Posts filed under 'Piracy'

1835: Francisco Ruiz, prostrated pirate

Add comment September 12th, 2016 Headsman

From the Lowell (Mass.) Patriot, September 18, 1835 — channeling, as the headling indicates, the Boston Morning Post. In addition to a wanton overuse of commas, this article’s casual alternation between the interchangeable spellings of “Marshal” and “Marshall” is [sic]. The piracy at issue was the subject of a previous Executed Today post.

Francisco Ruiz, the carpenter of the Spanish piratical schooner Panda, who was distinguished above his brother buccaneers, by his pre-eminence in guilt, and violence, in the robbery of the Mexican, and yet had succeeded outliving them a few months, and prolonging a miserable existence in jail, by counterfeiting madness, in which, however, there was altogether too much method, was executed on Saturday morning in the jail yard.

At the trial of the Pirates, last December,* Ruiz was more positively identified than the others, on account of the prominent part which he took in the proceedings on board of the Mexican: he was pointed out as the man, who, with a drawn sword, drove the crew below, and as keeping guard over the hatchway while the vessel was pillaged of her specie; he was also singled out by the steward as the individual who beat him with a baton to compel him to disclose where he had secreted his private property.

Under his direction the sails were slashed, the combustables collected in the camboose, and the arrangements completed, for the setting fire to the sails and rigging of the plundered brig, which was happily arrested by her crew who escaped from below, by an aperture, which the pirates, in their haste to abandon her, fortunately omitted to secure.

Had the crew remained below an other [sic] minute, the brig would have been enveloped in one general conflagration, and not a man could have survived to recount the fate of his vessel and companions.

In the river Nazareth too, when the Panda, closely pressed by the British boats, was abandoned by her officers and crew, to Ruiz was assigned the dangerous duty of securing the ship’s papers, and then blowing her up, but his attempt to explode her magazine proved as unsuccessful as his infernal endeavor to wrap the Mexican in flames, in the middle of the ocean.

Since the expiration of Ruiz’s second respite, Mr. Marshall Sibley had procured the attendance, at the jail, of two experienced physicians, belonging to the U.S. Service, and who, being acquainted, with the Spanish language, were able to converse freely with him.

They had continued access to him, during the past month, and, as the result of their observations, reported to the Marshall in writing, that they had visited Ruiz several times for the purpose of ascertaining whether he was, or was not insane; and from their opportunities of observing him, they expressed their belief, that he was not insane.

This opinion being corroborated by other physicians, unacquainted with the Spanish language, but judging only from Ruiz’s conduct, induced the Marshal to forbear urging the Executive for a further respite; and for the first time, on Saturday morning, in an interview with the Spanish Interpreter and Priest, he was made sensible, that longer evasion of the sentence of the law was impracticable, and that he must surely die.

They informed him, that he had but half an hour to live, and retired, when he requested that he might not be disturbed during the brief space that remained to him, and turning his back to the open entrance of his cell, he unrolled some fragments of printed prayers, and commenced reading them to himself.

During this interval he neither spoke, nor heeded those who were watching him; but undoubtedly sufferred ]sic] extreme mental agony. At one minute he would [obscure] his chin on his bosom, and stand motionless; at another he would press his brow to the wall of his cell, or wave his body from side to side, as if wrung with unutterable anguish.

Suddenly, he would throw himself upon his knees on his mattress, and prostrate himself on his face as if in prayer; then throwing his prayers from him, he would clutch his rug in his fingers, and like a child try to double it up, or pick it to pieces.

After snatching up his rug and throwing it away again and again, he would suddenly resume his prayers, and erect posture, and stand mute, gazing through the aperture that admitted the light of day, for upwards of a minute.

This scene of imbecility and indecision — of horrible prostration of mind — eased in some degree when the Catholic clergyman re-entered his cell.

Precisely at 10 o’clock, the prisoner was removed from the prison, and, during his process to the scaffold, though the palor of death was spread over his countenance, and he trembled n every joint with fear, he chanted with a powerful voice an appropriate service from the Catholic ritual.

