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The Bizarre Case of the Wannabe Pirate

February 18, 2016 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History, Nautical History

The type of pirate flag found in De Putron's trunk.

The type of pirate flag found in De Putron’s trunk.

Methodist missionary Daniel F. De Putron sought more adventure in his life, so in late spring of 1841 he bought a small schooner in New Orleans, got a sidekick of an affable Irishman with the nickname of “Happy Jack,” and kept a skull and crossbones flag ready for the moment when he planned to partner with a pirate cruising off the Gulf Coast. He had, after all, dispensed with his Bible in favor of a copy of the “Pirate’s Own Book,” kept in his cabin.

A series of unfortunate circumstances coupled with an over-zealous revenue officer led to the reverend captain’s denouncement as a pirate, imprisonment, and colorful court appearance in New Orleans. All that saved him and his crew from the rope was the discovery that a bloody-decked ship whose occupants were thought to have been his victims turned out to be just a hoax done by that ship’s dishonest captain after some insurance money.

Capt. De Putron’s story began with his arrival in the Crescent City in early 1841. He led a quiet life for a few months and seemed low on funds until he unexpectedly paid cash for the schooner Independence, intended for the coasting trade. Licensure requirements demanded that only US citizens could be masters of ships entering that trade, so De Putron claimed to be a US citizen who lived at New Orleans. After this, he cleared out with a small crew and once in the Gulf, remained some weeks cruising about the Chandeleur Islands, making occasional forays to Mobile for supplies and crewmen, trying to keep a low profile as he waited for the large schooner to show up with which his Independence would serve as tender.

New Orleans-based Revenue Officer William B.G. Taylor in the Izard also was looking for that rumored pirate ship in the Gulf, in late May 1841. He stopped and boarded every vessel he ran across. A small black schooner oddly anchored at the north of the Chandeleur Islands caught his eye. When he stopped to inspect her, he found the captain absent and only six crewmen aboard. The man in charge said the captain was out with a fishing party and had the ship’s license with him. Nothing appeared amiss other than the number of sweeps or long oars aboard, so Taylor returned to the Izard. He stayed suspicious of the vessel because it had no cargo, and anchored a mile above the schooner to the north to spend the night.

The next morning, while the Izard was speeding along with the wind past the black schooner, Capt. Taylor was jolted by the sight of a man jumping overboard from her and swimming rapidly towards the Izard, calling out “Captain Taylor, protect me!” Taylor clapped the Izard’s helm and tacked sharply in response, reaching the man just as two other men in a skiff from the schooner approached. Brought on board, the swimmer said his name was Thompson, that he had been kidnapped in Mobile, that the schooner (named Independence) was a piratical vessel, and to prove what he said, if Taylor would protect him, he would go back onboard that ship and show him where the arms were concealed.

On his second boarding, Taylor with Thompson’s aid found arms stowed under the bread lockers, and ammunition consisting of balls and powder in abundance. Convinced he had found a piratical ship, he seized the vessel, removed the arms and ammunition to the Izard, and made sail for the Balize with seven prisoners in irons. Once at the Balize, the prisoners were placed under guard to await transfer upriver to New Orleans to Collector of the Port Denis Prieur.

Upon a more thorough investigation of the contents of the Independence, Taylor reported finding “seven pair more of high-priced pistols, a back and breast-piece of heavy iron armor and skull-cap to suit, dirk and bowie knives in plenty, a ship’s articles of war and no quarter, and two calling cards of the absent captain, the Rev. Daniel F. De Putron.” He also found something striking: a pirate’s flag bearing a skull and crossbones in white against a blue bunting background, in the same chest with a copy of the “Pirate’s Own Book,” a popular work which related tales of past pirates and privateers (including New Orlean’s own Jean Laffite).

The Pirates Own Book, published in 1837, a copy of which De Putron had in his trunk.

The Pirates Own Book, published in 1837, a copy of which De Putron had in his trunk.

