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The Spanish Pirates
By Cindy Vallar

A Salems Wharf todayOn 26 August 1834, HMS Savage docked in Salem, Massachusetts.1 The captain, Lieutenant Loney, disembarked his prisoners – men captured in Africa and transported to the United States to stand trial – and they were taken to the town hall, where a district judge arraigned them on a charge of piracy. Thereafter, they were imprisoned in the jail on Leverett Street in Boston to await trial. A reporter for the Boston Post wrote that he “took a bird’s eye glance at the monsters of the deep but [was] somewhat surprised to find them small and ordinary looking men, extremely civil and good natured, with a free dash of humor in their conversation and easy indifference to their situation.” (Snow, 111)

Their tale began two years earlier when the Mexican, an American brig captained by John Groves Butman, set sail from Salem on her way to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her crew consisted of Benjamin Brown Reed (mate), John Rogers Nichols, Giacomo “Jack” Ardissone, Israel Luscomb, Frederic Trask, Theodore Siesbuttel, Benjamin Larcom, John Battis (captain’s boy), Thomas Fuller, Thomas Charles Henry Ridgly (cook), John Lewis (steward), and Benjamin Daniels.

Before she departed, her owner, a prominent merchant named Joseph Peabody, stowed ten boxes containing $20,000 in coins aboard the Mexican. “The boxes were marked P. – The brig sailed the 28th of August, 1832. She arrived back in 42 days, being robbed of the specie.” (Trial, 6)

When the Mexican reached 33 degrees north and 34 degrees, 30 minutes west, she fell in with a suspicious looking vessel from which she made many efforts . . . to escape.” (Report, 7) Captain Butman testified that she was sighted “about four in the morning” and “looked like a Baltimore clipper – had a low, long, straight hull . . . About ten minutes after we tacked, he set his square-sail, and came directly down upon us – when within gun-shot he fired a gun . . . .” (Report, 9)

The “one long and two small guns” and “her decks . . . crowded with men” convinced Captain Butman to heave to because the Mexican had “two kegs of powder alongside our two short carronades, the only guns we had. Our means of defense, however, proved utterly worthless as the shot was a number of sizes too large for the guns.” (Report, 7-8; Battis, 69)

The schooner Panda had sailed from Havana, Cuba on 21 August 1832, bound for Africa to load a cargo of slaves. Her captain was Pedro Gibert, thirty-eight years old and the “son of a grandee . . . and exceeding[ly] handsome, having a round face, pearly teeth, round forehead, and full black eyes, with beautiful raven hair, and a great favorite with the ladies. He united great energy, coolness and decision, with superior knowledge in mercantile transactions, and the Guinea trade . . . .” (Ellms, 80)2


Example of a brig

Baltimore schooner

Example of a Baltimore schooner

His first mate, Bernardo de Soto, was ten years his junior. “[F]rom the time [Bernardo] was fourteen [he] had cultivated the art of navigation, and at the age of twenty-two had obtained the degree of captain in the India service. . . . He was married to Donna Petrona Pereyra, daughter of . . . a merchant of Corunna. She was at this time fifteen, and ripening into that slight fullness of form, and roundness of limb, which in that climate mark the early passing from girl into woman. Her complexion was the dark olive tinge of Spain; her eyes jet black, large and lustrous. She had great sweetness of disposition and ingenuousness.” (Ellms, 80-1)

Although the Panda had a crew of thirty, those who were eventually taken into custody for the alleged piracy, aside from her officers, were:

Angel Garcia (seaman)
Antonio Ferrer (cook)
Domingo de Guzman (ordinary seaman)
Francisco Ruiz (carpenter)
Jose Velazquez (seaman)
Juan Antonio Portana (ordinary seaman)
Juan Montenegro (ordinary seaman)
Manuel Boyga (seaman)
Manuel Castillo (ordinary seaman)
Nicola Costa (cabin boy)

While Ferrer “was a young Guinea negro, with a pleasant countenance, and good humored, with a sleek glossy skin, and tatooed on the face . . .”, Ruiz “was of the middle size, but muscular, with a short neck. His hair was black and abundant, and projected from his forehead, so that he appeared to look out from under it, like a bonnet. His eyes were dark chestnut, but always restless; his features were well defined; his eye-lashes, jet black. He was familiar with all the out-of-the-way places of . . . Havana, and entered into any of the dark abodes without ceremony. From report his had been a wild and lawless career.” (Ellms, 81)

The pirates boarded the Mexican in search of valuables and didn’t refrain from hurting their victims. “[T]wo of them drew their knives and stabbed them at [Captain Butman’s] throat, exclaiming, Money, Money, in broken English. I was now very much alarmed, and called the mate and crew to come down and get the money out from the run under the cabin floor. They beat my crew with their knives to make them work quick. After the money was got up they insisted I had more, and pulled over the chests, boxes, and berths, and told me if they found any they would cut my throat . . . .” (Trial, 7)

Benjamin Read testified, “I heard the boatswain asking the captain for his chronometer. Captain said he had none. Boatswain then caught up the speaking-trumpet, and gave the captain such a blow as broke it almost to pieces.” (Report, 11)

