Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
By Cindy Vallar
“I, RACHEL WALL, was born in the town of Carlisle, in the state of Pennsylvania, in the year 1760 . . . .” Thus begins Life, Last Words, and Dying Confession of Rachel Wall, published shortly after her execution on Thursday, 8 October 1789. A frontier town, Carlisle had only been founded nine years earlier as the seat of Cumberland County. Benjamin Franklin traveled to Carlisle to meet with representatives from surrounding Native American tribes because of growing tensions between the British and French and their allies in 1753. That week-long assembly produced the Carlisle Treaty, but within a year hostilities between the two nations erupted even though a formal declaration of war wasn’t forthcoming until 1756. Just four years after Rachel’s birth, Regina Hartmann was reunited with her family in Carlisle. She had spent nine years as a captive of Native Americans who attacked Penns Creek, located seventy miles north of Carlisle.
Rachel doesn’t specify the day and month of her birth in the broadside, nor does she provide her maiden name.1 Some sources list that surname as “Schmidt,” but no authoritative resource verifies this claim. The name itself is German, but the predominant ethnicity of the immigrants who settled in the region was Scots-Irish, who first came there in 1734. These settlers were God-fearing people of the Presbyterian faith who worshipped in a one-room log church. If, however, she was of German descent, her family may have been members of the German Reformed Church. Both denominations followed the teachings of John Calvin. According to her last testimony, her father was a farmer and together with her mother raised her in accordance with the tenets of the “Presbyterian, or rather Congregational Persuasion” faith.2
My father was of a very serious and devout turn of mind, and always made it his constant practice to perform family-prayers in his house every morning and evening; was very careful to call his children and family together every Sabbath-day evening, to hear the holy scriptures, and other pious books read to them each one being obliged, after reading was over, to give an answer to such questions in the Assembly’s Catechism as were proposed to them. (Williams, 283)
Such devout faith was typical of the Scots-Irish who settled in Cumberland Valley. The three objects of importance to them were “a home, a school and a house of worship” (Wing, 28)
The Bible must be there and the altar of prayer must be erected and the catechism must be recited and the family gatherings for worship must be had. A residence without these would be no home for men and women of such faith. . . . Not unfrequently would be found in the humblest cottages a little shelf on which not only the Bible and the Confession of Faith and the Book of Psalms in metre, but such books as Pilgrim’s Progress, Boston’s Four-fold State and the Saint’s rest, were laid. (Wing, 29)
Rachel admitted to receiving a “good education” and that her parents “instructed me in the fundamental principles of the Christian Religion, and taught me the fear of God; and if I had followed the good advice, and pious counsel they often gave me, I should never have come to this untimely fate.” (Williams, 283)
For whatever reason, Rachel ran away, not once, but twice. The first time she “was very young”, and although she didn’t specify where she went or how long she was gone, she did return. This reunion with her family lasted only two years “before I left them again, and have never seen them since.” (Williams, 284) Her parents’ disapproval of a particular young man might have led to this lasting separation. His name was George Wall, and “[i]f I had never seen him I should not have left my parents.” (Williams, 284) How they met is unknown, although Kate Johnson recounted one possibility in her article on Rachel. She met and fell “in love with Wall while attending the funeral of her grandfather, Joseph Kirsh, in nearby Harrisburg.” (Johnson, “Rachel,” 6)
Rachel claimed to have “lawfully married” George, but didn’t say where or when. After leaving Carlisle, they went to Philadelphia, but stayed only a short time before moving to New York. Their residency in that city lasted three months, at which time they headed for Boston to settle down. Domestic bliss either didn’t last long or the outbreak of the Revolutionary War interrupted it, because George “went off, leaving me an entire stranger.” Having no means to support herself, she became a servant – a position she liked until George returned one day and “enticed me to leave my service and take to bad company, from which I may date my ruin.” (Williams, 284)
At this point the historical record becomes murky. Rachel apparently fell into a life of crime, but the confessional broadside didn’t provide specific details. She merely summed up her criminal spree in two short paragraphs.
