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The True Tale of Mitchell, the Zombie Pirate

March 11, 2016 in American History, Caribbean History, general history, Louisiana History, Nautical History


Mitchell’s privateer ship, Cometa, with Gov. Gonzales hanging from the yard-arm.

When notorious Gulf Coast pirate William Mitchell came back from the dead in 1835, he looked like a zombie from Hell.

One-eyed, the man was covered with horrible scars, evidence of many deep and dangerous wounds he had suffered in his life. The worst of these the grey-haired 56-year-old bore in the front of his neck, where it appeared at some time a boarding pike or bayonet had been thrust completely through. According to the Philadelphia Herald of Oct.. 30, 1837, the pirate also “had a wound in the back of his neck, a musketball in his fore shoulder, had lost the calf of his leg from a splinter, and was otherwise marked upon his arms and legs.” Mitchell obviously had led a very hard “second life” after reportedly dying in 1821 on Great Corn Island off the Mosquito Coast in the Caribbean.

Several newspapers carried reports of his death in 1821. The Watchman of Montpelier, Vt. said in its August 7, 1821 edition that Capt. Mitchell had died on the first of May, and that he was “generally known by the term Pirate Mitchell as he has been several years privateering and pirating in the Gulf of Mexico, and on the coasts of South America. He was born at Bath, in England, and was several years an officer in the Spanish [Patriot] service.”

Much of the intervening time between 1821 and 1835 Mitchell had spent in various prisons, including at Norfolk, and the last two years at Philadelphia, where he was convicted on charges claimed by his wife of bigamy and assault and battery. He said he had wanted to keep her as a “Key West wife” since his legal wife (in New York) refused to accompany him, but apparently the second wife resisted. (Nov. 4, 1837, Gloucester Telegraph, Gloucester, Mass.)

Released from prison at Philadelphia on June 23, 1837, the ever-enterprising Mitchell soon got a ship, a long black schooner called the Blooming Youth, and began to try to recoup his treasure, buried on an island in the Bahamas. He was stymied in this effort late in November 1837 when the captain of the Revenue Cutter Dexter captured him and his six man crew on suspicion of piracy. Mitchell was taken to Mobile, but soon released. He had been suspected of having attacked the packet ship Susquehanna near the New Jersey coast earlier, but there was no proof.

By 1838, he was operating off Key West, attacking Spanish shipping in the vicinity, smuggling slaves into the coastal areas. He visited Mobile frequently.

The June 25, 1838 Mobile newspaper said Mitchell had died as the result of a bullet wound suffered in an escape attempt from the city jail.

“Mitchell, well known about our city as ‘The Pirate,” died this morning about 6 o’clock. Several days ago, he was imprisoned for a riot, and by some means made his escape. He was retaken yesterday and bound, but whilst on his way to the prison, he managed to unloose himself. In securing him, he made resistance, and the guard was obliged to shoot him down. He died from the wound received….He was notorious for having been engaged in several acts of piracy and it was supposed that he commanded the much dreaded ‘low, black schooner’ which overhauled the Susquehanna. At the time of his escape, he held a privateering commission in the service of Texas; and his purpose was to get on board of a boat at the wharf, and to reach a vessel lying at the Balize ready for the expedition. He had several companions leagued with him.” (July 2, 1838, Charleston Courier, S.C.)

This second “death” of Mitchell was no more true than the first, as the Charleston newspaper learned to its chagrin via the next day’s paper from Mobile that the obituary was a hoax perpetrated by one of Mitchell’s friends.

“The individual [Mitchell] whom we unceremoniously shot yesterday, is still among the living. There is no death so easy as that perpetrated by a newspaper. One has but to scribble off a few words and presto! an unhappy mortal is whisked off to eternity without having time to change his clothes for the journey. We beg ‘the Pirate’s’ pardon, and hope he may live a thousand years, and each day grow a better man.

“The best of the joke is, some of our enthusiastic phrenologists applied immediately for the head of the deceased,’ reported the Mobile newspaper. The jailer received the men with some consternation, told them to wait, and relayed their request to his prisoner, Mitchell, coming back with the answer “that Mr. Mitchell had use for his head-that he was very sorry to disappoint the gentlemen-hoped that they would not take it ill for refusing such a trifling request-but as they were the first comers, he should be happy to give them the preference, when he could conveniently dispense with the use of a head.” (July 3, 1837, Charleston Courier.)

