08 October 2007

Crime & Punishment:
Punishment and Execution for Piracy

Marianne LaCroix
By Marianne LaCroix

There were several manners of punishment dealt out to those practicing piracy in the 16th through the 18th centuries. The most common practice was that of hanging. The process was slow and torturous. There were two methods: putting the rope around the victim's neck then pulling him off the ground, or dropping away something from under his feet to allow him to dangle freely. Many times a delay of ten days lapsed between being found guilty to the day of execution. This allowed more people to travel to witness the execution. It was also thought the condemned would repent during this time. Repenting did not ensure a lighter sentence or delay the execution, but at least his soul was saved, or so it was believed.

Gaols (jails) were dank, dark cellars overrun with rats and insects. Oh such a pleasant place to await trial or one's death sentence! There was no sanitation, and conditions were exceedingly poor. The most dangerous criminals would also remain in chains the entire time. And if one were to escape the gaol, it was most likely he would suffer from a chronic illness for the rest of his life.

Hanging wasn't the only fate of those sent to gaol for piracy. They could be flogged with the cat-nine-o-tails, a lash with tiny knots one each line. There are even stories of barbs used. Either way, the sentenced criminal could face 50 to 100 lashes of the cat-nine-o-tails. It would be a miracle if one could live through the punishment and recovery. Without knowledge of germs and bacteria, it was likely cat-nine-o-tails were a breeding ground for disease. If one did not die of the beating, he could die from infection.

Some pirates were sent to the pillory for public humiliation. Chained at the neck, wrists, and ankles, and positioned on their knees, possibly in a neck and hand yoke, one would be subjected to the taunts and physical torment. Tossing rotten vegetables or stones were not uncommon. Many times a pirate would be sentenced to 50 lashes then sent to the pillory. It was possible to die from injuries received while in the pillory.

Slavery was another fate of those condemned of piracy. Generally pirates could be sold into slavery, and this means was more profitable. Companies like the East India Company used slaves on plantations or in mines. Conditions were poor and disease ran rampant. If a pirate was a slave and sent to the American colonies, it is likely their treatment was slightly better than African slaves.

The worst sort of end for notorious pirates would be the irons. Once a pirate was dead (by hanging, lash, etc.), his remains would be placed in irons and put on display, or gibbeted. The body was left to rot and once the decomposition had eaten away the flesh, the remains were dumped into the sea. No burial. No ceremony. It was rare anyone would claim the remains of one in the irons due to the shame and disgrace.

Famous Pirate ends:William Kidd – Accused of piracy, he was imprisoned and hanged at Execution Dock in London May 23, 1701. His body was put on display for 2 years at the River Thames in London.

Stede Bonnet – After escaping once, Bonnet was tried and sentenced November 10, 1719. The Governor refused a pardon and Bonnet was hanged December 10, 1718.

Calico Jack Rackham – He was tried on November 16, 1720 and sentenced to hang. He was hanged on November 17, 1720. His lover, Anne Bonny, and her friend, Mary Read, were also tried and sentenced, but they claimed to be both pregnant. Their executions were delayed. Mary died in prison, possibly during giving birth. There is no record of the fate of Anne.

Bartholomew ("Black Bart") Roberts – He was lucky. On February 22, 1722, Black Bart was killed in battle by cannon fire and his crew buried him at sea, wrapped in a sail and weighed down, possibly with cannon balls.

Edward ("Blackbeard") Teach – He was hunted down for his crimes and died in battle against British Lieutenant Robert Maynard on November 11, 1718. His head was severed from his body and hung from the bowsprit as Maynard's trophy. Later Blackbeard's head was displayed hanging on a pike in Bath. (It is said his headless body swam around his ship the Adventure several times before finally sinking into the sea.)

Marianne LaCroix
Sea Hawk's Mistress, Ellora's Cave
Crossed Swords, Ellora's Cave (coming Nov 23, 2007)