I acknowledge myself to have been guilty of a great many crimes, such as Sabbath-breaking, stealing, lying, disobedience to parents, and almost every other sin a person could commit, except murder . . . .
In short, the many small crimes I have committed, are too numerous to mention . . . and therefore a particular narrative of them here would serve to extend a work of this kind to too great a length . . . .” (Williams, 284)
She merely hoped this admission of guilt and her repentance from having sinned would lead to God’s forgiveness.
Modern accounts claim that Rachel confessed to it before her hanging, but she never mentions piracy as one of her crimes, contemporary newspapers make no mention of such a confession. Knowledge of when and where stories of piracy first surfaced has been lost. Edward Rowe Snow, an author, lecturer, and historian of New England history, wrote about her in his book Piracy, Mutiny & Murder. He claims Mary Read’s speech, which appeared in Captain Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, influenced Rachel.
. . . as to hanging, [Read] thought it no great Hardship, for, were it not for that, every cowardly Fellow would turn Pyrate, and so infest the Seas, that Men of Courage must starve : -- That if it was to the Choice of the Pyrates, they would not have the Punishment less than Death, the Fear of which kept some dastardly Rogues honest; that many of those who are now cheating the Widows and Orphans, oppressing their poor Neighbours, who have no Money to obtain Justice, would then rob at Sea, and the Ocean would be crowded with Rogues, like the Land, and no Merchant would venture out ; so that the Trade, in a little Time, would not be worth following. (Defoe, 158-159)3
Snow fails to identify the source of this knowledge. Nor does he explain how the passage influenced Wall.
If she numbered piracy among her many crimes, what was her modus operandi? When George returned to Boston, he needed money. Some accounts say he had been a privateer during the Revolution, and as often happened, he and his mates grew accustomed to acquiring rich sums of money with little effort expended in earning it. A privateer, however, required a letter of marque to sail, but with the end of the war, neither the British nor the Americans were granting such licenses to plunder legally. If they wished to continue such ventures, they would have to turn to piracy.
Undeterred by the threat of hanging if caught, George or someone in the crew of five knew a fisherman with a schooner. Having injured himself, this man could no longer practice his trade. George proposed that if he lent them his boat, he would receive a share of the monies earned once George and his mates sold their catch. Since the man assumed they were also fishermen, he agreed to the proposal.
Before long, George put his plan into action. Whenever stormy weather threatened, they set aside their nets and took shelter. Once the gale passed, the schooner drifted into waters where other ships were likely to see them. Then they set about making the ship appear as if the storm had inflicted serious damage. When the lookout spotted a potential victim, Rachel, clad in frayed clothing, yelled for help. On seeing the derelict vessel, the unsuspecting master of the merchant ship came to the aid of the damsel in distress.
If the would-be rescue vessel had a small crew that the pirates could easily subdue, they waited until the two ships were tied together, then they boarded the merchant ship and killed her captain and crew. If the rescuers outnumbered George and his mates, Wall refused the offer of passage aboard the merchant vessel and invited her master and first mate to come aboard, supposedly to offer what assistance they could to make repairs. Once the men went below to survey the schooner’s damage, they were murdered. Then George and the men either slipped aboard the rescue ship and slaughtered the remaining crewmembers, or invented a plausible excuse for more sailors from the merchant crew to come aboard the schooner. In turn, these men also met their doom.
Once all the merchant crew was dead, George and his friends weighted down the bodies then heaved them over the side. After they plundered the merchantman of any cargo and personal items of value, they scuttled her so that both crew and vessel were never seen again. George deduced, and rightly so, that people ashore would assume the ship went down during the storm.
