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Albert Hicks: The Pirate King of New York
Just before dawn, on the outskirts of New York harbour, a small Sloop sailed listlessly into the bay. The ship had no crew, no lights and a deck covered in blood. It presented a mystery to the local police, who set their detectives on the case which led to a manhunt up the East Coast of the United States in pursuit of a phantom. The police may have had a description, a name, but they had no idea of the monster they would find at the end of the trail. More than a phantom, they were chasing a legend, a man who would later become whispered about in taverns as the last pirate of New York. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
The Ghost Ship
It was a cold spring morning on March 21st, 1860 when Captain Ben Nickerson stepped out onto the deck of the schooner on the approach to New York Harbour. The sun had not yet risen and the air still had a lingering winter bite as it whipped off the sea. He and his crew had been hauling Molasses from Pennsylvania, a long slog, but the trip was almost done. As he stood contemplating the ships next contract, the still morning was broken with the sudden cracking of splintering wood, a violent jerk forwards and the sickening booming crunch of wood collapsing into wood. They had hit something, but Nickerson had not seen any other ships ahead, no lights had alerted him to any danger, what could it have been? As he approached the front of the ship, he saw before him the darkened outline of a small sloop, hanging listlessly off the front of his own ship. The sloop looked in worse condition than his own boat, there was wood scattered across its deck and the rigging appeared to have collapsed too. He called out to the lifeless boat before him, though no crew called back. After the enormous crash of the collision, the air had returned to an eerie stillness, the creaking of the ships damaged hulls echoing through the air. No one appeared to be aboard, so with effort, he steered his own ship free from the tangle and headed in towards the South Street Docks, in Manhattan in order to wrap up his job, get the boat out of the water and assess the damage properly.
An hour later, just as the sun began peaking out above the horizon, a Schooner named the Telegraph, sailing from New London, Connecticut came across the damaged sloop. This time, with the light of dawn on his side, a coming together between the ships was avoided and instead, they drew up alongside the apparently empty vessel and Captain Sistere, who headed up the crew of the Telegraph, called out. Once again, he received the same blank reply from the Sloop. Curious, the boat drew up alongside the sloops fractured hull and hopped on board in search of life, or at least a clue as to why the ship was floating around so aimlessly and in such a state. Once they had hopped on board however, a nightmare picture began to unveil. Large, deep gashes in the wooden railings, masts and destroyed rigging tore chunks of splintered wood, spitting them out across the deck that appeared to have been washed in blood. It was as though they had walked into a slaughterhouse at the end of a day’s work. Noticing the lack of life raft hanging front eh rear of the ship, the crew returned to the Telegraph and attempted to tow it into New York, but the damage and size of the ship made it too heavy for the small schooner, so instead they called for help, enlisting the aid of a tugboat, who pulled the grim shell to a pier next to Fulton Fish Market, before contacting the authorities to alert them of the find.
Captain Hart Weed, Officer Washbourne and the local Coroner, all boarded the empty, sorry looking vessel.
“The deck was besmirched with blood… It appeared as if two persons had been lying on it, and one had been dragged out of the cabin; The appearance of the blood led to the inference that on deck one had lain in front of the mast, and the other amidships… Forward of the mast there was some light coloured hair and blood; the blood had run on both sides of the vessel; when we hauled the sail up it was found to have covered up a great quantity of blood… on two places there were blood outside the rail, rubbed on, as if a bleeding body with clothes on had been thrown overboard.”
In the cabin of the boat they found further gashes in the walls and low ceiling, along with a scene of carnage. It seemed to Weed that whatever had happened on deck had originated in the cabin, a fight or scuffle had taken place, as draws lay ransacked, paper strewn about the place and furniture toppled. At the rear of the cabin, behind the stove were three deep holes, scorched into the wood by a red hot poker, the remnants of which lay cast aside in the room. They had been deeply bored, deep enough in fact to potentially sink the ship outright, but blood and debris had filled them, blocking them of their purpose and cooling the burning wood before any fatal damage could be done.
All told the boat offered police a mysterious scene. There was so much damage so much that told a story of a crew’s final hours, but where were they now? There were so few clues to actually lead anywhere away from the ship. The only solid line of inquiry to follow was the missing lifeboat. Perhaps if they could find that, they could find the missing crew, or even the people responsible for so much carnage. As they made their way to the centre of the deck, they discovered one last, grisly clue. Four fingers and a thumb lay lifelessly on the wooden floor, curled in a pool of blood.
New York, 1860
In 1860, New York City was one of the richest ports in the world, dealing with over 60% of all imports and exports for the entire country. With the vast shipping economy, the population had exploded as immigrants poured into the city from across Europe, escaping persecution and famine in Ireland and Italy.