Several times he turned half round to survey the heavens, which at that moment were clear and bright above him, and when he ascended the platform, after concluding his last audible prayer, he took one long and steadfast gaze at the sun, and waited, in silence, his fate.

Unlike his comrades who had preceded him, he uttered no exclamations of innocence — his mind never appeared to revert to his crime.

His powers, mental and physical, had been suddenly crushed with the appalling reality that surrounded him; his whole soul was absorbed with one master feeling — the dread of a speedy and violent death.

Misunderstanding the lenity of the government, and the humanity of the officers, he had deluded himself with the hope of eluding his fate, and not having steeled his heart for the trying ordeal, it quailed in the presence of the dreadful paraphernalia of his punishment, as much as if he had been a stranger to deeds of blood, and never dealt death to his fellow man, as he ploughed the deep under the black flag of piracy, with the motto of “Rob, Kill, and Burn.”

He appeared entirely unconscious — dead, as it were — to all that was passing around him, when Deputy Marshal Bass coolly and securely adjusted the fatal cap, and, at the Marshall’s signal, which soon followed, adroitly cut the rope, which held down the latches of the platform.

The body dropoped heavily, and the harsh, abrupt shock must have instantly deprived him of all sensation, as there was no voluntary action of the hands afterwards. The body hung motionless half a minute, when a violent spasmodic action took place, occasioned simply by muscular contraction, but confined chiefly to the trunk of the body, which seemed to draw up the lower extremities into itself. The muscles of the heart continued to act nearly half an hour, but no pulsation was perceptible in a very few minutes after the fall.

Thus terminated his career of crime, in a foreign land, without one friend to recognize or cheer him, or a single being to regret his death — dying in very truth “unwept, unhonored.”

The skull of Delgrado, the suicide, who held the knife to Capt. Butman’s throat, was thought by the phrenologists to favor their supposed science; but they will find in the head of Ruiz a still more extraordinary development of the destructive, and other animal propensities, if we were not deceived in the alleged localities of these organs.

The execution took place in one of the most secluded situations in the City — not a hundred persons could witness it from within the yard; and very few, excepting professional persons, having business there, and the officers, were admitted inside.

Great credit is due to the U.S. Marshall for the privacy with which he caused the execution to be performed, and for not interrupting, by exhibiting a public, and exciting through barbarous spectacle, the business of the community.

* The long interval which has elapsed since the conviction of Capt. Gilbert and his crew, has afforded the most ample time to bring to light facts tending to establish their innocence, if any had been in existence; and the non-production of such facts, under the circumstances, must remove every possible shadow of a doubt of their guilt.

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

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1827: Three Spanish pirates in Richmond, states’ rights cause

1 comment August 17th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1827, a “Carnival of Death” in Richmond saw the hanging of three Spanish pirates who had but recently perpetrated an infamous slaughter all their own.

These men had shipped aboard the brig Crawford out of Matanzas, Cuba. The Crawford was bound for New York, but these Spaniards and a French-born American with the unfortunate name Tardy had a different idea: they had brought aboard a set of Spanish papers for the vessel that would show her under their command, sailing for Hamburg.

One night on the seas, the four rose up and murdered most of the rest of the crew. A cook and a French passenger were spared, as was the mate Edmund Dobson who convinced the hijackers that he could be of service navigating their prize.

The ship’s original papers vanished into the waves, along with Captain Henry Brightman of Troy, Mass., and eight other crew and passengers whose deaths make pitiable reading. Oliver Potter scampered up a mast to escape the mutineers, but having been gashed by their blades he eventually became “exhausted by the loss of his blood, [and] fell to the deck and expired.” Two other men lept overboard and begged for their tormenters to allow them some piece of debris that would keep them afloat, “but the demons regarded [them] not.” (both quotes from the North Carolina Sentinel, June 30, 1827).

It would afterward emerge that Alexander Tardy was a veteran terror of the Atlantic lanes, and had been in the words of a Philadelphia Gazette report widely reprinted around the republic

many years on our coast, and in our cities, planning and executing his black and hellish deeds with all the coolness of a demon, and after having been suffered by the mildness of our laws to escape the gallows, and repeat his murders, when in many other Christian countries he would long since have hung in gibbets … his early execution would have saved hundreds of lives, and certainly the eight lives on board the brig Crawford.

