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The Charleston Pirate Trials of 1718
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Over the course of five weeks in the autumn of 1718, the people of Charleston witnessed thirteen trials of fifty-eight men accused of piracy. Clerks wielding quill pens and ink made a paper record of this entire courtroom spectacle, most of which was published in 1719, but few people have seen the text of this dramatic narrative. Today I’ll offer a bit of context for this valuable historical record and provide a summary of the confusing sequence of trials. If you’re a fan of courtroom drama, this is a screenplay waiting to be written.
On a number of occasions during the years 1716 through 1718, a number of pirate vessels harassed the shipping traffic sailing in and out of the port of Charleston. Each of these events represented a significant interruption to South Carolina’s vital maritime trade, and local authorities viewed these matters very seriously. Much more than a simple annoyance or interruption in commerce, these pirate visits also endangered the safety of hundreds, even thousands of people, and threatened to undermine the political and economic stability of the fledgling colony. This wasn’t just a piece of Hollywood fun, with a bit of the swash and a dash of the buckling. Piracy, or aggravated armed robbery, assault, murder, rape, and kidnapping on the high seas, was a growing scourge in that era, and its arrival on our front doorstep merited and received the full attention of our local government. Despite the gravity of this business, however, we know precious few details about what happened during this era. There was no local newspaper in Charleston until January 1732, so there are no weekly summaries of the pirate events of the 1710s. South Carolina’s provincial government, then based in Charleston, considered, debated, and mounted a unified response to the pirate incursions of 1717 and 1718, but the details of their efforts are largely forgotten. In short, we’re short on resources to tell the real story of South Carolina’s encounter with the “Pirates of the Bahamas,” as out legislature once called them.
South Carolina’s bicameral legislature, composed of an appointed Upper House and an elected Commons House of Assembly, kept robust manuscript journals of all of their proceedings while they were in session. In addition, the Commons House was responsible for keeping track of every penny spent out of the public treasury and composing a detailed annual account of the expenses of the provincial government. These manuscript journals and financial accounts constitute a magnificent repository of information relating to the trials and tribulations of early South Carolina, and our state is fortunate to have such a robust collection of colonial-era government records (now held at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in Columbia). Unfortunately for fans of pirate history, however, the South Carolina legislative journals and accounts from the years 1718 and 1719 are lost, and have been missing for a very long time. I suspect they disappeared during the tumultuous coup d’état or “revolution” that occurred in Charles Town in December of 1719, and might still be locked away in a forgotten trunk somewhere. As a result of this loss, the knowledge of precisely how the South Carolina government reacted to the pirate scourge of 1717–18 disappeared with the men and women who witnessed those dramatic events. Our provincial government sent a few official reports back to authorities in England, to be sure, but these were summary descriptions that fall short of satisfying our modern craving for the nitty-gritty details.
Most of what we know about the biographies and the escapades of the various pirates active in the early years of the eighteenth century is found in a two-volume set of semi-fictional books published in the 1720s under the general title A History of the Pyrates by one Captain Charles Johnson, whose true identity is a mystery. Hundreds of pirate books have been published over the past three centuries, and most of the information contained in those books can be traced back to Captain Johnson’s volumes of the 1720s, which themselves went through numerous editions marked by varying degrees of additions and amendments. And, of course, many less-than scrupulous publishers across Europe published pirated editions of Captain Johnson’s pirate books, which itself seems a fitting commentary on the subject.
Despite all the shortcomings in the records of piratical activity in the early 1700s, we are fortunate that a robust written record survives from the Charleston pirate trials of 1718. In the wake of those important trials, some unknown person or persons carried or sent a copy of the complete transcript of the trials of Stede Bonnet and his pirate crew, taken directly from the manuscript proceedings of the South Carolina Court of Vice Admiralty. Published in London in 1719 under the title The Tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, and Other Pirates, the court transcript was augmented by the addition of a preface concerning the capture of Bonnet and his pirate sloop, Revenge, and an appendix containing several witness statements used by the prosecution during the trials. This small publication, containing just over fifty pages of dense but very legible text, was probably printed in a rather limited numbers, and today it’s exceedingly rare. Nineteenth-century compilers of interesting British state trials thought fit to include the text of Bonnet’s trials in their voluminous publications, but general knowledge of these resources was limited until the digital age of recent years. A few years ago, the Library of Congress digitized their copy of The Tryals of Major Stede Bonnet and made it available online. Today you can read the text on their website, or you can download the complete publication as a PDF.