Despite its vast wealth and though areas like Central Perk had recently opened to the public, the money that permeated through the city was not always reflected in the population and the divide between rich and poor was starkly drawn in the streets. Uptown saw moneyed citizens hiding away behind walled gardens on leafy streets, whilst the dock areas crushed people one atop the other in rickety slums built on disused flatland. The block system familiar today was still in its infancy and the closer you got to the water, the more it deteriorated into backstreets, narrow alleyways and the winding streets of the old town. Within these streets, criminality was often the key to survival, fuelled by taverns and a large underclass of men who had arrived in New York with no real direction, the shores of America had offered them a better life and plans rarely developed beyond the price of the boat ticket. Gangs flourished in the violent atmosphere, culminating in the worst riot in New York history taking part three years prior, when “The Dead Rabbits” and the “Bowery Boys” took advantage of an internal police feud to wage a citywide gang war. Throughout the city, other groups, such as “The Plug Uglies”, “The Hudson Dusters”, “The Whyos” and “The Forty Thieves” operated to control their own patches, whilst youth gangs like “The Slaughter Housers” and “The Short Tails” acted like development academies for crime. Central to all the illegality was Corlears Hook, the city’s Red Light District that was home to opium dens and bars with names like “The Tub of Blood” and “The Hole-in-the-wall”. Crime surged, with pickpockets, robberies and murder skyrocketing. In 1860, the murder rate for the city was four times that of today and worryingly, that only included reported murders. Many crimes that took place throughout the slums passed under the police radar, simply because they often preferred to ignore the chaos.
It was into this part of the city that William Johnson rowed the lifeboat of the Oyster Sloop the EA. Johnson to on the morning of the 21st March as dawn broke. The carnage he had been a part of on the old sloop was behind him now and with luck, it was at the bottom of the water already. He landed the boat on the rocky shore, dragged it up to the tree line and bade a farmer good morning as he passed. Dressed in a blue monkey coat, black pants and black Kossuth Hat, with a large bag tossed over his shoulder, his large bushy whiskers gave his otherwise handsome face a rugged, sea worn look. He stopped to ask the farmer if his boat would be safe left by the shore and then took off towards the nearby ferry dock.
As the day got into full swing, the story of the gruesome ghost sloop broke heavily in the local papers. Crime was always big news, especially crime that involved the water. With a city full of sailors as a demographic, headlines such as “Murder Sloop Haunts City” and “Ghost Ship Horror” were too good to pass up for the newly emerging rags.
“The Sloop EA Johnson, commanded by George Burr, was found yesterday morning about half past six o’clock, between SAndy Hook and Coney Island Point, under circumstances which leave no doubt as to a bloody tragedy having occurred on board.”
“It was about noon when Coroner Schirmer, Doctors Boston and Beach, and our reporter proceeded on board the sloop for the purpose of investigating the matter. The pier was crowded with fishermen, oyster dealers and others, who were impatiently awaiting the arrival of the coroner. The sloop certainly had the appearance of having recently been in collision with some vessel, judging from the damaged condition of her bow spirit and cut water. Her sails too, were lying loose on deck, and everything denoted signs of confusion and violence.”
“What has become for the crew is a difficult thing to say. The presumption is that they have been murdered, but by whom it is impossible to determine. They may have been assassinated by one of their own number or by river pirates. It is said that CAptain Burr had over $1000 in his possession, with which he intended to purchase his cargo, and this money may have been sufficient incentive for the murderers. The disappearance of the small boat goes to favour the idea that the butchery was committed by one or more of the crew, or some one who has concealed himself on board. In a day or so, perhaps sufficient will be developed to enable us to arrive at some conclusion respecting the affair, but at present everything is shrouded in mystery.”
The EA Johnson presented a pretty striking, and for many, exciting, mystery. So far the police had only been able to ascertain a rough idea of the violence that had beset the crew along with who the crew had actually been. The sloop was ordinarily in the business of travelling down through to Virginia to buy up Oysters, which it would then return with to New York in order to sell at the Fulton Fish Market. The crew had been well known around the docks and consisted of the Captain, George Burr, a man in his early thirties, from Islip, Rhode Island and two younger hands, half Brothers Oliver and Smith Watts. Oliver was the elder at only 23 years old, whilst Smith was just starting out his life on the water at only 19. Both hailed from Islip, the same as the captain. In recent weeks, the mate had left the crew and so Captain Burr had taken on a new member, a carpenter going by the name of William Johnson. He hadn’t been known previously by Burr, but he seemed to know his stuff and proved to have been a smart hire. Writing to his wife before heading out not eh fateful journey that would be their last, Burr said of Johnson,
“This man William Johnson, who lives in New York, is a smart fellow. He went at the mast and scraped it while we were here in Keyport without telling, while I was ashore. He is a good hand; can turn his hand to almost anything.”
The only skill he appeared to lack aboard the ship had been in steering, but that was okay, the Watts brothers were perfectly adequate at that and he more than made up for it with his carpentry skills. Of course, when he had hired Johnson Burr was not to know that his name was in fact, not Johnson at all, nor was he to know that he was a murderous pirate. He would find that out after it was already much, much too late.
