In a cold jail cell in Boston in Massachusetts Bay Colony on November 16, 1699, a weather-beaten man with hard scarred features unbuttoned his trousers. Two men stood nearby; one wore a skullcap. The prisoner, tanned on his face and arms only, lifted his shirttail, exposing himself. Back then, men didn't wear underwear per se but rather tucked long shirts afore and behind, hammocking their genitals.
When James Gilliam lifted his penis to view, the two observers caught a whiff of the man's recent recreation. The night before, as the governor later quaintly put it in a letter to the Board of Trade, Gilliam had been "treating two young women some few miles off in the country." Colonial authorities accused him of being a member of the crew of Captain Kidd, then the most notorious pirate in the nascent British Empire, and of hiding his treasure on Gardiners Island alongside Kidd's ample horde. Two witnesses, in addition, identified Gilliam as the pirate who earlier in his career slit the throat of an English East India Company captain and stole his ship.
Despite the growing body of evidence and accusation, Gilliam absolutely denied everything, right down to his name, saying he was "Sampson Marshall," a respectable merchant. He claimed it was all a case of mistaken identity. But the witnesses added a detail that Governor Bellomont thought might hang the scoundrel. They said they had heard that Gilliam had been captured years earlier by the Moors on the coast of India and forcibly circumcised.
In the late 17th century, an era when only Jews and Moslems clipped the foreskin, this was considered an almost singularly identifying mark, as good as a zigzag scar on the cheek or a missing car. Hence, this odd moment in American colonial jurisprudence.
The reports of the two jailhouse experts have survived and are still filed away at the Public Record Office in London.
"I Joseph Frazon of full age being of the Jewish Nation by both his Parents DecLareth . . . I did search . . . Gilliam and find that he has been circumcised but not after the manner practiced by the Jews according to the Leviticall Law, the prepuce being taken off round."
The second testimony stated: "I, John Cutler of Boston, abovesd Chyrugion, do declare, that I find that the sd Kelley alias Gilliam has been Circumcized wch he himselfe also acknowledgeth, saying that his father was a Jew and his mother was a Christian and after the Death of his father his mother intermarried with a Christian and then he was Baptized. But so far as I am able to discern I am of opinion he was Curcumcized since he was grown up into years!"
Gilliam's scar was an oval loop tilted from front to back, unlike any circumcision scar either expert had seen before. Apparently Gilliam had flinched at the moment of religious conversion.
Governor Bellomont, the highest ranking official in the northeast, was now convinced he had arrested the right man. He shipped Gilliam aboard the Royal Navy's HMS Advice to England to stand trial. The governor who'd once commented, "I protest that I am quite tyred out taking pains for the Publick without any profit to myself" tracked down Gilliam's gold on Gardiners Island and reluctantly shipped it also over to the Admiralty. He placed a claim for one third of the booty as Vice Admiral of the Seas.
Gilliam was locked up in London's Newgate Prison before being carried over to Old Bailey along with twenty-three other accused pirates. In a one-day trial, the jury, with ample help from the panel of peri-wigged judges, pronounced twenty-one pirates guilty. "Ye and each of you are adjudged and sentenced to be carried back to the place from whence you came and from thence to the place of execution and there within the flood marks to be hanged by the neck till you are dead, dead, dead. And the Lord have mercy on your souls."
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