out the shares to the crew and gone to settle up with the privateering syndicate’s financiers.

And the high-handed English governor Joseph Dudley responded by clapping them in irons and trying them for their lives, using a dubiously legal and heretofore unprecedent drumhead military tribunal at which Dudley himself presided while his son† prosecuted.

It’s a nice setup for winning convictions, which is exactly what happened.

In the process, Dudley blew through a good portion of the pirates’ confiscated booty, making it rain for “Stephen North, who kept the Star Tavern in which the trial was held, for entertainment of the Commissioners during the sitting of the Court of Admiralty” and that sort of thing. If a later denunciation circulated by Cotton Mather is to be believed, the Dudleys did not scruple to wet their own beaks, either.

There have been odd Collusions with the Pyrates of Quelch’s Company, of which one instance is, That there was extorted the sum of about Thirty Pounds from some of the crew for liberty to walk at certain times in the prison yard. And this liberty having been allowed for two or three days unto them, they, were again confined to their former wretched circumstances.

(The rest of the cash went neither to the privateer’s investors nor back to the aggrieved Portuguese, but was shipped to English mints under the capable administration of Isaac Newton.)

Little wonder at the unrepentant Quelch’s parting shot on this date.

Sarcastically interrupting one of his five fellow-sufferers’ bog-standard scaffold injunction against running with a bad crowd, Quelch urged the throng of onlookers to better “take care how they brought Money into New-England, to be Hanged for it!”

Their bodies remained gibbeted in the harbor.

In Quelch’s Gold: Piracy, Greed, and Betrayal in Colonial New England, Clifford Beal argues that Quelch’s trial marked the onset of an official crackdown on pirates that would drive these formerly semi-legitimate operators further underground and therefore into greater violence. He even suggests, at a bit more of a stretch, that Quelch’s case presaged the colonial resistance to the mother country’s political and economic dictates that would later blossom into the American Revolution.

As for the gold, much of it was not recovered in 1704. Legends to the effect that it remains stashed on New Hampshire’s Star Island continue to attract treasure hunters.

* From the proclamation of Quelch and his crew‘s arrest, quoted in Pirates of the New England Coast, 1630-1730.

** Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, by Marcus Rediker.

† That son, Paul Dudley, later endowed a still-extant lecture series at Harvard University — the oldest endowed lectureship, even though (or rather because) the donor’s intention that it be directed “for the purpose of detecting and convicting and exposing the Idolatry of the Romish church” was eventually neglected.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Massachusetts,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,USA

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