Monday, October 7, 2013

Yo-Ho-Ho, And A Bottle a Rum! Albert W. Hicks, The Last American Pirate

When we think of pirates, we think of peg legged bearded men, swashbuckling on the decks of ships, drinking rum, sailing the seven seas and plundering what ever they like. Or we think of pirates in a more modern day version, as men who attack ships and kid nap the sailors on board and hold them hostage. Either way, or era, we think about them they are one in the same. Pirates have a glorified place in history, even though they don't necessarily deserve it. We've all heard stories about Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Davey Jones, Francois l'Olannais, Jean Lafitte, Stephan Decatur, Black Bart and so on. These men today are viewed as rebellious outlaws who showed no mercy to anyone who got in their ways and for some reason have turned into heroes. But what is often highlighted is the fate of most pirates, death. Such is the case of one Albert W. Hicks. Sure, the name doesn't sound like a cool pirate name, but Hicks is an important figure in pirate history. How? Well, Hicks was the last person executed in the United States for piracy.


Now Albert W. Hicks was your average 19th century Joe Schmo. Born around 1820, Hicks was a life long sailor. He worked different ships and acted in many roles. However, all that would change in 1860. According to Hicks, he was out pounding some grog, you know a real all bender in the making kind of night. It was during that night he believes he was drugged. The reason? Well, he woke up on a ship the next day. Now this isn't an uncommon event to happen to men of the sea. During the 19th century, and even the early 20th century, there was a technique in which men was drugged, put on ships and forced to work for little or no money at all. This was done because, well lets face it, who wanted to be a sailor in the middle of the 19th century? This way of "recruiting" was known as shanghaiing and was quite affective, but this time they messed with the wrong sea dog.
So the following day, Hicks wakes up on board the A.E. Johnson. She was a small sloop heading down to Virginia. The ship would then pick up a shipment of oysters and head back up to New York City. However, Hicks had another idea. Once out of New York Harbor, Hicks was ready to enact his plan of escape. In the middle of the night, Hicks was given the wheel as the captain, Captain George H. Burr and an other mate, Oliver Watts caught some shut eye. While on at the helm, Hicks was accompanied by Oliver's brother, Smith, the acting look out. It was then that Hicks attacked Smith with a club, killing him. The noise awoke Oliver, who then met the same fate. Hicks then went down to the captain's quarters to finish Burr. However, Burr was a big guy, strong as all hell and probably beat up men tougher then Hicks in the past. Unfortunately for Burr, Hicks got the better of him and killed him after fighting for his life. Hicks then went through the captain's room in search of anything of value. He found about $500 (in 1860 money that's a boat load of cash...get it boat load?) and then dumped his victims bodies overboard about 50 miles out to sea. After all this Hicks then turned the ship around and headed back to New York. The ship was found several days later, and was the scene of a gruesome murder. The man hunt for the killer was on.

As officials searched for the killer, Hicks had made his way to Providence, Rhode Island. When the authorities caught up with him and arrested him, on his person Hicks was wearing Captain Burr's watch, a coat of one of the Watt's brothers and in the coat a photo of Oliver Watt. Once in custody, Hicks was questioned about the murders. Hicks admitted to not just those three murders, but close to one hundred others out in California at various mining camps, as well as killing men and stealing from ships in ports across South America. So needless to say this was pretty much a shut and close case, but not without one final twist. Hicks went for, what we'd call today, an insanity defense. Hicks claimed that the time of every murder he even committed he was possessed by, none other than, the devil himself. The trial was a real 1860s media circus. Newspapers ran stories of Hicks crimes, the police chase, the trial and the resulting punishment, which is when this case get a little weird.
Hicks' execution was set for  July 13, 1860. The execution would take place at Fort Wood, located on Bedloe's Island in New York Harbor. For some this may be ringing a bell, the reason is Fort Wood is the base for the Statue of Liberty and Bedloe's Island is now called Liberty Island. But, back to Hicks. Since his actions and case received so much publicity, it is estimated that somewhere between ten and twelve thousand people surrounded the island, all in hopes of catching a glimpse of Hicks' last moments on this earth. Now I don't know about you, but people's fascination with watch executions has never made sense to me, seems like it's a morbid part of human nature, like slowing down to look at a car wreck today. Now, it was reported that the crowds watching the execution set a carnival like atmosphere, live bands were present, refreshment vendors and even beer stands, as if it were a Yankees or Knicks game. My thoughts are that the Civil War was right around the corner, starting in April of 1861, and people were looking for an outlet. Oddly enough their outlet was a mans execution, but to each their own I guess. The reason is, the Hicks trial pushed the news of war and secession off the front pages of the paper and out of the minds on New Yorkers. And as if this story couldn't take another turn, the day after Hicks was buried his body was stolen from his grave. This led to wild speculations that Hicks had fooled everyone and somehow survived the hanging. However, that was not the case. In fact, the truth is his body was dug up and then sold to a medical school. When looking back Hicks goes down as the last man tried and executed for piracy in America. But in reality Hicks was no pirate, just a guy who was drugged by a rival gang on the docks of 19th century New York City, but he will forever be remembered in American History as Hicks the Pirate, last pirate executed in the states.