The police also had little idea who this fourth member of crew was, only that witnesses had spent time with him and that he had been a new hire aboard the sloop. Going by William Johnson, no one seemed to know who he was, nor where he had come from. To add to the mystery, he had no prior records, which led police to believe that it was likely a false name, which instantly elevated the man to prime suspect. The Harbour Patrol had been out looking for the missing row boat and found it ditched in tall grass out by Fort Tomkins, on Staten Island, so Captain Hart Weed, enlisting the aid of detective George Nevins, headed out in order to pick up the trail. Inside the boat they found little but a broken oar and an old boot, but leading away from the vessel, they were able to follow a trail that headed inland. Detective Nevins and his partner, closely flanked by New York Times Journalist Elias Smith, set about questioning the locals, several of whom claimed to have seen the man arrive on the shore and some who had spoken to him and given him directions to Vanderbilts Ferry Landing, two miles up the coast. Following, the trio arrived at the quiet landing two hours later. It was a quiet little ferry port, built up by small shacks and a few houses. The ferry port proper consisted of a ticket stand and a news stand and was overlooked by a tavern. Nevins enquired about their fugitive, and soon found from the dock keeper, Abram Egbert, that he had turned up on the morning of the 21st only to miss the ferry by a matter of minutes. In order to pass the time until the next boat, Johnson had entered the tavern and drank more or less an entire bottle of whiskey, whilst eating Eggs and Oysters. Hardly lying low, during his time there, he had flashed around a number of Gold and Silver pieces drawn from the sack he carried over his shoulder and bought the entire place drinks. He had told the barkeeper there that he had been a seafaring man, but that his boat had been crashed, the crew had been killed and he had taken everything he could, just about managing to escape with his life.
From the ferry port, Detective Nevins took the Ferry to Manhattan, landing at the Whitehall Street Dock, where he spoke to a man named Charles Le Coste, a news and snack stall vendor. Johnson had bought a coffee and cake from him he said after disembarking from the ferry. Nevins had determined already from the cabin boy aboard the boat that Johnson had been on board, looking for the most part, quite the worse for wear. He had slept for most of the crossing to Manhattan with his head on his large sack. Le Coste told a similar story. When Johnson had tried to pay for his coffee and cake, he had offered the vendor a gold piece in payment, but the vendor had had to turn it down, on the grounds that he could not make change for a coffee and cake that cost only 6c. Johnson had rummaged about in his sack and eventually fished out enough change to pay the vendor, before asking where he could hire a horse and cart. La Coste told him that it was still too early for the Hacks to be operating yet and instead suggested he take the stage from East Broadway. Johnson then changed tact, asking if La Coste could suggest a hotel where he could get some rest and the vendor offered up the nearby “French’s Hotel” as a suitable venue, though in all honesty, it was far above the sort of dives doss house that Johnson was looking for. As he walked away from the vendor, William Drumm, a 16 year old street kid approached Johnson and offered to carry his bag. Johnson agreed and paid the boy 3 shillings whilst he dragged his tired feet up Broadway. Knocking on the local doors and houses and calling into all the local hotels and vendors, Detective Nevins hit an abrupt dead end in the trail. Nevins had walked up Broadway with the boy, but once he had paid him off and the two had separated, Johnson had appeared to disappear. It was a disappointing end to a promising lead. Dejected, he returned to the station to reassess the difficult position he now found the case to fall in.
In 1860, detective work was anything but glamorous. It was an emerging career path and pay was abysmally low. Most detectives operated reasonably corrupt jobs on the side in order to sustain a good wage and the police work they did do, which so often ended in dead ends and broken leads, was often downplayed. In an age when forensics was still in its infancy, the trail of a suspect was everything. Cases hinged on creating an unbroken chain from the scene of a crime that led directly to the suspect, often relying on sketchy eye witness accounts and hazy remembrances. The chain Nevins had followed with such enthusiasm the day before was, in the cold light of the new day, looking increasingly like it would turn out to be just another empty lead. The missing boat had been the only solid clue they had and it had lead them straight into a brick wall. Just occasionally, however, luck would fall the way of the lost detective and so it was in the Sloop Case. The next morning, Mr Burke, the operator of an apple stand on Greenwich Street, showed up at the station believing he had information that could be useful. Aside for the eh apple stall, Burke had managed an apartment complex on Cedar Street and the day before, one of his tenants who was due to be out to sea for a time had come back unexpectedly early. Furthermore, he had come back with a large sack, apparently stuffed full of cash. He had told the other residents in the apartment complex several stories of how he had come into the money. To one he had told of how he had come into an unexpected inheritance, whilst another he told he had stumbled upon an abandoned ship that he had sold for scrap. The tenant had always paid his rent and to Burke he had always seemed an “honest man”, but now he seemed to be acting strange and later that day, he and his wife and infancy child had packed up their belongings and abruptly left. It was all very suspicious to Burke and he repeated his concerns to Nevins. Nevins was instantly on board. With no other leads to follow, he really had no choice either way, but the fellow that Burke was talking about did seem suspicious enough and at least in part matched the description of Johnson. Burke agreed to take him to the apartment complex on Cedar Street and just like that, the trail was hot once more.
When they reached the apartment complex, Nevins found a small unfurnished shack fo a room. It appeared as though it had been hastily abandoned and a few papers, along with some innocuous, trash items were left behind, but otherwise the drawers, wardrobes and cupboards lay empty. Standing out from the other items however, was a tarnished silver compass, which Nevins pocketed before leaving the shack to ask around in the street below after the man who had previously lived there. It turned out the local merchants had quite a bit to say of the previous tenant. He had returned home from sea flashing his money around to all who would give him a moment of their time. Once more he had told several, equally exotic stories to different people, all as unlikely as the stories he had told the other tenants. He had also spent lavishly on clothes and drink, which he enthusiastically offered to everyone he bumped into. Amongst the mess of tall tales he had offered the local populace, one thread had always remained constant, that he now planned to head up the coast, either to Connecticut or Providence, Rhode Island. When Nevins inquired with a local broker, he found that a man matching Johnson’s description had come in the day before and changed up $260 in gold and silver for paper bills. The Broker, Albert James of the Farmers & Citizens Bank of Williamsburg had always had his suspicions throughout the transaction, but when he asked how the money had come to be in his possession, he was fed a story that the man was the mate of a sick Captain who had sent him inland in order to change up money to pay for medical expenses. With no other reason to suspect him, the broker changed up the coins and watched as Johnson stuffed the bills into a large sack and left.