“Hundreds” seems quite a bit on the exaggerated side, but by accounts Tardy had committed several seaborne murders and escaped from hard prison time in Virginia and South Carolina.

The Gazette gives us sneaky murders by poison, rather than slaughterous main-force ship seizures, and it appears that for all his accomplishments in the field of homicide, Tardy seems to have rarely or never actually managed to commandeer a prize: perhaps this was the margin that kept him off the gibbets all those years.

He was not destined for the gallows in this instance, either.

Since our quartet purposed to reroute the Crawford from a run up the coast to a cross-Atlantic voyage, they needed to augment her provisions. To this effect, at the suggestion of the heroic and unusually persuasive mate Dobson,* the Crawford put in at Old Point Comfort on the Virginia capes. There, Dobson was able to slip the pirates and row to shore. By the time he returned with authorities, the Spaniards had put ashore in a vain attempt to flee, while Tardy had cut his own throat.

It was the eventual understanding of the federal (not Virginia) court that tried them before a standing-room crowd that the Galician Felix Barbeto was Tardy’s equal in the plot, and that Barbeto and Tardy had hired the other two Spaniards: Couro (aka Jose Morando) and Pepe (aka Jose Hilario Casaris) both addressed their comrade as “Don Felix”.

Hanging in chains having fallen well out of favor by this date, Tardy “was buried at the low water mark near Old Point Comfort, with his face downward, and every mark of ignominy.” (Alexandria Gazette, July 24, 1827) A few hours later, someone thought to obtain his specimen for the quack science of the day and “he was disinterred, his head taken off, and dispatched to Baltimore, for the inspection of the Galls and Spurzheims of that city. They will probably find the organ of distructiveness [sic], finely developed.”

This was not the last of the Frankenstein stuff, either in medicine or in law. After the Spanish were conducted through Richmond to a public gallows before a vast throng of curious Virginians,* their three corpses were given over to the mania for galvanic experimentation.

“I happened to be in Richmond the day on which the Pirates were hung,” an anonymous correspondent wrote to the National Intelligencer a few days later.

In an attempt to obtain their bodies for galvanic experiments, &c. a very ludicrous evidence was given of the mania prevailing about State rights. Doct. — who had prepared the galvanic battery, was unapprised that the act of Congress, relative to criminals, authorised the court in certain cases, to consign the bodies for dissection; he, of course, omitted to make the necessary application for the Pirates. But, on the day of execution, finding that the Marshall had no authority to permit the bodies to be taken from the gallows before interment, the Doctor was advised to apply to Governor Giles for permission to take them. He concluded to do so, and knowing there was some difficulty in the case, deemed it advisable to approach his Excellency delicately, and if practicable, get him mounted on his hobby. To that end the Doctor broached the subject of State Rights, and suggested a doubt whether the authority of the Federal Court extended to the right of burying. The Governor caught at the idea, and, without hesitation, told the Doctor that there was no doubt in his mind but that, without permission of the State authority, the Marshal, acting under the authority of the Union, had no right to turn an inch of the soil; he therefore saw no difficulty in the Doctor’s taking possession of the bodies the moment they were cut from the gallows. — This the Doctor felt as sufficient authority, and proceeded to the place of execution.

* The ropes hanging Pepe and Couro broke.

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

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1860: Albert Hicks, the last pirate hanged by the US?

Add comment July 13th, 2016 Headsman

The hanging of Albert Hicks on Bedloe’s Island on this date in 1860 marked perhaps the last execution for piracy in U.S. history.*

This was a century and more past the Golden Age of Piracy. By the mid-19th century, the picaresque buccaneer had long ago hornswaggled his last doubloons and retired from Atlantic sea lanes into literary nostalgia. According to the Espy file, there had been only a single piracy death case, a double execution in Virginia in 1852, over the preceding quarter-century.

Hicks, who alternately went by William Johnson, wasn’t exactly Captain Kidd: think less freebooter, and more hijacker.