The Articles of Agreement contained some scary wording:

“We the undersigned, being the children of nature, have lawfully and wholly as much right to enjoy here, in all her stores, as any other who is of woman born; but being deprived of all these blessings by the artful designs of those who possess in more than superabundance the stores that were intended for all, we are compelled to come forward, protest against all the world, and thus obtain our rights. From this day we declare war against the world … no quarters are offered us, none can be expected__We do, and have formed a constitution this day for the better regulation of ourselves, knowing it to be for our mutual benefit, and as order and safety may be concerned, we are bound to ourselves and to one another. Our tie is cemented with blood, and nothing less than blood will propitiate, and atone for any of us who act contrary to our laws. Death being the warrant knell of all those who in time of action, shall through cowardice, negligence, or disaffection yield, cause others to yield, or cry for quarters.”

After reading that, Taylor and the other officers of the Izard were convinced that an infamous scheme had been nipped in the bud.

Taylor’s seizure of a pirate ship and crew caused a sensation in New Orleans. The Times-Picayune of June 6, 1841, reported: “it created an excitement in our city which extended from the center to the uttermost bounds of the faubourgs. Some asserted that they were a squad of rowdies, and that their ‘articles of agreement’ were written for a ‘lark.’ A religious old lady up town said they were nothing more nor less than missionaries going out to convert the natives of the Sandwich Islands_and this assumption was not the farthest from probabilty, since the captain (of the Independence) turns out to be a reverend gentleman.”

On the morning after the seizure, Taylor and pilots at the Balize had put out in chase of the schooner’s absent captain. They found Capt. Daniel F. De Putron looking for his missing schooner, made him a prisoner, strip-searched him, and brought him to New Orleans in irons. Capt. De Putron thought this was just all a big mistake, and before his arrest, wrote a lengthy letter to the port collector .

De Putron claimed the error of his ship’s seizure and his crew’s imprisonment was due to the “misrepresentation on the part of one of my crew, who had some spite against me…It was never my intention to use her (Independence) on this coast, and never have done it. I have been endeavoring to obtain Texas papers for the Independence, it being difficult, she being under tonnage…I have nothing on board on which the laws of the United States can take her up. There was no negro irons on board, and nothing but a few small arms for self protection, and belonging to my person. The papers were on board during the detention of the vessel; although I was absent she was taken from where she lay. I immediately followed her after I had been apprized …I take this opportunity to inform you of her detention, which is unlawful, she not being carrying any unlawful trade; and whatever others may say of her, she is intended to act as a tender to another schooner, after she has obtained Texas papers. The expenses incurred during the detention of this vessel I must obtain. And I now demand the immediate release of the vessel, which you will please to order, also of the men; and whatever may be said about her, it can never be said, that she has done any unlawful act, or injured the United States’ revenue.”

Unhappily for De Putron, just as he was arrested, word was received that the ship Charles, which had departed New Orleans a few days previous, had been found with no one on board, all the goods missing, and worse yet, blood in various spots on the deck. The gossip-mongers naturally figured De Putron, the reverend with the pirate flag, had done the deed, or the larger pirate schooner he had been waiting for at the Chandeleur North Point was the culprit. De Putron was promptly reviled in the press as the “Pirate of the Gulf.” Capt. Taylor and his men, along with several other volunteer ships, went out scouring the coast for De Putron’s supposed accomplice pirate ship with no success.

On June 4, the Charles was found by the captain of the Tiger abandoned but still full of her lumber cargo, near the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River some 40 miles from the Balize. All her sails were set, and the jib appeared to have been cut loose. There was slight water in the hold. Not a solitary living being was on board. Inside the cabin were some recently broken port bottles with contents glazing the floor. On the ship’s deck on one side was a small pool of blood running towards the scupper, and the other side had eight blood stains which appeared to have been made by some wounded person carried or forced over the ship’s side. The Tiger proceeded to look for the longboat from the ship in the area with no success, but about 10 miles distant, found the Charles’ jolly-boat whose lone occupant was a dog said to belong to one of that ship’s passengers, plus a box of sardines. The dog was rescued by the crew, and did not appear to have been adrift long. No other boats were found in the area, so Capt. Crowell of the Tiger took the Charles in tow and returned to New Orleans, arriving by 7 a.m. June 6, 1841.

As soon as the Charles appeared at the wharf, “horrid rumors of murder and piracy, mutiny and assassination, flew from mouth to mouth with incredible rapidity” reported the New Orleans Bee.