When John Lewis failed to show Ruiz where the money was hidden, Ruiz “beat him on the half deck with an oak batten”. (Report, 15) “He broke the baton in three pieces in striking me.” (Trial, 11)

Pirates unload cargoPlundering the Mexican wasn’t sufficient. The pirates wanted no witnesses to their crime. Jack Ardissone, conversant in Spanish, overheard the pirate captain’s words to his men: Dead cats don’t mew. You know what to do.” (Botting, 187) They confined “the crew below, breaking the compasses, and destroying the rigging and tackle.” (Report, 8) Then they stuffed “a tub of rope yarns . . . and other combustibles” into the caboose and set it on fire. They expected the flames to reach the “mainsail and set the masts on fire”. (Trial, 8)

The pirates were seen leaving the brig about three o’clock that afternoon by Captain Butman, who was standing on the cabin table looking out through a small skylight which the pirates had forgotten to lock. As the smoke gathered and spread . . . Captain Butman knelt in prayer for several moments, after which he told the crew to . . . get water buckets to put out the fire. Drawing himself out of the cabin through the skylight, Captain Butman took one of the buckets filled with water . . . and crept along the rail toward the galley, or caboose, as it was called. Making sure to escape observation from the schooner, as it was still standing by, Captain Butman reached the galley and doused the fire, which was just breaking through the galley roof. He did not extinguish the blaze entirely, however, as the pirates, who had started to sail away, would get suspicious and return.” (Snow, 109)

After Butman released his crew, they repaired the Mexican as best they could. “[T]he brig was then put before the wind, steering north, and as by the intervention of Divine Providence, a strong wind came up, which before dark developed into a heavy squall with thunder and lightning, so we let the brig go before the wind, not taking in a stitch of canvas. . . .” (Battis, 75) They finally reached Salem on 12 October. Although an American cruiser pursued the pirates, “the chase was abandoned as hopeless, no clue being found to their ‘whereabouts.’” (Ellms, 84)

The Panda eventually reached Africa, where the crew conducted business and recuperated from illness. In June 1834, Captain Trotter, of HM Brig Curlew, recognized the schooner alleged to have robbed the Mexican.3 Midshipman George H. Quentin, who accompanied the prisoners to America, described what the British subsequently did.

Soon as they saw us, they all took to their boats, and made for the shore, excepting one man, and he soon after left in a canoe. Capt. Trotter chased them with his own boat only, but could not come up with them, and therefore returned to the schooner, which we found on fire. I was the first that boarded her. The first thing we did was to put out the fire, which we found in the magazine below the cabin floor. Saw nothing but smoke coming out of the cabin. One of our men went down and found a quantity of cotton and brimstone burning, also a slow match ignited and communicating with the magazine. The magazine contained fourteen or sixteen quarter-casks of powder. The next thing we did was to look for the ship’s papers and log-book. Did not find them. (Report, 27)

Ruiz, the last man to depart the Panda , had set the fire, a frequent pirate tactic to prevent others from getting hold of the vessel and using it against the pirates. Aside from seizing the schooner, the British also confiscated “new rum, about 30 bales of cloth, 250 muskets, 250 barrels of powder, 1 barrel of knives, 1 box necklaces, box of cutlasses, box of flints, 2 boxes of axes . . . .” (Report, 19) Also captured were “a U. S. ensign and pennant . . . two Spanish and one French ensign – there was another, but I do not remember of what nation.”4 (Report, 30) Quentin also testified that “she had a great quantity of round shot on board, besides canister and chain shot – there was also double-headed shot, and grape, I never saw chain shot or grape shot on board of a trader on the coast of Africa before.” (Trial, 30)

During an attempt to force the African king to turn over the pirates he sheltered, the Panda exploded, possibly because “a spark of fire got into the magazine.” (Report, 27)

[T]he officers killed on board . . . were named Perey and Johnson – the gunner, a marine and a mulatto boy, were also killed – there were perhaps twenty-five persons on board . . .  when she blew up . . . (Report, 30)

The Panda’s crew was finally rounded up at several different locations and taken to England. A few were released because they joined the schooner after she arrived in Africa. When Lt. Loney and the Savage arrived in Salem on almost two years to the day when the Mexican and Panda had set sail, he turned over his passengers to the authorities.

The pirates were landed at Crowningshield wharf, and taken from thence in carriages to the Town hall; twelve of them, handcuffed in pairs, took their places at the bar. They were all young and middle-aged, the older was not over forty. Physiognomically, they were not uncommonly ill looking, in general, although there were exceptions, and they were all clean and wholesome in their appearance. (Ellms, 88)

On 11 November 1834, Supreme Court judge Joseph Story and District Court judge John Davis presided over The United States v. Pedro Gibert et al. With the exception of one crewman, who turned state’s evidence, the Spanish defendants pleaded not guilty to the charge. The prosecuting attorney was Andrew Dunlap, while David Lee Childs and George S. Hillard defended the prisoners. Childs believed in his clients’ innocence and that they were “victims of one of the vilest plots that had ever been invented.” (Report, 21)

