Posts filed under 'Pirates'

1721: Walter Kennedy

Add comment July 21st, 2020 Charles Johnson

(Thanks to Captain Charles Johnson — perhaps a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe — for the guest post. It was originally part of Chapter XI “Of Captain Bartho. Roberts, And his Crew” in Johnson’s magnum and only opus, A General History of the Pyrates. As noted by his placement, Kennedy was only a minor figure in the Golden Age of Piracy, a treacherous officer of the Bartholomew Roberts who bumbled right into the noose back on native shores. For another blurb on this bold but mediocre buccaneer, see Marcus Rediker.)

After some Days, the long-wish’d-for Boat came back, but with the most unwellcome News in the World, for Kennedy, who was Lieutenant, and left in Absence of Roberts, to Command the Privateer and Prize, was gone off with both. This was Mortification with a Vengeance, and you may imagine, they did not depart without some hard Speeches from those that were left, and had suffered by their Treachery: And that there need be no further mention of this Kennedy, I shall leave Captain Roberts, for a Page or two, with the Remains of his Crew, to vent their Wrath in a few Oaths and Execrations, and follow the other, whom we may reckon from that Time, as steering his Course towards Execution Dock.

Kenney was now chosen Captain of the revolted Crew, but could not bring his Company to any determined Resolution; some of them were for pursuing the old Game, but the greater Part of them seem’d to have Inclinations to turn from those evil Courses, and get home privately, (for there was no Act of Pardon in Force,) therefore they agree to break up, and every Man to shift for himself, as he should see Occasion. The first Thing they did, was to part with the great Portugueze Prize, and having the Master of the Sloop (whose Name I think was Cane) aboard, who they said was a very honest Fellow, (for he had humoured them upon every Occasion,) told them of the Brigantine that Roberts went after; and when the Pyrates first took him, he complemented them at an odd Rate, telling them they were welcome to his Sloop and Cargo, and wish’d that the Vessel had been larger, and the Loading richer for their Sakes: To this good natured Man they gave the Portugueze Ship, (which was then above half loaded,) three or four Negroes, and all of his own Men, who returned Thanks to his kind Benefactors, and departed.

Captain Kennedy in the Rover, failed to Barbadoes, near which Island, they took a very peaceable Ship belonging to Virginia; the Commander was a Quaker, whose Name was Knot; he had neither Pistol, Sword, nor Cutlass on Board; and Mr. Knot appearing so very passive to all they said to him, some of them thought this a good Opportunity to go off; and accordingly eight of the Pyrates went aboard, and he carried them safe to Virginia: They made the Quaker a Present of 10 Chests of Sugar, 10 Rolls of Brasil Tobacco, 30 Moidors, and some Gold-Dust, in all to the value of about 250 l. They also made Presents to the Sailors, some more, some less, and lived a jovial Life all the while they were upon their Voyage, Captain Knot giving them their Way; nor indeed could he help himself, unless he had taken an Opportunity to surprize them, when they were either drunk or asleep; for awake they wore Arms aboard the Ship, and put him in a continual Terror; it not being his Principle (or the Sect’s) to fight, unless with Art and Collusion; he managed these Weapons well till he arrived at the Capes, and afterwards four of the Pyrates went off in a Boat, which they had taken with them, for the more easily making their Escapes, and made up the Bay towards Maryland, but were forced back by a Storm into an obscure Place of the Country, where meeting with good Entertainment among the Planters, they continued several Days without being discovered to be Pyrates. In the mean Time Captain Knot leaving four others on Board his Ship, (who intended to go to North-Carolina,) made what hast he could to discover to Mr. Spitswood the Governor, what sort of Passengers he had been forced to bring with him, who by good Fortune got them seized; and Search being made after the others, who were revelling about the Country, they were also taken, and all try’d, convicted and hang’d, two Portuguese Jews who were taken on the Coast of Brasil, and whom they brought with them to Virginia, being the principal Evidence. The latter had found Means to lodge Part of their Wealth with the Planters, who never brought it to Account: But Captain Knot surrendered up every Thing that belonged to them, that were taken aboard, even what they presented to him, in lieu of such Things as they had plundered him of in their Passage, and obliged his Men to do the like.

Some Days after the taking of the Virginia Man last mentioned, in cruising in the Latitude of Jamaica, Kennedy took a Sloop bound thither from Boston, loaded with Bread and Flower; aboard of this Sloop went all the Hands who were for breaking the Gang, and left those behind that had a Mind to pursue further Adventures. Among the former were Kennedy, their Captain, of whose Honour they had such a dispicable Notion, that they were about to throw him over-board, when they found him in the Sloop, as fearing he might betray them all, at their return to England, he having in his Childhood been bred a Pick-pocket, and before he became a Pyrate, a House-breaker; both Professions that these Gentlemen have a very mean Opinion of. However, Captain Kennedy, by taking solemn Oaths of Fidelity to his Companions, was suffered to proceed with them.

In this Company there was but one that pretended to any skill in Navigation, (for Kennedy could neither write nor read, he being preferred to the Command merely for his Courage, which indeed he had often signaliz’d, particularly in taking the Portuguese Ship,) and he proved to be a Pretender only; for shaping their Course to Ireland, where they agree to land, they ran away to the North-West Coast of Scotland, and there were tost about by hard Storms of Wind for several Days, without knowing where they were, and in great Danger of perishing: AAt length they pushed the Vessel into a little creek, and went all ashore, leaving the Sloop at an Anchor for the next Comers.

The whole Company refresh’d themselves at a little Village about five Miles from the Place where they left the Sloop, and passed there for Ship-wreck’d Sailors, and no doubt might have travelled on without Suspicion; but the mad and riotous Manner of their Living on the Road, occasion’d their Journey to be cut short, as we shall observe presently.

