The hanging of Albert Hicks on Bedloe’s Island on this date in 1860 marked perhaps the last execution for piracy in U.S. history.*
This was a century and more past the Golden Age of Piracy. By the mid-19th century, the picaresque buccaneer had long ago hornswaggled his last doubloons and retired from Atlantic sea lanes into literary nostalgia. According to the Espy file, there had been only a single piracy death case, a double execution in Virginia in 1852, over the preceding quarter-century.
Hicks, who alternately went by William Johnson, wasn’t exactly Captain Kidd: think less freebooter, and more hijacker.
Shipping out of New York on the sloop E.A. Johnson, Hicks — urged on by the devil, he later claimed — seized the vessel by murdering two crewmates, Oliver and Smith Watts, and the captain, George Burr. As that was the entirety of his company, that gave him the ship too. He didn’t mean to raise the Jolly Roger and go a-plundering with his prize: he simply stripped his victims of portable valuables, pitched their bodies into the drink 50 miles off Sandy Hook, and abandoned ship. Eventually the creepy hulk of the E.A. Johnson drifted back into New York’s harbor.
Hicks was tracked down in Providence, R.I. and arrested a few days later — the only survivor of a bloodstained mystery ship who happened to have a large quantity of coins he couldn’t quite account for.
Newsmen meeting him during his incarceration not infrequently express skepticism of Hicks’s veracity and motivations as he attaches himself to new outrages; in particular, Hicks might have been interested to create sensational gallows copy in order to support the family he would soon leave behind. One report shortly after Hicks’s arrest (Boston Courier, March 29, 1860) has his soon-to-be-widow visiting Hick’s cell where “she broke out upon him in the most vituperative language, charging him with being a bloody villain. She held her child up in front of the cell door, and exclaimed, ‘Look at your offspring, you rascal, and think what you have brought on us. If I could get in at you I would pull your bloody heart out.'”
Execution report from the July 14, 1860 New York Herald.
* The U.S. also enforced — loosely — its anti-slaving provisions under piracy statutes, so the 1862 execution of slave trader Nathaniel Gordon occurred under an anti-piracy law. Whether that makes him pirate enough for the milestone, the reader may judge.
Thomas Conodale beinge A Batchelor He was Borne in Glossester beinge A Sea Faringe man and executed at wappinge For pyracye the xxxth daye of Awgust in ano 1587 betwixt the ower of too and three of the clocke was Buried the Sayde xxxth Daye of awgust in ano 1587
beinge xxviij yeares owlde no parishioner For the minester ijs For the grownd in the common churche yeard xijd For the Second clothe xd For the pitt & knell ijs viijd For the clarkes atendance viijd For the Sextenes attendance iiijd he was exicuted at Waping.
To the best of your correspondent’s knowledge, this constitutes the entirety of the relatively accessible information available about this forgotten corsair — although as ReScript notes, the Davy Jones’ locker of admiralty records might yet keep Conodale’s story.
Alv Erlingsson made his sea-dog bones in this conflict, terrorizing Hanseatic League fleets and eventually raiding the Danish coast as well. His “Viking” reputation proceeds not only from this mastery of the waves but from his willingness to direct it even against his own king and country.
Although he was a senior enough official to be dispatched as an envoy to the English king in 1286,* a falling-out with King Eric‘s brother Haakon led Erlingsson to actually attack Oslo the following year.** His marauders put it to the torch and murdered the garrison commander — after which Erlingsson was a robber baron in the fullest sense of both words.
He set up as a freebooter operating out of Riga and preying by land and sea on whomever he could lay a sword on: the Teutonic Knights fretted the “harmful wolves led by the Count of Tønsberg.” This too is a part of his Viking image: King Eric and the Hanse made peace soon enough so that everyone could resume getting rich on trade. Erlingsson didn’t, or couldn’t, make that arrangement and so made his way taking plunder from the fringes of proper civilization. From the standpoint of posterity he looks positively anachronistic.
