Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd
By Richard Zacks
Published by Hyperion
June 2002; 0-786-86533-4; 400 pages
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 shirttail, 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 Gardiners 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 circumcised.
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 car. 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 circumcised but not after the manner practiced by the Jews 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 Curcumcized 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 flinched 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'd 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 Gardiners 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 twenty-three 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 sheriffs dance."
An execution in London was a day of celebrations "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 riverbed 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 of the convicted pirates. 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 harbor, 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 only 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 savored. 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 sheriffs 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 circumcised, 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 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 Gardiners 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 logbooks and trial transcripts at the Public Record Office in London, and traveling 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.Copyright © 2002 Richard Zacks
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)
Captain Kidd has gone down in history as America's most ruthless buccaneer, fabulously rich, burying dozens of treasure chests up and down the eastern seaboard. Over the centuries, novelists, relentless treasure hunters, and even historians have stoked his pirate legend. Robert Louis Stevenson, for one, placed "Kidd's Anchorage" on Treasure Island. But it turns out that most everyone, even many respected scholars, have the story all wrong. Captain William Kidd was no career cut-throat; he was a tough, successful New York sea captain who was hired to chase pirates. In 1696, he set out on a near-impossible mission to travel in a lone ship with a mutinous crew, heading 4,000 miles round the tip of Africa to track down a handful of die-before-surrender pirates and then bring back their treasure to the governor of New York and other secret backers.
His three-year odyssey aboard the aptly named Adventure galley pitted him against arrogant Royal Navy commanders, jealous East India Company captains, storms, starvation, angry natives, and, above all, flesh-and-blood pirates.
Through it all, Captain Kidd found himself facing a long-forgotten rouge by the name of Robert Culliford, who lured Kidd's crew to mutiny not once, but twice.
Through painstaking research, author Richard Zacks has pieced together the never-before-told story of Kidd versus Culliford, of pirate hunter versus pirate. Culliford climbed form Caribbean cabin boy to pirate captain, once capturing a ship in the Indian Ocean loaded with gold and several dozen wives and daughters of the local Moslem nobility. He divvied up both the gold and the women. This was an era of tall-masted sailing ships and lords in full wigs; the drama on land played out in the smuggler's haven of New York City and in Cotton Mather -- dominated Boston and in edge-of-empire London.
Across the oceans of the world, the pirate hunter, Kidd, pursued the pirate, Culliford. One man would hang in the harbor; the other would walk away with the treasure. The Pirate Hunter is both a masterpiece of historical detective work and page-turner, and it delivers something rare: an authentic pirate story for grownups.
Richard Zacks born in 1955, is a graduate of University of Michigan and Columbia Journalism School. Zacks is the author of two previous books of unusual research: bestselling History Laid Bare and perennial book club favorite An Underground Education and and has written articles for the Atlantic, Time, Village Voice, and many other publications. He spent more than three years researching The Pirate Hunter, including months at the public Record Office in London (where he found a pirate prisoner's long-lost diary).
Zacks lives in Pelham, N.Y., with his wife and two children, and every so often when he finds the neighborhood just too smug and comfortable, he flies the Jolly Roger from the flagpole off his son's bedroom.