Kennedy and another left them here, and traveling to one of the Sea-Ports, ship’d themselves for Ireland, and arrived there in Safety. Six or seven wisely withdrew from the rest, travelled at their leisure, and got to their much desired Port of London, without being disturbed or suspected, but the main Gang alarm’d the Country where-ever they came, drinking and roaring at such a Rate, that the People shut themselves up in their Houses, in some Places, not daring to venture out among so many made Fellows: In other Villages, they treated the whole Town, squandering their Money away, as if, like Aesop, they wanted to lighten their Burthens: This expensive manner of Living procured two of their drunken Straglers to be knocked on the Head, they being found murdered in the Road, and their Money taken from them: All the rest, to the Number of seventeen as they drew nigh to Edinburgh, were arrested and thrown into Goal, upon Suspicion, of they knew not what; However, the Magistrates were not long at a Loss for proper Accusations, for two of the Gang offering themselves for Evidences were accepted of; and the others were brought to a speedy Tryal, whereof nine were convicted and executed.

Kennedy having spent all his Money, came over from Ireland, and kept a common B—y-House on Deptford Road, and now and then, ’twas thought, made an Excursion abroad in the Way of his former Profession, till one of his Houshold W—s gave Information against him for a Robbery, for which he was committed to Bridewell; but because she would not do the Business by halves, she found out a Mate of a Ship that Kennedy had committed Pyracy upon, as he foolishly confess’d to her. This Mate, whose Name was Grant, paid Kennedy a Visit in Bridewell, and knowing him to be the Man, procured a Warrant, and had him committed to the Marshalsea Prison.

The Game that Kennedy had now to play was to turn Evidence himself; accordingly he gave a List of eight or ten of his Comrades; but not being acquainted with their Habitations, one only was taken, who, tho’ condemn’d, appeared to be a Man of a fair Character, was forc’d into their Service and took the first Opportunity to get from them, and therefore receiv’d a Pardon; but Walter Kennedy being a notorious Offender, was executed the 19th of July, 1721,* at Execution Dock.

The rest of the Pyrates who were left in the Ship Rover, staid not long behind, for they went ashore to one of the West-India Islands; what became of them afterwards, I can’t tell, but the Ship was found at Sea by a Sloop belonging to St. Christophers, and carried into that Island with only nine Negroes aboard.

Thus we see what a disastrous Fate ever attends the Wicked, and how rarely they escape the Punishment due to their Crimes, who, abandon’d to such a profligate Life, rob, spoil, and prey upon Mankind, contrary to the Light and Law of Nature, as well as the Law of God. It might have been hoped, that the Examples of these Deaths, would have been as Marks to the Remainder of this Gang, how to shun the Rocks their Companions had split on; that they would have surrendered to Mercy, or divided themselves, for ever from such Pursuits, as in the End they might be sure would subject them to the same Law and Punishment, which they must be conscious they now equally deserved; impending Law, which never let them sleep well, unless when drunk. But all the Use that was made of it here, was to commend the Justice of the Court, that condemn’d Kennedy, for he was a sad Dog (they said) and deserved the Fate he met with.

* The correct date is Friday, July 21 (per the then-current Julian calendar). Speculatively, the author might have crossed date references in a source surveying multiple executions, such as this Gazetteer which reports both Kennedy’s hanging, and some executions on July 19 in Dublin, and several other death sentences carried out besides those.

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1701: Captain Kidd

Add comment May 23rd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1701, the pirate William Kidd hanged at London’s Execution Dock; his body was afterwards gibbeted at Tilbury Port.

Alhough his famous buried treasure and its subsequent literary afterlife has helped make Kidd one of history’s best-known buccaneers, the man more closely resembles a startup entrepreneur … just a monumentally unlucky one.

The Scotsman had done well enough as a relatively legitimate privateer raiding enemy French ships to settle down in colonial Manhattan in the 1690s. He made a prosperous marriage to a wealthy widow, and for several years he dwelt as a respectable burgher who helped underwrite construction of the still-extant landmark Trinity Church.

Induced by whatever reason of restlessness or cupidity, Kidd in 1696 came to captain the venture that would be his undoing: the voyage of the aptly if unimaginatively christened Adventure Galley. Backed by a who’s who of Whig worthies up to and including the king himself, Kidd set out for the Indian Ocean bearing letters of marque that authorized him not only to prey on the French, but to attack “Pirates, Freebooters, and Sea Rovers,” which is like when Willie Sutton explained that he robbed banks because that’s where the money is.

The adventure flopped owing to the galley’s singular infelicity with locating suitable prizes. As 1697 stretched into 1698, there grew the prospect of ruin and the discontent of the crew — who, like Kidd’s investors, would only be paid out of such loot as their ship could capture. Desperation drove Kidd to increasingly reckless attacks against unauthorized targets, most notoriously an Armenian-owned merchantman called the Quedagh Merchant, heavy with trade goods owned by an Indian nobleman well-connected to London through the Mughal court. Kidd would argue that French passes purchased by that ship’s English captain made this a legal prize, but you can’t muddle high statecraft and big business on legal chicaneries. In English eyes he had by this and several other incidents gone the full pirate himself; on top of that, he also fatally bashed a truculent gunner about the head, which added charges of murder to his eventual indictment.

Kidd’s career ended in the New World where his reputation as a criminal hunted by the English Navy precluded protection — everywhere from the Caribbean to his own former haunts in the North American colonies. Eventually it was the Earl of Bellomont (who was also governor of New York) who clapped Kidd in irons, possibly concerned to display a profligacy of zeal lest his own early sponsorship of Kidd’s disastrous mission redound against Bellomont himself. Kidd’s unsuccessful attempt to bargain with his patron turned jailer using the promise of hidden pirate booty is one source of the legends that have followed his name down the years.

