In a cold jail cell in Boston in Massachusetts Bay colony on November 16, 1699, a weather-beaten man with hard scarred features unbuttoned his trousers. Two men stood nearby; one wore a skullcap. The prisoner, tanned on his face and arms only, lifted his shirt tail exposing himself. Back then, men didn't wear underwear per se but rather tucked long shirts afore and behind, hammocking their genitals.
When James Gilliam lifted his penis to view, the two observers caught a whiff of the man's recent recreation. The night before, as the governor later quaintly put it in a letter to the Board of Trade, Gilliam had been "treating two young women some few miles off in the country." Colonial authorities accused him of being a member of the crew of Captain Kidd, then the most notorious pirate in the nascent British Empire, and of hiding his treasure on Gardiner's Island alongside Kidd's ample horde. Two witnesses, in addition, identified Gilliam as the pirate who earlier in his career slit the throat of an English East India Company captain and stole his ship.
Despite the growing body of evidence and accusation, Gilliam absolutely denied everything, right down to his name, saying he was "Sampson Marshall", a respectable merchant. He claimed it was all a case of mistaken identity. But the witnesses added a detail that Governor Bellomont thought might hang the scoundrel. They said they had heard that Gilliam had been captured years earlier by the Moors on the coast of India and forcibly circumcized.
In the late 17th century, an era when only Jews and Moslems clipped the foreskin, this was considered an almost singularly identifying mark, as good as a zigzag scar on the cheek or a missing ear. Hence, this odd moment in American colonial jurisprudence.
The reports of the two jailhouse experts have survived and are still filed away at the Public Record Office in London.
"I Joseph Frazon of full age being of the Jewish Nation by both his Parents Declareth... I did search... Gilliam and find that he has been circumcized but not after the manner practiced by the Jewes according to the Leviticall Law, the prepuce being taken off round."
The second testimony stated:
"I, John Cutler of Boston, abovesd Chyrugion, do declare, that I find that the sd Kelley alias Gilliam has been Circumcized wch he himselfe also acknowledgeth, saying that his father was a Jew and his mother was a Christian and after the Death of his father his mother intermarried with a Christian and then he was Baptized. But so far as I am able to discern I am of opinion he was Circumcized since he was grown up into years."
Gilliam's scar was an oval loop tilted from front to back, unlike any circumcision scar either expert had seen before. Apparently Gilliam had jerked away at the moment of religious conversion.
Governor Bellomont, the highest ranking official in the northeast, was now convinced he had arrested the right man. He shipped Gilliam aboard the Royal Navy's HMS Advice to England to stand trial. The Governor--who once commented "I protest that I am quite tyred out taking pains for the Publick without any profit to myself"--tracked down Gilliam's gold on Gardiner's Island and reluctantly shipped it also over to the Admiralty. He placed a claim for one-third of the booty as Vice Admiral of the Seas.
Gilliam was locked up in London's Newgate Prison before being carried over to Old Bailey along with 23 other accused pirates. In a one-day trial, the jury with ample help from the panel of peri-wigged judges pronounced twenty one pirates guilty. "Ye and each of you are adjudged and sentenced to be carried back to the place from whence you came and from 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 have mercy on your souls."
On Friday July 12, 1700, James Gilliam and nine others boarded carts from the stinking prison of Newgate and headed through the crowded afternoon streets of London to Execution Dock in Wapping, through Cheapside and past Tower Hill. Watching him were not just the rabble on the cobblestones but aristocrats perched in balconies. Some of the street crowd took the opportunity to bombard the prisoners with filth--eggs, dead cats, excrement--and shout such cheery invocations as "You'll piss when you can't whistle" and "Ye be doing the sheriff's dance."
An execution in London was a day of celebration--a "day of riot and idleness" as one guidebook put it--, ballasted by enough pomp and circumstance to salve the consciences of the executioners. The procession followed a mounted sheriff carrying the symbolic silver oar of the admiralty. It stopped at the edge of the north bank of the Thames and then proceeded on foot down the stone steps. The scaffold was built upon the actual river bed at low tide so that the English authorities--sticklers over the minutiae of jurisprudence--could state that the Admiralty performed the execution within its watery jurisdiction. Pleasure boats crowded the shore.