The Charleston trials of more than fifty men accused of piracy in the autumn of 1718 were held in the South Carolina Court of Vice Admiralty, which was constituted under the authority of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, who derived their power from the British Crown. A precise description of this court’s legal construction is a bit too esoteric for our present purposes, involving the overlapping and sometimes clashing authorities of the Crown and the Proprietors, so I’ll humbly beg your pardon as I sidestep away from that legal can of worms and move on to the more relevant details. The Court of Vice Admiralty was the legal venue for the trial of all cases related to maritime issues on the high seas, including actions both civil and criminal in nature. The king was traditionally the Lord High Admiral of the nation, or he appointed one to act in his place, and the governors of each of his overseas colonies held the title of Vice Admirals. Each governor routinely deputized an agent to fill the role, and so, at the time of our pirate trials in 1718, Nicholas Trott held the post of Judge of the South Carolina Court of Vice Admiralty. In addition to empowering him to hear cases relating to maritime matters, Trott’s commission empowered him to appoint a marshal for the Vice Admiralty Court, who was responsible for executing the orders of the court and maintaining prisoners awaiting trial. The legal sphere of the Vice Admiralty Court was separate and distinct from South Carolina’s civil court, the Court of Common Pleas, and our criminal court, the Court of General Sessions, which were both constituted under the authority of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina. As with the Vice Admiralty Court, the Proprietors communicated with their deputies in Charleston to appoint both judges and a provost marshal, who was responsible for executing the orders of the terrestrial common-law courts and maintaining its land-lubbing prisoners.
At the time of the pirate trials of 1718, there were no permanent facilities for any of these important judicial offices in South Carolina. Prior to the construction of a proper court room in the new state house (at the northwest corner of Meeting and Broad Streets) in the early 1760s, all civil, criminal, and admiralty trials in South Carolina were held in borrowed facilities. In the first half-century of the colony, trials were usually held in residences that were temporarily commandeered or rented. From the late 1720s to the early 1760s, the provincial government rented space in a tavern at the northeast corner of Broad and Church Streets. Similarly, there was no proper jail or prison anywhere in South Carolina until the early 1770s. Prior to that time, each of the successive provost marshals in Charleston was expected to maintain prisoners in his own home, or to use part of his salary to rent a separate space for the incarceration or prisoners awaiting trial. In a sense, the marshal was sort of a private contractor, and the government didn’t pay much attention to the manner in which he conducted his business. As you might imagine, there are precious few surviving records from colonial South Carolina that provide any insight into the treatment of prisoners, or even the locations of the various facilities used for incarceration. I’ve been investigating such details for several years, and we’ll return to the topic of colonial incarceration in a future program.
After the battle with South Carolina forces under the command of Col. William Rhett in the Cape Fear River on September 27th, 1718, in which a number of men died, the surviving crew of the pirate sloop Revenge consisted of Stede Bonnet and thirty-five mariners. Those prisoners were brought ashore in Charleston on October 5th, and delivered into the custody of Nathaniel Partridge, who was one of the three captains of the town’s night watch or police force. At moment, Captain Partridge also held the title of both provost marshal of South Carolina and marshal of the provincial Court of Vice Admiralty. Since there was no purpose-built jail or prison in the town, and the marshal’s house was not sufficient to secure three dozen prisoners, the crew of the pirate sloop Revenge was confined in the Watch House, a one-story masonry building at the intersection of East Bay and Broad Streets. (If you’re not familiar with that building, you can refer back to a podcast essay I produced a few months ago about Charleston’s first Watch House.) That facility was never meant to accommodate that many bodies, so the conditions must have been appalling.