Of course, newspapers throughout the United States reprinted the story of Mitchell’s death, but very few published the story of the fact that the second death, like the first, was a hoax.

By Oct. 5, 1838, Mitchell was once again active around the Key West area, very much alive, but a bit more physically handicapped as during the Mobile riot he had managed to get one foot partially crushed, so he now walked with a lurching limp. You can’t keep a good pirate down

In late 1840, Mitchell, in a Baltimore clipper, visited the port at Savannah, Ga., and said he and his crew of five men had been at the Bahamas to look for some money he had buried on what he called “Bull Key” about 20 years’ previous. However, as he had overheard the crew resolving to kill him when they had obtained possession of the money and divide it among themselves, he had refused to point out the spot, and they had finally steered for Savannah. The crew then libelled the Blooming Youth, and imprisoned the captain for not paying their wages. (Jan. 11, 1841 Augusta, Ga., reprint of a report from Savannah, Ga., dated Dec. 23, 1840)

Soon out of jail, Mitchell zealously worked to obtain assistance to make another treasure-retrieving voyage. He avowed he was never a pirate, but a privateer, and that he had been engaged in that capacity for many years, chiefly under the authority of the Brazilian flag.

The treasure he sought to reclaim was said to be worth $7.5 million, including $75,000 in Spanish coin, and the bulk of the remainder in bar gold. Mitchell said there also was a cross of pure gold, manufactured for a church in Havana, weighing 17 pounds; a diamond as large as an egg, and two watches made for the Queen of Portugal. (Ibid.)

Mitchell offered all his hidden wealth, one half to any firm in the city if they would advance money to fit him out, and ten thousand dollars to any young men who would accompany him as companions in the voyage.

According to the Savannah article of Dec. 23, 1840, Mitchell’s “endeavors were successful: a firm in good repute, of which the senior member is a communicant of the Baptist church, and the junior a quondam Methodist preacher, (I spare their names for their reputation’s sake, although the transaction is common talk here,) has chartered a fast sailing schooner, hired a captain at seven hundred dollars a month, and prevailed on a clerk of their own (a religious man) and one or two other young men, in addition, to accompany him. In the mean time, Mitchell has joined the Methodist Church, and promises it a share of the spoils_to the amount of seventy-five thousand dollars.”

Before leaving on the voyage, he met a young French girl of 20 years, a Methodist, and married her the next day. He was about 60. The Savannah newspaper writer noted that “she has probably caught the Captain Kidd infection, and fills her imagination with dreams of luxury and wealth.”

“Mitchell is a tall man, with grey hair, and a very sinister and forbidding aspect. He has lost the sight of one eye, and is lame from an injury to one of his feet, in a conflict with a mob at Mobile.” (Ibid.)

Mitchell and crew go searching for his buried treasure

“The chartered schooner, Magnet, sailed with seven men and Mitchell on board. Various views are entertained in relation to the enterprise. Some imagine that the old fellow is deranged, and that the whole matter will end in smoke. Others entertain serious fears that he desires to get possession of a vessel, that these men will be surprised by wretches in concealment on the key, or coasting in the vicinity, and that Savannah will never see them more. The captain goes well armed, however, for such a contingency.” (Ibid.)

The Savannah writer editorialized, “The worst aspect of the affair is the connection of church members and a church with this abandoned wretch. Admit that he be nothing worse than a privateer-yet he who takes advantage of a conflict between nations other than his own, to prey upon his fellow men, is no better-no, not a whit_than a pirate; and there is an old and true saying that ‘the partaker is as bad as the thief.’ Such circumstances afford triumphant material for those who are disposed to cavil at religious effort, and look upon professing Christians as hypocrites.”

