Pirates in Boston, Massachusetts

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Boston, Massachusetts has a rich maritime history that includes pirates and privateers. In fact, Boston had a reputation for being a pirate hot spot in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony did not take kindly to pirates though and declared piracy a capital offense on October 15, 1673.

Under the new law, if convicted of piracy, the pirate was ordered to be hanged on either Bird Island or Nixes Mate in Boston Harbor.

Nixes Mate became the chosen place to display the bodies, even if they were executed elsewhere, with the bodies often being placed in a gibbet cage where they would hang for months.

In 1684, the Governor of Jamaica, Sir Thomas Lynch, stated that Boston was a place where pirates had brought more than £80,000 into the town.

Lynch complained that Jamaica’s laws against privateers were useless when pirates and privateers had safe havens in places like New England, the Carolinas and other colonies.

It is not clear how accurate Lynch’s claims were though and many consider them merely political slander aimed at a colony in the midst of political turmoil due to the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter being revoked that year.

Nonetheless, pirates did frequent Boston and New England and many were even captured, tried and hanged there.

The following is a list of pirates with connections to Boston:

The Crew of the Antonio:

The first trial and execution of pirates in Boston took place in 1672 when the crew of the ship the Antonio mutinied and set their captain and officer adrift in a longboat.

The ship arrived in Boston and the crew were hidden in Charlestown by a merchant named Major Nicholas Shapleigh.

Around the same time, the captain and his officer arrive in their longboat and filed a complaint against the crew.

The crew were arrested and charged with piracy, not mutiny, and were quickly convicted, sentenced to death and hanged while Major Shapleigh was fined £300.

The case was so controversial that it prompted the Massachusetts Bay officials to enact their first law against piracy on October 15, 1673.

Captain Thomas Pound:

Born in England, Captain Thomas Pound was a English Royal Navy officer stationed in Boston, Massachusetts who later became a pirate when he took part in a mutiny in 1689.

On August 8, 1689, Pound was aboard a small ship owned by Thomas Hawkins when Pound and the other crew members seized the ship as their own and began attacking ships along the coast of New England, with Hawkins willingly joining the pirates.

A 1936 Jolly Roger Cups Pirate card of the pirate Thomas Pound
A 1936 Jolly Roger Cups Pirate card of the pirate Thomas Pound

Pound continued attacking ships in the area until the Massachusetts governor sent an armed ship, the Mary, to capture Pound and his crew in October.

After heavy fighting off Naushon Island, Pound and his crew surrendered and were taken back to Boston for trial.

On January 13, 1690, Pound, Hawkins, William Warren, Samuel Watts, Daniel Lander, Richard Griffin, John Siccadam, Eleazer Buck, William Dunn and Thomas Johnson were found guilty of piracy and sentenced to be hanged on January 27.

For reasons that are unknown, Pound and Hawkins received a sudden reprieve from their death sentence, possibly due to Hawkin’s family connections or possibly for political reasons. Johnson did not and was hanged.

William Coward:

William Coward was a pirate who attacked a small ship off the coast of Massachusetts in 1689.

In November of 1689, Coward and three other men took a small rowboat out to a ship in Boston Harbor, the Elinor, and boarded it. Since the ship’s crew was ill with smallpox at the time they did not resist.

Coward and his men robbed the ship and sailed it to Cape Cod but were caught and imprisoned. Coward was tried in January of 1690, at the same time Captain Pound was on trial, with Judge Samuel Sewall presiding.

Coward refused to enter a plea at his trial, arguing that piracy can only be tried in Admiralty court. The court convicted Coward anyway and sentenced him to death by hanging.

While awaiting execution, Coward was imprisoned with Captain Thomas Pound, Thomas Hawkins, and accused witch Mary Glover. Coward and his crew later received a pardon by Governor Bradstreet.

Joe Brodish:

Joe Brodish was a boatswain aboard the ship Adventure who later became a pirate when he killed the ship’s captain, Thomas Gulleck, and took command of the vessel in 1699.

Brodish then sailed to the Caribbean where he raided Spanish ships before sailing to New England and purchasing a second ship to add to his command.

While en route to Montauk Point, the Adventure sank during a storm and the crew managed to swim ashore. Brodish and Tee Wetherly were arrested in Boston where they remained in jail for two months before escaping on June 25, 1699.

A bounty was place on their heads and they were arrested in Saco, Maine and brought back to Boston. Sources stated Brodish managed to escape the Boston jail a total of two times, because the jailer was his relative, but it’s not clear when the second escape occurred.

Brodish and Wetherly were then sent to England where they were later tried and executed.

Captain Kidd:

Born in Dundee, Scotland in 1645, William Kidd was a privateer who later turned pirate. In 1689, he sailed the Caribbean in a French ship he’d captured as a privateer during King William’s War.

Kidd’s crew abandoned him in the Caribbean that year for reasons that aren’t clear and he traveled to New York City in 1691 where he married a young wealthy widow named Sarah Bradley Cox Oort and had two daughters.