Since the pirates lacked a good command of English, three interpreters translated testimony so they could follow the proceedings. A jury pool of 150 men was whittled down to twelve men: Jeremiah Washburn, Charles Hudson (jury foreman), Leavitt Corbett (also spelled Covett), John Beals, Joseph Kelley, Anthony Kelley, Isaac K. Wise, Thacher R. Raymond, Charles Lawrence, William Knight, Peter Brigham, and Jacob H. Bates. Once they were impaneled, the clerk read the indictment against the defendants:

. . . on the twentieth day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirty-two, upon the high sea within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States, and out of the jurisdiction of any particular State, with force and arms did feloniously and piratically set upon, board, break and enter . . . the Mexican . . . and then and there piratically and feloniously did assault John Groves Butman . . . and . . . put the said John Groves Butman in great bodily fear and danger of his life; and ten boxes, each containing two thousand dollars . . . of the value of twenty thousand dollars . . . with force and arms . . . did steal, rob, take and carry away . . . . (Report, 5-6)

After this, the district attorney opened his case.

Gentlemen of the Jury . . . Here are twelve men, strangers to our country and to our language, indicted for a heinous offence, and now before you for life or death. They are indicted for a daring crime, and a flagrant violation of the laws, not only of this, but of every other civilized people. They are accused of piracy, which is an offence punishable by all nations, as well as by the particular government against which it has been committed. (Report, 7)

This is an offence against the universal law of society; —a pirate being, according to Sir Edward Coke, hostis humani generis. As therefore he has renounced all the benefits of society and government, and has reduced himself afresh to the savage state of nature, by declaring war against him; so that every community has a right, by the rule of self defence, to inflict that punishment upon him which every individual would in a state of nature have been otherwise entitled to do, for any invasion of his person or personal property.

By the Act of Congress, April 30, 1790, if any person, upon the high seas, or in any river, haven, or bay, out of the jurisdiction of any particular state, commit murder or robbery, on board a vessel, he shall be deemed a pirate and a felon, and shall suffer death. (Trial, 4 and 5)

During the trial, Brown identified Ruiz and Boyga as two of the pirates, although both vehemently denied having attacked the Mexican. Lacom also recognized Ruiz, describing him as being “from five feet four to five feet six inches high – was of a dark complexion – think he had straight hair – he was a middle sized man, not very stout.” (Report, 12) Battis also described the two men:

Ruiz had on a tarpaulin hat; cannot say whether he had a jacket or not; he had on duck pantaloons and a checked shirt. Remember the boatswain – should think he was about five feet high. He had a straight nose, with a bunch on the right side of it; had no whiskers, and was not very stout. (Report, 13)

Thomas Fuller’s description provided even greater detail. “Recollect Ruiz perfectly well. Saw him beat our steward with a batten . . . . Saw . . . six or eight pirates on deck – Ruiz among them, and another with him, five feet two or three inches in height, dark complexion, long . . . crooked Roman nose; had on a white felt hat; had a jacket, but don’t know the color.” (Report, 14) After providing this testimony, Fuller “struck [Ruiz] a terrible blow, and then retreated back very suddenly.” (Trial, 10) That action earned Fuller a reprimand from the judges.

Ridgly, the Mexican’s cook, pointed to his counterpart on the Panda, Ferrer. “The schooner sometimes [came] so near the brig that he could see the tattooing on Ferrer’s face. A part of this tattooing was very perceptible, consisting of deep scars drawn perpendicularly down the prisoner’s cheeks.” (Report, 15) Ferrer took exception to this identification and said, “You must have very fine eyes,” – an observation that elicited laughter from the other prisoners. (Report, 15)

In an affidavit, Salem resident James Dalrymple, Jr. swore that he and John Battis boarded the Savage after she anchored in the harbor to see the prisoners.

. . . John Battis, who had been one of the crew of the Mexican . . . went down with me, and looked at them as they were in the prison of the ship – and he examined them several minutes – when I asked him if he knew any of them? He answered me to this effect; “I can't say whether I do know any of them or not—but that one," (here Battis pointed to . . . the carpenter) "I think I have seen him before." I think Battis also said that he could not swear to any of them. (Supplement, 15)

Among the state’s witnesses was Joseph Perez, who agreed to testify against his comrades in exchange for his freedom.

On the outward passage, they spoke first a corvette, and then an American brig – that brig was the Mexican – we spoke her on the 25th of September . . . the captain . . . ordered the schooner to go about, and stand for the brig as soon as it became more light – brig altered her course . . . had all sails set at half past six o’clock . . . the Panda then set her squaresail and steered for the brig – when they neared her, a sailor went forward and fired a musket – the brig then hove to, and hoisted the American flag – the schooner hoisted the Columbian flag . . . the boat of the brig came to the schooner with four men and one officer. . . the third mate, the boatswain, the carpenter, and one sailor then jumped into her, and proceeded to the brig. (Report, 16-17)

On hearing this testimony, Ruiz started from his seat, shook his fist at Perez, and, in loud and passionate tones, declared him a traitor, a liar, and a rogue.” (Report, 17)

Pirates gatheredDuring their stay at various locations in Africa, Perez testified that “[t]he money was divided by Capt. Gibert. He gave the mate $2,400; I received only $250. . . . He gave the boatswain $500; Garcia $400; Castillo $250; Montenegro $250; and Delgardo $300. . . . Captain had $4000 in his trunk, $5000 which was left for him at Cape Lopez, and what remained of the $6000 which were divided among witnesses and others. . . . There was no rule of division among the crew of the Panda. The captain was sole owner of the vessel and did as he liked.” (Report,22)

Some of the money was buried, retrieved, and then buried again. A portion was thrown overboard. Supplies were also purchased with it, but Perez didn’t know what happened to the remainder of the $20,000 that the pirates stole.