Shipping out of New York on the sloop E.A. Johnson, Hicks — urged on by the devil, he later claimed — seized the vessel by murdering two crewmates, Oliver and Smith Watts, and the captain, George Burr. As that was the entirety of his company, that gave him the ship too. He didn’t mean to raise the Jolly Roger and go a-plundering with his prize: he simply stripped his victims of portable valuables, pitched their bodies into the drink 50 miles off Sandy Hook, and abandoned ship. Eventually the creepy hulk of the E.A. Johnson drifted back into New York’s harbor.

Hicks was tracked down in Providence, R.I. and arrested a few days later — the only survivor of a bloodstained mystery ship who happened to have a large quantity of coins he couldn’t quite account for.


1860 ballad, set to the tune of “The Rose Tree”.

As pieces fell into place, it emerged that Hicks had some previous experience as a seaborne desperado. Indeed, he published a confession admitting to quite an extensive career in. The life, trial, confession and execution of Albert W. Hicks, the pirate and murderer, executed on Bedloe’s Island, New York Bay on the 13th of July 1860 for the murder of Capt. Burr, Smith and Oliver Watts on board the oyster sloop E.A. Johnson: containing the history of his life is available free online and details a bloody life’s adventure from Peru to gold rush California that might even qualify as a swashbuckle — if it’s true.

Newsmen meeting him during his incarceration not infrequently express skepticism of Hicks’s veracity and motivations as he attaches himself to new outrages; in particular, Hicks might have been interested to create sensational gallows copy in order to support the family he would soon leave behind. One report shortly after Hicks’s arrest (Boston Courier, March 29, 1860) has his soon-to-be-widow visiting Hick’s cell where “she broke out upon him in the most vituperative language, charging him with being a bloody villain. She held her child up in front of the cell door, and exclaimed, ‘Look at your offspring, you rascal, and think what you have brought on us. If I could get in at you I would pull your bloody heart out.'”


Execution report from the July 14, 1860 New York Herald.

* The U.S. also enforced — loosely — its anti-slaving provisions under piracy statutes, so the 1862 execution of slave trader Nathaniel Gordon occurred under an anti-piracy law. Whether that makes him pirate enough for the milestone, the reader may judge.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,New York,Pelf,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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1800: Three Canadian pirates in Philadelphia

Add comment May 9th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1800, French Canadiens Joseph Baker (anglicized from Joseph Boulanger), Peter Peterson (LeCroix), and Joseph Berouse hanged in Philadelphia for a murderous mutiny.

That trio had seized control of their schooner Eliza, slaying three men in the process. They had a view to selling off the cargo but none of the three knew how to navigate the vessel — so they were obliged to bargain with the deposed captain William Wheland to sail them to Spanish territory. Eventually Wheland was able to get the drop on his mutineers, locking up LaCroix and Berouse in the hold while Baker was at the helm, then surprising the Canadian ringleader to get his ship back.


Norwith Courier, July 30, 1800

Whelan turned the naughty help over to a U.S. Navy ship, and in the consequent trial back at Philadelphia “his narrative alone was sufficient to carry conviction with it. The facts were too strong to admit a doubt of the commitment of the horrid crime with which the prisoners stood charged, and the jury, with very little hesitation, gave in their verdict guilty.” (Maryland Herald, May 1, 1800.)

The men died, penitent, at an execution island in the city harbor, “in the view of an immense concourse of spectators, who crouded the wharfs and the shipping.” A sorrowful confession purportedly taken down from Baker himself survives and can be read in full online.

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1587: Thomas Conodale, A Sea Faringe man

Add comment August 30th, 2015 Headsman

Today’s obscure mariner hanged at the Wapping execution dock comes from a tidbit unearthed years ago by the now-inert blog ReScript:

30 Awgust Ano 1587: burial

Thomas Conodale beinge A Batchelor He was Borne in Glossester beinge A Sea Faringe man and executed at wappinge For pyracye the xxxth daye of Awgust in ano 1587 betwixt the ower of too and three of the clocke was Buried the Sayde xxxth Daye of awgust in ano 1587 beinge xxviij yeares owlde no parishioner For the minester ijs For the grownd in the common churche yeard xijd For the Second clothe xd For the pitt & knell ijs viijd For the clarkes atendance viijd For the Sextenes attendance iiijd he was exicuted at Waping.