The next stop for Detective Nevins was to follow the trail North. Everyone had told him the same story, that Johnson was headed up shore to take a ferry named the Commonwealth, and so along with his partner and trusty Journalist guide, the trio boarded a train and headed 45 miles North to the Ferry dock in Stonington. Arriving around 6pm that evening, Nevins wasted no time in canvassing the Commonwealth. The Ferry’s Ship Clerk inspected they manifest and confirmed with the detective that a man named Johnson had boarded at Stonington and disembarked at a small town up river. Once again Nevins was greeted by disappointment, however, when the Johnson in the manifest had turned out to be the wrong man. Asking around he had found out that the child accompanying the Johnson of the manifest had been a young adult, but Nevins knew that the child of the Johnson he was trailing was an infant. Dejected, the trio travelled down to Providence, Rhode Island by train, to see what they might be able to turn up there instead.
In 1860, Providence was a bustling sea port with a population of around 50,000. Founded in 1836 by a rogue preacher, Roger Williams, who had been forced to flee Massachusetts due to religious persecution, it had boomed as a major sea port, only faltering once New York took over and quickly dwarved it in size. Despite several chronic outbreaks of Cholera, the port was severely overcrowded and people lived stacked in cramped housing, in many respects, not least its chaotic dock area, it mirrored New York in miniature. When Detective Nevins arrived, he enlisted the help of the a local detective, George Sillings, and the crew spent the first day cruising the local dives in order to ask after the mysterious Johnson, but it was all to no avail. Elias Smith, the plucky New York Times journalist who had trailed Nevins all the journey, suggested on a hunch that they check out the ferry to Massachusetts. He considered that their fugitive may have taken the ferry and travelled back to Providence from the North in order to throw any police from his tail, but Nevins disagreed. So far the man had not shown that level of cunning. In fact, he had not appeared to show any concerns hat the police may have been following him at all. Nevins decided to test out his theory alone and took the Ferry, questioning the crew. As if the detectives party had not fallen into enough luck so far as it was, Nevins hunch turned out to be a good one. Several members of the crew confirmed they had seen a man matching Johnsons description and even supplied his next steps. After he had disembarked he had taken a taxicab, driven by one Reuben Wyman. Smith hunted down the driver and had him take him to a boarding house owned by Mrs Crowell, where Johnson had gone the day before. Reporting the information back to Nevins, the detective brough tin the driver to the station, questioned him and confirmed that their man was certainly back in the picture. Throughout the questioning, Wyman had looked about nervously and when Nevins asked why, the driver replied only that,
“The man you are looking for is not the sort of man you play with.”
Wyman was probably the only person on the entire trail who had, perhaps, seen past Johnson’s carefree, enthusiastic and chaotic demeanour. Regardless, he agreed to take the detective out to the house that night and upon their arrival, Nevins spied Johnson’s wife, confirming they were still there. Slinking back from the rickety boarding house, the detectives called for backup and laid their plan to infiltrate the house in the middle of the night, in order to catch Johnson whilst he was sleeping. At 1am, they sent a policeman to the door to knock. Mrs Crowell, the house owner was not at all impressed with the disturbance, but when she was told the cover story that Johnson was suspected to have paid the taxicab driver with dodgy bills, she agreed to let the detectives in. Creeping up the stairs and into their rooms, Nevins found Mrs Johnson and the child asleep in bed, along with William Johnson, asleep in a separate room. Nevins told him to get up and get dressed and then asked him his name. As they had suspected all along, Johnson had been a pseudonym. Their man stood in the middle of the room and replied,
“My right and proper name is Albert W. Hicks.”
Johnson, the man followed up, was a name he often took when he went to sea, but the man was not willing to shed anymore light into his background for now. Nevins went on to search the room, where he found silver watch and knife, confirmed to have belonged to Captain Burr of the oyster sloop along with two handkerchiefs, a leather wallet with a locket ring that contained a photo of the hand Watts’ fiancée and two canvas bags ordinarily used to carry money. Stuffed into his pockets, they found $121 in bills. Nevins arrested Hicks and then, before leaving, in a moment of pity, he gave Hicks’ wife $10 from the stash of bills. Hicks spent the night sleeping in the local jail, before being escorted back to New York City the following morning. On the journey back, Elias Smith broke the news to hicks of the real charge, that Hicks was suspected of the murders on the Oyster Sloop,
“On being informed of the crime with which he was charged, he exhibited no particular surprise, but just shook his head, saying, “I don’t know anything about it.”
Hicks went on throughout the journey, denying to have ever been aboard the sloop at all and suggesting that he had come into the small fortune he was carrying via speculating on the markets. Even after their arrival in New York and after Marshall Rynders had brought in witnesses, all of whom positively ID’d him as the man they had seen aboard the sloop and the fourth member of the crew for its final voyage, Hicks continued to deny it all. He was promptly taken to The Tombs, the large prison on Centre Street, where he was housed on Murderers Corridor, ground floor, cell 8, to await trial.