One point of contention was whether the Panda was the same ship that attacked the Mexican, because when Captain Trotter and his men captured the pirates, the Panda didn’t quite match the description of the pirate ship. Battis described her as having “a carved head, painted white . . . She was painted black with a white streak.” (Report, 13) When the men from HMS Curlew captured her, Quentin described the Panda as being “a long, low, two topsail schooner; she was sharp, and her masts raked a great deal; her figurehead was cut off; no name on her stern; her deck was that of a slaver, with a grated hatchway.” (Report, 27)

Perez testified the crew altered Panda’s appearance. She “. . . had a billet-head, but it was changed for an awkward piece of wood – they altered her rig, and made her a two-topsail instead of a foretopsail schooner . . . the alteration was made four or five days after we left the Mexican . . .” (Report, 19)

In his affidavit, filed with the court after the trial ended, Jose Velazquez described the Panda as she looked in March 1832.

She had . . . no figure head . . . but a cutwater—it was in one continued piece. She was rigged with two topsails. She carried a carronade on each side, and a pivot gun abaft the mainmast. The carronades were of iron, the pivot gun of brass. On the . . . voyage from Havana to Africa, she had the same guns; but a new suit of sails . . . she was rigged the same manner this voyage as on her former one. (Supplement, 3)

Alexander Thomas, a Liverpool seaman in Africa aboard another ship when Panda arrived at the river Nazareth, said “she had no figure-head or billet-head, but a smooth stem, on which the bowsprit rested. She was painted all black [on] the outside, and the inside of her bulwarks was painted green. She had no white streak the outside.” (Supplement, 16)

The prosecution also submitted six documents into evidence, which the British had found on the Panda.
a. “Royal passport”, dated 29 April 1831, “permitting Captain Pedro Gibert to take a cargo of lawful merchandise direct to St. Thomas and Princes Island . . .”

b. Moro passport provided to Gibert in Havana, dated 18 April, stating that thirty men made up the crew and “she carries, solely for the defence of the vessel, one brass pivot gun, of 16; 2 gunnades of 12, in her battery, 24 muskets, 32 swords, 4 pairs of pistols, and corresponding munitions.”

c. Bill of sale for Panda.

d. Detailed invoice for cargo “precisely suited for the African trade.”

e. Contract stipulating that Gibert was to be paid “$100 per month, and 10 per cent. on the cargo, and $3, a head for every slave he brings.”

f. Instructions for Gibert, who was “to act according to his discretion, after consulting with his mate Bernardo de Soto, and to use due diligence . . . to procure a return cargo: and to see that meekness and tenderness be observed on board, and to avoid all suspicious looking vessels.”  When Panda returned to Havana, he was “to enter Matanzas at night in silence, and, if hailed, say that you are from St. Thomas, in ballast, and that there are certain officers there, who are advised of their wishes, and will instruct him what is proper for him to do.” (Trial, 36-37)

Before Dunlap rested his case, he called several expert witnesses who testified to the possibility that the Mexican and Panda could cross paths at the place and on the day that Captain Butman said. Zacariah Jellison, who had traveled to and from the West Indies ten times and was familiar with navigating the Caribbean, said, “There is a great probability of two vessels of the description of the Mexican and Panda meeting in the latitude and longitude marked out.” (Trial, 34)

The defense also called their experts to contest the prosecution’s claim that the two vessels could have met at the coordinates Captain Butman provided. Captain Joseph Smith, an American naval officer with more than twenty-five years experience at sea, thought it “improbable, that the Mexican, sailing from Salem on the 29th, and the Panda from Havana on the 20th, would meet, provided that both vessels improved their time to the best advantage. . . . If the brig and schooner would meet at all, it would be where the brig was robbed.” (Trial, 39) Samuel Austin Turner was acquainted with the Mexican.  “From some calculations which I have made, the Mexican and Panda, under given data, would not approach each other nearer than one hundred miles” assuming “they both avail themselves of every advantage.” (Trial, 40)

Character witnesses were also called. Santiago Elonzo testified that Captain Gibert “bears a good character in the best mercantile houses in Havana. . . . I . . . have always heard merchants, concerned in the African trade, speak highly of Bernardo de Soto . . . .” (Trial, 38-39) Another witness, however, provided more persuasive testimony about de Soto’s character while he was captain of the Leon.