The only clue about the Charles’ fate was a logbook slate entry found which said “the ship continues to make water,” but when discovered, the ship was not sinking, and had only a slight amount of water in the hold which was readily pumped out.

The Charles had carried 23 cabin passengers, some of them women. The mostly French merchants were going to make their annual purchases in France. All of them were presumed to have been carrying considerable amounts of specie.

Several armed militia units went out on boats and ships to scour the bays, inlets, and Gulf for the big topsail schooner which had been spotted earlier before the Charles incident and which was suspected to be De Putron’s partner. Capt. Taylor of the Izard offered $500 reward to any of the fishermen of the coastal area who could provide solid leads to the capture of the pirate, and wrote that he was “confident of finding and securing the murderers (of the Charles’ crew and passengers.) He added that “You may depend I will leave nothing undone to detect and bring out all this villainy.” (Note: Taylor was still pirate-happy some 22 years after his capture of the Jean Laffite ship Le Brave, whose captain and part of the crew were found guilty of piracy and hanged in New Orleans in 1819-1820. Taylor had been a young second lieutenant at the time.)

In a letter to Prieur dated June 18, 1841, from the Balize, Capt. Taylor said Julius Watson, master of the Hercules ship, informed him he had seen the pirate schooner around June 8, carrying sail like the Flying Dutchman. “That such a vessel has been prowling our coast, and that the Independence was her tender-shipping and kidnapping men and getting supplies for her–is in my mind a stubborn truth, and that she committed the piracy on the ship Charles, I also firmly believe,” wrote Taylor.

According to news accounts in New Orleans, the articles taken from the Charles were “just such as a newly fitted pirate would be most desirous of obtaining: beds and bedding, cabin chairs, clothing, and everything in the way of arms such as axes, knives, crow bars and muskets.”

Capt. Taylor added that a fisherman from the Chandeleur who had accompanied Capt. De Putron earlier said the potential pirate had 300 doubloons about him when he saw him last, but when Capt. Taylor searched De Putron, he found neither the doubloons, nor the captain’s gold watch.

In the wake of the public alarm over the Charles and the worry that a murdering pirate was loose on the Gulf, several people in the vicinity of New Orleans were arrested just on suspicion of the supposed piracy and murder on board the ship Charles. At least one paper reported that some New Orleanians even thought that the old “pirate” Lafitte [sic] who was thought to be living at Paraguay, had returned again to his “congenial pursuits.” (Jean Laffite, by the way, had been reported in the Times-Picayune of Feb. 17, 1841 as having recently visited New Orleans, where someone recognized him and said he had the “same piercing eye he had in youth, but slightly bent with age.” Laffite quite apparently had not died in the reported sea battle off the coast of Honduras in February 1823, or else that was his ghost strolling the French Quarter in 1841.)

On June 24, 1841, the Times-Picayune printed a lengthy protest written by the imprisoned Capt. De Putron:

“I have been for the past three weeks a prisoner–my property has been seized–my name calumniated. The press has teemed with rumors which have been converted into ‘confirmation strong as proofs of holy writ.’ and untried, without the opportunity of a defense, I have been held up to public detestation as a Pirate…The piratical acts which I am presumed to have committed are the taking of the cargo of the ship Charles and the murder of her crew and passengers. I am legally advised that piracy is the commission of a felony on the high seas. Judging from what I have read and heard, there is still some doubt as to the commission of the felony, and in the absence of all direct testimony on the subject, the probabilities are decidedly that the deed was committed by persons on board (the Charles). It is absolutely certain that the whole affair transpired while I was laying with my schooner, the Independence, at anchor off the Chandeleurs, or while I was in actual custody. It is fortunately within my power to prove, by a chain of witnesses, the points at which I was during the entire interval that elapsed from my departure from the port of New Orleans and my return in irons.”

“No one saw me do the deed__I have never confessed the deed__I was not near the place of the deed__I have not been for any length a time unaccountably absent__none of the articles from the pillaged ship have been found in my possession. Why then do men call me guilty?”