Mitchell, the Magnet and crew returned to Savannah around Jan. 8, 1841, empty-handed, much to the consternation of the crew, and no doubt the Methodist backers as well. The captain took the Savannah to Boston, where the customs collector libelled her May 7, 1841, for forfeiture of the vessel for having been engaged in a foreign voyage while under a coasting license. (May 10, 1841 Boston Courier, United States District Court report)

“It appeared that while the vessel was lying at Savannah, the captain had been prevailed upon by Mitchell, a distinguished rover or privateer in the last war, to undertake an expedition to Cat Key, an island within the jurisdiction of a foreign power, for the purpose of digging up certain specie deposited there by Mitchell some eighteen or twenty years ago. The vessel was to receive $350 a month, and to draw a handsome proportion of the money to be exhumed.” (Ibid.)

Mitchell and the Magnet crew made several excavations and dug furiously for several days without so much as finding a single sixpence, according to the court report. Mitchell attributed the failure of the expedition to the erosion of that part of the island where he had buried the treasure. He claimed that the right spot was covered by the ocean.

The owner of the Magnet, a Mr. Lothrop of Cohasset, Mass., said the vessel had been out of his control as at the time it was under a charter party for the coasting trade, and that he neither consented nor knew of her illegal occupation. Results of the libel were not found, but the Magnet was back in business within a month after clearing Boston harbor.

As for Mitchell, he still had Methodist backers to pay back, and he seemed to have convinced them to finance yet another venture, possibly the one which failed to materialize with the Methodist Rev. Capt. Daniel De Putron, related in the Historia Obscura article “The Bizarre Case of the Wannabe Pirate.” The large schooner which was reported near the Balize in mid June 1841 may have been captained by Mitchell himself. De Putron had been waiting with his small schooner to join a larger ship when he was arrested and taken to New Orleans along with his Independence ship on suspicion of piracy. Among the possessions in De Putron’s trunk were a pirate flag and a copy of the recently published “A Pirate’s Own Book,” which ironically included a story about Mitchell’s colorful background near New Orleans.

if the top-sailed schooner that sped like the “Flying Dutchman” by the Balize indeed had Mitchell at the helm, he sailed into oblivion. Nothing more was ever published about any of his exploits after 1841, and no third obituary ever appeared. His true last anchorage is unknown.

So who was Mitchell, before he came back from the dead in 1835? He had been a privateer with a Cartagena commission, and had been associated with Jean Laffite at Grande Terre and Barataria for a time. His true nature was related in his own words to an American captain, Jacob Dunham, during Dunham’s visits in 1815 and 1816 to Old Providence Island near the Mosquito Coast of present-day Nicaragua. Mitchell believed in the War to the Death against the Spanish, and boasted that he had personally killed 87 Spaniards by 1816. In short, he was a sociopath, though he treated friends like Dunham well.

During Dunham’s first visit to Old Providence to trade goods, Mitchell invited him to dine at the home of a local planter, John Taylor, whose daughter, Sarah, was Mitchell’s “wife.” The dinner featured roast pig, poultry, and all the accompaniments, with a dish of roasted plantains used for bread as was the native custom.

“The next day, I was invited to dine on board Capt. Mitchell’s vessel. The table was elegantly furnished with silver platters, plates, knives, forks, spoons, pitchers, tumblers and with the exception of the knife-blades, every article on the table was pure silver. He showed me many valuable diamonds and large quantities of old gold and silver; and the least valuable article I saw on board his vessel was the schooner’s ballast, which consisted of brass cannon,” recalled Dunham in his autobiography, Journal of Voyages, published in 1850.

Over dinner, Mitchell told him a few months earlier [in late 1815] he had captured a small trading schooner, armed her for a privateer, and appointed a Capt. Rose to the command, to go on a cruise.

“While laying here [at Old Providence] I made up my mind to sail for New York…sell my vessel and cargo…retire to private life, thinking my means would support me. One morning, while contemplating my future enjoyments when I got settled in New York, I thought it would much disturb my mind to think that old Gonzales should boast that he had frightened Mitchell, who dared not attack him. He had sent me many saucy messages by trading vessels saying I dare not come to St. Andreas (island) to annoy him, as I had the inhabitants of Old Providence, who were afraid to resist me. These reflections so affected my mind that I immediately ordered my boat manned and went on board Rose’s vessel. I told Rose we would never leave these seas until we had made an attack on St. Andreas,” said Mitchell to Dunham.