From their first haul, a schooner out of Plymouth, the Walls stole $360, some fishing gear, and a cargo of fish. Another time, they murdered seven men and stole $550 and merchandise worth $870. They became quite adept at playing out this charade. Jane Yolen mentioned the sum of $6,000 in cash and even more in stolen cargo. She put the total number of seamen whom the Walls and their cohorts murdered at twenty-four.4
But as with the boy who cried wolf, George and Rachel plied their scheme once too often. After a storm passed, they sailed out to the shipping lanes as usual. Unbeknownst to them, this wasn’t an ordinary gale. They were in the eye of a hurricane, and soon after they reached their destination, the fury of the storm washed waves over the schooner, which rolled from side to side in the heavy seas. The mainmast snapped, toppling the spar and two men into the sea. Both men, one of whom was George, drowned. This time, when Rachel yelled to a brig for help, she and the three other survivors really were in distress.
While historical records in Boston provide no mention of piracy, they do provide details about Rachel’s penchant for stealing. She admits to having stolen items from several ships docked at the city wharves. Somewhere in her past, she acquired the knowledge that a favorite hiding place of ship masters was the head (latrine).
In one of my nocturnal excursions . . . sometime in the spring of 1787 . . . I happened to go on board a ship, lying at the Long-Wharf, in Boston . . . . On my entering the cabin, the door of which not being fastened, and finding the Captain and Mate asleep in their beds, I hunted about for plunder, and discovered under the Captain’s head, a black silk handkerchief containing upwards of thirty pounds, in gold, crowns, and small change, on which I immediately seized the booty and decamped therewith as quick as possible, which money I spent freely in company as lewd and wicked as myself . . . .
Long Wharf, Boston
At another time, I think it was about the year 1788, I broke into a sloop, on board of which I was acquainted, lying at Doane’s Wharf . . . and finding the Captain and every hand on board asleep . . . I looked round to see what I could help myself to, when I espied a silver watch hanging over the Captain’s head, which I pocketed. I also took a pair of silver buckles out of the Captain’s shoes: I likewise made free with a parcel of small change for pocket-money, to make myself merry among my evil companions, and made my escape without being discovered. (Williams, 284-285)
Might she have acquired such knowledge as pirate? Certainly, but she could easily have discovered such caches while conducting a private liaison with seamen who craved a woman’s companionship.
These examples were simply two episodes from her criminal exploits. She also confessed to trying to break George, who was charged with robbery, out of jail in 1785.
. . . I had a mind to try an expedient to extricate him from his imprisonment, which was to have a brick-loaf baked, in which I contrived to enclose a number of tools, such as a saw, file, & c. in order to assist him to make his escape, which was handed to him by the goaler [sic] in person, who little suspected such a trick was playing with him . . . . (Williams, 285)
George extracted the tools and used them to gain his release, but the jailor wasn’t quite as dumb as he seemed and thwarted the escape attempt.
The early leaders of Massachusetts first tackled theft in 1642.
If any man shall breake up or robb any dwelling house on the Lords day, when the inhabitants are gone to the worship of God, or comit burglary upon any other day, or by night, or shall rob any pson on the way or open feilds, or shall Steale any other goods left abroad, or in the house, shall bee severely punished, according to the nature of the offence, & the several aggravations thereof . . . . (Proceedings, 185)
This law left the nature of the punishment up to the judges who heard the cases. By 1647 this oversight was corrected.
It is therefore Ordered by this Court and Authority thereof, that if any person shall Burglary : by breaking up any dwelling house or shall rob any person in the field or highwayes, such person so offending, shall for the first offence, be branded on the forehead with the letter (B) And if he shall offend in the same Kinde the second time, he shall be branded as before & also be severely whipped ; and if he shall fall into the like offence the third time, he shall be put to death, as being incorrigible.
And if any person shall commit such burglary or rob in the fields or house on the Lords day ; besides the former punishment of branding, he shal for the first offence have one of his eares cut off, And for the second offence in the same kind he shal lose his other Eare in the same manner, And for the third offence, he shal be put to death. (Proceedings, 186)
In 1691 a new charter was granted to Massachusetts, making it a royal colony. As a result, the statutes changed on 30 May 1711.