Call it Viking or piratical, romantic or loathsome — it caught up with him quickly in 1290 when he was captured on the Danish coast. Now despite his high birth he had no clout of his own and no diplomatic protection to shield him from revenge against the devastation he had visited upon those lands.
Information on this amazing character is not as widely available as one might hope; there’s a useful biographical sketch of him by Gabriele Campbell here (already cited in this post). The same blogger also has a follow-up post unpacking the games of thrones taking place in the same milieu.
* England and Norway were on a friendly footing, and the countries were maneuvering towards terms for Norwegian-Scots Princess Margaret to come to the Scottish throne.
** Erlingsson’s successful 1287 attack on Oslo led directly to the initial construction (in the 1290s) of Akershus Fortress, to shore up that city’s defenses. This medieval castle still guards the port to this day; it also hosted the execution of Vidkun Quisling and several other condemned traitors after World War II.
On this date in 1961, two modern-day (but somewhat inept) pirates sailed into the history books by becoming the first U.S. citizens to be executed in the Bahamas.
Alvin Table Jr., 26, mounted the gallows in Nassau at 7 a.m.; William (Billy Wayne) Sees, 21, followed an hour later. Each was declared dead within three minutes.
The bizarre adventure that preceded the hangings had begun a year earlier in Texas, where Table wooed 18-year-old Barbara Fisher briefly before whisking her off to Mexico to be married. The couple returned to San Antonio and linked up with Sees. (In a post-crime interview, Barbara described Sees as Alvin’s friend, but it’s unclear how the two ever met. Table, a Californian, had a history of at least one bad marriage, some bad checks and an assault on the West Coast; Sees, a native of Arkansas, had a history of assault in the south and, according to one account, a conviction for murder in New York State.)
However the liaison was forged, the trio worked their way across the south, cashing bad checks along the way to pay for the trip. They arrived in Florida in April 1960 and, with the law closing in, tried to buy a boat in Key West with yet another bogus check. When the sale took longer than planned, they simply took the boat and headed for Cuba.
Their plan apparently was to take refuge in Cuba — or, as Barbara put it, to “get away from it all.” Unfortunately, their boating skills failed them, and they ran aground off Elbow Key in the Bahamas. (It didn’t help that they hadn’t filled the boat with gas before leaving Key West.)
For three days, they took refuge in the island lighthouse — and, according to Barbara, they “had a pretty good time”. But the good times lasted about as long as the food held out.
About the time they started to panic, a charter fishing boat, the Muriel III, spotted the castaways and radioed the Coast Guard of the situation. Sees swam out to the Muriel, clambered aboard, and turned a gun on the passengers. When the captain, Angus Boatwright, grabbed a rifle to defend himself, Sees shot him.
Alvin Table then joined Sees aboard the boat, and they let the four fishermen swim to shore, taking the captain’s body with them on a raft made of life jackets. Their attempts to keep the first mate, Kent Hokanson, on board, failed when Hokanson simply jumped overboard and also started swimming for the island. Table and Sees, apparently deciding that time was of the essence in the situation, let Hokanson go and fled the scene.
During the gun battle, Barbara Table was in the lighthouse, packing up the trio’s belongings for departure. She heard the gunshots, and on finding out what had transpired, wisely chose not to stand by her man. The Coast Guard eventually picked up all the survivors and flew them to Nassau.
Table and Sees did reach Cuba, but they were arrested there after again running aground — this time near Isabela de Sagua, 200 miles east of Havana. At the request of the British government, Cuba extradited the pair to the Bahamas. They were both charged with and convicted of murder and piracy, despite Table’s efforts to distance himself from the murder by pointing out that he wasn’t on board the boat when it happened. An appeal to the Privy Council in London fell on deaf ears, and the Americans were sentenced to hang.
Barbara Table was briefly held in the Bahamas on a charge of grand larceny in the theft of the boat but was later released; officials cited “a lack of evidence.” Mrs. Table returned to her hometown of San Antonio, Texas, and quietly disappeared.