Another source is the public and greatly protracted nature of the proceedings against Captain Kidd. It was nearly two years from his arrest to his execution, an age that saw him returned to England and examined personally by Parliament — product of an attempt by Tories to tar their political rivals with the association.

Kidd for his own part pleaded innocence and wrote plaintive letters to the king from his stinking cell in Newgate, to no avail. “It is a very hard Sentence,” he reproached the judge upon hearing his fate. “For my part, I am the innocentest Person of them all, only I have been sworn against by perjured Persons.”

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1663: Gustav Skytte, pirate

Add comment April 27th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1663, the Swedish pirate Gustav Skytte caught a fusillade.

A nobleman of illustrious lineage* during the height of Sweden’s great-power glory, Skytte (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) larped as a murderous buccaneer with some cronies from 1657, when he hijacked a Dutch ship.

The Baltic swash he buckled for the next several years from his secret refuge in Blekinge recommended him in time as the focus of a Romantic-era novel by Viktor Rydberg, The Freebooter of the Baltic. (You’ll need your Swedish fluency.)

He was survived by his 18-year-old sister and her husband, who had both been partners in his piratical enterprise but were able to flee to Denmark. They suffered property confiscation but were permitted to return to Sweden in 1668.

* His grandfather was a tutor of the great King Gustavus Adolphus.

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1820: The pirates of the William

Add comment February 4th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1820, six pirates of the brig William hanged at the Maltese capital Valletta.

This vessel had the previous July departed her Liverpool berth hauling a cargo of lucrative sugar to Malta under the command of Charles Christopher Delano. The latter evidently labored under some legal judgment he considered unjust and convinced a none-too-reluctant crew that it would be “neither a sin nor a shame” to augment their wages by turning buccaneer.

To this end, the William waylaid an Italy-bound English brigantine, the Helen, off the Spanish coast just inside the Straits of Gibraltar on August 2. All that night and throughout the next day the pirates were engaged in transferring the Helen‘s cargo to their own ship, finally boring open the hull and abandoning her to sink with all hands aboard. The contingent of the Helen was able with difficult to force their way out of confinement and take a longboat (likewise disabled by the raiders and therefore in need of constant bailing) towards the coast until they encountered the aid of friendlier mariners. All survived their brush with the William although their prosecutor would rightly observe that “the confidence on which the prisoners relied for their security (and which has led to their present arraignment) must have arisen from the belief that all evidence of their crime was extinct, and that the intention of a deliberate and comprehensive murder must be added to their already too prominent offence.”

The William, meanwhile, had proceeded to Sardinia where her crew was able to unload some of the ill-gotten gains, and thence to Malta, where they discharged the remainder, along with the legitimate sugar cargo they’d carried out of Liverpool.* However, the Maltese transactions attracted enough suspicion that after the William left harbor, British insurance men there hired a ship named Frederick to apprehend the William — which was soon accomplished.

The case itself was open and shut, and from an appendix to its record we discover the usual climax that is this site‘s stock in trade:

On Friday morning, the 4th of February, at eight o’clock, the awful sentence of the law was carried into execution, on board the brig William, upon Charles Christopher Delano, Thomas Thompson, Benjamin Wilcock, John Smith, John Lewis, and John Webb, in the mode prescribed by the following order issued upon that occasion: —

That the William, brig, being the vessel in which the unfortunate convicts committed the flagrant and most atrocious act of piracy, be painted black, hauled out and anchored in the middle of the great port of Malta, viz. that of Valetta [sic]; and that the aforesaid most unhappy convicts be carried on board of the said vessel, at such time and in such manner as may hereafter be directed; and that on Friday morning, being the fourth day of the month, between the hours of eight and twelve, the aforesaid convicts, viz. Charles Christopher Delano, the late master of the said brig; Thomas Thompson, late mate of ditto; Benjamin Wilcock, late mariner and second mate of ditto; John Webb, late mariner of ditto; John Lewis, late mariner and cook of ditto; John Smith, late mariner of ditto; John Curtis, late carpenter of ditto;** and Reuben Marshall, late mariner of ditto, be hanged as may be directed between the hours of eight and twelve on Friday morning next, being the fourth day of the month of February, in the year of Our Lord one thousand eight hundred and twenty; and after hanging till they be dead, that they be cut down, put in open shells, and protected by a proper guard from his Majesty’s ships; that they be carried to the appointed place, viz. Fort Ricasoli, where the body of the late Charles Christopher Delano, late Captain of the William, is to be hung in irons on the right hand gibbet, next to the Port of Valletta, erected for this purpose in the north-west angle of the said fort; the body of John Lewis, late cook and mariner on board the same vessel, on the left hand gibbet in the same angle; the body of Thomas Thompson, late mate, on the right hand gibbet, erected for the purpose on the north-east angle of the same part of the said fort; and the body of John Smith on the left hand gibbet in the same fort; and that the four remaining bodies be interred at the feet of the before-mentioned gibbets — the body of Benjamin Wilcock under the gibbet on which the late Charles Christopher Delano hangs; the body of John Webb under the gibbet on which the late John Lewis hangs; the body of John Curtis under that on which Thomas Thompson hangs; and the body of Reuben Marshall under the gibbet on which John Smith hangs.

It is satisfactory to state, that the unfortunate man, who commanded the piratical vessel, confessed, in the last hours of his life, in order to reconcile himself with that Supreme Being on whom alone all his hopes then depended, that he was the prime mover and instigator of this most heinous crime.