Captain Kidd on a ship in New York harbor, illustration published in Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates, circa 1921
Captain Kidd on a ship in New York harbor, illustration published in Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, circa 1921

Kidd spent the next 10 years terrorizing merchant ships, although it was never quite clear if he did so as a privateer or pirate.

When Kidd refused to attack a Dutch ship one day, he got into a heated argument with his gunner and hit the man in the head with a bucket, killing him.

In January of 1698, Kidd captured the Quedah Merchant, loaded with gold, diamonds and coins, not realizing that the ship was owned by a minister at the court of the Indian Grand Moghul.

Wanted for piracy, Kidd sailed to Boston hoping to clear his name. It is rumored that he may have buried some of the treasure from the Quedah somewhere in or near Boston before being arrested for piracy at the home of his financial backer Lord Bellomont on July 6, 1699.

Illustration of William Captain Kidd's body in a gibbet cage
Illustration of William Captain Kidd’s body in a gibbet cage

Kidd sat in prison in Boston for a year before he was sent to England for trial. In 1701, Kidd was found guilty of the murder of his gunner and of piracy and was hanged in London on May 23, 1701.

Jack Quelch:

Born in London, England in 1666, Jack Quelch (also known as John Quelch) was a privateer who later became a pirate in 1703 after the captain of the ship he was employed on, the Charles, became ill and was thrown overboard in what might have been a mutiny.

As the ship’s lieutenant, Quelch was chosen to be the new captain and he led the crew on a year-long piracy campaign against Portuguese ships in the Caribbean and off the coast of South America.

Since the Charles had been licensed to attack the ships of England’s enemies, particularly Spain and France, and the crew rebelled against these instructions and instead attacked the ships of England’s ally, Portugal, this was considered piracy.

Between August of 1703 and February of 1704, the Charles attacked a total of nine Portuguese ships off the coast of Brazil, stealing a variety of goods, such as gold, molasses, sugar and Portuguese money, and committing a number of crimes like murder.

After a year, the Charles sailed to Marblehead, Massachusetts in May of 1704. Quelch tried to devise a cover story for his illegal activity, telling his employers that the gold was discovered by Indians on a Spanish shipwreck.

Quelch’s employers didn’t believe him and notified the authorities who searched the ship, found Portuguese goods on board, arrested Quelch and the crew for piracy and jailed them in Boston.

The trial took place in June of 1704, with Governor Joseph Dudley and Judge Samuel Sewall presiding. The trial is considered the first piracy trial outside England under Admiralty Law and thus without a jury.

Quelch and 20 of his crewmen were quickly convicted of piracy and seven of them, which included Jack Quelch, John Lambert, Christopher Scudamore, John Miller, Erasmus Peterson, Francis King and Peter Roach, were sentenced to hang,

The seven men were hanged on the mudflats outside of Boston harbor while a large crowd watched from land and from hundreds of small boats that gathered around the execution site. By custom, the bodies were left to hang for three high tides before they were cut down and buried in unhallowed ground.

Since the trial did not have a jury, it did not sit well with Bostonians who felt it was illegal. They also felt that the British officials were overstepping their bounds in Massachusetts, which was a self-governing colony at the time with its own laws.

The Massachusetts colonists saw this treatment of Quelch as an attack on personal liberty and freedom and is believed to have contributed to the growing anti-British sentiment that was already spreading in Boston at the time.

Black Sam Bellamy and His Crew:

Born in Hittisleigh, England in 1689, Black Sam Bellamy was an English privateer who turned pirate when he became a crew member of Captain Benjamin Hornigold in 1716.

That same year, Hornigold gave Bellamy a captured ship named the Mary Anne, making Bellamy a pirate captain.

In 1717, Bellamy captured the slave ship the Whydah, which was carrying a cargo of gold, ivory, sugar, rum and indigo. in the Bahamas and headed to New England along with the Mary Anne.

Samuel Bellamy, Wreck of the Whydah, advertisement for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes, circa 1888
Samuel Bellamy, Wreck of the Whydah, advertisement for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes, circa 1888

On April 26, 1717, the Whydah and the Mary Anne ran aground during a storm off Cape Cod, Massachusetts and Bellamy and most of the crew drowned.

Seven of the surviving crew members, Simon Vanvoorst, John Brown, Thomas Davis, Thomas Baker, Henrick Quinter, Peter Cornelius Hooff, and John Shuan, were captured and tried for piracy in the Old State House in Boston.

Boston minister Cotton Mather visited the crew in their cells and preached to them about their eternal damnation, trying to get them to confess to their crimes, which they continued to deny.

Thomas Davis was found innocent but the remaining six were convicted and hanged on the mudflats at the Charlestown Ferry Landing.

After their execution, Mather wrote a pamphlet about the pirates titled Instructions to the Living: From the Condition of the Dead.

The wreck of the Wydah and its treasure remained missing until it was discovered by Barry Clifford in 1984.

Edward “Ned” Low:

Born in London, England in 1690, Edward “Ned” Low was a common thief in England who later became a pirate in the New World in 1722.