To the intent her Majesty’s liege people may be in peace, and out of fear of being assaulted and robbed by ill-minded wicked ruffians, as they are travelling the common roads or highways, or of being insulted and indecently treated or abused as they are civilly walking and recreating themselves in the fields, street or lanes in towns, –
Be it enacted . . .
Sect. I. That every person and persons that shall be convicted of assaulting, robbing, and taking away from the person of another, travelling the common road or highway, any money, goods, clothing, or other things whatsoever, shall be punished with burning in the forehead or hand, suffer six months’ imprisonment, and render treble damages to the party robbed ; and upon a second conviction of the like offence, shall be deemed a felon, and suffer the pains of death, as in cases of felony. (Proceedings, 187)
In 1784, after Massachusetts became part of the United States of America, the law differentiated between “assault with intent” and an actual theft. The latter remained a felony punishable by death, but the former entailed a variety of sentences from which the judges could select.
[F]ine not exceeding 1000 pounds, imprisonment, setting in the pillory, whipping, setting on the gallows with a rope about his neck [and the other end thereof thrown over the gallows,] confinement to hard labor, not exceeding three years, or either of these punishments, according to the degree and aggravation of the offence. (Proceedings, 189)
Examples of Punishment: Pillory (left) and Hanging (right)
Alan Rogers, in his article on capital punishment in Boston, mentioned two other incidents of thievery that Rachel perpetrated. In the summer of 1785, she robbed Pereze Morton, Esquire. When she was arrested and brought before the court, she pled guilty. Unable to pay the court costs and fine of £18, three times the value of the stolen property, she had to work for three years to make restitution. Her sentence also included “fifteen lashes laid on her bare back.” (Boston’s, 24).
When her indenture ended, she committed another robbery and was later caught. She again admitted her guilt, confessing she stole property from Lemuel Ludden. In addition to being whipped, she had “to sit on the gallows for one hour with a noose around her neck . . . .” (Boston’s, 24) As before, someone paid her fine and, in exchange, received three years of toil from her. A clipping from the 22 September 1788 issue of the Herald of Freedom, listed her as one of those publicly punished.
On Thursday last, fifteen patrons were publickly punished, agreeably to their sentence at the late Supreme Judicial Court . . . Rachel Wall, 15 . . . stripes, at a post erected on a stage, drawn into State-Street. . . . Wall . . . sat on the gallows one hour. (Vaver)
But none of these crimes concerned the theft that led to her execution. She claimed:
As to the crime of Robbery, for which I am in a few hours to suffer an ignominious death, I am entirely innocent; to the truth of this declaration I appeal to that God before whom I must shortly appear to give an account of every transgression of my life. (Williams, 285)
According to Rachel, she was on her way home after a long day of work when
. . . I heard a noise in the street; what it was I knew not, until I was taken up; I never saw Miss Bendar [sic] (the person I was charged with robbing that evening) and was quite surprised when the crime was laid to my charge. The witnesses who swore against me are certainly mistaken; but as a dying person I freely forgive them. (Williams, 285-286)
On 2 April 1789, Boston’s Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser printed the following item on the attack, which had taken place on 27 March.
A singular kind of robbery, for this part of the world, took place on Friday evening last : As a woman was walking alone, she was met by another woman, who seized hold of her and stopped her mouth with her handkerchief, and tore from her head her bonnet and cushion, after which she flung her down, took her shoes and buckles, and then fled. She was soon after overtaken and committed to jail. (Proceedings, 184)
Colonel Thomas Dawes and Charles Berry heard the commotion and came to Margaret’s rescue. Dawes stayed to help the young lady, while Berry raced after the robber. Nabbing Wall, he brought her before the victim, who said, “She appeared to be the same person.” (Rogers, 24) That declaration secured Wall’s arrest.
