Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
By Cindy Vallar
If captured, pirates often faced two charges: piracy and murder (the more serious charge). The vast majority of trials lasted no longer than two days, and although tried before a jury - at least in English courts - their fate was usually a foregone conclusion. Ye and each of ye are adjudged and sentenced to be carried back to the place from whence you came, thence to the place of execution, and there within the flood marks to be hanged by the neck till you are dead, dead, dead, and the Lord, in His infinite wisdom have mercy upon your souls…After this ye, and each of ye shall be taken down and your bodies hung in chains…. (from the sentencing of fifty-two pirates in April 1722)
South Carolinians came to see the dashing Stede Bonnet’s execution in 1718. He begged for a reprieve, but the governor refused. After death, pirates’ corpses were displayed to discourage others from considering a similar life of crime. Blackbeard’s head hung from a sloop’s bowsprit. The tide washed Captain Kidd’s chained corpse three times, before it was taken down, covered with tar, and displayed in an iron gibbet at Tilbury Point on the Thames.
British Admiralty courts tried maritime cases, including those involving pirates. Most pirate trials were held at Old Bailey’s. Before and after their trials, pirates in London were imprisoned in Marshalsea Prison, but a few, including Kidd, spent their final days in Newgate Prison. A mile downstream from the Tower of London at Wapping on the north bank of the Thames stood England’s Execution Dock. Makeshift gallows on the shore identified the low-tide mark. Here Kidd and other pirates were hanged, and afterwards a cycle of three tides flowed over their corpses before being removed. This stressed that the crimes they committed fell under the Admiralty’s jurisdiction. Later, the bodies were either buried in unmarked graves or dissected. The more notorious, however, were tarred and hung in a custom-made gibbet to warn other seafarers of the fate that awaited them if they chose to turn pirate.
When the Admiralty changed its laws to allow for the prosecution of pirates in any British port, hangings occurred at Port Royal, Charleston, Williamsburg, Newport, and Boston, among other places. Between 1716 and 1726, over four hundred pirates were hanged. In 1723, at the height of the war against piracy, eighty-two died. In the 1600s, some believed the only pirates executed were captains and other ringleaders of the crew. During the first twenty-eight years of the Eighteenth Century, however, that changed.
Masses of people came to a hanging, which was a festive time for folks. The condemned and shackled pirates arrived at the gallows in a cart attended by a clergyman, who offered them a final chance to repent. Before his hanging, a pirate had the opportunity to say a few final words. Many of these appeared in newspapers and broadsheets the next day. Some pirates escaped death because someone filed a petition for a pardon. The process might last several months before a decision was reached. The courts granted about 60% of the requested pardons and freed the pirates. The less fortunate escaped death, but were transported to the colonies to serve sentences of penal servitude.
Prior to 1740, hangings used what was known as a short-drop, which meant the pirate died by slow strangulation. It took anywhere from five to forty-five minutes for him to die, but on average he succumbed in eight. During this period, pirates’ hands were tied in front of them rather than behind. The Lord High Executioner stood them on a ladder, stool or barrel, put a noose around their necks, and then pulled the support out from under them. The victim would be unable to breathe, and their skin would begin to turn a ghoulish shade of bluish-purple…. Within minutes the tongue would protrude from the mouth, the eyes would bulge from the sockets...in many cases the prisoner lost complete control of their bladder and bowels…. (Tamara J. Eastman, “Hanging Around in the 18th Century…,” No Quarter Given, March 2000)
A friend or relative pulled on a pirate’s legs to hasten his death. A few unfortunates weren’t so lucky. They were hanged twice because the first rope broke, as happened at Captain Kidd’s execution.Hanging wasn’t the only way governments executed pirates. China often beheaded them, as did medieval Hamburg, Germany. In 1573, Klein Henszlein and his crew were decapitated en masse, then their heads were placed on a row of pikes as a warning to others.
Copyright © 2003 Cindy Vallar
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