On a side historical note, the Bahamas retains the death penalty today, although it conducts actual executions so infrequently that the anti-death penalty watchdog Hands Off Cain considers it “abolitionist de facto”. According to researcher William Lofquist, no executions have been carried out in the Bahamas in the last decade. Lofquist observes that in today’s Bahamian justice system, “death sentences rather than executions have become the measure of the state’s resolve to maintain ‘order’.” Some of this is due to restrictions placed on the nation by the Privy Council in London, but while some chafe at those restrictions, attempts to create an appellate system separate from the Privy Council have failed. For more on Lofquist’s analysis of executions in the Bahamas over the centuries, and the cultural environment that shaped them, read his complete study. (pdf link to his “Identifying the Condemned: Reconstructing and analyzing the history of executions in The Bahamas,” The International Journal of Bahamian Studies, 16)
On this date in 1831, pirate Charles Gibbs hanged on Ellis Island.
This Rhode Island native followed his father’s trade in buccaneering and made an adventurously brutal life on the waves during the early 19th century’s brief piracy recrudescence.
Neither Gibbs himself nor subsequent writers fascinated by him shrank from embellishing his career, according to Dead Men Tell No Tales: The Life and Legends of the Pirate Charles Gibbs. Awaiting the gallows, Gibbs floated the story that he had first gone to sea under the Stars and Stripes during the War of 1812; that this turned out to be a fabrication has not prevented its repetition down the years.
His first corsair crew was the Maria, a privateer out of Colombia outfitted for the independence war against Spain. Gibbs — back when he was known by his birth name, James Jeffers — joined a mutiny that overthrew the irritating shackles of a letter of marque in favor of the pleasures of independent predation.
It was a fine time for such entrepreneurship; the recent upheaval of Europe’s Napoleonic Wars and the New World breakaway provinces had preoccupied the Spanish navy.
For the next several years, the raiders — “principally Spaniards and Americans” — preyed on commercial shipping in the Caribbean, cruelly murdering the entire crews of their captured prizes, whose booty they would then sell in Havana.
The voyages of the Maria and her successor ships with this band would suffice for a full pirate’s rollick, though they were only the first chapter of Gibbs’s career. For instance, by the time Gibbs had risen to leadership of the crew,
a Dutch ship from Curacao was captured, with a cargo of West India goods, and a quantity of silver plate. The passengers and crew, to the number of 30, were all destroyed, with the exception of a young female about 17, who fell upon her knees and implored Gibbs to save her life. The appeal was successful, and he promised to save her, though he knew it would lead to dangerous consequences among his crew. She was carried to Cape Antonio [Cuba], and kept there about two months; but the dissatisfaction increased until it broke out at last into open mutiny, and one of the pirates was shot by Gibbs for daring to lay hold of her with a view of beating out her brains. Gibbs was compelled in the end ot submit her fate to a council of war, at which it was decided that the preservation of their own lives made her sacrifice indispensable. He therefore acquiesced in the decision, and gave orders to have her destroyed by poison.
That’s from the “Confession of Gibbs the Pirate” elicited from the condemned raiders in the days before his execution, and widely reprinted in American papers. (My quotes are from the version that appeared on April 9, 1831, in the Baltimore Patriot.) In it, the title character struggles to recall the many ships he has hijacked over the years. “Brig Jane, of Liverpool” — “Brig (name forgotten) of New York” — “Two French Brigs, in the Gulf of Mexico” — “Bark Dido, of Bremen” — “Ship Earl of Moria, of London”. Over and over his entries end with the words vessel and crew destroyed.
There were some fortunate exceptions, but the pirates “knew that the principle inculcated by the old maxim that ‘dead men tell no tales’ was the only safe one for them.” Overall, his confessions involve him in “the robbery of more than forty vessels, and in the destruction of more than twenty, with their entire crews.” He might have gone to the gallows with literally hundreds of murders to his conscience.