In the run up to the trial, Hicks hired the lawyers Graves and Sayles, who quickly found that Hicks had little in the way of defense. He continued to insist that he had not been in New York at the time of the murders and this, they decided, was their best bet. If they could determine an alibis for Hicks, find a few witnesses who could place him outside the scene of the crime, then the overwhelming evidence, such as him being in possession of several items belonging to the murdered crew, would matter less and less. The problem they came across, however, was finding anyone to stand as witness. The case was, by now, a media sensation and Hicks was on the wrong end of the accusatory attitudes of the editorials. No one was willing to remember seeing Hicks at the time of the murders, or at least, no one who could place him away from the crime. Not even his own brother, who wrote to the lawyers in reply of a plea for assistance,
“Justice must, in my case at least, triumph over brotherly love…When a man so far forgets his duty to God and Man as to stain his hands with human blood, though he were my own brother, I would sign his death warrant.”
Although on legal terms, the trial ahead looked bleak for Hicks and polite society had much already made their decisions on his guilt, amongst the underclasses of New York, he had turned into something of a legend. Tales that he had been Shanghai’d, that is, doped and kidnapped in order to work aboard a ship against his will, floated around the bars and dens of the slums. Rumours that the murders had in fact been a daring tale of escape began to surface and as the stories grew, so to did the excitement for both the case and for Hicks himself. People began to visit his cell in The Tombs to catch a glimpse of the man that everyone was talking about, including, of course, the entertainer and all round bonkers museum owner, PT. Barnham. Barnham had big plans for Hicks and made him offer to cast his face in plaster in order to create a waxwork of him to display in his museum, in order to appease the crowds who could not bribe or otherwise pay their way into the Tombs to see the man himself. Hicks agreed to the scheme for the fee of $25 and two boxes of cigars.
Hicks trial began on 11:13am, Monday 14th May, 1860 and was overseen by Judge Smalley, an old man who was known to be “fast but fair.” It lasted for six full days and was prosecuted by James Dwight. On the opening morning, it was explained to the court that Hicks was to be charged with Piracy. The bodies from the sloop had still not come to light and without the bodies, their could be no charge of murder. This left the authorities with the option of charging him for theft, a crime that would see him take an easy sentence and re-enter society with barely an inconvenience, or to charge him with privacy, a crime that would see him hanged. For the authorities, it was a simple decision and despite objections from the defense on the grounds that a Charge of Piracy belonged to crimes undertaken on the open sea, the judge overruled and allowed the charges to stand. The defense then requested that the trial be moved out of New York, where he may have the chance to find an unbiased jury, untainted by the media presence that had surrounded the case of the Oyster Sloop murders, however this was too rejected by the judge and the trial commenced proper.
Hicks, standing in the dock had shown up that morning “respectfully dressed” with his black hair “neatly brushed back”,
“His manner is much more refined than the published reports would lead one to suppose.”
He stood quietly and observed as day after day, the prosecution bought in witnesses and offered evidence that placed him smack into the centre of the scene fo the crime, including witnesses who claimed to have eaten dinner with Captain Burr and Hicks aboard the sloop on the days before it had left the harbour, and several who had seen him working aboard the boat after he had been hired by Burr. A manifest was displayed, with the name WM Jonson clearly printed and signed with an X, along with a parade of witnesses who were related to the victims who gave personal accounts of the murdered men and positively identified the compass, locket ring and silver watch as belonging to members of the crew. The defense had little in return, mainly pressing that the charges of Piracy were not lawful. The world was full of second hand sailors belongings and for Hicks to own them, they said, meant very little. In the closing statement, the prosecution summed up confidently,
“I had hoped the defense would prove me wrong and prove this man innocent of these crimes, but I have been disappointed.”
The following Saturday, six days after the start of the trial, the jury stepped out to make their deliberations for a total of seven minutes before offering their verdict off guilty to the judge, who read out the verdict,
“The sentence of the law and the court is that you be taken from this place to the prison from whence you came, there be kept in close confinement until Friday the 13th day of July next, and on that day taken from thence to Ellis Island or to Beloe’s Island, in the bay of New York, as the marshal for this district may elect, and there, between the hours of 10 o’clock int he morning and 3 o’clock in the afternoon, be hung by the neck until you are dead.”
The sentencing hit Hicks hard. Back in his cell, he considered his position and that of his wife, who he would leave destitute with a new child. Wardens reported that he would lay awake at night sobbing to himself and even that he requested they sit with him, for he feared being alone. Quickly he turned to religion, requesting the presence of a priest, who visited him daily. Father Henry Duranquet, from the local College of St Francis Xavier, on 16th Street listened to Hicks concerns. Concerns for his wife and for his own future. Was it ever too late to be saved from Hell? Could he find forgiveness? The priest assured him that it was never too late and if he was willing to offer a confession, he may yet save himself. Hicks’ interviews with the local papers began taking a sharp religious bent, when he now claimed that though it was true he was guilty of the murders, it was the devil that had made him do it,
“The devil was the fifth personage, he possessed me and urged me to do it…It makes me shudder now, but then I did not mind it. I told you, the Devil urged me on; he sustained me then, but now he has deserted me.”
In the uncomfortable hours alone in his cell, Hicks began to feel a pang in his chest, an urge to confess his crimes in the vague hope that in doing so, he could maybe, just maybe, be saved in the next life that was fast approaching and boy oh boy, what a confession it was.