Major Stede Bonnet, on the other hand, was segregated from the rest of his crew. As an educated, relatively affluent man of some standing in Barbados prior to his brief career as a pirate, and as a former officer in the Barbados militia, Bonnet merited the same treatment that the English colonies afforded to all gentlemen prisoners. That is, he was allowed to reside under the marshal’s roof and given a modicum of liberty. There are no surviving contemporary documents that illuminate the details of Bonnet’s confinement here in 1718, but, among the surviving records of our provincial legislature, especially during the 1740s, one can find descriptions of such genteel accommodations granted to dozens of French and Spanish prisoners of war in Charleston. Such prisoners gave their word, as honorable gentlemen, that they would not try to escape, and in return they were treated as guests.
At some point around the middle of October, 1718, two of the crewmen from the pirate sloop Revenge offered to testify against their comrades in exchange for clemency. Ignatius Pell, the boatswain, and David Heriot (or Herriot or Harriot), the sailing master (chief navigator), were removed from the crowded accommodations in the Watch House and placed in protective custody at the marshal’s house with Stede Bonnet. I know of no surviving documents that articulate the exact location of Nathaniel Partridge’s residence at that time, or the address of the facility he used to house prisoners (if not within his own house), but we can form an intriguing hypothesis by looking into surviving property records of that era. Captain Partridge owned several town lots in Charleston, located both within and without the fortified walls of the town. One of his parcels within the walls was located on the south side of Tradd Street, approximately forty feet east of Church Street, and formed a one-fifth share of town lot No. 73. Partridge’s property bounded fifty-odd feet on Tradd Street, and to the east approximately one hundred feet on the property of Garret Vanvelsen (or Vanvelsin), an upwardly mobile shoemaker of Dutch extraction who also owned multiple lots both within and without the town walls. Vanvelsen’s presence next door to Captain Partridge provides the key to our hypothesis about the site of Stede Bonnet’s incarceration. When the pirate trials finally commenced in late October, 1718, the manuscript journal of the court proceedings state that they were held “at the House of Garrett Vanvelsin.” From a security perspective, it seems logical to convene the trial at a facility next-door to the marshal’s residence, but remember that the majority of the pirate crew—nearly three dozen men—were held at the Watch House, some distance from Tradd Street, while only three prisoners were held at the house of Capt. Partridge. At any rate, the point is this: we can surmise that Stede Bonnet, David Heriot, and Ignatius Pell were held, in relative comfort, at the marshal’s house near the southeast corner of Tradd and Church Street, but in the absence of documents to confirm this arrangement, it’s simply our best hypothesis.
On the evening of October 24th, Stede Bonnet and David Heriot escaped from the marshal’s house and fled northward in a canoe. Contrary to popular legend, there is no contemporary evidence that Bonnet donned women’s clothing to mask his identity during his nocturnal exodus. In fact, there aren’t any surviving documentary details of his escape beyond the fact that he did in fact escape on the 24th. According to the text of the trial transcript, Bonnet received some assistance from unknown persons in the town, but further details are lacking. Ignatius Pell, boatswain of the sloop Revenge, remained in protective custody at the marshal’s house, however, and provided the prosecution with valuable evidence during the trials that commenced a few days later.
The three weeks that transpired between the arrival of the pirate prisoners in Charleston and the commencement of their trials were not idle days for the colony’s most prominent legal minds. Beside the logistical planning necessary to try so many defendants, there was much legal research to be done, several witnesses to be interviewed, and a number of indictments to be drafted. Precedents had to be studied and strategies had to be outlined. The South Carolina government knew their actions in this grave matter would be scrutinized by officials at home in England, so the entire business was choreographed with considerable attention applied to both procedure and language. If you’re a fan of films and TV shows that showcase the courtroom drama and follow the plotting of courtroom procedure, you should take a look at the 1719 publication of the text of these trials. One could certainly turn this business into an interesting screenplay. Just imagine—Law and Order meets The Pirates of the Caribbean.
