Excerpt from The Pirate Hunter by Richard Zacks, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Pirate Hunter

The True Story of Captain Kidd

by Richard Zacks

The Pirate Hunter
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2002, 400 pages
    Jun 2003, 400 pages

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On Friday July 12, 1700,james Gilliam and nine others boarded carts from the stinking prison of Newgate and headed through the crowded afternoon streets of London to Execution Dock in Wapping, through Cheapside and past Tower Hill. Watching him were not just the rabble on the cobblestones but aristocrats perched in balconies. Some of the street crowd took the opportunity to bombard the prisoners with filth — eggs, dead cats, excrement — and shout such cheery invocations as: "You'll piss when you can't whistle," and "Ye be doing the sheriffs dance."

An execution in London was a day of celebrations "day of riot and idleness" as one guidebook put it — ballasted by enough pomp and circumstance to salve the consciences of the executioners. The procession followed a mounted sheriff carrying the symbolic silver oar of the Admiralty. It stopped at the edge of the north bank of the Thames and then proceeded on foot down the stone steps. The scaffold was built upon the actual riverbed at low tide so that the English authorities — sticklers over the minutiae of jurisprudence — could state that the Admiralty performed the execution within its watery jurisdiction. Pleasure boats crowded the shore.

As Gilliam was led forward, he could hear hawkers peddling his dying confession dated the day before. And it was a pack of lies, some other man's life, but the printers didn't exactly fear a lawsuit from rogues like Gilliam. The broadsheet ended sanctimoniously: "I hope my sad Fate will be a warning to all Lude Sea Men, and notorious Pyrates whatsoever."

All ten condemned men were led upon a crudely built scaffold to the jeers of the crowd. Each man was trussed up with ropes securely lashing his elbows together behind his back. (No one was tied at the wrist because a dying man might in sheer desperation succeed in rolling his hands free.)

A noose was placed around the neck of each of the convicted pirates. Their feet were purposely not tied, to afford that well-beloved "dance upon air." The priest assigned to Newgate, Paul Lorraine, recited a prayer for salvation. Now the prisoners were encouraged to confess their sins. Some did; most didn't, but in the recollection of Paul Lorraine — as published the following day: "Beware Sham Papers!"— they all confessed, even the dour drunk Frenchmen.

Now came the crowd silence for the Psalm. Pirates whose lips had mainly mouthed bawdy ditties were primed for one final holy chorus as they stood on Execution Dock with the Tower of London looming in the distance to the west. Apparently they sang with gusto. Satirist Ned Ward noted in his Wooden World that a thief at the gallows will sing forth with "as pleasant a note" as a sailor calling out the markings on a plumb line as a ship enters a tricky harbor, that is, loud and clear.

The sheriff's men yanked the blocks out from under the scaffold floor. The platform toppled to the ground, but the condemned men fell only a few inches. Their ropes were purposely left short so their necks wouldn't break and they would slowly strangle to death. It was that spastic dance lasting sometimes as long as fifteen minutes that the drunken crowds savored. It was the slow empurpling of the face that delighted and the glimpsing of the ever-spreading stain upon the trousers as the last-gulped liquor exited the bladder.

Once dead, as the piemen packed up their trays, James Gilliam and the other pirates were cut down and tied to posts. Tradition dictated that three tides of Thames water must rise and fall over their heads before the execution was officially complete. Some poor sheriffs helper with a shilling or two for drink would have to sit at river's edge and guard the corpses so no souvenir-hunter would clip off a body part or a button to cadge a pint in an alehouse.

James Gilliam's water-logged body was then cut away from the slimed pole. The carpenter's boy slathered the cold corpse in hot tar and propped it in a specially built iron gibbet or cage. The caged corpse was carried by boat to Gravesend at Hope Point to hang at an unavoidable spot along the nautical corridor to London. The tar was to deter the gulls and other birds eager to peck. Nonetheless, after a few months, Gilliam became a ghastly corpse, a chunk of flesh missing here and there, an exposed cheekbone, both eyeballs gone, the penis now perhaps more than circumcised, a dread warning courtesy of the Admiralty to sailors contemplating the merry life of piracy.

Copyright (c) 2002 Richard Zacks

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