To the best of your correspondent’s knowledge, this constitutes the entirety of the relatively accessible information available about this forgotten corsair — although as ReScript notes, the Davy Jones’ locker of admiralty records might yet keep Conodale’s story.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions

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1573: Hans von Erschausen, Seeräuber

Add comment September 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1573, the Hanseatic city of Hamburg beheaded the Seeräuber Hans von Erschausen with his crew, leaving naught but a vast row of pike-mounted heads and some excellent woodcuts.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gibbeted,Hanseatic League,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions

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1961: Alvin Table Jr. and Billy Wayne Sees, Bahamas pirates

Add comment May 9th, 2014 Golde Singer

On this date in 1961, two modern-day (but somewhat inept) pirates sailed into the history books by becoming the first U.S. citizens to be executed in the Bahamas.

Alvin Table Jr., 26, mounted the gallows in Nassau at 7 a.m.; William (Billy Wayne) Sees, 21, followed an hour later. Each was declared dead within three minutes.

The bizarre adventure that preceded the hangings had begun a year earlier in Texas, where Table wooed 18-year-old Barbara Fisher briefly before whisking her off to Mexico to be married. The couple returned to San Antonio and linked up with Sees. (In a post-crime interview, Barbara described Sees as Alvin’s friend, but it’s unclear how the two ever met. Table, a Californian, had a history of at least one bad marriage, some bad checks and an assault on the West Coast; Sees, a native of Arkansas, had a history of assault in the south and, according to one account, a conviction for murder in New York State.)

However the liaison was forged, the trio worked their way across the south, cashing bad checks along the way to pay for the trip. They arrived in Florida in April 1960 and, with the law closing in, tried to buy a boat in Key West with yet another bogus check. When the sale took longer than planned, they simply took the boat and headed for Cuba.

Their plan apparently was to take refuge in Cuba — or, as Barbara put it, to “get away from it all.” Unfortunately, their boating skills failed them, and they ran aground off Elbow Key in the Bahamas. (It didn’t help that they hadn’t filled the boat with gas before leaving Key West.)

For three days, they took refuge in the island lighthouse — and, according to Barbara, they “had a pretty good time”. But the good times lasted about as long as the food held out.

About the time they started to panic, a charter fishing boat, the Muriel III, spotted the castaways and radioed the Coast Guard of the situation. Sees swam out to the Muriel, clambered aboard, and turned a gun on the passengers. When the captain, Angus Boatwright, grabbed a rifle to defend himself, Sees shot him.

Alvin Table then joined Sees aboard the boat, and they let the four fishermen swim to shore, taking the captain’s body with them on a raft made of life jackets. Their attempts to keep the first mate, Kent Hokanson, on board, failed when Hokanson simply jumped overboard and also started swimming for the island. Table and Sees, apparently deciding that time was of the essence in the situation, let Hokanson go and fled the scene.

During the gun battle, Barbara Table was in the lighthouse, packing up the trio’s belongings for departure. She heard the gunshots, and on finding out what had transpired, wisely chose not to stand by her man. The Coast Guard eventually picked up all the survivors and flew them to Nassau.

Table and Sees did reach Cuba, but they were arrested there after again running aground — this time near Isabela de Sagua, 200 miles east of Havana. At the request of the British government, Cuba extradited the pair to the Bahamas. They were both charged with and convicted of murder and piracy, despite Table’s efforts to distance himself from the murder by pointing out that he wasn’t on board the boat when it happened. An appeal to the Privy Council in London fell on deaf ears, and the Americans were sentenced to hang.

Barbara Table was briefly held in the Bahamas on a charge of grand larceny in the theft of the boat but was later released; officials cited “a lack of evidence.” Mrs. Table returned to her hometown of San Antonio, Texas, and quietly disappeared.