The next day, Mitchell with Rose and 46 men sailed to attack the island, some 60 miles away, and arrived shortly after 11 at night. They found the guards sleeping and killed the soldiers, then stormed the governor’s house, where they found him still asleep in bed. The governor, along with his slaves, money and plate, were taken on board ship.

Mitchell proceeded to treat the governor politely, dining with him, feeding him the best the island had, and allowing him lots of Spanish cigars. On the 10th day after the governor’s capture, Mitchell said he gave the old man a good dinner, had a glass of wine with him, and then, not skipping a beat, told the governor he was going to hang him that afternoon.

“He laughed,” related Mitchell, “supposing it a joke, and that I had no intention of harming him. He was sitting in an armchair near the cabin door on deck, smoking a cigar, when I ordered one of the seamen to reave a yard-rope from the fore-yard, bring the end of it aft and put it round his neck. He was soon dragged from the chair to the fore-yard arm (of the ship).”

He told Dunham he let Gov. Gonzales hang for about an hour, then cut the rope and “let the old devil go adrift.”

Dunham said Mitchell should have spared the old man as he could never have done him much harm, to which Mitchell coldly replied, “I have served him the same as they will serve me when they catch me.”

This scary story starkly illustrated that Mitchell was a sociopathic killer with no remorse. Dunham managed to get along with him without incident, but noted that although Mitchell had some education and had the appearance of a gentleman, he could be “one of the greatest tyrants to exercise authority over (his men) that I have ever heard of.” Dunham related in his book that one time Mitchell scalded a ship cook to death with boiling water over a simple mistake, and when a crewman remarked that was a harsh thing to do, he shot the sailor dead.

As Dunham prepared to leave for the Mosquito Coast for more trading, Mitchell said he now was bound to New York to make his permanent residence, but needed to stop off at New Orleans first to smuggle some slaves via a pilot at the Balize. On his way, he would proceed along the Cuban coast to search for Spanish vessels to take as a last venture. His arrival at New Orleans after taking a prize would become his main claim to infamy as a very successful pirate who evaded the noose through New Orleans connections and legal shenanigans.

In early April, 1816 as Mitchell was approaching the Balize in his swift-saling Cometa privateer, the US Boxer under the direction of Capt. Porter captured the Cometa, arrested Mitchell, and sent a crew on board to take the ship and crew to New Orleans for adjudication. The Cometa was laden with treasure said to be worth from $50 to $60,000; one small basket contained an estimated $10,000 in jewelry. The captain’s cabin had a great quantity of beautiful china ware, and Mitchell’s wardrobe was extremely elegant, according to naval officer’s letter published in the July 10, 1816 American of Hanover, N.H,

The Cometa’s main gun was a 1648 dated “long tom” 12-pounder on a pivot, with five other guns, from 3 to 6 pounders, all brass.

Mitchell and his crew remained in prison in New Orleans until their piracy trial that June. During the trial, Mitchell freely admitted having killed the governor of St. Andreas, and avowed he was a privateer involved in the Venezuelan War to the Death against Spanish royalists. He claimed to have Carthagenian privateer papers, but the court thought those papers were forged. Nevertheless, Mitchell soon walked out of court a free man, ready to plunder again, thanks to his secret connection to the New Orleans Association. Mitchell happened to be commander of a fleet of privateers working for the New Orleans cartel headed by attorney Edward Livingston, and had garnered prize goods worth at least $100,000 for the association’s benefit. (“Privateersmen of the Gulf and Their Prizes” By Stanley Faye, Louisiana Historical Quarterly 22, 1939) [See more about Livingston in the Historia Obscura article “Edward Livingston: A Famous Man That Few Have Heard Of.“]

Following his piracy trial, Mitchell concerned himself with smuggling like his former partners the Laffites, but along the Lake Ponchartrain shore, rather than Barataria. In 1817, an armed force tried to take him and did shoot him in the shoulder, but he escaped. By early 1818 he was once again sailing in a small schooner around the Florida keys area, but then he decided to return to smuggling in the Barataria area, where he brought down the ire of Customs Collector Beverly Chew. In July 1818, at the Balize, Mitchell managed to steal Chew’s unguarded revenue cutter with her six brass guns, only to lose it to a US naval schooner in October of that year. Mitchell escaped again. [See more about Chew in the Historia Obscura article “Beverly Chew: The Man Behind The Curtain In Early New Orleans.”]