The Charleston pirate trials of 1718 commenced at the house of Garret Vanvelsen on the morning of Tuesday, October 28th, and continued, with a few interruptions, over the course of three weeks; that is, eleven days in court between October 28th and November 12th. This legal soap opera unfolded in a manner very similar to what you might see in a modern criminal trial: The court first empaneled a grand jury of 23 men, who considered a number of indictments in turn. After finding each of the indictments to be a “Billa Vera,” or “true bill,” the court then arraigned the defendants. The vast majority of the defendants entered pleas of “not guilty” (three men—James Wilson, Daniel Perry, and John Levit—pleaded guilty). There were no defense attorneys present, and there was no court-appointed legal counsel for the pirates on trial. In this era of legal history, each man or woman on trial spoke on their own behalf, and it was their own responsibility to articulate a competent defense. As you can imagine, this practice didn’t always result in what we might call a fair and just trial, but such was the state of Anglo-American jurisprudence in the early years of the eighteenth-century. On the other side of the bench from the defendants, Attorney General Richard Allein and his assistant, Thomas Hepworth, prosecuted on behalf of the King’s interests on the high seas. Speaking in turns to the court, Allein and Hepworth outlined the details of each case in turn, questioned both witness and defendants, and made closing arguments before handing each case to the petit juries. Their language and descriptions are both historically interesting and entertaining, and the printed transcript of these pirate trials make for fun reading.
You’ve probably noticed that I keep using the plural noun, “trials.” Contrary to popular lore, there wasn’t one big trial for Stede Bonnet and his crew, but a series of eleven small trials held in rapid succession. Because of the limited size of the improvised court room at Mr. Vanvelsen’s house, the defendants were indicted, arraigned, and tried in smaller groups, except for Stede Bonnet, who was indicted along with his crewmen but arraigned and tried separately. In total, there were nine grand jury indictments concerning thirty-five defendants and four separate charges. The first four indictments concerned the piratical capture of the sloop Francis on August 2nd, 1718, and were lodged against a total of thirty defendants divided into four groups. The next three indictments, lodged against the same thirty defendants, now divided into three groups for some unknown reason, concerned the piratical capture of the sloop Fortune on August 31st, 1718. The eighth indictment, against a new group of five men, concerned only the theft of goods out of the captured sloop, Francis, and the ninth indictment charged the same five men with the theft of goods from the captured sloop, Fortune.
As I mentioned earlier, two of the thirty-six pirate prisoners, Ignatius Pell and David Heriot, turned King’s-evidence before the trials began. As a witness for the prosecution, Pell was never indicted or tried, but Heriot fled from custody a few days before the trials commenced, was indicted in absentia, and then killed on Sullivan’s Island before the trial concluded. Of the remaining thirty-four defendants, four men were found “not guilty” and acquitted—Thomas Nichols in the third trial, and Rowland Sharp, John or Jonathan Clarke, and Thomas Gerrard in the eighth trial. At the conclusion of the ninth trial on November 6th, Judge Nicholas Trott pronounced his sentence on the twenty-nine men found guilty by the successive juries of their Charleston peers.
“The sentence that the law hath appointed to pass upon you for your offences, and which this court doth therefore award is, that you the said Robert Tucker, Edward Robinson, Neal Paterson, William Scot, Job Bayley, John-William Smith, Thomas Carman, John Thomas, William Morrison, William Livers alias Evis, Samuel Booth, William Hewet, John Levit, William Eddy alias Nedy, Alexander Annand, George Ross, George Dunkin, John Ridge, Matthew King, Daniel Perry, Henry Virgin, James Robbins, James Mullet alias Millet, Thomas Price, John Lopez, Zachariah Long, James Wilson, John Brierly, and Robert Boyd, shall go from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, where you shall be severally hanged by the neck, till you are severally dead. And the God of infinite mercy be merciful to every one of your souls.”