On a side historical note, the Bahamas retains the death penalty today, although it conducts actual executions so infrequently that the anti-death penalty watchdog Hands Off Cain considers it “abolitionist de facto”. According to researcher William Lofquist, no executions have been carried out in the Bahamas in the last decade. Lofquist observes that in today’s Bahamian justice system, “death sentences rather than executions have become the measure of the state’s resolve to maintain ‘order’.” Some of this is due to restrictions placed on the nation by the Privy Council in London, but while some chafe at those restrictions, attempts to create an appellate system separate from the Privy Council have failed. For more on Lofquist’s analysis of executions in the Bahamas over the centuries, and the cultural environment that shaped them, read his complete study. (pdf link to his “Identifying the Condemned: Reconstructing and analyzing the history of executions in The Bahamas,” The International Journal of Bahamian Studies, 16)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bahamas,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Piracy,Pirates,USA

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1831: Charles Gibbs, the pirate

Add comment April 22nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1831, pirate Charles Gibbs hanged on Ellis Island.

This Rhode Island native followed his father’s trade in buccaneering and made an adventurously brutal life on the waves during the early 19th century’s brief piracy recrudescence.

Neither Gibbs himself nor subsequent writers fascinated by him shrank from embellishing his career, according to Dead Men Tell No Tales: The Life and Legends of the Pirate Charles Gibbs. Awaiting the gallows, Gibbs floated the story that he had first gone to sea under the Stars and Stripes during the War of 1812; that this turned out to be a fabrication has not prevented its repetition down the years.

His first corsair crew was the Maria, a privateer out of Colombia outfitted for the independence war against Spain. Gibbs — back when he was known by his birth name, James Jeffers — joined a mutiny that overthrew the irritating shackles of a letter of marque in favor of the pleasures of independent predation.

It was a fine time for such entrepreneurship; the recent upheaval of Europe’s Napoleonic Wars and the New World breakaway provinces had preoccupied the Spanish navy.

For the next several years, the raiders — “principally Spaniards and Americans” — preyed on commercial shipping in the Caribbean, cruelly murdering the entire crews of their captured prizes, whose booty they would then sell in Havana.

The voyages of the Maria and her successor ships with this band would suffice for a full pirate’s rollick, though they were only the first chapter of Gibbs’s career. For instance, by the time Gibbs had risen to leadership of the crew,

a Dutch ship from Curacao was captured, with a cargo of West India goods, and a quantity of silver plate. The passengers and crew, to the number of 30, were all destroyed, with the exception of a young female about 17, who fell upon her knees and implored Gibbs to save her life. The appeal was successful, and he promised to save her, though he knew it would lead to dangerous consequences among his crew. She was carried to Cape Antonio [Cuba], and kept there about two months; but the dissatisfaction increased until it broke out at last into open mutiny, and one of the pirates was shot by Gibbs for daring to lay hold of her with a view of beating out her brains. Gibbs was compelled in the end ot submit her fate to a council of war, at which it was decided that the preservation of their own lives made her sacrifice indispensable. He therefore acquiesced in the decision, and gave orders to have her destroyed by poison.

That’s from the “Confession of Gibbs the Pirate” elicited from the condemned raiders in the days before his execution, and widely reprinted in American papers. (My quotes are from the version that appeared on April 9, 1831, in the Baltimore Patriot.) In it, the title character struggles to recall the many ships he has hijacked over the years. “Brig Jane, of Liverpool” — “Brig (name forgotten) of New York” — “Two French Brigs, in the Gulf of Mexico” — “Bark Dido, of Bremen” — “Ship Earl of Moria, of London”. Over and over his entries end with the words vessel and crew destroyed.

There were some fortunate exceptions, but the pirates “knew that the principle inculcated by the old maxim that ‘dead men tell no tales’ was the only safe one for them.” Overall, his confessions involve him in “the robbery of more than forty vessels, and in the destruction of more than twenty, with their entire crews.” He might have gone to the gallows with literally hundreds of murders to his conscience.

What can be said for certain is that the USS Enterprise trashed Gibbs’s pirate fleet in 1821 and sent our man fleeing on foot into the Cuban mountains.