A year later, Mitchell and eight others in an armed boat were doing a series of attacks on small ships approaching the Balize, further nettling Chew and the revenue agents. Finally he tired of that and proceeded to Cuba, where he captured a schooner at Santiago de Cuba, and left to prowl around the Mosquito Coast before dropping out of sight in 1821 when his first death story appeared in the newspapers.

Mitchell had been a very lucky pirate and/or privateer in his time, with more lives than the proverbial cat. He made friends with the right people to avoid the noose, and always managed to elude full vengeance from his enemies. It was almost, one might say, like he had made a bargain with the Devil.


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.


Paddy Scott: The Irish Pirate Who Plagued Mobile

January 30, 2016 in American History, general history, History, Nautical History

A scene of bayside pirates from the Pirates' Own Book

A scene of bayside pirates from the Pirates’ Own Book

Irish pirate Paddy Scott terrorized residents and visitors of the Mobile Bay area for some ten years over the 1820s and 1830s, earning himself national notoriety as that “vile pirate.” Oddly, no one now seems to know his story at all, and his legend lies dormant, buried with his bones. Only the old contemporary newspapers are left to tell his tale of mischief and mayhem.

The history of this freebooter begins with an 1818 ad seeking customers to send freight on his brand new “excellent forty ton barge” at Tuscaloosa Falls. Under his proper name, Patrick Scott, the young man boasted “the unusual goodness of his boat added to his practical experience of the navigation of the channel, offers an insurance of safety to whatever is committed to his charge.” (Alabama Republican, April 18, 1818)

By 1824, Patrick, now known as “Paddy” Scott, had gone the “breaking bad” route, leading Mobile newspapers to caution captains around Mobile and environs, as Scott and 10 Spaniards had gotten a long Spanish launch with a four pound shot hole in her gunwale which they were cruizing about the coast. The mayor of Mobile was concerned enough about this gang to offer a reward of $50 for the leader, as Scott had called on board the British Tar, lying in Mobile Bay a couple of days previous, and had helped himself and crew to provisions, etc., demanding liquors but finding none. The article stated they were bound for the lakes, and pulled for Pass Heron. A Pensacola man informed the newspaper that ten of the crew of the Spanish armed ship Ceres, prize to a South American Patriot privateer, had stolen a boat and absconded. “They have, it appears, made Scott, alias Glass, their commander. The public will do well to be on their guard.” (New York National Advocate, May 24, 1824)

(As one of his many aliases, Scott decided to appropriate the famous mountain man Hugh Glass’ name, probably inspired by the the current newspaper accounts of Glass’ near-fatal encounter with a grizzly bear and subsequent revenge trek seeking justice on his companions who had left him for dead. Paddy Scott, however, did not have the horrid scars of a bear attack and thus most definitely was not Glass.)

Not long after Paddy’s first foray into crime, Curtis Lewis, one of the inspectors of revenue for the Port of Mobile, returned from his expedition on Pascagoula Bay, having found a further quantity of goods which had been stolen from the schooner Barbaretta. Lewis also had taken and jailed two men who had stolen the goods in question from the first thieves (Scott and Francis). Six lots of goods were plundered from the Barbaretta, and recovered by the customs officer, who placed them in the custom house under lock and key. Seven of the original thieves were then caught, including the leader. Scott, Francis Keating, and Bruce, imprisoned for stealing the items from the ship, were sent on board the steamer Colombia, to be confined in jail at Cahawba, to face trial at the next session of the District Court. (Spectator, New York, N.Y. June 8, 1824)