During one of his voyages . . . he saved and brought in the crew and passengers of the American ship Minerva, which had taken fire. The passengers were thirty or forty in number, (chiefly Irish) going to New Orleans or Mobile. De Soto’s conduct was very highly spoken of at the time in Havana, and he was presented with a piece of plate, by the merchants of New Orleans.” (Trial, 50)

Helping Ship in Distress

Daniel F. Hale, one of those passengers, swore that he and the others “could not possibly have been saved, had they not been assisted by De Soto, as the Minerva had a cargo of lime, which would have taken fire on coming in contact with the water, and the vessel had already sprung aleak [sic].” (Report, 53-54)

After all the witnesses had been called, defense attorney Hilliard presented his argument to the jury for the next two hours.

The lives of twelve men are in your hands. By your verdict will it be determined, whether the individuals who now sit before you, in the fullness of life and strength, continue to exist, or whether they shall taste the bitterness of death . . .  These men . . . are accused of the crime of Piracy, and are consequently viewed with horror as robbors and murderers. Let me entreat you to lay aside all prepossessions of this kind, and not suppose, because the prisoners are accused, that they are guilty. . . . I venture, however, to say that the men before you differ only in the color of their skins, from the most respectable crew that ever sailed out of the port of Boston.

. . . we have heard this day . . . [that a] vessel, in circumstances of extreme peril, lay aground on the Bahama bank. Her crew and passengers (many of the latter, women and children) awaited death from the two most opposite elements, fire and water. While in this situation, one of our own ships, like the Levite and the Priest in the Scriptures, passed by and left the sufferers unnoticed. But another man, like the good Samaritan in the parable to which I have alluded, saw and rescued them . . . his name was Bernardo de Soto! (Report, 54-55)

. . . Antonio Ferrer is plainly but a servant. He is set down as a free black in the ship’s papers, but that is no proof that he is free. . . . He is in all probability a slave, and a native African, as the tattooing on his face proves beyond a doubt. At any rate, he is but a servant. Now will you make misfortune pay the penalty of guilt? Do not, I entreat you, lightly condemn this man to death. Do not throw him in to make up the dozen.

. . . And Costa, the cabin boy, only fifteen years of age when this crime was committed – shall he die? Shall the sword fall upon his neck? . . . Suppose the news had reached you, that your son was under trial for his life, in a foreign country . . . suppose you were told that he had been executed, because his captain and officers had violated the laws of a distant land; what would be your feelings? (Report, 58-9)

After Hilliard finished, Childs presented his argument for acquittal in a speech that lasted six hours and was given over two days. His comments reminded the jurors that Captain Gibert, like de Soto, had saved the British officer’s life “when Capt. Trotter was in the hands of the negro king . . . .”  (Report, 59-60)

Aside from “the improbability of the Panda falling in with the Mexican . . .” and the inconsistencies in Perez’s testimony, Childs also questioned the distribution of the stolen money. (Report, 65)

[T]here was no rule or principle adopted. Now, I would ask, if it is probable that men would act thus carelessly respecting the darling object of their souls; to obtain which they had forfeited their honor, their reputation and their very lives? (Report, 61)

Once the defense rested, District Attorney Dunlap spoke to the jurors for six hours on the fourteenth day of the trial. One point he addressed in his closing argument concerned the instructions provided to Gibert before he left Havana.

Gibert is told to sail from St. Thomas in ballast, to enter with great secresy into the harbor of Matanzas by night, and hold intercourse with certain persons indicated in his instructions. He was allowed to cruise where he pleased. He was left without any control but his own will. The slave trade is the twin-brother of piracy, for all the piracies of our day are committed by slave dealers. (Trial, 47)

Dunlap also refreshed the jurors’ memories on there being no question that the two vessels met where Captain Butman said and that Captain Gibert and his crew were the ones who committed the robbery.

Now, why, if they had done nothing wrong, destroy their vessel? . . . these men preferred to destroy their vessel and place themselves under the protection of the negroes, rather than submit to the search of a lawfully commissioned cruiser of the greatest naval power in the world. They had nothing to fear even on the score of their being slavers, because no vessel can be captured unless she have slaves on board, which the Panda had not at the time she was taken. (Report, 69)

. . . not a single individual of the crew had ever mentioned the robbery . . . . This unnatural silence proved that they were all equally implicated in the crime, and all felt the necessity of keeping the secret; that they . . . were bound together as a band of brothers, by a common sense of guilt and danger . . . (Report, 70)

On Tuesday morning, Judge Story gave his charge to the jury in front of a crowded court room. It took six hours to sum up the evidence presented by the prosecution and defense. In essence the jurors needed to answer three questions:

1. Was the Mexican robbed?
2. Was that robbery, if committed, committed by the Panda?
3. If robbed by the Panda, were all the prisoners present implicated in the crime?

Then Story stated: With regard to the first question, there could be no doubt. (Report, 73)

He also addressed witness statements regarding the good character of some of the accused.