This incident aside, Americans’ naval presence was still not yet substantial enough to consistently trouble pirates. American ports, too, were quite ready to accept the coinage spent by pirates; the Spanish embassy would complain to Washington of the easy egress which Gibbs too availed. He even took a passenger ship from Boston to Liverpool where he dissipated a fortune in the vain pursuit of a respectable woman.

The late 1820s find him back in his familiar habit of seagoing carnage as a privateer for Argentina in its war against Brazil. The whole Atlantic was his home, and its many conflicts each offered the prospect of regular employment (or sudden, violent death).

When Argentina and Brazil made peace, Gibbs made for Algiers then under French blockade. He was, alas, unable himself to slip the blockade and thus frustrated of his design to seize Gallic prizes for the Barbary pirates.

Instead, he settled for joining the crew of a brig called the Vineyard — and promptly executing a mutiny. It was for this revolt, and the murder of the captain and first officer which it entailed, that Gibbs eventually swung: the mutineers scuttled the ship and struggled ashore in Long Island, where he and his fellow mutineer Thomas J. Wansley were seized and sentenced to death at a trial in New York City. While the Vineyard was the specific matter at hand in that case, and more than sufficient on its own to condemn them, the long and bloody career that preceded it became the talk of the nation. As the foregoing excerpts will indicate, they enjoyed at least a last consolation of celebrity, for they occupied the weeks approaching execution entertaining a slew of curious visitors.

For some reason, Gibbs’s skull wound up in New York’s John M. Mossman Lock Museum. (“Lock” isn’t part of the benefactor’s name. The museum exhibits locks, but also has a skull labeled “James D. Jefferson, known as Gibbs the Pirate”.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,Piracy,Pirates,USA

1862: Nathaniel Gordon, slave trader

1 comment February 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1862, the American commercial shipper Nathaniel Gordon was hanged at the Tombs for slave trading.

Importing slaves to the U.S. had been nominally illegal for over half a century, but had never been strongly enforced. In 1820, slaving (regardless of destination) had even been defined as piracy, a capital crime.

Importation of kidnapped Africans into the United States did significantly abate during this period, and that was just fine with U.S. slaveowners ever paranoid of servile rebellion.

But a voracious demand for conscript labor persisted elsewhere whatever the legal situation. About 3 million slaves arrived to Brazil and Cuba, the principal slave shipment destinations, between 1790 and 1860 — even though the traffic was formally illicit for most of this time.

Great Britain was endeavoring to strangle the Atlantic slave trade, but the diplomatic weight she had to throw around Europe didn’t play in the U.S. Washington’s adamant refusal to permit the Royal Navy to board and search U.S.-flagged ships made the stars and stripes the banner of choice for human traffickers profitably plying the African coast. “As late as 1859 there were seven slavers regularly fitted out in New York, and many more in all the larger ports,” one history avers.

Hanging crime? No slave-runner had ever gone to the gallows as a “pirate” — not until Nathaniel Gordon.

The U.S. Navy did mount its own anti-slaving patrols, but the odd seizure of human cargo was more in the line of costs of doing business than a legal terror for merchants.

So Gordon, a veteran of several known slaving runs, didn’t necessarily think much of it on August 8, 1860, when the Mohican brought Gordon’s ship to bear 50 miles from the Congo with 897 naked Africans stuffed in the hold, bound for Havana. Half of his slaves were children.

“The stench from the hold was fearful, and the filth and dirt upon their persons indescribably offensive,” Harpers reported.

Gordon chilled in very loose confinement in the Tombs, even enjoying family leave furloughs as he readied for the customary slap on the wrist.

But with Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, Gordon was promoted to demonstration case.

After a hung jury in June 1861, the feds won a conviction and death sentence on those long-unused piracy laws in November 1861.

Many New Yorkers were shocked at the prospect of such draconian punishment.