What can be said for certain is that the USS Enterprise trashed Gibbs’s pirate fleet in 1821 and sent our man fleeing on foot into the Cuban mountains.
This incident aside, Americans’ naval presence was still not yet substantial enough to consistently trouble pirates. American ports, too, were quite ready to accept the coinage spent by pirates; the Spanish embassy would complain to Washington of the easy egress which Gibbs too availed. He even took a passenger ship from Boston to Liverpool where he dissipated a fortune in the vain pursuit of a respectable woman.
The late 1820s find him back in his familiar habit of seagoing carnage as a privateer for Argentina in its war against Brazil. The whole Atlantic was his home, and its many conflicts each offered the prospect of regular employment (or sudden, violent death).
When Argentina and Brazil made peace, Gibbs made for Algiers then under French blockade. He was, alas, unable himself to slip the blockade and thus frustrated of his design to seize Gallic prizes for the Barbary pirates.
Instead, he settled for joining the crew of a brig called the Vineyard — and promptly executing a mutiny. It was for this revolt, and the murder of the captain and first officer which it entailed, that Gibbs eventually swung: the mutineers scuttled the ship and struggled ashore in Long Island, where he and his fellow mutineer Thomas J. Wansley were seized and sentenced to death at a trial in New York City. While the Vineyard was the specific matter at hand in that case, and more than sufficient on its own to condemn them, the long and bloody career that preceded it became the talk of the nation. As the foregoing excerpts will indicate, they enjoyed at least a last consolation of celebrity, for they occupied the weeks approaching execution entertaining a slew of curious visitors.
For some reason, Gibbs’s skull wound up in New York’s John M. Mossman Lock Museum. (“Lock” isn’t part of the benefactor’s name. The museum exhibits locks, but also has a skull labeled “James D. Jefferson, known as Gibbs the Pirate”.)
On this date in 1835, four Spanish pirates — it was supposed to be more — were put to death at Boston.
Their captain, the Catalan Pedro Gilbert, was chief among them in death as he was in life. Three years previous, he had commanded the buccaneer schooner with the deceptively cuddly name Panda out of Havana. It’s for Gilbert that “Gilbert’s Bar” is named, a historic sandbar off Stuart, Florida where the man reputedly liked to lure ships aground.*
Gilbert and his crew of forty or so souls — Spaniards, Portuguese, South Americans, half-castes, and at least one west African — waylaid the Salem, Mass. brig Mexican.
After hours ransacking the ship, relieving it of $20,000 in silver, the raiders locked the crew of their prize below decks and put the Mexican to the torch. After the Panda departed, those imprisoned unfortunates managed to break out of the death trap in time to control the blaze and return to port.
The incident thereby reported, the Panda would in due time be cornered off the African coast and sunk by a British ship. A dozen of the salty brigands fished out of the sea were eventually extradited to the U.S. for an eventful fourteen-day trial.
One of the crew of the Mexican, called upon to identify a member of the pirate crew who tried to drown him in a burning ship, strikes the accused corsair.
A defense lawyer laboring mightily in a half-lost cause managed to procure not-guilty verdicts for five of the crew on grounds of superior orders. The cabin boy (15 at the time of the raid) and the aforementioned west African were among these men spared.
The four who hanged today — Pedro Gilbert, Juan Montenegro, Manuel Castillo, and Angel Garcia — were meant to have been seven. Two of the seven received stays of execution; we’ll return to them in a moment.
The other man in the condemned party, Manuel Boyga, cheated his executioner, kind of, by exploiting a guard’s momentary inattentiveness to slash open his own carotid artery with a sharp bit of tin. He bled out too quickly for his executioners to “help” him, but because this efficient (near-?)suicide occurred immediately before the hanging, Boyga’s unconscious form was still borne in a chair to the scaffold and hung along with his four quick mates, just to make sure. Boyga might well have been dead already; if not, the hanging only hastened his demise by moments.