The Confession of Albert Hicks
Four days before his execution, on July 9th, 1860, William Hicks sat in his cell in The TOmbs surrounded by Deputy Marshal Lorenzo De Angelis and transcriber GW. Clackener. They were there to hear his full confession and to write it down as true they could. Hicks had made a deal with a local publisher, RM. DeWitt, to publish the confession on the day of his execution and that all proceeds from sales should go to his wife and son. As they settled in to hear the story of the life of Albert Hicks, the true horror of the man that had murdered the crew of the EA Johnson came to light, it would appear that the murders on the oyster sloop were nothing but the tip of the whole, horrific iceberg.
Albert Hicks had been born in 1828, the 6th of 7 sons in a family of 13 in Foster, Rhode Island. His father had been a farmer and he had raised Albert with the intention that he too should either work the fields or learn a trade. To this ends, he was sent to learn shoemaking, but by the age of 15, Hicks grew tired of the laborious work his father saw fit for him to undertake and took off, stashing the money he had earns from odd jobs and fleeing across the fields towards Providence, where he diverted on to Norwich, Connecticut. The paltry sum of money that he had prepared for the journey didn’t last long and so he turned instead to stealing luggage from the train station to sell and eventually, destitute returned home with his tail between his legs after less than a week. His crimes followed him, however, and the police tracked him all the way back, arresting him for theft and promptly jailed him for 18 months. Not yet 16 years old, Hicks made his first escape only three months into his sentence and made his way to Gloucester, Rhode Island, cheating and stealing all the way. He took a job on a farm, but it didn’t last long. 6 weeks later, the police once again caught up to him and returned him to jail, this time extending his sentence and giving him hard labour. Daily he went out to work with a chain gang, tossed into leg irons and carted out to slog for the state. Hicks hadn’t enjoyed the manual labour when it was his choice, so he was dead against being forced into it. A month later, with the aid of a hammer and chisel, he cast off his irons and ran away for the third time. On the outskirts of providence he was spotted, got into a fight, lost and found himself, once more, cast into jail. THis time the police took no risks with the flight happy little juvenile and tossed him straight into solitary, where he whiled away the days in darkness for the next year. By the time he was released, solitary would likely have taken a fairly heavy toll on the young man’s mind, but he appeared to knuckle down and took a job as a shoemaker in Gloucester, where he worked for 7 months before leaving for Rhode Island and hopping aboard his first ship, the Philip Tabb, a whaler bound for the Pacific. Aboard the ship he took the role of odd job boy and dabbled in carpentry, a trade he would continue to ply for several years, aboard several ships that sailed right across the Pacific and South America. The next large turning point for Hicks came when he was working aboard the ship “Saladin”, where he witnessed a mutiny against the captain. The crew turned against their leaders, tying up the captains dn mate and killing them. Though the entire crew was eventually arrested, most were set free with little more than slapped wrists, whilst the leaders of the mutiny hanged. The scenes aboard the Saladin had lit a touch paper in Hicks’ mind and shown him a set of events he could emulate. Aboard his next whaling ship, he took it upon himself to lead a mutiny himself, stoking the fires of unrest in a crew that was quickly turning against their captain. When the time came to revolt, he led the charge, killed the captain and then got drunk on the ship’s rum. As the crew sobered up, they realised they had murdered the only men able to navigate the ship with any degree of competency and so turned themselves in. Whilst the leaders of the mutiny once again saw themselves harshly punished, Hicks slunk off into the shadows, avoiding detection with the rest of the crew. It was a pattern that seemed to work for the young seaman and he spent the next years taking odd jobs aboard sailing vessels from sloops to whalers, where he insidiously stoked resentment amongst the crew until mutiny was insured, killed the officers, got drunk and then escaped before the consequences could catch up with him. Along the way, he met a partner in chaos, a Helmsman aboard a whaler named Tom Stone and together they worked ships, going on a spree of sorts. Their murderous ways caught up with them eventually, when one day they killed a group of natives on a beach and then attempted to stoke a mutiny, but failed. Grassed up by the crew, the captain tossed Hicks and Stone into the hold and dispatched the pair in Hawaii.
In Hawaii, the pair holed up in a hillside home, venturing into town at night to gamble, cheat and rob from anyone that got in their path.
“For a long time we led the life of freebooters, robbing and plundering wherever we went, and dissipating the proceeds of our robberies in the wildest debauchery.”
Their violent livelihoods couldn’t pass by unnoticed forever, however, and the pair were eventually jailed in Honolulu, until a captain who was in dire need of a crew inquired to the jail for any competent seamen. Hicks and Stone jumped at the chance for freedom and signed aboard the whaler immediately, though they ran away the moment the ship docked in Tahiti. Once more they took to robbing and stealing until they were jailed and once again, they were eventually set free at the request of a captain looking for a crew. This time it was aboard a Dutch whaler bound for Magdalena Bay, where they disembarked and ran off into Mexico. For a while Hicks and Stone robbed and killed in Mexico until the Mexican war got too hot for them. Fleeing the carnage, they hightailed North into California aboard a U.S. Storeship headed for Santa Cruz. Once on board, they robbed the cargo hold of all they could carry and escaped on a lifeboat, heading into the Californian hills.