However, Scott did not linger in irons very long, even in the supposedly more secure jail at Cahawba. By the 14th of July, Scott the desperado was again at large. He with four others made their escape from the Cahawba Jail. Reid, the celebrated smuggler, who was committed in Baldwin county a few months previous for passing counterfeit money and sent to Cahawba for safe keeping, was one of the escapees, and it was through his means the escape was effected. A reward of $200 was offered for their apprehension, and several parties went in different directions in pursuit. One of the five sprained his ankle in getting out, and was retaken before he left the town. Keating, one of Scott’s accomplices in plundering the Schooner Barbaretta, and who turned states’ evidence,  died in prison a few days after they reached Cahawba from Mobile. (Independent Chronicle and Patriot, Boston, Mass. August 25, 1824)

By summer of 1826, Paddy Scott had proven to be a constant pest on the Alabama and Mississippi coastline, particularly around Mobile Bay. The Pensacola Gazette of June 17, 1826 reported that Scott and a colorful accomplice known only as Smiley “are hovering in and around Mobile Bay, and have for some time past made Fowl River his rendezvous, with a sloop boat called the John Fowler, armed with muskets, pistols and sabers, all in good order. Is there not promptness enough in the country, to take such measures as will lead to the capture of so vile a pirate as he is known to be? Or shall we suffer him to go at large, to and fro, seeking whom he may devour?”

Scott and Smiley were soon apprehended. Reports from Mobile said  that “a man named Paddy Scott has been arrested and imprisoned with a man named Smilie (sic). He was captured off Horn Island, in a small sloop, by Capt. Foster of the Revenue Cutter. Six shots were fired at him before he surrendered. Scott has long been accused of piracy, and is said to be a desperate fellow. He broke from prison at Cahawba and had been occasionally seen about the coast of Alabama. Since he has been taken, a party of armed men had been seen about the jail, supposed for the purpose of rescuing their companion, Scott, but they were pursued, and effected their escape in a boat.” (New York Daily Advertiser, June 30, 1826)

By July 3, 1826, Scott had acquired such a dangerous reputation that the Daily National Journal of Washington, D.C. devoted a lengthy article to him: “Paddy Scott has rendered himself notorious in Mobile by his depradations. About two years ago a prize to the Colombian privateer Centilla, lying in the river, was robbed of a quantity of dry goods and other articles of value; the District Court being in session, a bill of indictment was found against Scott and several others for piracy, but they were not apprehended until after the court adjourned. Scott broke jail..a few weeks afterward, he went on board a Mobile packet for New Orleans under the promise of being landed somewhere along the coast. He was brought to Mobile and delivered up to the Marshal. The jail being considered insecure, the prisoners were taken to Cahawba. Before the next term, however, all but one escaped, and he who had turned state’s evidence died in jail. For several months Scott was seen about the Bay, and suspected of piratical intentions; it was said he threatened to burn the city, for which the Mayor offered a large reward for his apprehension. He then disappeared, and had been only recently seen, and then in a boat, with several armed men. Once they boarded a vessel in the bay, and how they subsisted is unknown. He is a native of Ireland and says his real name is Glass.”

The jail at Mobile was indeed as insecure as authorities feared, for by late September 1826, both Scott and Smiley made good their escape. The Charleston Courier of Oct. 14, 1826 reported from Mobile that Smiley had by some means managed to saw off his irons, and late in the afternoon called upon the jailer to give him some water, whereupon entering the cell the jailer was knocked down. Smiley then wrested the keys from him and locked him in the cell, and deliberately proceeded to Scott’s cell, unlocked it, took off his irons, and both escaped after carefully locking the jail door.

Scott and Smiley headed for New Orleans, a bad move on their part, as Scott was arrested on Oct. 5 and Smiley the next day.

Strangely, the newspapers are silent about Paddy’s actions for almost two years. He and his cronies do not pop up again until early September 1828, in an article in the Louisiana Advertiser headed “Pirates.” Paddy Scott was said to be leading a group of 12 desperadoes on a small sloop called the Lalla Rookh, of about 10 tons, 30-35 feet long, fitted out at Pensacola, with black upper works, white molding and green interior, complete with a quantity of arms and provisions on board. The Advertiser stated the sloop called at the Bay of St. Louis on August 26 and Paddy and co. stole a whale boat from Charles Matthews along with other petty thefts, then loitered in the area, presenting several “very impudent threats to those on shore.” The writer opined that the general presumption is that they are bound on a piratical cruise and said “Should they not be looked after?”

