Posts filed under 'Piracy'

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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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Infamous,Murder,Pelf,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions

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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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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Piracy,Pirates,Shot,Sweden

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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
.
† 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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1842: The prisoner-mutineers of the Governor Phillip

Add comment November 8th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1842, four men hanged in Australia for the mutiny on the Governor Phillip.*

In this abortive rebellion, a dozen prisoners being carried on the aforenamed brig off the coast of Norfolk Island capitalized on the inattention of their guards and attempted to commandeer the vessel. By every account it was an unpremeditated affair, simply an attack of opportunity when the prisoners realized they’d been carelessly left free on the deck with only two guards, who were speedily thrown into the drink. (One drowned.)

Their aspirations at this moment ran along the lines of Fletcher Christian: merely to escape.

“Captain Boyle, I want to make a proposal with you,” one of the mutineers shouted at the momentarily deposed skipper while the latter was barricaded in his cabin. “Give us provisions and sails, and we’ll take the boat and leave you.” No deal was struck; instead, within a matter of minutes, the crew and guards rallied and took back the ship. It was the least they could do since, as one news article put it, “it certainly says little for their vigilance or prowess that such an attempt could have been made with any chance of success by a handfull of unarmed men.”

Five prisoners and the one drowning guard died in the scrap.

The seven surviving mutineers were left to stand trial for piracy, four — John Jones, John Sayers, Nicholas Lewis and George Beaver — of them ultimately consigned to the gallows at Sydney. (Two reprieves and a non-prosecution spared the remainder.) They arrived thence “so firm, yet in so resigned and devotional a state of mind” for they had “gradually become aware of their awful situation and received … those aids and consolations of religion” whilst “fully acknowledging the justice of the law.”

* The ship was named for Arthur Phillip, who commanded the First Fleet that founded the first British penal colony in Australia in 1788 — the germ of the eventual city of Sydney. (Named for Phillip’s patron, the Viscount Sydney.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Piracy

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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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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Gibraltar,Hanged,History,Murder,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,Rape,Theft

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1873: Captain Joseph Fry and 36 crew of the Virginius

Add comment November 7th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1873, Joseph Fry,* captain of the captured U.S. blockade runner Virginius, was shot in Santiago de Cuba along with 36 of his crew members. (The full roster of those executed on November 7 can be found on this page.)

This shocking mass execution just a day after court-martial compassed many U.S. citizens among its number including the captain himself, a former Confederate naval officer, and it threatened to spiral the Virginius crisis into war between the U.S. and Spain.

“The feeling of our citizens was raised to fever heat by the execution of the Cuban leaders,” one paper raged (the Evening Post, as quoted by the Washington, D.C. Daily National Republican of Nov. 13, 1873). “It will now rise to the boiling pitch.” The New York Herald called on the Grant administration to “speak to them [Spain] now with an iron throat before the rest of the victims of the Virginius are slaughtered, and in language that they would understand.” (Nov. 12, 1873)

Within days, the war tocsin rang throughout the American republic, from the lips of Congressmen and the fulminations of editorial pages. Gunships were scrambled from Atlantic ports. Even Tammany Hall passed a resolution demanding hostilities. Under different leadership on either side of the prospective conflict matters could easily have escalated; U.S. papers were soon inflating the already very sizable death toll to 80, or even to the entirety of the Virginius crew. This press roundup from the Providence (Rhode Island) Evening Press will suggest the tenor of the moment.

NEW YORK, Nov. 13 — Senator Conkling said in an interview at the 5th Avenue Hotel last night, “If the facts are as represented, I have not the least doubt that instant measures will be adopted to avenge the outraged honor of this country, and teach a lesson they will never forget to those who have dared insult our flag. Those measures will be of a character that will involve not alone the fate of the insurrection in Cuba, but the whole future of the island… The honor of the country will I repeat, be vindicated if on investigation it shall be found that an outrage has been committed on our flag.”

NEW YORK, Nov. 13. — The Herald says, we can no longer trust to diplomatic protest and Madrid orders. Our safety must be in the weight of our metal and bravery of our sailors for the outrage of the murders at Santiago de Cuba …

The Sun says the nation might put up with having their flag trampled upon. They might even submit to murder in cold blood of the Cuban leaders taken under the protection of that flag; but this wholesale butchery shocks every feeling of humanity, and cannot fail to rouse the sentiment of national honor and dignity …

The World says: The pretence of piracy is too absurd for serious discussion. But on any other hypothesis the Cuban authorities had no right to meddle with the Virginius, except within a marine league of their own coast.

The Times says, although we are a peaceable nation,** we have not arrived at the point at which we can stand by and see Spain assassinate American citizens with impunity.

By reply, “The Voz de Cuba of today [Nov. 12, 1873] says editorially that it [is] as humane as anybody, more so than many who make ostentatious professions of philanthropy, but it cannot do less than approve of the energy displayed toward all rebels, and particularly toward those whom the filibustering steamer Virginius brought to make more bloody war on Cuba.” (quoted from the Worcester, Mass. Spy of Nov. 14, 1873)

* An 1875 biography is in the public domain: Life of Capt. Joseph Fry, the Cuban martyr.

** This phrase assuredly appears in the wartime propaganda campaign drinking game.

Part of Corpses Strewn: The Virginius Affair.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Piracy,Revolutionaries,Shot,Spain,USA,Wartime Executions

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1873: Four Cuban rebel generals

Add comment November 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1873, not five days after capturing the Virginius — a U.S. blockade runner illegally supplying separatist rebels in Cuba — Spanish General Juan Burriel had four of the rebel brass found aboard shot under martial law.

Santiago de Cuba, November 4, 1873

To his Excellency the Captain-General

At six o’clock this morning were shot in this city, for being traitors to their country, and for being insurgent chiefs, the following persons, styling themselves ‘patriot generals:’ Bernabe Varona, alias Bembeta, general of division; Pedro Céspedes, commanding general of Cienfuegos; General Jesus del Sol, and Brigadier-General Washington Ryan. The executions took place in the presence of the entire corps of volunteers, the force of regular infantry, and the sailors from the fleet. An immense concourse of people also witnessed the act.

The best of the order prevailed. The prisoners met their death with composure.

Juan B. Burriel

Part of Corpses Strewn: The Virginius Affair.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Piracy,Power,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Spain,Treason,Wartime Executions

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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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