His Majesty’s most gracious clemency was extended to the persons of the other two prisoners, Reuben Marshall and John Curtis, whose fatal sentence was respited on the spot, after the execution of their associates, by a warrant to that effect from his Excellency Sir Thomas Maitland,† issued at ten o’clock on the preceding night.

The following extract from the Malta Government Gazette will explain the laudable motives which induced His Excellency to this most humane and gracious act of clemency: —

We understand that His Excellency was induced to grant this mark of favour from the conviction, after a laborious investigation into the subject, that cases had occurred, although very rarely, of such clemency having been extended, in previous instances, to some of the parties convicted of aggravated piracy.

Such a precedent was, no doubt, most grateful to his Excellency’s feelings, and in the choice of the two persons to be spared, we understand his Excellency was guided by the uncommonly good character which Marshall had possessed previous to this atrocious act in which he was concerned; and in the case of Curtis, independently of his youth, by some very peculiar circumstances which had been disclosed in his favour by the captain and the rest of his ill-fated associates.

* One of the crew members reported receiving a total of 345 dollars from his share of the booty. Even allowing that “legitimate” fourfold share he claimed for himself as the captain, Delano apparently shortchanged his associates.

** So many Johns!

† Catch a Maitland cameo in this post from the Haitian Revolution.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,At Sea,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Malta,Mass Executions,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Pelf,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions

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1609: Captain John Harris, Captain John Jennings, and 15 other pirates at Wapping

Add comment December 22nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date* in 1609, seventeen pirates hanged at Wapping’s “Execution Dock”. Though English, a large number of them had been taken in Ireland.

Elizabethan England had cultivated a reputation for the quantity and ferocity of her buccaneers, profitably plundering Spain’s New World treasure galleons and establishing themselves as a terror in the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic — some, like Sir Francis Drake, with official blessing as privateers, and many others operating off-book knowing that a crown thirsty for specie would turn a blind eye to their business.

This sector was a rising tide that lifted many boats: commoners on the make and lords of the realm alike invested in pirating, and the proceeds washed over Britain’s wharfs to all the landlubbers who called pirates family, or who received their stolen plunder, or who sold ale to the conquering corsairs.

In 1603, the arrangement changed.

With Elizabeth’s death the crown passed to a man who disdained the profession and wanted to bring English hostilities with Spain to a close. James I had not yet even been crowned king in England when he published notice of a sea change in the piracy policy.

We are not ignorant that our late dear Sister, the late Queen of England, had of long time wars with the king of Spain, and during that time gave Licences and Commissions to divers of her, and our now Subjects, to let out and furnish to sea divers ships warlikely appointed, for the surprising and taking of the said King’s subjects’ goods, and for the enjoying of the same, being taken and brought home as lawful Prize.

We further will and command, that our men of war, as be now at sea having no sufficient commission as aforesaid, and have taken, or shall go to sea hereafter, and shall take any the ships or goods of any subject of any Prince in league or amity with us, shall be reputed and taken as pirates and both they and all their accessories, maintainers, comforters, and partakers shall suffer death as pirates and accessories to piracy, with confiscation of all their lands and goods, according to the ancient Laws of this Realm.

These are fine words for the diplomatic pouch but veteran raiders weren’t just going to throw over their only profession** and in practice James lacked the naval muscle to enforce his writ very far from English shores. Ireland, and in particular its most distant southwest province of Munster, had become a fine pirate haven jutting into Atlantic hunting-grounds, where the denizens of ports like Baltimore and Crookhaven merrily continued to welcome English sea rovers.

“Although these things happen more often in England than Ireland, by reason there is more plenty of Ports and Shipping, as also more abundance of Seamen,” wrote the English mariner Henry Mainwaring, who was alternately a pirate and a hunter of pirates.

yet in proportion Ireland doth much exceed it, for it may be well called the Nursery and Storehouse of Pirates, in regard of the general good entertainment they receive there; supply of victuals and men which continually repair thither out of England to meet with Pirates. As also, for that they have as good or rather better intelligence where your Majesty’s Ships are, than contrariwise they shall have of the Pirates. In regard of the benefit the Country receives by the one, and the prejudice, or incumber as they count it, of the other. Unto which must also be added the conveniency of the place, being that the South, the West, and the North Coasts, are so full of places and Harbours without command, that a Pirate being of any reasonable force, may do what he listeth. Besides that, many of that Nation are scarce so well reduced to any civil jurisdiction, as to make a conscience of trading with them.

And here we come to our post’s principal characters … who, it turns out, could not indeed do exactly what he listeth.

Bristol-born and ranging all the way to the Barbary Coast, Captain James Harris favored the port of Baltimore,† along Ireland’s southern coast, as a handy sanctuary where he “repaired and fresh victuald our ship” … but he should have favored it less. Having recently called there, Harris returned too soon, over the objections of his crew, who accurately warned that his name having been bandied about town was liable to attract some attention. He found an English warship waiting for his return but he was a game sport about the turn of fate that brought his end to show that he was no hypocrite since formerly, “making my felicity out of others mens miseries, while I thought prosperity at sea, as sure in my gripe, as the power to speak was free to my gontue, my actions were so imboldened, and my heart so hardned, that I held it a cowardise to dispaire to attempt, and effeminacy to pitie whosoever did perish.” Harris flung his hat to the crowd come to watch him die, and when someone shouted a question about a reprieve, he jauntily replied that he had “None, sir, but from the King of Kings.”

Preceding him at the Wapping gallows with a like prediction of eternal salvation, Captain John Jennings had a more operatic undoing when, likewise victualing at Baltimore, he insisted on taking his Irish lover aboard and triggered all the seamen’s superstitions when the pirates immediately ran into one of His Majesty’s warships, and soon thereafter barely survived a bloody scrap with two Spanish vessels that cost the pirates 10 crew members dead. The surviving crew huddled up and agreed that their rum luck “was a just judgement of God against them, in suffering their Captaine to bring his whore aboard.”