Once again, Paddy went to New Orleans, and once again, he got arrested there, and taken to the New Orleans mayor for examination, according to the Baltimore Gazette of October 9, 1828. Nothing appears to have come of this arrest, and he was apparently released.

As of late March 1829, Scott and some four associates stole a small boat near New Orleans and were said to be lurking among the islands off the Bay of Biloxi, according to the Custom House Collector of New Orleans. (Commercial Advertiser, New York, N.Y. April 6, 1829)

Another lull in Scott’s dramatic misdeeds occurred until the fall of 1832, when the Charleston Courier reported that Scott was again actively doing nefarious deeds. Some “respectable citizens” of Charleston who apparently were unaware of Scott’s piratical tendencies hired him to take them in a small boat from the Bay of St. Louis to the Bay of Biloxi, stopping midway to go on shore for a bit of hunting while leaving their trunks and other effects on the boat. Scott of course seized the opportunity to cast off and put out into the lake at once, leaving his victims stranded on shore. Unhappily for Scott, Capt. Benjamin Holly ran across him fleeing the scene in his boat, thought it odd there was only one man in a schooner rigged craft, and successfully pursued him. He took possession of the craft, and brought the trunks and baggage to the Bay of St. Louis, where the owners were so happy to see their belongings they gave Holly a reward of $50. Nothing was mentioned about what happened to Paddy, and for some years, once again, he was idle__until a land pirate raid on some settlers in Baldwin County, Ala., in August 1837.

The Mobile Register of August 28, 1837 and New Orleans Times-Picayune of Sept. 23, 1837 reported vile outrages against some female settlers were committed in Baldwin County by a gang of desperadoes led by Paddy Scott. Bailey, one of Scott’s accomplices, was soon taken on Mobile Point but Paddy escaped in his schooner. He soon turned up walking the streets in New Orleans while citizens of Mobile offered a reward of five hundred dollars for his arrest. New Orleans authorities seemed to turn a blind eye to the wronged Mobile citizens: although Paddy was arrested in New Orleans under the vagrant act, for want of any evidence to justify his detention, he was soon liberated. (Evening Star, New York, Oct. 2, 1837)

By late 1839, the New Orleans Times-Picayune was calling Paddy Scott “the modern Lafitte” and noted that after he had been in the city about five days, he was arrested on the Levee. In a description of him given that year, he is said to be above the middle size, and “on the wrong side of 40.”

Paddy’s luck would soon turn sour after his next release. In January 1840 he murdered James Burgoyne in New Orleans by stabbing him in the back, then fled to his old haunts around Mobile.

The coroner’s inquest on Burgoyne’s body, reported in the Times-Picayune of Feb. 6, 1840, said the deceased was stabbed in the back just below the shoulder, the wound entering the chest cavity and penetrating the lungs. Dr. J.E. Kerr noted a singular peculiarity about Burgoyne in that his heart was on the right, rather than left, side of his body,

The Grand Jury at New Orleans issued a bill of indictment for murder against Scott, and he was arrested in June of 1840 in Mobile, then transferred to New Orleans. His aliases in addition to Hugh Glass included John Scott and John Carney.

The Sept. 6, 1840 Times-Picayune reported that after being found guilty of murder and at his death sentencing, Paddy Scott was asked by Judge Canonge if there was anything he wished to say. Seeming half-choked with “fear and feeling” Scott said in a voice “scarcely audible” that he should wish the court to defer passing sentence on him. The jury, he understood, were about addressing the Governor on his behalf. Six of the jury members which found him guilty signed a memorial to the Governor, praying that Scott not be made to suffer capital punishment. The T-P writer said at the sentencing hearing Scott “cried like a child. He is an idiotic, mindless looking man, and apparently devoid of all physical courage.”

By February of 1841, Scott had been pardoned by the Louisiana governor, and the sentence of death recorded against him was commuted to two years’ imprisonment at hard labor. (Times-Picayune, March 3, 1841)

Scott’s last appearance in the press was in the Jan. 3, 1844  issue of the Times-Picayune. The brief article stated “Paddy Scott, well known as a pilot on Lake Ponchartrain, died suddenly at Milneburg on New Year’s night.”