The text I’ve just read appears on page thirty-six of the 1719 published trial transcript, and it represents a faithful transcription of the text that appears in the 1718 manuscript journal of the South Carolina Court of Vice Admiralty. That manuscript source, which you can read on microfilm at CCPL, does not include any information related to when or where the convicted men were hanged. On page thirty-seven of the 1719 published transcript, however, you’ll find the following statement:
“On Saturday, November the 8th, 1718, Robert Tucker, Edward Robinson, Neal Paterson, William Scot, Job Bayley, John-William Smith, John Thomas, William Morrison, Samuel Booth, William Hewet, William Eddy alias Nedy, Alexander Annand, George Ross, George Dunkin, Matthew King, Daniel Perry, Henry Virgin, James Robbins, James Mullet alias Millet, Thomas Price, John Lopez, and Zachariah Long, were executed at the White Point near Charles-Town, according to the above sentence.”
Careful readers might have noticed that this list included only twenty two-names. What became of the missing seven names (James Wilson, John Brierly, John Levit, John Ridge, Robert Boyd, and Thomas Carman)? Did a clerk in Charleston mis-transcribe the list after the fact, or does this omission represent some sort of mistake made in the printer’s shop in London in 1719? Did the governor grant a reprieve to seven of the condemned pirates, or did they die, or perhaps even escape before their appointment at the gallows? We might never know the answer to this mystery, but I’m inclined to endorse the simplest explanation. I believe it was probably a clerical error, but, if you’re writing a novel or screenplay about this topic, you’re welcome to invent whatever solution seems dramatically appropriate.
Stede Bonnet, the former owner and titular leader of the pirate sloop, Revenge, and who had escaped from custody on October 24th, was still at large when he was named in the first indictment on October 28th and the fifth indictment on October 29th. Following his recapture on November 5th and his return to Charleston the following day, Bonnet was arraigned and tried on November 10th, 11, and 12th—first for the capture of the sloop Francis, and second for the capture of the sloop Fortune. The “gentleman pirate” pleaded “not guilty” to both accounts, but a jury found him guilty on the first charge. Facing a second trial on a nearly identical charge, Bonnet asked and received the court’s permission to change his second plea to “guilty.” On November 12th, after a lengthy condemnation and exhortation against the accused, Judge Trott handed down the same sentence he had delivered to the pirate crew: “That you, the said Stede Bonnet, shall go from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck till you are dead.” As with the earlier sentencing, the 1718 manuscript journal of this trial does not specify the date or location of Bonnet’s execution. On page 43 of the 1719 published transcription, however, we find the following brief but important statement: “On Wednesday December the 10th, 1718, the said Major Stede Bonnet was executed at the White-Point near Charles-Town, according to the above sentence.”
In the four weeks that passed between the sentencing of Stede Bonnet and his execution, the people of Charleston did not rest quietly. Sometime around the middle of November (the exact date doesn’t appear in any surviving records), Governor Robert Johnson and his squadron of South Carolina pirate hunters, who had set out on November 4th, returned to Charleston with the remnants of the crew that had sailed under the command of pirate Richard Worley. Captain Worley was among those killed in the sea-battle with the South Carolina mariners, but more than two dozen of Worley’s crewmen survived to face trial in Charleston. In his 1894 narration of this story, pirate historian Shirley Carter Hughson stated that local authorities “made all haste to have them [the pirates] condemned and executed lest they should die of their injuries before the law could be vindicated.” I know of no surviving contemporary documents that articulate such haste, but Mr. Hughson’s description is probably accurate. Judge Nicholas Trott convened a new session of the Court of Vice Admiralty on Wednesday, November 19th, which was probably just a few days after Gov. Johnson returned from his pirate-hunting expedition. This brief period gave the prosecution precious little time to gather and interview witnesses, prepare the indictments. The court conducted no business of substance on Wednesday the 19th (at least the clerk did not record anything under this date in the surviving manuscript record of the trial), so it appears that the prosecution wasn’t quite ready on that day.