With reference to the good characters given by some of the witnesses of Capt. Gibert . . . a good character certainly availed much, but numerous instances were on record of men, long held in high estimation, suddenly committing the greatest and most horrible crimes. With regard to De Soto, the generous act performed by that individual was fully estimated by every person in the Court. (Report, 74)

Before the jury retired, they were given “papers, charts and documents” to refer to during their deliberations. (Trial, 48) When the jury returned the next day, they acquitted Antonio Ferrer, Nicola Costa, Juan Antonio Portana, Domingo Guzman, and Jose Velasquez.

Captain Gibert was told to stand.

Clerk. – Jurors look upon the prisoner; prisoner look upon the jurors. How say you, Gentlemen, is the prisoner at the bar, Pedro Gibert, guilty or not guilty?

Foreman. – GUILTY. (Report, 75)

Also found guilty were Bernardo de Soto, Francisco Ruiz, Manuel Boyga, Manuel Castillo, Angel Garcia, and Juan Montenegro.

Once the verdicts were announced, the foreman recommended mercy for one convicted pirate.

The sympathies of the Jury have been strongly moved in behalf of Bernardo de Soto, on account of his generous, noble, and self-sacrificing conduct in saving the lives of more than 70 human beings . . . and they desire that his case should be presented to the merciful consideration of the Government. (Report, 75)

The Report the Trial of Pedro Gibert, Bernardo de Soto . . . included the following comments on the prisoners as the findings were unveiled:

The appearance and demeanor of Captain Gibert are the same as when we first saw him; his eye is undimmed, and the decision and command yet sit upon his features. We did not discern the smallest alteration of color or countenance when the verdict of the jury was communicated to him; he merely slightly bowed, and resumed his seat. With de Soto the case was different. He is much altered; has become thinner, and his countenance this morning was expressive of the deepest despondency. When informed of the contents of the paper read by the foreman of the jury, he appeared much affected, and while being removed from the Court covered his face with his handkerchief.

Castilo (a half-caste, with an extremely mild and pleasing countenance,) pointed towards heaven, and called upon the Almighty to bear witness that he was innocent; Ruiz uttered some words with great vehemence; and Garcia said “all were in the same ship; and it was strange that some should be permitted to escape while others were punished.” (Report, 76)

As for Costa, “[w]e certainly think the sympathy expressed in favor of Costa very ill placed . . . his conduct during the whole trial has been characterized by the most reckless effrontery and indecorum. Even when standing up to receive the verdict of the jury, his face bore an impudent smile, and he evinced the most total disregard of the mercy which had been extended towards him.” (Report, 76)

Following the trial, the defendants filed affidavits attesting to their innocence. Ferrer submitted they “did not rob or see the American brig Mexican on our voyage, or rob any other vessel. We saw several vessels on our voyage, but did not speak any of them. I know, for I saw it, that the Captain brought silver money, dollars, on board at Havana in his trunk; but I can't say how much—I should think over $1000.” (Supplement, 5)

Of Perez’s character, Costa said:

. . . I was with him on board a schooner called the Manuelita . . . while we were there, Perez . . . picked [one seaman’s] pocket, I saw him do it and run away, and I and three others ran after him but could not catch him. On counting his money, the man found Perez had robbed him of eight or ten dollars in silver and gold. (Supplement, 10)

Before the convicted pirates received their sentence, Judge Story heard defense motions for a new trial on 16 December 1834. He believed he didn’t have the right to grant such a request and went into the whys and wherefores in great detail. One reason concerned the translators, but since there were no objections during the trial and the three men who served in this capacity consulted each other to verify the veracity of the translated testimony, he overruled this point.

Another reason the defense wanted a new trial was because the court refused to try each man separately. To this Story said:

The sole ground upon which the present motion was made was, that by means of separate trials, the prisoners wished and intended to make use of the testimony of each other in their defence. . . . The charge was a charge of a joint piracy on the high sea, committed by all the prisoners . . . . It is clear by law that confederates in the same piracy, put upon trial at the same time, are not competent witnesses for each other. . . . In a joint trial, the Government has the right to exclude all the prisoners from being witnesses. . . . (Supplement, 28)

The eighth point of the motion concerned sequestered jurors’ access to newspapers and alcoholic beverages during the trial.

[I]t was agreed between the counsel in open court, that the jury might have all reasonable refreshments during the trial, that they might communicate on business with their friends, and write and receive papers . . . the papers being previously examined, and the conversation witnessed and heard by one or more of the officers of the court. . . . the officers inspecting [the newspapers] first and cutting out every thing that in any matter related to the trial. (Supplement, 35)

As to the drinking, one juror did so because the water would make him sick. “The counsel for the prisoners then assented in open court to this indulgence” as did the district attorney, who suggested the other jurors might also partake to insure their health. The defense lawyers agreed as long as the jurors did so “in as moderate a manner as practicable.” (Supplement, 36)

Once all motions had been dealt with, Andrew Dunlap moved “that judgment be rendered on this verdict, and that the sentence which the law awards against each of these prisoners at the bar, be now pronounced.” (Supplement, 44) Then Judge Story asked the convicted pirates if they had anything to say. With great dignity, Gibert stood and, in his native tongue, said:

If we had been pirates, should we have conducted our business at a point so near the English vessels, which were continually entering and leaving the port . . . ?