By now, it was the mid century and Gold Rush Fever had hit California. Hicks and Stone had timed their arrival perfectly, but not to mine or prospect. Instead they took to robbing and stealing from the mining companies and various transport trains, working their way to San Francisco, following a trail of Gold and leaving a path of blood. Once in San Francisco, they rented rooms in a hotel and lived a relatively quiet life, gambling and whoring away their fortunes in the various halls and brothels of the city. It ticked the box for debauchery, but left something to be desired on the killing and robbing front for the pair,
“For six months we led the life of demons, leaving no bad impulse, no fiendish purpose, no gross passion, nor any wicked design, ungratified and unaccomplished.”
They eventually, perhaps gladly, ran out of money and so went back to the boats. Hitching a ride aboard the “Josephine”, they found themselves bound for Chile. The ship only had a crew of five and so Hicks and Stone tied them up one night, put them in a lifeboat and cast them out to sea. They bagged up all the ship’s money and valuables, a booty which happened to include a cargo hold full of silver doubloons and burnt the ship off the Mazatlan coast in Mexico. Once back on dry land, they realised that so much money could not be easily carried, nor easily laundered or spent. They bought a hotel and a bowling alley in Mazatlan and robbed the rich travellers after they had checked out. With the hotel as their base of operations, the pair robbed wagon trains, killing the guards and stashing the loot until they had more Gold and Silver than they knew what to do with. Hicks claimed in confession that they decided to bury a large sum of it off the highway, but never mentioned the money again. Suspicion was eventually falling around the Hotel, so many travellers were being robbed after they had left, that people began suspecting Hicks and Stone. As they always had, they upped and left, taking to the road, robbing miners and traders until they eventually wound up aboard a ship bound for Rio De Janeiro. Once in Brazil, they rented by the docks in order to case the local ships, and drink and gamble their money away once more. Once they were poor again, they took the road to Montevideo, Uruguay, robbing and killing all the way.
In Buenos Aires the pair actually lived in harmony, if only for two months. Life by now was not about peace for Hicks and Stone, however, and boredom soon set in. They took a ship to New Orleans, but once on board, killed the captain due to him whipping the cabin boy, a scene which seemed to rub Hicks the wrong way. They ditched the ship in Barbados and took a second ship to finish the journey, winding up first in New Orleans, before making their way back to the East Coast and heading towards Liverpool, England. It was a. Fateful voyage however, and off the coast the ship they were on sailed into a storm, wrecking with the majority of the crew lost. Though Hicks and Stone survived, they lost all their money and belongings and so sailed back to the US as soon as they could. On the way back, however, they found themselves cast into a second storm and a second wreck off the coast of Alabama. This time they were less lucky with their lives. Stone was killed in the wreck and Hicks was put out to sea floating listlessly on top of some wreckage until he was picked up two days later and rescued.
Alone for the first time in years, Hicks left Alabama and headed to New York, stopping for a time in Boston. He met a new partner in a man named Lockwood,
“He thought no more of stealing a purse or cutting a throat than I.” Said Hicks, who introduced Lockwood to the life he had led with Stone until the pair wound up in Chile, where they boarded a legit pirate ship named the “Ann Mills” smuggling slaves, robbing cargo and cruising around the world causing terror under a black flag. Their time aboard the Ann Mills lasted for over a year, until eventually, on a cold day in London, England, Hicks and Lockwood disembarked and parted ways. Hicks boarded a steamer bound for New York named The Isaac Wright, where he met a young Irish lady with weak eyes who he charmed into marrying him less than a year later in 1853. Her own family had recommended against it, owing to the fact that she had only just met him and knew nothing of his life, but they married regardless and moved to Connecticut where Hicks took a job in a shop. It was a stifling life for Hicks, however, and the pair moved back to New York, where Hicks took jobs aboard ships hauling Molasses and Sugar and Cotton. After the birth of their son, they settled into the apartments on Cedar Street, and Hicks took to the bars on the docks of New York City. Here he was kind of a legend. Most didn’t know of his horrific past, only heard small rumours here and there, but stories flew of a lone wolf, a hired hand or perhaps an assassin. Hicks wasn’t just whiling away the days in newlywed harmony during his days on the docks, however, he had been casing the boats that came and went into the busy harbours.
“I kept a sharp lookout for a small outward bound for cargoes of fruit, oysters etc. And in a quiet way, gathered all the information I could in regard to the number of hands they shipped, and the amount of money they generally carried.”
It was in this manner he caused the EA Johnson, Oyster Sloop bound for Virginia. He heard they had the position of mate up for grabs, applied for the job and was promptly hired by Captain Burr for $19 a month plus an $8 advance. In the run up to their first trip, he worked tirelessly as a carpenter, charming his way into the captain’s good graces, until they departed for their first leg to Virginia. This was it, this one would be one last job in order to set him right. With the money from this one, he could lead a quiet life with his new wife and child. As they sailed outside New York, to the East of Sandy Hook, on the night of the 20th March, 1860, he sprang on Oliver Watts whilst pretending to steer the ship, crashing an axe he had taken from the pilot house into his skull. Once the body hit the deck, he hit him again. It wasn’t long before his brother, Smith Watts came up to the deck to see what the noise was and as he stuck his head from the hole, Hicks approached him and swung the axe, chopping his head clean off, sending it skidding across the deck. It was, according to Hicks, “as easy as cutting the trunk of a sapling tree.” The headless body of Smith Watts crashed back into the cabin, alerting the captain and Hicks hopped down after it. The Captain greeted him in alarm, struggling to pull himself up from bed and a fight ensued. The captain was no mug and Hicks had a time getting enough distance between himself and his prey, smashing the axe into the ceiling and walls of the cabin before finally sinking it into his head, cutting away a huge chunk of his face and skull.