Low left England in 1710 and eventually settled in Boston, Massachusetts three years later. He married Eliza Marble at the First Church in Boston in 1714 and had a son, who died in infancy, and then a daughter in 1719.

After Eliza died in childbirth, Low left his daughter behind as he went to sea to become a ship rigger. In May of 1722, he took part in a failed mutiny and he and his friends were forced to leave the ship.

The men went on to take over a small sloop off the coast of Rhode Island, killing one of the men in the attack.

Low continued to raid and capture ships along the coast of New England and Canada and also developed a reputation for cruelty for torturing, burning, disfiguring and decapitating his victims.

Low eventually moved on to the Caribbean where he found even more success as a pirate and eventually had a bounty placed on his head.

After briefly returning to New England, where he continued to raid and capture ships and torture his captives, Low eventually sailed south again where it is believed he was last sighted in July of 1723, sailing a ship with a black flag and red skeleton, near the Canaries and Guinea.

Low’s fate is unknown. Some rumors says his ship went down during a storm on his way to Brazil while others say he was mutinied by his crew and set adrift in a small boat where he was later picked up by French authorities and hanged as a pirate on the island of Martinique in 1724. This is no actual record of any of this happening so his fate remains a mystery to this day.

William Fly:

Born sometime around 1699, William Fly was a boatswain who later became a pirate after leading a successful mutiny aboard a ship in 1726.

In April of 1726, Fly joined the crew of Captain John Green on the British slave ship, the Elizabeth.

During the Elizabeth’s journey to West Africa, Fly organized a successful mutiny during which the crew threw Captain Green overboard.

The sailors then signed on to be pirates, they elected Fly captain and they sailed to the coast of North Carolina, renaming the ship Fames’ Revenge along the way.

The Fames’ Revenge captured five ships while en route from North Carolina to New England but they were eventually caught and turned over to the authorities when a group of men they had forced to join their crew from a captured ship rose up and captured Fly.

William Fly and his crew were executed in Boston on July 12, 1726. Instead of using his last words to express remorse and regret for what he had done, Fly instead warned all captains that they would meet the same fate as Captain Green if they mistreated their crew.

After he was hanged, Fly’s body was displayed in a gibbet cage on Nixes Mate Island in Boston Harbor.

Rachel Wall:

Born Rachel Schmidt in Pennsylvania in 1760, Rachel Wall was an American woman who later became a pirate.

Wall ran away from home at 16 years old and met a fisherman named George Wall. They married and traveled to Philadelphia and New York before settling in Boston where George took a job on a fishing schooner and Rachel worked as a domestic servant in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.

In 1781, when George returned from his sea voyage, he convinced Rachel to join him as a pirate. Wall and a small crew stole a ship called the Essex and began robbing ships off the coast of New Hampshire. It is reported that they robbed a total of 12 ships and killed 24 sailors.

Some sources state that George Wall drowned in 1782 when the Essex wrecked in a storm while others say he was killed while robbing another ship.

Rachel stated, in a confession she made from jail in 1789, that he was actually imprisoned in 1785 and she admitted to a failed attempt to break him out of jail.

Rachel also stated at some point George abandoned her and she never saw him again. Rachel returned to Boston where she continued to steal from ships by sneaking aboard docked ships at night and stealing whatever she could find.

On March 18, 1789, Rachel was accused of stealing a bonnet, shoes and buckles from a 17-year-old girl, Margaret Bender, while she was walking along a road alone.

Rachel was arrested and charged with highway robbery. During her trial, she denied the charges but was found guilty on August 25, 1789.

The night before her execution, Rachel signed a confession stating that she was innocent of highway robbery but confessed to several acts of piracy.

Rachel was hanged on Boston Common on October 8, 1789, alongside two other men who were also accused of robbery, William Smith and William Dunogan.

Wall, Smith and Dunogan were the last people to be executed for robbery in Massachusetts and Wall was the last woman executed by hanging in Massachusetts.

Six years later, the laws were changed to make unarmed burglary no longer punishable by death.

Captain Pedro Gibert:

Born in 1800 in Catalonia in Spain, Captain Pedro Gibert was a privateer for the Colombian government who later officially became the last person to engage in a recorded act of piracy on the Atlantic Ocean.

Gibert frequently attacked American merchant vessels and raided the coast of Florida in his ship, the Panda.

On September 20, 1832, the Panda attacked the Mexican, an American brig from Salem, Mass, off the coast of Florida while it was carrying about $20,000 in silver.

The pirates took the silver and set the ship on fire before fleeing. Both the ship and crew survived and made it back to Salem six weeks later where they reported the crime.

Gibert and his crew were captured by the British Royal Navy off the coast of West Africa and sent to Salem for a preliminary hearing before being sent to Boston for trial. The jury found seven of the men, including Gibert, guilty and acquitted five.

On June 11, 1836, Gibert and four of his men were hanged behind the Leverett Street Jail in Boston while 20,000 spectators watched.

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About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

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