If we had been pirates or the slightest suspicion of it, would the English vessels which were on the coast, have left it to Trotter during seven months to come from the Cape of Good Hope to take us?

Again I ask, if we had been pirates, should we have observed such a conduct in respect to Trotter, the destroyer of our vessel? Should we have interceded to save his life and that of the officer who accompanied him, and of the unfortunate men, who were aboard when the vessel blew up?

. . . when the schooner was seized my people brought away the boat, which they delivered to me. Could such subordination have been maintained among pirates, who found themselves without a vessel, and in a state of abandonment on the coast of Africa? The captain commands his crew; they go with his boat to seek for $11,000; they take $6000, leaving for me $5000 buried, so says Perez. The $9000 spent by me at Principe, and the $5000 left buried make $14,000, leaving only $6000 to be divided among all the rest! Would pirates have been content with such a division? Could the captain expect that his men, sent on such an errand with his only boat, would return having exactly fulfilled his orders, especially when Perez as he says was among them? Would they not have gone off with boat and money? (Supplement, 60-61)

When Judge Story finally sentenced the convicted men, he said:Hanging

Prisoners at the Bar . . . it is now my painful duty to pronounce the sentence of the law upon each of you, for the crime whereof you severally stand convicted. . . . you, and each of you . . .[shall] be severally hung by the neck until you be severally dead. (Supplement, 72 and Snowe, 113)

When Donna Petrona Pereyra heard of her husband’s imprisonment and that de Soto was being tried on a charge of piracy, she decided to fight for his life.

The shock to her feelings was terrible, but her love and fortitude surmounted them all; and she determined to brave the terrors of the ocean, to intercede for her husband if condemned, and at all events behold him once more. . . . After a boisterous passage, the vessel reached [New York], when she learned her husband had already been tried and condemned to die. The humane people . . . advised her to hasten on to Washington, and plead with the President for a pardon. On arriving at the capital, she solicited an interview . . . which was readily granted. (Ellms, 92-3)

President Andrew Jackson’s programs were controversial and the “aristocracy” of Washington disliked his backwoods honesty. While he considered whether to grant the pardon, he received the following letter:

To His Excellency, General Andrew Jackson, President of the United States, Washington City,

You damn’d old Scoundrel if you don’t sign the pardon of your fellow men now under sentence of Death, De Ruiz and De Soto, I will cut your throat whilst you are sleeping. I wrote to you repeated Cautions so look out or damn you. I’ll have you burnt at the Stake in the City of Washington.

Your Master, Junius Brutus Booth.

You know me! Look out! (Jackson)5

This was not the first, or last, death threat Jackson received, and he survived an assassination attempt, making him the first president to be targeted by an assassin.6 Since someone – probably a clerk – wrote “anonymous” on the envelope containing the Booth’s threatening letter, the president probably didn’t allow it to influence his decision. Rather he took into consideration the number of lives de Soto saved when the Minerva sank.

Andrew Jackson by Ralph Eleaser
              Whiteside EarlJunius Brutus
              Booth by Matthew Brady
Andrew Jackson (left) and Junius Brutus Booth (right)

Whereas, at the October Term, 1834, of the Circuit Court of the United States, Bernardo de Soto was convicted of Piracy, and sentenced to be hung on the 11th day of March last from which sentence a respite was granted him . . . . And whereas the said Bernardo de Soto has been represented as a fit subject for executive clemency—

Now therefore, I, Andrew Jackson, President of the United States of America, in consideration of the premises, divers good and sufficient causes me thereto moving, have pardoned, and hereby do pardon the said Bernardo de Soto . . . . Done at the City of Washington the sixth day of July, AD. 1835, and of the independence of the United States [the] sixtieth. Andrew Jackson. (Ellms, 93)

One month earlier, Gibert, Montenegro, Castillo, and Garcia ascended the scaffold behind the jail. Boyga had to be carried up and seated in a chair, because the night before he had slashed his neck “with a piece of tin.” (Ellms, 93) Although given medical aid, he never regained consciousness. Gibert said, “Boys, we are going to die; but let us be firm, for we are innocent.” (Ellms, 94) After the marshal read the execution warrant, “the ropes were adjusted round the necks of the prisoners, and a slight hectic flush spread over the countenance of each; but not an eye quailed, nor a limb trembled, not a muscle quivered. The fatal cord was now cut, and the platform fell, by which the prisoners were launched into eternity.” (Ellms, 94)

Ruiz remained in his cell, shouting and singing. He had received a stay of execution to determine his sanity following the trial. After two naval surgeons declared his insanity was a pretense to escape execution, he danced the hempen jig on 11 September 1835.

Of the men involved in the attack on the Mexican, Thomas Fuller eventually rose from cabin boy to captain. John Battis’s son published his father’s account of the piracy in 1898. Rather than return to Spain, Bernardo de Soto moved to the West Indies, where he sailed for thirty years before Captain Nicholas Snell of Salem recognized him as the captain of a steamer.

1. Illustration Caption: View from Central Wharf in Salem to Derby Wharf, named after Elias Hasket Derby, a privateer during the American Revolution. In Derby's days, this was known as Long Wharf.