As Gilliam was led forward, he could hear hawkers peddling his dying confession dated the day before. And it was a pack of lies, some other man's life but the printers didn't exactly fear a lawsuit from rogues like Gilliam. The broadsheet ended sanctimoniously: "I hope my sad Fate will be a warning to all Lude Sea Men, and notorious Pyrates whatsoever."
All ten condemned men were led upon a crudely built scaffold to the jeers of the crowd. Each man was trussed up with ropes securely lashing his elbows together behind his back. (No one was tied at the wrist because a dying man might in sheer desperation succeed in rolling his hands free.)
A noose was placed around the neck of each convicted pirate. Their feet were purposely not tied to afford that well-beloved "dance upon air". The priest assigned to Newgate, Paul Lorraine, recited a prayer for salvation. Now, the prisoners were encouraged to confess their sins. Some did; most didn't, but in the recollection of Paul Lorraine--as published the following day... "Beware Sham Papers!"--they all confessed, even the dour drunk Frenchmen.
Now came the crowd silence for the Psalm. Pirates whose lips had mainly mouthed bawdy ditties were primed for one final holy chorus as they stood on Execution Dock with the Tower of London looming in the distance to the west. Apparently they sang with gusto. Satirist Ned Ward noted in his "Wooden World" that a thief at the gallows will sing forth with "as pleasant a note" as a sailor calling out the markings on a plumb line as a ship enters a tricky harbour, that is, loud and clear.
The sheriff's men yanked the blocks out from under the scaffold floor. The platform toppled to the ground but the condemned men fell but a few inches. Their ropes were purposely left short so their necks wouldn't break and they would slowly strangle to death. It was that spastic dance lasting sometimes as long as fifteen minutes that the drunken crowds savoured. It was the slow empurpling of the face that delighted and the glimpsing of the ever spreading stain upon the trousers as the last-gulped liquor exited the bladder.
Once dead, as the piemen packed up their trays, James Gilliam and the other pirates were cut down and tied to posts. Tradition dictated that three tides of Thames water must rise and fall over their heads before the execution was officially complete. Some poor sheriff's helper with a shilling or two for drink would have to sit at river's edge and guard the corpses so no souvenir-hunter would clip off a body part or a button to cadge a pint in an alehouse.
James Gilliam's water-logged body was then cut away from the slimed pole. The carpenter's boy slathered the cold corpse in hot tar and propped it in a specially built iron gibbet or cage. The caged corpse was carried by boat to Gravesend at Hope Point to hang at an unavoidable spot along the nautical corridor to London. The tar was to deter the gulls and other birds eager to peck. Nonetheless, after a few months, Gilliam became a ghastly corpse, a chunk of flesh missing here and there, an exposed cheekbone, both eyeballs gone, the penis now perhaps more than circumcized, a dread warning courtesy of the Admiralty to sailors contemplating the merry life of piracy.
At the time of Gilliam's capture, the combined power of the Royal Navy, the English East India Company and the governments of half a dozen American colonies were all conspiring to bring Captain Kidd of New York City and Dundee, Scotland to the same gallows in the harbor. England, on the verge of Empire, planned to show the world what it would do to a man who dared to steal in the name of the king.
Captain Kidd has gone down in history as America's most ruthless buccaneer, fabulously rich, burying treasure up and down the Eastern Seaboard. I, for one, ten years old reading by flashlight, pictured Kidd fierce, mustachioed, downing rums, slicing the air with his cutlass, burying boys to guard his treasure for eternity.
Washington Irving described Kidd as "somewhat of a trader, something more of a smuggler with a considerable dash of the pickaroon." Robert Louis Stevenson placed "Kidd's Anchorage" on the creased vellum map of "Treasure Island". Edgar Allan Poe in "The Gold Bug" rummaged through Kidd's chest. "As the rays of the lantern fell within the pit, there flashed upwards from a confused heap of gold and jewels, a glow and glare that absolutely dazzled our eyes." More recently, Nelson DeMille in his best-seller, "Plum Island", used Kidd's hideout in the climax of his ecological thriller.
But the novelists and historians and relentless treasure hunters have gotten it all wrong. Master mariner, William Kidd, who lived at 56 Wall Street, was no career cutthroat, no cartoon Blackbeard, terrifying his prey by putting flaming matches in his hair. Kidd was a reputable New York sea captain empowered by a secret commission from the King of England to hunt pirates, confiscate their wealth and divvy the spoils among his investors. The venture looked so promising in the planning stages that some of the most powerful lords of London and wealthiest merchants of America lined up to back his voyage and await the shower of gold. King William III, in exchange for his signature, took a ten percent share.