Rachel stood trial on 25 August, accused of highway robbery for assaulting Margaret Bender and stealing a bonnet worth seven shillings.5 Chief Justice William Cushing presided over the case with the assistance of four other justices: Nathaniel P. Sargeant, David Sewall, Francis Dana, and Increase Sumner. Unlike her previous appearances before the bench, Rachel pled not guilty. The court appointed Christopher Gore and James Hughes as her defense counsel. The jury consisted of Benjamin Clark (foreman), Bossenger Foster, Ezra Penniman, Rufus Mann, Robert Peirce, Caleb Beals, Joseph Draper, Ezekiel Richardson, Daniel Bell, Ebenezer Tucker, Jr., Silas Weld, and Thomas King.
Attorney General Robert Treat Paine, who apparently felt Rachel was a hardened criminal, pointed out that she had been convicted of “feloniously stealing” twice before. Aside from calling Bender to the stand, he summoned seven other witnesses: Colonel Dawes, Charles Berry, John Berry, John Soren, J. Frazur Low, John Soames, and Mary Barrett. They testified that Bender had a bloody mouth and that Berry had apprehended Wall. He was the only one to testify that she was “the robber-assailant, because he claimed he saw her running away from the scene of the crime.” (Rogers, 25)
Her attorneys, Gore and Hughes, argued that she was not guilty of highway robbery because the bonnet remained on Bender’s head. Therefore, Paine should have charged Rachel with the lesser crime of attempted robbery, which carried various penalties other than death. The jury disagreed and convicted Rachel of the felony. Then Paine requested
. . . that sentence of death might be given against the said Rachel Wall, the Prisoner at the bar ; upon which it is demanded of her . . . if she has or knows ought to say wherefore the Justices here ought not upon the premises and verdict aforesaid to proceed to Judgment against her, who nothing further says . . . Whereupon . . . It is Considered by the Court here, that the said Rachel Wall be taken to the Gaol of the Commonwealth from whence she came, and from thence to the place of Execution, and there be hanged by the neck until she be dead. (Proceedings, 180-181)6
Rachel’s execution took place on 8 October sometime “between the hours of twelve and four o’clock in the afternoon”, under an order signed by the Governor of Massachusetts, John Hancock, the same man who boldly signed his name on the Declaration of Independence. (Proceedings, 183) In the hours before her death, she dictated to Joseph Otis, the Deputy-Gaoler, and his assistant, William Crombie:
And now, into the hands of Almighty God I commit my soul, relying on his mercy, through the merits and meditation of my Redeemer, and die an unworthy member of the Presbyterian Church, in the 29th year of my age. (Williams, 286)
The next day, Sheriff Joseph Henderson returned the execution warrant, which read:
In Obedience to this precept to me directed, I removed the Body of the within Named Rachel Wall from the Goal [sic] the place of her Confinement to the Usual place of Execution where I hanged the said Rachel Wall by the Neck until she was dead . . . . (Proceedings, 183)
The newspapers of the day include only small snippets related to her execution. On 10 October 1789, the Massachusetts Centinel reported, “On Thursday were executed William Denoffe, William Smith, and Rachel Wall, pursuant to their sentence for highway robbery.” (Vaver)7 Not one of papers mentions anything about piracy. Had she professed to be a pirate, they most certainly would have carried lurid details of the villainy, especially since she was a woman. The absence of such accounts lends credence to the fact that she was a common thief.
Another reason for skepticism stems from her confession. Sometime after George first returned to her, “[h]e went off again and left me, and where he is now I know not.” (Williams, 284) If her husband had been swept overboard during the hurricane as the stories recount, she would have known he was dead. If she was guilty of piracy, but didn’t want to indict either herself or her husband, this statement makes sense. Why then would she confess to piracy on the gallows?
Rachel Wall was the last woman hanged in America’s oldest park, Boston Common. That she died there, rather than on Bird or Nix’s Mate Island (located in Boston Harbor), also indicates that she was a common thief.8 Piracy fell under the jurisdiction of the admiralty courts – which might have included ships docked at the wharves – and convicted pirates were rowed out to one of these little islands to be hanged.