A mutiny overthrew his authority, and although it was eventually restored after the new guy proved himself a Queeg, the morale hit was obviously permanent, for much of his band deserted him the next time he put in at (again) Baltimore. With skeleton crew, he limped along the coast to the Earl of Thomond where he hoped for a hospitable reception; instead, his remaining mates betrayed him (and his last two loyal retainers) into English hands when the dissipated captain was blind drunk.

* The key source on this event is “The Lives, Apprehensions, Arraignments and Executions of the 19 late Pyrates, namely, Capt. Harris, Jennings, Longcastle, Downes, Haulsey, and their companions, as they were severally indited on St. Margret’s Hill, in Southwark, on the 22 of December last and executed the Friday following.” The title implies, wrongly, that the pirates were tried on Friday the 22nd and executed on Friday the 29th; in fact it is explicit right in the text that Captain Jennings “from a free and vnburthened heart, a patient mind and willing steps, I goe out of my chamber in the Marshalstes, the Friday morning being the two and twenty day of December to make my death-bed at Wapping.”

** Besides freebooting, English privateers were also keen to obtain new commissions from the Low Countries in the latter’s long-running revolt against Spain. But whether licensed or no, most regular sailors were scarcely in a position to hang up their cutlasses. “Those that were rich rested with what they had,” Captain John Smith wrote about the aftermath of James’s settlement with Spain. “Those that were poore and had nothing but from hand to mouth, turned Pirats; some, because became sleighted for those for whom they had got much wealth; some for that they could not get their due; some, all that lived bravely, would not abase themselves to poverty; some, vainly, only to get a name; others for revenge, covetousness, or as ill.” Plus ça change
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† Baltimore figures in our story as a pirate-friendly landing; however, it’s most famous in buccaneering annals as the target for an infamous 1631 raid by Algiers corsairs, who carried off most of the villagers as slaves . See The Stolen Village: Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Ireland,Mass Executions,Pelf,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions

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1217: Eustace the Monk, turncoat outlaw

Add comment August 24th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1217, the pirate Eustace the Monk was defeated in battle and summarily beheaded, scuppering an ongoing invasion that nearly seated a French dauphin on the English throne.

This colorful outlaw commenced life as the younger son of a Boulogne lord, but his conventional path into the Abbey Saint-Wulms was aborted by the murder of his father — leading Eustace to abandon his cowl for a vain attempt at vengeance.

“From a black monk becoming demoniac” — in the words of one chronicle — the man’s career thence proceeded, first rejoining the secular economy as a seneschal and then pivoting to outlawry when his former master turned against him.

His exploits in banditry are greatly embellished and romanticized in the medieval French verse titled Eustache the Monk (peruse in full here; helpful introduction here), including a number of charming and imaginary vignettes that double as moral parables and medieval slices-of-life.

Eustache spotted the Abbot of Jumièges as he was coming down the road. “Sir Abbot,” he said, “stop where you are! What are you carrying? Come now, don’t hide it.” The Abbot answered: “What’s it to you?” At this, Eustache was ready to hit him, but instead replied: “What’s it to me, fat-ass? Upon my word, I’ll make it my business. Get down, fast, and not another word out of you, or I’ll let you have it. You’ll be beaten up so badly you won’t be worth a hundred pounds.” The Abbot thought the man was drunk, and said, more politely this time: “Go away. You won’t find what you are looking for here.” Eustache responded: “Cut the bullshit and get off your horse fast, or you’ll be in for a lot of trouble.” The Abbot got down, frightened now. Eustache asked how much money he had with him. “Four marks,” said the Abbot, “in truth I only have four marks silver.” Eustache searched him immediately and found thirty marks or more. He gave back to the Abbot the four marks he claimed to have. The Abbot became duly furious; for, had he told the truth, he would have got back all his money. The Abbot lost his money only because he told a lie.

Around this time Eustace set up as a freelance English Channel pirate and was regularly employed by the English King John from about 1205 until 1212, when he switched his allegiance back to Philip II of France. Eustace tormented his former English patrons during the civil war in that country that led to the Magna Carta; the rebel barons in this war offered the English throne to the French heir Louis, and Louis invaded and held London and about half the realm, merrily aided by Eustace’s channel buccaneers.

Things went sideways for Louis and for Eustace in 1217; the former suffered a devastating reversal at the Battle of Lincoln.* Our man Eustace, attempting to reinforce Louis’s camp, was intercepted at sea and trounced at the Battle of Sandwich.**

Run-of-the-mill French knights were captured for ransom as per usual;

With Eustance, however, the case was different. When the ship was captured, the English instituted a search for him, and he was at length discovered down in the hold (Matthew Paris says in the bilge-water) by ‘Richard Sorale and Wudecoc’. Then Eustace offered a large sum of money for a ransom, ten thousand marks, as the writer of the Guillaume le Marechal puts it; ‘but it could not be.’ His addition offer (so Wendover) to serve the king of the English faithfully thereafter, if actually made, would have been only a reminder of his previous injuries. It was Stephen Trabe (or Crave) [or Crabbe -ed.], one of the mariners, ‘who had long been with him,’ that executed him, so the Histoire des Ducs de Normandie tells us; or as the poem of Guillaume le Marechal narrates it: ‘There was one there named Stephen of Winchelsea, who recalled to him the hardships which he had caused them both upon land and sea and who gave him the choice of having his head cut off either upon the trebuchet or upon the rail of the ship. Then he cut off his head.’ The head was subsequently fixed upon a lance and borne to Canterbury and about the country for a spectacle. The Romance concludes with the sentiment: ‘Nor can one live long who is intent always upon doing evil.’ (Henry Lewis Cannon


13th century illustration: Eustace gets the chop over the side of the boat.