As to the other two: the ship’s carpenter Francisco Ruiz, it was thought, might have been crazy. But the Spanish-speaking physicians who eventually examined him would pronounce his ravings a simulation; he was accordingly hanged in a follow-up execution on September 11, 1835.
The last man was Bernardo de Soto, the first mate and the owner of the Panda.
De Soto’s pretty black-eyed wife back home caught wind of her man’s fate and made the Atlantic crossing to comfort her husband in prison … and to prostrate herself before the U.S. president Andrew Jackson who had the final say for clemency in this federal case. Duly smitten by this pleasing romantic flourish, Jackson did better than merely sparing de Soto’s life: he gave the condemned pirate a free pardon on July 6, 1835.
* Gilbert’s Bar today has the last remaining “House of Refuge”, once one of several standing 19th century encampments built to shelter any wayfarer who shipwrecked in the vicinity.
Naw Kham (or Nor Kham), a Burmese Shan, ran a sizable gang of drug traffickers/paramilitaries/pirates, the Hawngleuk Militia, in the Golden Triangle.
In addition to heroin smuggling, this gang also shook down for protection money the many Chinese commercial shippers coming down the Mekong River, and wantonly raided shippers that held out on them. He was untouchable in his lawless zone (with the possible protection of Burmese military to boot) for more than a decade.
Times may have started passing Naw Kham by in the 2000s.*
He had hit Chinese shippers before to the annoyance of Beijing, but matters came to a head when the kingpin allegedly retaliated against the flouting of his “taxes” by massacring 13 Chinese sailors in 2011 on board two tightfisted merchantmen. (“Allegedly” because Naw Kham blamed the Thai military for this slaughter, and some people believe him.)
At any rate, China put the screws to the drug lord, not only pressuring Southeast Asian governments for his capture but directly hunting him with special forces. Early in 2012, Naw Kham was arrested and his gang broken up after a multinational manhunt; the leader was extradited from Laos to face Chinese justice with five of his associates.** The accused had little recourse but to throw themselves on the mercy of the court.
Executed with Naw Kham — and underscoring the multinational complexion of his outfit — were Hsang Kham (a Thai), Zha Xika (a Lao), and Yi Lai (stateless). The other two defendants received a suspended (reprieved) death sentence, and an eight-year prison term.
The case isn’t entirely closed with his date’s executions, however. China is still pressuring Thailand to bring to book Thai troops whom China says colluded (at the very least) in the Mekong murders. The future direction of that investigation is quite unclear.
* China, Burma, Thailand, and Laos, inked a 2001 pact to regularize shipping on the Mekong. It contained no provision allowing for stateless narco-buccaneers.
** It’s noteworthy that this is a non-Chinese citizen being extradited to China for a crime not on Chinese soil.
On this date in 1804, two known as John Setton/Sutton and James May were hanged at Greenville, Mississippi.
They were, in fact, Wiley “Little” Harpe and his outlaw partner Peter Alston — the survivors (well, up until then) of a notorious gang of Mississippi River pirates and frontier highwaymen.
Their villainous coterie had plagued the Mississippi (river) and the proximate byways from Kentucky down to Mississippi (state), making a couple of spots on the great river legendary pirate hideouts in the process.
With a price on the head of the notorious leader Samuel Mason, “Sutton” and “May” coldly murdered their captain to turn in his head for the reward.
They got their reward alright. They were recognized as Mason’s own fellow-bandits, and themselves put on trial for piracy.
The Harpe Brothers
This date’s hanging was not only the end of the Mason gang — it was the end of the Harpe Brothers.
Micajah Harpe (“Big Harpe”) and Wiley Harpe were brothers or cousins who cut a bloody swathe through the early American Republic, such that some have acclaimed the Harpes that young nation’s first serial killers. They were, in one historian’s words, “the most brutal monsters of the human race.”
Heading west out of North Carolina after Revolutionary War service as Tory irregulars, the Harpes made for Knoxville, Tennessee, kidnapping wives for themselves along the way. When they were rousted out of their cabin on accusations of livestock-rustling in 1797, their notorious careers really began in earnest.