“I am answered ‘because there are suspicious circumstances attending you.’ These suspicious circumstances, so far as I can learn, are the following: that a quantity of arms were found on board the Independence; that in my trunk was found a suit of defensive armor, pistol proof; that in my trunk also was found a peculiar flag, called a pirate’s, or black flag; that there was found on board the Independence a paper containing what have been called ‘articles of agreement,’ of a piratical nature.”

“And lastly, the general facts that my vessel was moored in an unusual place, had no cargo on board and was ostensibly engaged in no trade. These, I presume, cover all the suspicious circumstances that have been alleged against me,” wrote De Putron.

He proceeded to relate his own history of the affair surrounding his arrest, that he had gone to the Balize and demanded the release of his schooner, whereupon he was arrested and brought to the jail of the Parish of Orleans.

Next he endeavored to explain the suspicious circumstances that surrounded him and his ship, particularly the number of arms aboard:

“I have a right as a man, a free man, a citizen of the world, to own and keep in my own house or on board my own ship, armor, both offensive and defensive, of such a kind and of such a quantity as I may please. There are pirates on the high seas. I have a right to be prepared to defend myself against their attacks. No seaman who knows what I do of the coast of Africa and its inhabitants would venture among them unarmed.”

“I have been advised that there are municipal regulations forbidding the carrying of offensive weapons concealed about the person. Has it ever entered into the head of any legislator to forbid the wearing of defensive armor?”

“Thirdly, the ‘flag’__the piratical flag that was found in my trunk. That is conclusive he (de Putron) is a pirate! Which should I feel most strongly, derision or indignation? A piratical flag! Has the law of actions, or of any one nation ever declared a piece of bunting with a particular device upon it, a piratical flag, and made it an offense to have and carry such a flag? If not, then have I been guilty of no offense. If so, then would a Pirate be the last man to carry such a flag?”

“The fellow who made the flag informed others that he had made a suspicious flag for me, and perhaps intimated that my intentions were of a piratical nature; and the result was that I received applications from a number of persons who wished to join me for such an expedition. I informed those persons that they had utterly mistaken the man to whom they were applying, and that I had none other than proper and lawful purposes in view. In the course of the day, after the so-called piratical flag was completed, I received no less than one hundred applications of this kind. I was astonished, and at the same time, not a little alarmed. ..I therefore determined to leave New Orleans immediately on my previously intended trip to the Texas coast. My schooner, however, needed caulking, and I had not yet purchased the larger vessel to which the schooner was to act as tender. I proceeded to Mobile (to get supplies),” wrote De Putron.

As for the “no quarter given” articles of agreement found on his schooner, De Putron pointed out it was unsigned and said that was just his translation into English of a pamphlet of piratical articles of agreement document in French and Portuguese, and had been copied in pencil just because he had been struck by the original’s ideas and style.

Thompson’s statement to Capt. Taylor that the Independence was a piratical vessel was attributed by De Putron to bad blood between Thompson and the rest of the crew. Domingos, the cook, in particular had beaten him in a disagreement.

“If I were a Pirate they try to make me out to be, I would never have allowed (Thompson) to have such constant opportunities to escape and inform against me. His carcass would have fattened some shark long ago. Whatever else I am, I am neither a fool nor a coward,” added De Putron.

Before De Putron and his crew had their day in court, the captain, passengers, crew and goods from the supposedly plundered Charles were all found safe and sound. They had departed the Charles due to what Capt. Gorham claimed to be a sinking condition of the vessel, and were immediately transferred to the Louis Quatorze, which was heading to Havana. The blood on the deck was explained by a crewman’s hand that had suffered a bad cut during the disembarkation. Word that all were safe took about three weeks before being known at New Orleans, and the ire there against the captain for his negligance in notifying authorities quickly was so great they hung him in effigy dockside. Even though there was some relief that the Charles had not been victimized by a pirate, the New Orleanians were still thoroughly interested in the case of the possible pirate, De Putron, as court convened July 2, 1841.

The Times-Picayune reporter noted that it was steamy hot that day but nevertheless men in fancy frockcoats, vests and high collars packed the courtroom so tightly they hardly had room to breathe, and as the testimony began and proceeded lengthily, all were melting with prespiration by the afternoon. No one wanted to miss the “pirate” hearing.