Was she a pirate? Perhaps Kate Johnson summed up the answer best:
As with many pirates, her story is a pastiche of tales & stories, patched together from here and there. The truth may never be known. (Johnson, “Rachel,” 6)
Notes:1. I came across a web page that lists her burial site as Oak Lawn Cemetery in Roslindale, Massachusetts. This page also gives her birth date as 1 October 1760, but there is no picture of the grave and no source to substantiate the claim.
2. “Congregational Persuasion” was the predominant Protestant faith in Massachusetts, which the Pilgrims brought with them to the New World. There are historical links with the Presbyterian Church in the United States, but if Rachel was born in Carlisle as her confession states, she was more likely to be Presbyterian or German Reformed, one of original four churches that eventually became the United Church of Christ.
3. This quote comes from the edition of Johnson’s book ascribed to Daniel Defoe and edited by Manuel Schonhorn.
4. Yolen does not cite the source for these amounts, although it might come from one of the books listed in her book’s bibliography.
5. At the time of the robbery, Bender was seventeen years old. The Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society for March 1905 indicate she died when she was seventy-two years old and that she was well respected during her life.
6. According to the March 1905 Proceedings, “No evidence in the case has been preserved, and of the original papers there remain only the indictments and a bill of costs. The total cost amounted to £7, 8 shillings, and ten pence.” (182)
7. In Pillars of Salt, Williams cites two sources – The Boston Gazette (14 September 1789) and The Massachusetts Centinel (12 September 1789) – in which Denoffe’s name is spelled Dennossee or Denosse. The broadsheet of her confession lists him in a subtitle beneath Rachel’s name as William Dunogan.
8. Bird Island disappeared under Logan Airport in 1946. Nix’s Mate Island (also known as Nixes Island) is part of the National Park Service’s Boston Harbor Islands recreational area.
For additional information, I recommend . . .
Druett, Joan. She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea. Touchstone, 2001.
“History Timeline of Cumberland County” at Cumberland County, Pennsylvania [accessed 22 March 2012].
Historic Carlisle, Inc. Walking Tour of Carlisle’s Wayside Markers. Historic Carlisle, 2007.
History of the First Presbyterian Church on the Square [brochure accessed 28 March 2012].
Johnson, Catherine. Pyrates in Petticoats. Graphics/Fine Arts Press, 2000.
Johnson, Kate. “Rachel Wall – One of America’s Last Seafaring Female Pirates,” No Quarter Given (Nov./Dec. 2006), 6.
“Hanged for Stealing a Hat”, from a talk presented by Dr. DeNormandie and Mr. Noble and published in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (March 1905), pages 178-190.
Ossian, Rob. "Rachel Wall," Rob Ossian's Pirate's Cove [accessed 13 March 2012].
“Rachel Wall,” Pirates of the New England Coast [accessed 13 March 2012].
Rogers, Alan. “‘A Long Train of Hideous Consequences’ Boston, Capital Punishment, and Transformation of Republicanism, 1780-1805” (pages 13-36) in Boston’s Histories: Essays in Honor of Thomas H. O’Connor edited by James O’Toole and David Quigley. Northeastern University, 2004.
Vaver, Anthony. “Early American Criminals: Rachel Wall’s Fall from Grace,” Early American Crime [accessed 13 March 2012].
Weatherly, Mura. “Rachel Wall: Boston Pirate” in Women Pirates. Morgan Reynolds, 1998.
Williams, Daniel E. Pillars of Salt: An Anthology of Early American Criminal Narratives. Madison House, 1993.
Wing, Rev. Conway P. A History of the First Presbyterian Church of Carlisle, Pa., Valley Sentinel Office, 1877.
Yolen, Jane. She Queens: Women Pirates Around the World. Charlesbridge, 2008.
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