Frugal Use of Resources in Privateering: How Dominique You Got His Start

May 6, 2013 in American History, Caribbean History, general history

The privateer Confiance in battle with the Kent by Robert Surcouf From the Wikimedia Commons

Letters of marque were granted by governments to successful privateers, because this was an economical way to engage in war without a heavy outlay — and without burdening the populace with either taxation or conscription.

In privateering, the profit motive required that every expenditure on equipment should ultimately result in a return on investment that would justify it. Because of this, it was not enough to win a battle — It was necessary to do so while expending less than was gained in the exploit. Privateers, unlike regular navy ships, were required by market forces  to engage in frugal use of resources and to use good business practices while plying their trade.

While some privateering outfits had financial investors who shared in the profits and were  not involved in the day to day operations of the privateer, smaller privateering operations were run directly  by those who invested the money in the venture, and the profits were shared by the officers and crew alone. Enterprising young men with the skills and courage required could expect to earn a handsome living with a minimal investment.

Regardless of who the real author of  “The Journal of Jean Laffite” may have been, his accounts concerning the business end of being a privateer do shed some light on the issue of how it was possible to earn a living while waging war as a private individual, despite the fact that most governments went into debt when they engaged in war.

The author describes how his elder brother Alexandre, (later known as Dominique You), prepared for his first outing as a privateer. Alexandre was the son of a tanner, and neither his father nor his grandmother encouraged him in his plans to become a privateer. However, he did receive training in the martial arts and in sailing and navigation from his great uncles who were independent corsairs.

The Journal of Jean Laffite describes how Alexandre refurbished a run-down ship that would not even hold water and brought it to the point when it was just barely seaworthy. He then assembled a crew and stealthily sailed out on his first run as a privateer.


…Alexandre was twenty-two years old and he had a small moustache. He took it upon himself to equip and repair a brig as a corsair. It was an old “coque”, good at most for sailing along the coast in a calm sea. But he did the impossible The vessel had two masts and four excellent cabins..

Despite the disapproval of his father, Alexandre put on a brave air, sang a sea chanty and sailed off stealthily in the middle of the night, because he still did not have a license to do what he was doing — and no investor would likely have gambled on him at this early stage in his career.


All that our father wanted to say was that Alexandre whistled for a few minutes and sang while raising the big sails, to say: “I am going to sea without fear to capture a great prize. Goodbye, Father.”

When Alexandre returned, he had captured two fine vessels even though his own ship sank. The first thing he did was to present himself at the local bank, where an appraisement was made of his prizes, and he soon obtained enough  cash to buy a better ship and had enough prestige to secure a privateering license. From this small story, we are afforded a glimpse into the financial side of privateering, and how it was possible to have a rags to riches — or rags to respectability transformation overnight.


The next day after Alexandre’s arrival was passed with bank authorities and officials to take an inventory and convert his prizes into specie.

.We learn from this story how little of an investment was required in order to get started in the privateering profession, but we also learn a little about profitability in general . It was true that Alexandre was motivated to take a risk on a vessel that was hardly seaworthy, because he was young and brave and strapped for cash. But consider what might have happened had he invested a great deal more in a better ship that may not have sunk, but might have sustained damage that would have required expensive repairs. A more solidly built vessel might have been less maneuverable and harder to ditch without regret. In later years, an established privateer may command a fleet of ships, but he can never afford to spend on them what a government might on its fleet, because he has to keep in mind the profit margin. The privateering business model puts severe limitations on spending, because the greater the investment,,  the smaller the return.

The reason many countries once issued privateering licenses or letters of marque rather than investing more money  in fleets of their own was that privateers were able to achieve useful military objectives without burdening the treasuries of the nations they served. When privateering went into disrepute and all privateers became conflated with pirates, the price of waging  war went up. The people shouldering the burden of that heavier price were ordinary citizens who ended up being conscripted and  taxed  to pay for services to their country that privateers used to provide willingly and free of charge..

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