De Putron entered the courtroom without shackles and necks craned to get a good look at the missionary turned buccaneer. He was blond, a young man of about 25, respectable-looking, with hair combed forward as was the style. He did not seem particularly ferocious. During testimony he stood “as stiffly as though a noose already dangled above his head,” recounted journalist and spectator Charles Hooton in his 1845 article “The Crescent City.” The Times-Picayune reporter on the scene said De Putron seemed “better adapted for the cassock than the coat of mail–more fit to tell his beads than to wield his Bowie knife.”

Accompanying De Putron were his fellow imprisoned crewmen: Osborno Abbott, John Tully alias Happy Jack, Luis Bargasse, Manuel Domingos and John Peaston. The other crewman, Johnson, had turned state’s evidence.

Ballie Peyton, US District Attorney, and J.W. Smith represented the US. C.K. Johnson and Randall Hunt appeared for the prisoners. Recorder Baldwin presided.

The Independence captain and crew learned the charges against them for the first time that morning, even though they had been held in prison for some three weeks.

De Putron was charged with perjury–for representing himself at the custom house as a US citizen and as having been born in the US, contrary to the facts.

The second charge was having employed men, and fitted out and armed a schooner for the purpose of embarking in the African slave trade, in defiance of and contrary to the laws of the United States.

The third charge was for having aided, assisted and corresponded with pirates.

First up on the stand was Capt. Taylor, boarding officer at the Balize for several years. He said he was told by a fisherman that a suspicious craft lay at the Chandeleurs. He put out after her, well armed and ready for a scratch, for he expected one. He came up to her, went on board, met Abbott and told him who he was and what was his business. Abbott told him the captain was not on board, that they were merely on a pleasure or fishing excursion, and had no arms but a fowling piece, which he showed him. Taylor said he went down into the cabin which he called a dark-looking hole, could find nothing, and came up as if he had left a steam bath; was still not satisfied that everything was right, told Abbott when the captain should arrive he must see his papers, and left for the Izard. The next day when he was passing near the Independence (the suspicious vessel), he saw Thompson jump off and swim towards him. He took him on board, and Thompson told him the Independence was a pirate vessel, that the captain had kidnapped him in Mobile, and that if the witness would protect him and come with him on board the Independence he would show him arms enough to “shingle a ten-pin alley.”

Attorney Johnson interrupted Capt. Taylor and said that Thompson’s narrative related by himself was not relevant, and he was not to give in evidence anything that Thompson or anyone else told him.

Peyton said the prisoners were charged with fitting out a piratical vessel for the slave trade (which according to US laws of the time, was piracy) and for conspiring to act as pirates.

Capt. Taylor resumed his testimony and said he went with Thompson on board the Independence, went down to the cabin, and found a large lot of what he called “plunder” in the captain’s (De Putron’s) chest. The items he found were on display in the court: the skull and crossbones pirate flag, the steel armor and helmet, and a colossal Bowie knife.

Also on display were the other items found on board: two guns, a large spring bayonet, a pioneer knife or sword, ten pair of pistols, a pair of Colt’s patent repeating pistols, one keg of powder, two silk handkerchiefs filled with pistol and musket balls, one pair of bullet molds, nine dirks, a pair of double barrelled pistols which were charged with balls, a large case of percussion caps, five powder flasks, a map of the coast, the Pirate’s Own Book and articles of agreement.

Continuing his testimony, Capt. Taylor said he brought the arrested crewmen to the Balize, and when De Putron came there looking for his ship, he arrested him and found on his person a pair of loaded pistols, a dirk and a Bowie knife. (At the time, New Orleans had a law against concealed weapons.)  De Putron told him the Independence was intended as a tender to a slaver to do business on the Texas coast.

Next up on the stand was the accused, De Putron. He recognized all the items in display as his, including several papers which were read. One was his will, signed at the island of Guernsey April 10, 1840, saying he was the son of Daniel De Putron of Guernsey. Among beneficiaries in the will were the British and Foreign Bible Society, plus several pounds sterling to widows and orphans of Guernsey. Another, more peculiar paper that was read was a manuscript memoir of his short life, which started “Born February the 23d, 1817,” but had the place cut out. The memoir covered his life from 1820 up to 1838 and consisted of voyages form the West Indies to England, England to New Holland, New Holland to France, France to America, and America to Africa.