2. The information in Ellms’ book should be taken with a grain of salt. He embellished some details and fabricated others, which he interwove into the historical facts.

3. The Curlew started hunting the pirates after a report of the attack appeared in the Essex Register. “Running into the harbor of St. Thomas, Captain Hunt [of the Gleaner] noticed a topsail schooner coming in the bay.” He retrieved his newspaper “and brought it up on deck, where he studied it carefully. . . . Later he obtained permission to go aboard the schooner on a pretext, and while there noticed two spars which he remembered had been on the Mexican. Hunt returned . . . to his own vessel.” (Snow, 110) His visit, though, roused the pirates’ suspicions, and they left St. Thomas. Hunt waited until morning to locate the Curlew and apprise Captain Trotter of what he’d seen.

4. It was not uncommon for pirate ships to carry flags of various nations on board. It was also a common practice aboard most ships during times of war.

5. For many years, historians argued over the authenticity of this letter. Presidential historians considered it a fake, but theater historians believed it to be real. “History Detectives,” a television show, recorded how the mystery of the document was solved. The father of John Wilkes Booth, Junius Booth was a noted Shakespearean actor at the time that this trial, which was a media sensation, took place. Many people who followed the trial believed the pirates “had gotten a bum rap.” Booth has been described as “a combination of Dennis Rodman and Darth Vader” and was noted for his histrionic behavior, especially when he drank. (Jackson)
Advertisements in the Philadelphia newspapers – the city where the letter was postmarked – mentioned that Booth was to star in Othello and Richard III at the time the letter was sent. He failed to show up for either performance and later concluded his apology with: “My insane behavior in writing insolent letters to my best patrons and to the authorities of this country, I can scarcely hope will be pardoned. May God preserve General Jackson and this happy republic.” (History, 8)

The man who tried to assassinate Andrew Jackson was a deranged housepainter. The assassination attempt took place at the Capitol, but the would-be killer’s gun misfired. A short time later, the Washington Globe published a number of the death threats the president had received.

For more information, I recommend the following resources:
Battis, John. “Dead Cats Don’t Mew” in Captured by Pirates: 22 Firsthand Accounts of Murder and Mayhem on the High Seas edited by John Richard Stephens. Fern Canyon, 1996, 66-75.

Berry, Steve. The Jefferson Key. Ballantine, 2011. [This is a novel and wasn’t used to provide factual information contained in this article. I include it here because it brought this case to my attention. (my review)]
Botting, Douglas. The Pirates. Time-Life, 1978.

Butman, John, Captain. “They Threatened Us with Instant Death” in Captured by Pirates: 22 Firsthand Accounts of Murder and Mayhem on the High Seas edited by John Richard Stephens. Fern Canyon, 1996, 76-80.

Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. Thomas Dunne, 2003.

Ellms, Charles. “History of the Adventures, Capture and Execution of the Spanish Pirates” in The Pirates Own Book: Authentic Narratives of the Most Celebrated Sea Robbers. Marine Research Society, 1837, 80-95.

Freeman, Katie. “Letter threatening Jackson’s life determined to be written by father of man who killed Lincoln,” Knoxnews.com (25 January 2009).
“History Detectives” transcript of episode 703, Story 2: Booth Letter.

Jackson Papers Project Helps Solve History Mystery,” Tennessee Today, 14 January 2009.

Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Piracy. Lyons Press, 2010.

Luckhardt, Alice L.  “The Treasure Coast’s Own Legendary Pirate: Captain Don Pedro Gilbert,” Florida Monthly Magazine (December 2009). [http://www.treasurecoastpiratefest.com/images/DonPedroGilbert-Pirate.pdf -- link no longer active 8/1/2015]

A Report of the Trial of Pedro Gibert, Bernardo de Soto, Francisco Ruiz, Nicola Costa, Antonio Ferrer, Manuel Boyga, Domingo de Guzman, Juan Antonio Portana, Manuel Castillo, Angel Garcia, Jose Velazquez, Juan Montenegro alias Jose Basilio de Castro, Before the United States Circuit Court, on an Indictment Charging Them with the Commission of an Act of Piracy, on Board the Brig Mexican, of Salem. Russell, Odiorne & Metcalf, 1834.

Snow, Edward Rowe. “The Last Pirates executed in Boston” in Pirates and Buccaneers of the Atlantic Coast. Commonwealth Editions, 2004, 104-114.

A Supplement to the Report of the Trial of the Spanish Pirates, with the Confessions or Protests, Written by Them in Prison. Lemuel Gulliver, 1835.

Trial of the Twelve Spanish Pirates of the Schooner Panda, a Guinea Slaver, Consisting of Don Pedro Gibert, Captain; Bernardo de Soto, Mate; Francisco Ruiz, Carpenter; Antonio Ferrer, the tattooed Cook; Nicola Costa, Manuel Boyga, Domingo de Guzman, Juan Antonio Portana, Manuel Castillo, Angel Garcia, Jose Velazquez, and Juan Montenegro, Seamen, for Robbery and Piracy committed on board the Brig Mexican, 20th Sept. 1832. Lemuel Gulliver, 1834.


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