Eustace’s defeat completely undermined Louis’s position, and the chancer was obliged to retreat to his homeland — where he’d become king in 1223. He’s known as Louis the Lion, which is pretty good, but he was rather convincingly surpassed by his son Saint Louis.

* Known to history as the “Lincoln Fair” for all the looting that occurred afterwards.

** The English maneuver on this occasion was to use an advantageous wind to hurl lime onto the French ships, blinding the enemy crews.

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1825: El Pirata Cofresi

Add comment March 29th, 2018 Headsman

I have killed hundreds with my own hands, and I know how to die. Fire!

-Last words of Roberto Cofresi

A monument to Roberto Cofresi rises from the water in his native Cabo Rojo.

On this date in 1825, the Puerto Rican pirate Roberto Cofresi was publicly shot in San Juan with his crew.

The family of “El Pirata” — his father was an emigre who fled Trieste after killing a man in a duel — bequeathed him the upbringing and honorific (“Don”) due to a gentleman without any of the money. Dunned by multiplying creditors, he took to the sea to keep his finances afloat and for a time made a legitimate living in the late 1810s as a piscator and a ferryman. Soon, the crises in Puerto Rico’s economy and governance prodded him into more adventurous pursuits, beginning with highway robbery around his hometown of Cabo Rojo. Wanted posters testify to his landside notoriety; soon, he would combine his vocations as a buccanneer.

In his brief moment, about 1823-1825, he became one of the Caribbean’s most feared marauders, and one of the last consequential pirates to haunt those waters. His career plundering prizes and evading manhunts is recounted in surprising detail on the man’s Wikipedia page, which is in turn an extended summary of an out-of-print Spanish-language book. Given the development of maritime policing by this point it was an achievement to extend his career so long … but everyone has to retire, one way or another.


Norwich Courier, April 27, 1825

A proclamation issued justifying the execution testifies both to the example authorities wished to be understood by his fate, and their awareness that they contended with a strain of sympathy for the outlaw. This is as quoted in Southern Chronicle (Camden, South Carolina, USA), July 2, 1825:

The name of Roberto Cofresi has become famous for robberies and acts of atrocity, and neither the countryman, the merchant nor the laborer could consider himself secure from the grasp of that wretch and his gang. If you ought to pity the lot of these unhappy men, you are bound also to give thanks to the Almighty, that the island has been delivered from a herd of wild beasts, which have attempted our ruin by all the means in their power. You are also bound to live on the alert, and be prepared, in conjunction with the authorities to attack those who may hereafter be so daring as to follow their example.

His throwback profession, his acclaimed charisma, his talent for eluding pursuit, and a purported streak of Robin Hood-esque social banditry all helped to make him a legend that has long outlived the forgotten Spanish agents who hunted him. With his threat to the sea lanes long gone, he’s become a beloved staple of literature, folklore, and popular history in Puerto Rico and especially his native Cabo Rojo. Again, a lovingly curated Wikipedia page on this posthumous career awaits the curious reader.


Label for a Ron Kofresi-brand rum, which one might use to toast his memory with a piña colada: it’s a drink he’s alleged to have invented.

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1830: Benito de Soto, a pirate hanged at Gibraltar

1 comment January 25th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1830, the Galician or Portuguese pirate Benito de Soto was hanged at Gibraltar.

One of the very last of the dying breed of high-seas pirates, de Soto mutinied aboard an Argentine slave smuggler in 1827, re-christened her Burla Negra (“Black Joke”), and ran up the black flag.*

The pirates now entered freely into their villianous [sic] pursuit, and plundered many vessels; amongst others was an American brig, the treatment of which forms the chef d’oeuvre of their atrocity. Having taken out of this brig all the valuables they could find, they hatched down all hands to the hold, except a black man, who was allowed to remain on deck, for the special purpose of affording in his torture an amusing exhibition to Soto and his gang. They set fire to the brig, then lay to, to observe the progress of the flames; and as the miserable African bounded from rope to rope, now climbing to the mast head — now clinging to the shrouds — now leaping to one part of the vessel, and now to another, — their enjoyment seemed raised to its highest pitch. At length the hatches opened to the devouring element, the tortured victim of their fiendish cruelty fell exhausted into the flames, and the horrid and revolting scene closed amidst the shouts of the miscreants who had caused it.

Of their other exploits, that which ranks next in turpitude, and which led to their overthrow, was the piracy of the Morning Star. They fell in with that vessel near the Island Ascension, in the year 1828, as she was on her voyage from Ceylon to England. This vessel, besides a valuable cargo, had on board sevreal [sic] passengers, consisting of a major and his wife, an assistant surgeon, two civilians, about five and twenty invalid soldiers, and three or four of their wives. As soon as Benito de Soto perceived the ship, which was at day-light on the 21st of February, he called up all hands, and prepared for attacking her; he was at the time steering on an opposite course to that of the Morning Star. On reconnoitring [sic] her, he at first supposed she was a French vessel; but Rabazan, one of his crew, who was himself a Frenchman, assured him the ship was British. “So much the better,” exclaimed Soto, in English, (for he could speak that language,) “we shall find the more booty.”

The Burla Negra was much the faster and better-armed ship — in fact the Morning Star was completely unarmed, with not even a store of small arms for her frightened passengers — and soon corralled her prey, murdered the captain and mate, plundered the ship, and gang-raped the women aboard. The only mercy was that the marauders, out of tenderness or drunkenness (having also helped themselves to the Morning Star‘s wine), only imprisoned the human cargo below when they scuttled the ship and sailed away — and the passengers and crew were able to free themselves before they drowned and return safe home to tell the tale of their outrage.