Next on the witness stand was Thompson, who said he first met Capt. De Putron in Mobile about two months earlier, and was convinced to come on board the ship by Happy Jack, who enticed him with some grog to stay and join the crew. He said the Independence had been at the Chandeluers about three weeks, and though the captain would say he was going off fishing, there was never any fishing apparatus on board. He heard it whispered on board that a topsail schooner was expected, and every vessel coming from the east was signalled.

Thompson said De Putron told him the pirate’s flag was to frighten off intruders on the coast of Africa, and also that he thought he had a right to use the prefix of reverend to his name as he was educated for the Protestant ministry and was born in Cincinnati. However, Thompson noted that De Putron’s accent was very like that of a British Cockney.

Thompson said he had been whipped by Domingos once for losing some knives overboard during washing. He added that Domingos had often threatened his life, with both a knife and a hatchet in hand but not used.

Testimony concluded that afternoon to be continued the next morning, when Smith of the US counsel said he would leave it to the court to determine whether or not the charge of confederating and corresponding with pirates, had been sustained by the evidence offered; but they (the US counsel) contended that the charge of equipping and fitting out a vessel to engage in the African slave trade was fully established against the whole of the prisoners, and that the charge of perjury against De Putron was clearly proven.

Smith read the laws enacted for the suppression of the African slave trade, particularly the law of 1817, which said transgressors were liable to a penalty of $5,000 each, and imprisonment not exceeding seven and not less than three years.

He noted that “De Putron’s failure to give proof he was engaged in legal commercial business and in honest enterprize was confirmation of his guilt.” Smith added that from the memoir read in court it was shown the captain’s relatives in Guernsey were slave traders, that his uncle in the Brazils was a slave dealer, and that from his boyhood up, De Putron had been engaged in the slave trade and knew all the means necessary for such a business, including proficiency in various languages.

Johnson, for the defense, replied:  “At first there was a monstrous piracy (the Charles)__there were foul and bloody murders. And this, which was attributed to the prisoners at the bar, turns out to be, after all, neither piracy nor murder. The piracy was no more than a cowardly, rascally captain deserting his ship and causing the passengers to do the same, and the murders and the bloody deck all ended with a cut finger (of a crewman).”

At question, continued Johnson, was not “Did the evidence show any degree of moral guilt on the part of the prisoners?”, but was it enough to ensure their legal conviction before a jury.

Smith argued at length about how it appeared the Independence was indeed being outfitted for the slave trade, and not, as Johnson commented as part of his argument, that De Putron only intended on going to Africa for oil.

The hearing concluded with Abbott and Domingos discharged, and De Putron returned to prison, on both the slave trade and perjury charges, with bail set at $6,500. Happy Jack and the other crewmen were free to go.

De Putron lingered in prison awaiting his next court appearance, which came Jan. 16, 1842, when he went to trial and was found guilty of perjury. He did not go to trial in US Circuit Court until Feb. 12, 1842, for his second, and greater, charge of fitting out the Independence with the intent to employ her in the African slave trade..

The Times Picayune reported “This magnificently magnified pirate, smuggler, and all that sort of thing, was yesterday set at liberty, after an incarceration of some ten months…” De Putron was acquitted on the charge of fitting out for the slave trade, and US District Attorney Peyton moved that a nolle prosequi be entered on the charge of corresponding with pirates. “Thus ends the great De Putron case,” quipped the Times-Picayune, reprinted in the May 3, 1842 New Bedford Register of New Bedford, Mass.

De Putron vanished from the newspapers after his release from prison, where he had been kept for nearly a year. Genealogical data seems to indicate he returned to Guernsey, where he married and likely resumed the clerical life.

Capt. Taylor did not live long after the De Putron case concluded. He and his new US Revenue Cutter Vigilant were lost at sea near Key West in a gale in 1844.

Mysteries remain about the De Putron case, especially where did he get the funds to purchase the Independence, and who was captain of the large top-sailed schooner with whom the Independence never rendezvoused? The answers to those questions might be found with the subject of the next article: the return of pirate William Mitchell from the grave.


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