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.

On this day..

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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1915: Thomas and Meeks Griffin, ancestors of Tom Joyner

4 comments September 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1915, a quintet of African Americans died in South Carolina’s electric chair during a 70-minute span.

Joe Malloy was put to death for killing two white men four years before; the other four executed on this date were convicted together of murdering 73-year-old Confederate veteran John Q. Lewis. They were John Crosby, Nelse Brice, and — our principal concern today — Thomas and Meeks Griffin.

The Griffins were among the wealthiest blacks around, and we’ve already seen where that’s a dangerous profile to keep in South Carolina.

In this case, and even though public opinion was predictably inflamed at the aged veteran, the Griffins weren’t lynched: indeed, prominent white people in the community, such as the mayor and the sheriff, rose to the Griffins’ defense to the extent of signing a petition for executive clemency. They didn’t believe then that the thief whose accusation condemned the brothers was credible.

More than likely they suspected Lewis’s 22-year-old black mistress, Anna Davis, and/or her husband — and undoubtedly, they would have known exactly why this scandalous angle was not pursued in court.

Still, South Carolina’s governor reckoned that they’d had their day in court, the victims deserved closure, and whatever other equivalents of the familiar modern-day rationales one might care to name.

Almost surely, this distant injustice would be lost to time were it not for the Griffins’ famous great-nephew, the radio host Tom Joyner.

Joyner only recently discovered (via Henry Louis Gates Jr.‘s research for a PBS documentary*) his kinship with these executed men; his grandmother had moved away to Florida to bury the family tragedy.

But the broadcaster exhumed it with gusto, and, two years ago, was able to secure a posthumous pardon from South Carolina based on the weakness of the original case. It’s thought to be the first official posthumous pardon the state has granted to any executed persons.

But we do want to extend the Palmetto State the credit due to all its sons whose signatures graced the disregarded clemency petition way back when. More than that: The State editorialized, confusedly but forcefully, against the manifest racial discrepancies in capital sentencing on the occasion of this quintuple-execution. (Oct. 1, 1915) These questions, ever present, are more sincerely grappled with in this column than we can manage today.

* You can watch the big reveal when a flabbergasted Joyner first hears about his ancestors: it’s quite a moment.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Notably Survived By,Posthumous Exonerations,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,South Carolina,USA,Wrongful Executions

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