Benito de Soto sailed next for his home port of Corunna, with the aid of a hostage navigator commandeered from his next prize. (The captain ruthlessly shot said unwilling helmsman dead upon arrival.) This adventure, however, marked the last of his career for on the way back to sea the corsairs were shipwrecked and had to take refuge at British Gibraltar where, after residing some time under false identities, a survivor of the Morning Star recognized them.

Easy come, easy go. “Adeus todos!” were his understated last words, not counting those syllables whistled by the salt winds through his posthumous pike-mounted skull.

However, British authorities — who were very conscious that they had detected the villain by pure chance — were not at all amused by the ease with which he had set up in Gibraltar. His legacy would be an impetus to Gibraltar officials to tighten up entrance regulations and, later that same year of 1830, to institute the Royal Gibraltar Police — the oldest police force in the Commonwealth outside the British isles.

* The slaver was full of African slaves, so the first profitable thing the buccaneers did was complete the vessel’s “legitimate” purpose by smuggling them to the West Indies. A black cabin boy that de Soto chose to retain would be captured with the rest and give evidence against the pirates. “The black slave of the pirate stood upon the battery trembling before his dying master to behold the awful termination of a series of events, the recital of which to his African countrymen, when he shall return to his home, will give them no doubt, a dreadful picture of European civilization,” muses our reporter.

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1242: William de Marisco, pirate knight

Add comment July 25th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1242, the knight, outlaw, and pirate William de Marisco was drawn by a horse to Coventry and put to the pains of disemboweling and quartering — albeit only after he had already been hanged to death.


Illustration of William de Marisco’s execution by the amazing 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris.

He’d eventually be damned as a kingslayer but Marisco’s doom began with the 1235 murder of a messenger of King Henry III named Henry Clement, slain at the very gates of Westminster “to our no small dishonour and scandal of the realm.” Suspicion settled on the Mariscos, who might have been motivated by Clement’s boasting of having helped recently lay in his grave the Earl of Pembroke, a magnate and great rival to the king.*

Marisco, whose architectural legacy for us is Coonagh Castle, County Limerick in Ireland, fled the scene of the crime and took refuge on Lundy Island, a gorgeous and remote fingerbone in the westerly Bristol Channel that had once been granted to the Knights Templar.**


Lundy’s west coast.
(cc) image by P_Dean.

There, as our chronicler-illustrator Matthew Paris describes, he made his way thereafter by piracy.

Whilst these occurrences were taking place, William Marsh [“de Marisco” means “of the Marshes” -ed.], son of Geoffrey Marsh, took up his quarters on an island near Bristol, called Lundy, a place impregnable by the nature of its situation, where he lived like a pirate with a number of proscribed and wicked men, indulging in plunder and rapine, and, attended by his companions, traversed the places on the neighbouring coast, despoiling the inhabitants of their property, especially wine and other provisions. By sudden incursions lie frequently carried off vast booty from the country lying near the island, and in many ways injured the kingdom of England both by land and sea, and caused great loss to the native and foreign merchants.

William de Marisco would manage seven years on the lam, seizing victuals and booty and ransomable hostages as he could from his island fastness. He’d been dispossessed of his lands in Ireland and nursed against King Henry the personal grudge of an aggrieved nobleman.

Such injuries were known to heal over time, and amid the tangle of authority and kinship among medieval Europe’s bluebloods, today’s rebel might become tomorrow’s hand of the king. But in 1238, William cut the roads behind him and made himself permanently anathema by allegedly sending an assassin after Henry III. Matthew Paris, again, with a story that will easily bear the interpretation that Marisco’s name was put into a deranged regicide’s mouth by his torturers:

on the day after the Nativity of St. Mary, a certain learned esquire, as it is said, came to the king’s court at Woodstock, pretending that he was insane, and said to the king, “Resign to me the kingdom, which you have unjustly usurped, and so long detained from me;” he also added, that he bore the sign of royalty on his shoulder. The king’s attendants wanted to beat him and drive him away from the royal presence, but the king prevented those who were rushing on him from violence, saying, “Let the insane man rave as becomes him, for such people’s words have not the influence of truth.” In the middle of the night, however, this same man entered the king’s bedchamber window, carrying an open knife, and approached the king’s couch, but was confused at not finding him there, and immediately began to look for him in the several chambers of his residence. The king was, by God’s providence, then sleeping with the queen. But one of the queen’s maids, named Margaret Biseth, was by chance awake, and was singing psalms by the light of a candle (for she was a holy maid, and one devoted to God), and when she saw this madman searching all the private places, to kill the king, and frequently asking in a terrible voice where the king was, she was greatly alarmed, and began to utter repeated cries. At her dreadful cry the king’s attendants awoke, and leaped from their beds with all speed, and running to the spot, broke open the door, which this robber had firmly secured with a bolt, and seized the robber, and, notwithstanding his resistance, bound him fast and secured him. He, after some time, confessed that he had been sent there to kill the king, after the manner of the assassins, by William Marsh, son of Greoffrey Marsh, and he stated that others had conspired to commit the same crime.

Paris has evident contempt for William, but he does note that “William boldly denied all these charges, yet he did not obtain any credit, nor was he listened to; he therefore, however unadvisedly, betook himself to out-of-the-way places, and became a fugitive and an outlaw.” It is not clear to this author that outlawry is “unadvisable” vis-a-vis standing to the judgment of a king who is certain you have attempted his life; nevertheless, it is usually little better than the temporary expedient for the doomed.