But, as is the way with these clandestine missions, the whole plot blew up in their faces. Kidd's task turned out to be far more difficult than expected: he would have to travel in a lone ship manned by a desperate crew (which included pirates), searching the vast Indian Ocean for one of the five European pirate ships then active. He would have to ignore the claims of the merchants who owned the stolen goods. And as soon as he set out toward the tip of Africa, he would find himself unwelcome, distrusted by the Royal Navy and despised by the English East India Company, who almost immediately claimed that the pirate hunter had turned pirate. The great irony is that Captain Kidd fought very hard to remain honorable, but was branded by the actions of his crew, and on his head was dumped all the piracies of the era.
When false rumors of Kidd's crimes began to spread, damaging England's valuable trade with India, Kidd's backers--including King William--all raced to cover their blueblood asses and disavow any knowledge of his mission. Did anyone want to know the truth? Or was it easier to kill the New Yorker and be done with it?
The doings of this feisty American unleashed an enormous political scandal that rocked the New World and the Old, and threatened to tip the subcontinent of India to the Maharajahs. If the accusations that the King backed a "Corporation of Pirates" were proven true, it could endanger King William's perch upon the throne, and could cost Kidd's lordly backers their lives for committing treason. These happenings are not fiction but real-life intrigue and double cross, based on the 152-page trial record, hundreds of letters and depositions from the likes of John Gardiner of Gardiner's Island where Kidd actually hid some of his treasure during an attempt to clear his name.
I have spent the last three years tracking down the flesh-and-blood Captain Kidd, following the paper trail through log books and trial transcripts at the Public Record Office in London, and travelling in his wake to the faraway pirate paradise of St. Marie's Island off Madagascar.
As I followed Kidd, another character kept elbowing his way upon the stage: Kidd's long-forgotten nemesis, Robert Culliford. It is uncanny how the lives of these two men intertwined and how they became locked in a kind of unscripted duel across the oceans of the world.
No one has ever written in detail about Culliford; his entry in a respected nautical compendium states: "Culliford, Captain, of the Mocha. Little is known of him except that one day in the streets of London he recognized and denounced another pirate called Burgess."
Even that snippet, it turns out, is wrong. One morning, while sifting through a folder full of 17th century documents, I stumbled across the diary of a prisoner held eleven months aboard Culliford's pirate ship, and through it began to emerge an authentic picture of a pirate's life. Culliford didn't fly a creepy Skull-&-Crossbones but rather a blood red flag that meant: "No mercy unless you surrender immediately." His surgeon was named Jon Death; he once ordered his men to haul the china dishes off a captured ship and load them into cannons to shred the sails of his next adversary.
Culliford lived the pirate life; Kidd tried to tightrope his way between piracy and respectability. One would hang in the harbor; the other would walk away with the treasure.
Chapter One: MISSION IN NEW YORK CITY
New York in the summer of 1696 was an inkspot on the tip of the map of Manhattan, a struggling seaport with a meager population of 5,000, about a fifth of them African slaves. A public whipping post stood just off the dock and New Yorkers wanting their slaves "corrected" were expectd by law to tip eighteen pence to both the town-whipper and to the bell-ringer who drew the crowds.
While London boasted 300,000 inhabitants and the architectural marvels of Christopher Wren, New York claimed only a handful of paved streets and a rundown city hall building. Hungry pigs helped the city's one sanitation man, a Mr. Vanderspiegle. "[New Yorkers] seem not very strict in keeping the Sabbath," wrote a doctor venturing south from Puritan New England. "You should see some shelling peas at their door, children playing at their usual games in the streets and ye taverns filled."
Dutch women wore scandalously short dresses extending to just below the knee, showing off their home-made blue or red stockings. Dutch girls even into their teens generally went bare-foot in long white morning gowns with nothing underneath as they lugged laundry through the Land Gate at Wall Street to do their wash at a stream by Maiden Lane. Women of a different sort, often French Huguenot desmoiselles escaping the persecutions of Catholic Louis, plied their trade on Petticoat Lane just off Beaver Street. (City planners--perhaps irked by the nearness of Beaver to Petticoat--changed the lane's name to Marketfield.)