“The blow took away half of his head, half his eye was on the blade, a piece of his nose and some beard.”
Back on the deck above, Hicks found Oliver Watts struggling to get to his feet. Unbelievably he had survived the axe blows to his head and so Hicks grabbed him and threw him overboard. As he fell, Oliver grabbed hold of the ship’s railing and Hicks slammed the axe down on his hand, casting his fingers off, skidding them across the blood strewn deck and dropping the man into the sea.
“Dead men tell no tales, my bloody work was done. I was alone. No eye had seen me, and now I was free to reap the reward.”
Hicks tossed them remaining bodies overboard, including the head of Smith and stashed all the money he could find into a large sack. As he burnt holes into the back of the cabin with a poker to sink the vessel, he felt an almighty crash. The ship had hit another boat. Then came calling. Whoever they had hit was calling out to see who was on board. Hicks kept quiet, waited for the ship to disentangle itself and hopped into the lifeboat, rowing for the shore of Staten Island.
And here our story completes. Hicks’ confession had been far more than anyone had ever expected. Arrested and sentenced for killing three men aboard an Oyster Sloop for $260, Hicks had killed potentially hundreds more. Even he himself admitted to have lost count of the number of men that had been slain by his hand. He had lived a life of untold violence and debauchery. He had seen riches come and go and had it all undone for a paltry sum and now he was to pay with his life.
In the days running up to his execution, Hicks settled his affairs. He had his face cast by Barnham for his waxwork model and traded his clothes with the man for new ones, so that the model could wear the real clothes of the pirate king. He laid out the legal work for the publishing of his confession to ensure his wife would take the proceeds and then called to the press, arranging for a meeting in his cell, where he performed a song that he told them he had written, which, as it turned out, was something of a strange origin story for the Pirate.
“My own, my dear loved mother!
If I could see thy face
I’d kiss thy lips in tenderness,
And take my last embrace.
I’d bathe thee in my awful grief,
Before my fatal hour,
I’d then submit myself to God –
His holy will and power.
Near the town of Foster,
Is the place where I was born,
But here in New York City,
I’ll end my days in scorn.
I shipped aboard the Saladin,
As you may understand,
Bound to South America,
Captain Kenzie in Command.
We arrived in that country,
Without undue delay,
When fielding came on board,
Ah! Cursed be that day!
He first persuaded us
To do that horrid crime,
We would then have prevented it,
If we’d begun in time.
I stained my hands in blood,
Which I do not deny.
I shed the blood of innocence,
For which I have to die.
They led them up the plank,
Unto the fatal stand,
And there they viewed the ocean,
Also the pleasant land.
A cord adjusted through the ring
Then stopped their mortal breath;
Forthwith the whole were launched
Into the jaws of death.”
At 9am on the morning of Friday, July 13th, Albert Hicks was lead out of jail and escorted to Bedloe’s Island to meet his justice. He wore an Electric Blue suit that had been donated to him via the Freemasons, along with his Kossuth hat and when asked how he felt, replied shortly, “I feel very well.”
It was a scene not seen in over twenty one years, when Cornelius Wilhelms had been hanged for Piracy in the Summer of 1839. With public executions long since cast aside by the state a hanging was a rare treat. Hicks’ crimes of Piracy fell under federal jurisdiction however, and as such, crowds of thousands were expected to gather. Hicks was bound to make history in one final way, as he was given the honour of being the last public execution that would ever take place in New York.
Overlooking the East River and Brooklyn, the gallows had been erected on a green hillside on the North East side of the Island in the days prior, supervised by Marshall Rynder, who afterwards spent the final few days issuing tickets aboard the steamer that would bring the crowds to watch the spectacle, like some kind of distorted ringmaster.
The scene at Bedloe’s Island was one of organised chaos, with boats surrounding the stretch of water with a view of the gallows, all filled to the rafters with onlookers, estimated to have been around 11,000 strong by the New York Times. It was 11am when Hicks had the noose tied around his neck and the executioner dropped the platform at 11:13am, hanging him for six minutes, before bringing down the lifeless body of the pirate, only to pull him back up for the satisfaction of the crowd. Once he’d hung for over half an hour, his body was finally lowered from the gallows and taken to Calvary Cemetery, where he was buried. Within a matter of weeks, the site had been dug up and his body stolen, more than likely robbed to be sold to the local Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, who routinely bought fresh cadavers from grave robbers to fuel their dissection classes.
Back in New York, Hicks’ story continued to live on amongst the underclasses, in the backstreets and the dive bars of the ports. In many respects and to a certain class of people, he embodied the American Dream, his was a story that mirrored the very country itself. It was full of violence, criminality, frontier gallivanting and freedom. He was equal parts respected, feared and revered. He laid the groundwork for the mob bosses, the gangsters and the many infamous that would go on to follow in his trail. As if one song wasn’t enough, several weeks after his hanging, a tune was published named Hicks The Pirate, to the popular folk tune, The Rose Tree. It was the final step in the creation of Albert Hicks, Folk Hero, The Pirate King of New York.