Manuscript Collection: A Scrapbook of the Trials of 36 Persons for Piracy

Fri, 08/04/2017 - 3:08pm -- mfarias

Neatly presented as a scrapbook, this bound work from the Ralph E. Carpenter collection of manuscripts (RLC.Ms.040) tells the story of the Newport trial of thirty-six men accused of piracy, twenty-eight of whom were found guilty and twenty-six of whom were executed in 1723. It is unknown when exactly the newspaper story of the trial was attached to paper and bound into a book, but it was collected during the life of Ralph E. Carpenter (1910-2009), a dedicated advocate for historic preservation and a major supporter of the Redwood Library. His collection of letters, receipts, accounts, and other manuscripts spans from 1711 to 1920, covering various people, places, and events in Newport, Rhode Island across several centuries of Newport life. The trial scrapbook undeniably tells the most detailed story of a Newport event in this collection.

 

Front cover of the Scrapbook of the Trials of Thirty-six Persons for Piracy, 1723
Ralph E. Carpenter collection of manuscripts, Redwood Library

 

The trial was officially begun on July 10, 1723, “in the ninth year of his Majestie’s reign,” with readings of the proclamation and “his Majestie’s Commission for the trial of Pirates.” The Hon. William Dummer, Esq. and President of the Court, took the oath directed in the act and administered it to the other Commissioners of the Court. The first day of the trial was essentially only about procedure and protocol, establishing all of the official parties and preparing for the trial to come, after which they adjourned for the day. On the second day of the trial, the thirty-six men were named and it was proclaimed: “You stand here accused of felony, piracy, and robbery.” The first charge was that on May 8, 1723, they “piratically and feloniously did surprise, seize, and take the ship Amsterdam, whereof John Welland was then commander or master, of the burthen of one hundred tons, belonging to his Majesty’s good subjects.” They were accused of taking from the ship three barrels of beef, quantities of gold and silver, and a male slave and then subsequently sinking the ship and cutting off Welland’s right ear. Following this, a second charge was read that on June 10 of the same year they attacked his Majestie’s Grey-Hound, commanded by Peter Solgard, wounding seven of his men before being captured. It is on these counts that the assembled men faced the Court at Newport. They were divided into groups to stand trial in turns, allowing witnesses to speak on the observed character of the men more specifically. To begin his prosecution, the Advocate General, John Valentine, made a speech to the court defining the crimes of the accused:

 

The History and Lives of all the most Notorious Pirates, and their Crews, 1788
From the Collection of the Redwood Library

 

“The prisoners at the bar stand articled against and are prosecuted for, several felonious piracies and robberies by them committed upon the high sea. To which they severally pleaded not guilty. The crime of piracy is robbery (for piracy is a sea term for robbery) committed within the jurisdiction of admiralty. And a pirate is described to be one who to enrich himself either by surprise or open force, sets upon merchants and others trading by sea, to spoil them of their goods and treasure, often times by sinking their vessels, as the case will come out before you. This sort of criminals are engaged in a perpetual war with every individual, with every state, christian or infidel; they have no country, but by the nature of their guilt, separate themselves, renouncing the benefit of all lawful society, to commit these heinous crimes.”

 

The History and Lives of all the most Notorious Pirates, and their Crews, 1788
From the Collection of the Redwood Library


Valentine called men from both ships named in the charges to give witness to the crimes of the accused, including Capt. John Welland and Capt. Peter Solgard, who described their encounters with the two pirate sloops, the Ranger and Fortune, commanded by the pirate Edward Low. In their defense, the prisoners all stated only that they “were forced men on board of Low, and did nothing voluntarily, but as they were compelled.” Of the first group of men, two were acquitted of the charges, John Wilson and Henry Barns, who were observed by the witnesses to have been truly forced onto the pirate ships, while the rest were proclaimed guilty. When the second group was brought before the court, witnesses were again called to determine whether any of the men could be called innocent of the crimes. Of this second group, again only two men were acquitted, Thomas Jones and Thomas Mumford Indian. Tried separately on the next day, July 12, John Kencate, the Doctor on board, was similarly acquitted of the crimes. In two final trials, one of three men and another of five, Joseph Swetser was acquitted alone of the first group and Thomas Child and John Fletcher were acquitted in the second. Thus eight men in total were proclaimed innocent of the accused crimes and allowed to go free. The other twenty-eight were convicted and sentenced to die by hanging.

 

The History and Lives of all the most Notorious Pirates, and their Crews, 1788
From the Collection of the Redwood Library


Curiously, the list at the end of the scrapbook, entitled “The names, &c., of the pirates that were executed on Friday, July 19th, [1723], at Newport on Rhode Island, at a place called Bulls’ (Gravelly) Point, within the flux and reflux of the sea,” lists only twenty-six men. According to The Pirates of the New England Coast, 1630-1730 (Rio Grande Press, 1923), Patrick Cunningham and John Brown (“the shorter,” aged 17) were recommended unto his Majesty for remission and were thus not executed with the rest. And so, even such a detailed account as found in Carpenter’s manuscript collection cannot provide us with every detail. Luckily, pirates are always of interest and their stories are regularly retold, providing us with new resources to fill in the gaps of old tales.

 

Final pages of the Scrapbook of the Trials of Thirty-six Persons for Piracy, 1723
Ralph E. Carpenter collection of manuscripts, Redwood Library