On the morning of Thursday, November 20th, however, the court convened and immediately read out two indictments against the twenty-seven survivors of Capt. Worley’s crew, who were divided into two groups of fifteen and twelve men, respectively. The indictments were handed to the members of the grand jury, who were charged with considering the weight of the evidence against the defendants. Shortly thereafter, the grand jury pronounced the indictments to be “true bills,” and the court began to arraign the twenty-seven men accused of piracy. If you look closely at the manuscript court proceedings, however, you’ll notice that three names went missing by the middle of the day. That is to say, twenty-seven men were indicted on the morning of November 20th, but only twenty-four men survived to enter a plea that afternoon.
Attorney General Richard Allein and his assistant, Thomas Hepworth, prosecuted the twenty-four survivors in two quick trials on Friday, November 21st. The two petit juries found nineteen of the men “guilty,” while five (John White, Nathaniel Cade, William Vaughn, John Mason, and John Ryley) were pronounced “not guilty” and discharged. The court then adjourned to Saturday morning, at which time they again adjourned without conducting any business of note. On Monday, November 24th, Judge Nicholas Trott sentenced the accused in the now-familiar language: “that they the said Thomas Prizgar al[ia]s Little Tommy, John James, John Cole, Abraham Henderson, Ralph Mudge, John Swinnock, William Quenee [or Quence], William Ford al[ias]s Long Will, Nicholas Whealan, Sebastien Taunten, Daniel Stannel, John Clarke, Thomas Shaddock, Francis Fusher [?], John Berfield al[ia]s Barefoot, George Pocock, John Acon, Richard Jackett, and James Lincolne al[ia]s Fox, should go to the place from whence they came, and from thence to the place of execution, and there be severally hanged by the neck till they were dead.” The manuscript record of this Vice Admiralty trial does not mention the time or place of the execution of this death sentence, but, considering the precedent of Stede Bonnet’s crew, we can reasonably conclude that these nineteen men were also hanged at White Point a few days later, around the 26th or 27th of November.
By the end of November 1718, the South Carolina Court of Vice Admiralty had tried a total of fifty-eight men accused of piracy in a series of thirteen trials spread over a period of five weeks. This entire ordeal constitutes a significant event in the judicial history of South Carolina, and it monopolized the attention and resources of the provincial government at time when the fortunes of South Carolina were at a very low ebb. Nine of the accused pirates were pronounced “not guilty” and released to continue their lives. Forty-nine men, including Major Stede Bonnet, were found “guilty” and condemned to be severally hanged by the neck until they were severally dead. The execution of these death sentences, and the subsequent disposal of forty-nine corpses, represents another chapter in this dramatic story. I have to confess that I’m not a big fan of pirate literature, but I’ve fielded so many questions about this this mass execution—from both tourists, tour guides, and even archaeologists—that I’m willing to venture into that macabre matter for a brief investigation. Tune in next week, when we’ll use historical documents to help us understand how and where these forty-nine men were hanged, and consider where their remains might now be found.
 The original manuscript records of the South Carolina Court of Vice Admiralty now form part of Record Group 21 in the Southeastern Branch of the National Archives, East Point, Atlanta, Georgia. Microfilm copies of these records can be found at the South Carolina Department of Archives in Columbia, and in the South Carolina History Room at the Charleston County Public Library.
 See, for example, Howell, T. B., ed. A Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason and Other Crimes and Misdemeanors from the Earliest Period to the Present Time, volume 15 (London: T. C. Hansard, 1816), 1231–1302.
 Garrett Vanvelsen purchased a portion of town lot No. 73, bounding to the north on Tradd Street and the west on Nathanial Partridge, in July 1716 (see Charleston County Register of Deeds, book I: 528–31). In his will, Capt. Nathaniel Partridge bequeathed his share of lot No. 73 to his son William. See the will of Nathaniel Partridge, dated 28 April 1722, recorded on 4 April 1723, in Will Book 1722-24; W.P.A. transcript volume 1 (Will Book 1722-23), pp. 34-36.
 Shirley Carter Hughson, The Carolina Pirates and Colonial Commerce, 1670–1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1894), 121.
 Hughson, Carolina Pirates, 121, names only twenty-four defendants, so it appears he failed to notice the disappearance of three names between the morning and the afternoon of November 20th, 1718: William Wallington, Robert Launder, and William Peiree.