This was, then, the extreme western frontier of the United States, and the Harpes were consequently able to plunder in wilderness impunity.
Big Harp confessed before dying in 1798 to 20 murders, probably not counting the babies. Estimates are as high as 40, but usually around 30. After two killings, one in Knox County and one on the Wilderness Trail, the Harps left Tennessee in December 1798 for Kentucky, where they killed two traveling men from Maryland…
The final stretch of slaughter took place soon after this, in July 1798, when the Harps returned to Eastern Tennessee. The victims included a farmer named Bradbury; a man named Hardin; a boy named Coffey; William Ballard, who was cut open, filled with stones, and dumped in the Holston River; James Brassel, with his throat ripped apart on Brassel’s Knob; John Tully, father of eight. On the Marrowbone Creek in south central Kentucky, John Graves and his teenaged son, out planting crops, had their heads axed. Moving toward Logan County, the Harps came upon a little girl, whom they killed, as they did a young slave on his way to the mill. Once in Logan County, near today’s Adairville, near the Whippoorwill River, they butchered an entire migrating family asleep in their camp, but for one son who survived. (Source)
TruTV also has an account of them sending a hijacked flatboat passenger over a cliff, and bashing a little girl’s head in against the side of a bridge.
“They murdered all classes and sexes, without distinction,” a Knoxville man* recounted years later, “not for plunder but for the love of shedding human blood.” We don’t have Little Harpe’s conscience on the record, but Big Harpe would only express remorse for one of his dozens of homicides: smashing his own infant child against a tree to make it stop crying.
That sentiment would come at the end, when Big Harpe had been cornered by a posse after murdering a frontier woman. The widower in that posse halved the Harpe menace by hewing Big Harpe’s head from his shoulders.
For generations after the subsequent roosting-spot of this deathly visage — presented to a justice of the peace to verify the man’s death (and pocket the price on his literal head), then hung up for public display by the intersection of Morgenfield, Henderson, and Maidensville Roads in Union County — was known as Harpe’s Head.
Little Harpe’s subsequent career with Sam Mason and his own violent demise capped the Harpe brothers’ nefarious legacy.
Their name was so infamous that many of their family changed it … including, according to rumor, the ancestors of legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp.
* J.W.M. Breazeale was part of the posse that hunted down Big Harpe, and a witness to Big Harpe’s death, and gives the outlaw the (possibly tall-tale) last words directed to his slaughterer in mid-beheading: “You are a God damned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned.”
When said heavy-handed monarch was deposed by his own uncle Frederick, Clement turned privateer … and when said deposing-uncle Frederick died in 1533, Clement entered the ensuing civil war between supporters of the still-imprisoned ex-king Christian II and those who backed Frederick’s own son Christian III. This was also a social and political war over the Reformation.
Clement went to war for his former boss, Christian II, instigating a 1534 North Jutland uprising of the Catholic peasantry that in October of that year trounced the Protestant noble army sent to suppress it at the Battle of Svenstrope Mose (Svenstrop Bog or Moor).
That battle clinched Clement’s reputation as one of the great peasant-rising leaders, and also clinched for Clement the fatethatusuallybefalls such characters. Shortly after, Clement’s aristocratic ally cut his own deal with Christian III and abandoned the rabble to a vicious counterattack. In December 1534, General Johan Rantzau stormed the rebel strongholdof Aalborg, slaughtering two thousand peasants, reducing freeholding farmers to tenants, and bringing Clement home in chains for a grand finale.
The captured commander languished in his dungeon awaiting the conclusion of the civil war. It took a good year under siege for Rantzau to bring Copenhagen to heel, but once that city capitulated in August 1536, Clement was brought out of storage for use as a victory cigar. (Danish link)
On September 9, 1536, wearing a lead crown to mock his ambition, Clement had his head chopped off, and his remains were dismembered and set up for public display.