Abraham Lincoln found himself besieged by appeals public and private against the unprecedented judgment. “For more than forty years the statute under which he has been convicted has been a dead letter, because the moral sense of the community revolted at the penalty of death imposed on an act when done between Africa and Cuba which the law sanctioned between Maryland and Carolina,” Gordon’s counsel Judge Gilbert Dean wrote in an open letter to the President* — an argument that could hardly be more poorly calibrated to impress in 1862.

Despite Lincoln’s famous proclivity for the humanitarian pardon, he stood absolutely firm on the precedent Gordon’s hanging would set — especially in the midst of a bloody civil war driven by the very legal sanction Dean had cited so approvingly. As Lincoln wrote on February 4, 1862,

I think I would personally prefer to let this man live in confinement and let him meditate on his deeds, yet in the name of justice and the majesty of law, there ought to be one case, at least one specific instance, of a professional slave-trader, a Northern white man, given the exact penalty of death because of the incalculable number of deaths he and his kind inflicted upon black men amid the horror of the sea-voyage from Africa.

Gordon’s hanging was the one case — the only one ever.

* New York Times, Feb. 21, 1862.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,New York,Piracy,U.S. Federal,USA,Wartime Executions

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1835: Captain Pedro Gilbert and the Spanish Pirates

1 comment June 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1835, four Spanish pirates — it was supposed to be more — were put to death at Boston.

Their captain, the Catalan Pedro Gilbert, was chief among them in death as he was in life. Three years previous, he had commanded the buccaneer schooner with the deceptively cuddly name Panda out of Havana. It’s for Gilbert that “Gilbert’s Bar” is named, a historic sandbar off Stuart, Florida where the man reputedly liked to lure ships aground.*

Gilbert and his crew of forty or so souls — Spaniards, Portuguese, South Americans, half-castes, and at least one west African — waylaid the Salem, Mass. brig Mexican.

After hours ransacking the ship, relieving it of $20,000 in silver, the raiders locked the crew of their prize below decks and put the Mexican to the torch. After the Panda departed, those imprisoned unfortunates managed to break out of the death trap in time to control the blaze and return to port.

The incident thereby reported, the Panda would in due time be cornered off the African coast and sunk by a British ship. A dozen of the salty brigands fished out of the sea were eventually extradited to the U.S. for an eventful fourteen-day trial.


One of the crew of the Mexican, called upon to identify a member of the pirate crew who tried to drown him in a burning ship, strikes the accused corsair.

A defense lawyer laboring mightily in a half-lost cause managed to procure not-guilty verdicts for five of the crew on grounds of superior orders. The cabin boy (15 at the time of the raid) and the aforementioned west African were among these men spared.

The four who hanged today — Pedro Gilbert, Juan Montenegro, Manuel Castillo, and Angel Garcia — were meant to have been seven. Two of the seven received stays of execution; we’ll return to them in a moment.

The other man in the condemned party, Manuel Boyga, cheated his executioner, kind of, by exploiting a guard’s momentary inattentiveness to slash open his own carotid artery with a sharp bit of tin. He bled out too quickly for his executioners to “help” him, but because this efficient (near-?)suicide occurred immediately before the hanging, Boyga’s unconscious form was still borne in a chair to the scaffold and hung along with his four quick mates, just to make sure. Boyga might well have been dead already; if not, the hanging only hastened his demise by moments.

As to the other two: the ship’s carpenter Francisco Ruiz, it was thought, might have been crazy. But the Spanish-speaking physicians who eventually examined him would pronounce his ravings a simulation; he was accordingly hanged in a follow-up execution on September 12, 1835.

The last man was Bernardo de Soto, the first mate and the owner of the Panda.

De Soto’s pretty black-eyed wife back home caught wind of her man’s fate and made the Atlantic crossing to comfort her husband in prison … and to prostrate herself before the U.S. president Andrew Jackson who had the final say for clemency in this federal case. Duly smitten by this pleasing romantic flourish, Jackson did better than merely sparing de Soto’s life: he gave the condemned pirate a free pardon on July 6, 1835.

* Gilbert’s Bar today has the last remaining “House of Refuge”, once one of several standing 19th century encampments built to shelter any wayfarer who shipwrecked in the vicinity.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Piracy,Pirates,Posthumous Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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