And, three hundred years ago, pirates in gaudy colorful silks with pistols in their waistcoat pockets walked the streets of New York City, and local merchants, some Dutch, some English bargained for their goods, and lined up to back their larcenous voyages. Shares were bought and sold over rum punch at Hawdon's Tavern and the King's Arms.
For a decade or so from early 1690s on, New York edged out Carolina and Rhode Island as the pirate port of choice in the English colonies in North America. "It is certain that these villains," wrote an East India Company official, "frequently say that they carry their unjust gains to New-York, where they are permitted egress and regress without control, spending such coin there in the usual lavish manner of such persons."
The pirates boosted the sagging local economy. New York merchants, Dutchman Frederick Flyspe, and Frenchman Steven Delancy, financed merchant ships that sailed half way around the world to sell provisions and arms to New York pirates operating out of St. Mary's Island, Madagascar. And shares in these voyages--some promising a twenty-fold return on investment--were openly traded in taverns not too far from the town wall that still stood on Wall Street.
While merchants, barkeeps, and brothel-owners back then welcomed pirates and tried to lighten their coin-heavy pouches, piracy in this small English colony of New York was still officially illegal. Choicely placed gold prompted the temporary blindness of customs officials. It was all "Wink, wink." The current governor still wrote home to the Lords of Trade and Plantation that he was rooting out piracy. Gov. Fletcher--a pious man who arrived at church in a coach and six--preferred his bribes to be delivered not in cash but in objets d'art; silversmiths thrived during his administration.
On the fourth of July, 1696, Captain Kidd in the Adventure Galley glided into the harbor, and greeted the people of Manhattan with a couple of shots from his cannons to announce his triumphant return home. As he had hoped, the boom of his guns stirred the merchants and the sailors out of their smokey lethargy in the taverns, away from the rent-a-pipe racks and tankards of cider, to come down to water's edge.
Captain William Kidd--a Scottish striver who often felt he never got his due in this mostly Dutch and English town--proudly guided the Adventure Galley, an immense warship studded with 32 cannons, into Manhattan harbor. Kidd, who called New York his home port, had left ten months earlier in a dinky 10-gun merchant ship and now he was returning in this magnificent private man-of-war.
The Adventure's sails were furled and, men below deck leaned on long oars, called sweeps, to propel the ship forward. New Yorkers, lining the dock, were somewhat shocked to see the oars; no one in the 1690's--with glorious huge sails to catch the wind--put oars on a warship but they had come to realize that Kidd always did things differently.
The captain, peacocking a bit in his waistcoat on the quarterdeck, tucked the Adventure Galley into a neat opening amid the forest of masts of idle merchant ships. His quartermaster barked out orders; the men on deck played out the anchor cables--ropes as thick as a sailor's bicep--until the anchor hit bottom and the flukes grabbed. Small ships clustered about, and quickly learned that Captain Kidd had come here looking to line up hardy 150 men to go on a mission to hunt down pirates.
In essence, Captain Kidd had entered a pirate stronghold in search of a crew to chase pirates. Only a man with towering self-confidence (or a death wish) would dare to load his ship with former pirates or friends of pirates who, mid-voyage, with any ill luck, might find themselves shooting at cousins or neighbors.
Captain Kidd, on this summer day in 1696, was 42 years old in the prime of his life, physically vigorous, able to out-muscle most of his crew. His face was ruddy, from decades of winds at sea.
The only surviving portrait of Kidd catches him in half profile: penetrating brown eyes, arced by strong brows, a somewhat large nose. His lips seemed curled at the edge with a certain cockiness. He wears a wig as did most successful men of his generation. (A 1703 wig tax would show that about 50 New Yorkers donning this succinct status symbol.) Kidd's choice in borrowed hair is a fairly subdued shoulder-length affair, in stark contrast to some of the "big wigs", i.e., the giant cascades of curls favored by some crotchety bald English businessmen.
Kidd was surprisingly literate in a mostly illiterate age. Sober, he showed a terse Scot's wit; with a couple of rums in him, he could turn boisterous, then argumentative or worse. Kidd was defiantly independent, a hard taskmaster, ambitious, distrustful. In this lone portrait, the artist seems to be trying to capture Kidd's temper in the clenched mouth, the slightly flared nostrils.