On the feast of St. James, by the king’s order, the said William, with sixteen of his accomplices taken with him, was tried and condemned, and, by the king’s order, was sentenced to an ignominious death. He was, therefore, first dragged from Westminster to the Tower of London, and from thence to that instrument of punishment called a gibbet† suspended on which he breathed forth his miserable life. After he had grown stiff in death, his body was let down and disembowelled; his entrails were immediately burnt on the spot, and his wretched body divided into four parts, which were sent to the four principal cities of the kingdom, that the sight of them might strike terror into all beholders.

His sixteen accomplices were all dragged through London at the horse’s tail, and hung on gibbets. The said William, after his condemnation, when about to imdergo the sentence pronounced upon him, invoking the divine judgment to witness, boldly declared that he was entirely free and guiltless of the crime of treason imputed to him, and likewise of the murder of the aforesaid clerk Clement; he also asserted that he had betaken himself to the aforesaid island for no other reason than to avoid the king’s anger, which he had always above all things wished to pacify by submitting to any kind of trial, or by any other humiliation; but that, after he had taken refuge as a fugitive in the said island, he was obliged to prolong his miserable life by seizing on provisions wherever he could find them. He then poured out his soul in confession before God, to J. de St. Giles, one of the brethren of the Preacher order, and confessed his sins with contrition, not excusing himself and giving vent to evil words, but rather accusing himself. This discreet preacher and confessor then administered gentle comfort to him, and dismissed him in peace, persuading him that he underwent the death to which he was doomed by way of repentance. And thus, as before mentioned, horrible to relate, he endured not one, but several dreadful deaths.

Readers of Latin can peruse the transcript of the trial, which has surprisingly survived the ravages of century, in this 1895 English Historical Review article.

* Pembroke’s brother and heir was also suspected initially, but was able to clear himself; however, he was later made to take a vow no longer to protect William de Marisco, suggesting that Pembroke was at least in simpatico with the hit. Both William and Geoffrey de Marisco had been fined previously for adhering to the Pembroke side in a fight with the king.

** The Templars at best barely possessed Lundy and the Mariscos who claimed it opposed those banker-knights’ stake, successfully.

† Paris’s unfamiliar marking of the term “gibbet” is interesting here; according to dictionary.com it was during the 13th century that this word for gallows entered Middle English from French.

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1820: William Holmes, Edward Rosewaine, and Thomas Warrington, pirates

Add comment June 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1820, William Holmes, Edward Rosewain, and Thomas Warrington aka Warren Fawcett all hanged in Boston as pirates.

A Scotsman, an Englishman, and a Connecticut Yankee (respectively), the three numbered crewed a privateer bearing the flag of newly independent Argentina. Having captured a merchantman heavy with valuable cargo, they’d been put aboard it with a few others, to sail the prize home.

On July 4, 1818, following a drunken quarrel between one of their number and the mate of this skeleton crew, they stole below and agreed upon a mutiny whereupon that very evening they crept upon the sleeping mate and “Holmes and Warrington seized him by the heels and pitched him over the rail of the vessel.” Roused by the mate’s shrieking, the captain raced up to the deck where he too was overpowered and forced over the edge where he clung for dear life to a rope, until the trio cut it. (According to the testimony of one of the surviving crew, Salem Gazette, July 12, 1819)

The hijackers then trimmed sail for Baltimore which even those pre-Wire days was renowned as a haven for freebooters. Unfortunately they weren’t the best mariners, and overshot the Chesapeake all the way to Scituate, Massachusetts, where they clumsily ditched their ride and were rounded up in due course. A U.S. Circuit Court condemned them for “piratical and felonious homicide upon the high seas,” and the Supreme Court upheld the judgment. (A pdf of proceedings is here)

Heinousness aside, we are by this point in history well abroad in the period of fretful chin-wagging over the deleterious spectacle of public execution, and as church bells tolled the condemned out of jail on the morning of June 15 in 1820 right-thinking observers again wondered whether the whole scene wasn’t counterproductive to its purported objectives.

The Christian Watchman of June 17, 1820 — having observed with “regret” that “no satisfactory evidence of the genuine repentance of the sufferers has come to our knowledge” — approvingly reprinted another paper’s editorializing against the public execution:

The frequent recurrence of these scenes compels us to ask, whether the manner in which, in obedience to custom, they are now conducted, be such as promotes the great ends of this dreadful judicial infliction.

It scarcely need be said, that every thing which has a tendency to mislead the public feeling on these occasions, — to turn the reflections of the beholders from the enormity of the crime to the severity of the punishment — defeats the great objects, which the law has in view.

It is not from any want of humanity and tenderness toward the unhappy persons themselves, that we make this remark; but because we think the scene of a public execution, as it takes place among us, runs too far into a dramatic spectacle, and has the effect, first of exciting and occupying the curiosity, and then of making an untimely pity for those, whose dark and murderous passions have brought down upon them the righteous inflictions of the law.

The unreflecting spectator, who sees the Reverend priest in the party-coloured vestments of his church, pouring into the ears of the convicts those precious promises of Christianity, which it is scarce the right of the most tried faith and patience to claim, who sees them standing on the fatal scaffold in the arms of a Confessor, and receiving with the fatal doom of bloody crime in this world, the promises of eternal blessedness in the other; we say that the unreflecting spectator, who beholds this, if he do not conclude that the whole is a solemn mockery — will either be thrown wholly into confusion to his notion of judicial infliction, or he will be inclined to pity and sympathise with the sufferers. And either of these effects will defeat the order of justice.

The ceremony of execution should, in our opinion, be as short and simple as possible. The Warrant of Execution, in an abridged form, should be read; a short and solemn prayer, without purple surplices or embracings, or kissings, be made, and the last horrid moment hastened, as far as public decency admits.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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