Captain Kidd on this July day was rowed ashore, then he walked the length of the city dock past the recently rebuilt town outhouse. The hub and meeting place for all colonial shipping back then were the town's numerous taverns offering penny-a-glass rum and wads of fresh Long Island tobacco to pack into long clay pipes. So, Kidd, over the next few days and especially nights, wandered to these popular "tippling houses" to tack the ship's articles--a kind of "Help Wanted" poster--to the walls. He also sent out some of his current crew to talk up the voyage; these Adventure Galley men whispered that the newly appointed (but not yet arrived) governor of New York, Lord Bellomont, was a backer of the voyage, as was Admiral Russel. These were bigwig names to impress illiterate seamen.
William Kidd, to this point, was a completely respectable individual; he was a privateer, not a pirate. (His life would later depend on the not always clear distinction between the two.)
A privateer was a kind of independent nautical mercenary, commissioned by a government to attack ships of an enemy nation in exchange for a piece of the spoils. Royal navies couldn't be everywhere so countries in time of war turned to profit-hungry free-lancers. In Elizabethan times, Drake and Raleigh had become national heroes as privateers attacking Spain. (Nearly a century after Kidd, during the Revolutionary War, the fledgling United States would commission a fleet of American privateers which captured more than a 1,000 British merchants ships; while land-locked historians have dwelled on George Washington's battle plans, this economic strangulation by sea undeniably helped the colonies win their independence.)
Privateering, at its best, was a perfectly honorable profession, a unique blend of profit and patriotism. Typically, a group of investors banded together to finance a privateer mission to capture enemy ships and bring them back to port to be condemned as prizes and sold. The King might receive a tenth for granting the original privilege; the Admiralty might siphon off as much as a third for doing the paperwork and applying the stamp of legality. The investors would receive the rest and dole it out to themselves and the crew, according to a formula agreed upon before the voyage. Pirates, on the other hand, thumbed their noses at all these niceties; they weren't sanctioned by any government; they readily attacked ships of all nations and they didn't share their booty with any Admirals or Kings. They were shipborn thieves, the "enemies of mankind and the trading nations."
Captain Kidd, the privateer, in his voyage over from England in the Adventure had already legally captured a French fishing vessel off the banks of New Foundland with a crew of four. The conquest had resembled more a ritual at a masquerade ball than a sea battle. Kidd's warship had bore down on the fishing vessel; when close enough it plunked a cannon ball nearby; the French ship surrendered and Kidd in a few minutes had paid for his transatlantic voyage. The Vice Admiralty Court in New York sometime in July condemned the ship as worth 350 L, the price of a couple of Manhattan buildings. The four French sailors were shipped to Boston to be exchanged for English prisoners held in Canada.
Kidd's mission--as he said many times over many rums in Hawdon's and elsewhere--provided sailors with a unique legal opportunity to steal from pirates and from the hated French.
And yet almost no one signed up for Kidd's voyage.
No employee surveys were done at the time, but apparently it boiled down to... money: Kidd wasn't offering any wages, just a share of the future profits from captures. The sailors back then nicknamed this approach: "No prey, no pay." If they didn't catch a pirate ship or French vessel, they might callous their hands reefing sails for years for absolutely nothing. However, it wasn't the "No Prey, No Pay" that bothered them; it was the division of spoils. Kidd's Articles, his Help Wanted poster, specified that the 150 crewmen would split up only a quarter of the treasure, after expenses, that is, after they had repaid all the food, medicine and weapons at prices set by the owners. (The weapons' charge alone was 6 L or three months of typical sailor wages.) Kidd told them the split was ordained by his blueblood owners in London; he said it followed more along the lines favored by the Royal Navy that first rewarded Admirals, Commodores, Captains, Lieutenants, before finding perhaps 10% for the crew.
The New York sailors weren't the least bit swayed. Pirates, they knew, kept 100% and shared with no one back at the dock; en masse, the Manhattan mates opted to ignore the appeals of Kidd.
So, despite being blessed with a brand new warship and a potentially lucrative commission, Captain Kidd couldn't go anywhere without a crew. The man was landlocked in sweltering New York City.
THE PIRATE HUNTER: The True Story of Captain Kidd (Hyperion/Theia, $25.95, 432 pp.)
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