Walt Disney’s latest blockbuster, “The Pirates of the Caribbean” may be packing audiences in local theaters movie theaters, but the North Shore had a handful of its own pirates and scalawags, some real, some merely legends.
The “golden age” of piracy, roughly 1650 to 1725, coincided with an era of prosperity on the North Shore when many towns were flourishing. Pirates were rare in most communities, but they still lurked along the coast.
“I’m not aware of any piracy that emanated from Cape Ann,” says Gloucester historian Joseph Garland. Nor did pirates often prey on the area. “What are you going to get, a load of codfish?” he asks. “We weren’t dealing with treasure. Our currency here was codfish.”
But there were a few exceptions. Pirates occasionally kidnapped local fishermen, to serve on their crews, and one pirate ship actually sailed out of Marblehead harbor, although nothing on that voyage went according to the original plan.
Garland mentions Andrew Haradan, who according to local historians was the owner of a sloop that sailed out of Annisquam. The pirate, Wenham’s John Phillips, seized Haradan’s ship in 1724 and forced Haradan to join his crew. When he discovered that other crew members were also serving against their will, Haradan organized a revolt. The crew attacked the ships’ officers and killed them, beheading Phillips and sailing back to Annisquam with his head hanging from the mast.
Another local victim who made good was Philip Ashton of Marblehead, a fisherman who was kidnapped by the pirate Ned Low. Ashton refused to join the pirate crew and eventually escaped to an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Honduras, where he lived on wild fruit and tortoise eggs for 15 months before being rescued. Ashton’s account of his adventures was published in 1725 and remains a good read.
Ashton describes how when he was first brought aboard the pirate ship Low asked him as to whether or not he was married. He later learned that Low had lost his wife shortly before becoming a pirate and still wept at her memory. Knowing the pull of sentiment, he refused to have married men on his crew.
A little further up the coast was Salem where merchants were shipping goods more valuable than cod, and where pirates were a legitimate menace.
“Piracy was a huge problem from the 1600s through the middle of the 1700s,” says Alan Dellascio, assistant manager of the Pirate Museum in Salem.
But it’s probably a bigger business now, with visitors flocking to the museum to see colorful scenes of pirates drinking, fighting, and hanging on the gallows. The exhibits are based on the research of the late Robert Cahill, the sheriff of Essex County, an avid amateur historian who wrote numerous books about the area.
A questionable case
One pirate who had the cunning, if not the luck, of a Jack Sparrow is Captain John Quelch, who stole a vessel out of Marblehead harbor but came to an untimely end on the gallows. His story, well documented in the time, is told by George Francis Dow and John Henry Edmonds in their classic book, “The Pirates of the New England Coast.”
In 1703, a group of businessmen outfitted a ship, the Charles, as a privateer under the command of Captain Daniel Plowman. Privateers were legalized pirates, authorized by the government to attack and loot ships belonging to the enemy, in this case, the French.
When the ship was almost ready, Plowman sent word to the owners that he was ill and advised them to cancel the expedition, hinting that all was not well with the crew. Before they could take action, the crew locked Plowman in his cabin and left the harbor, appointing Quelch, as the new captain. Plowman was tossed overboard, and accounts differ as to whether he was dead or alive at the time.
The Charles traveled to Brazil and captured nine Portuguese ships, seizing gold, dry goods, and rum. Quelch may have targeted the Portuguese because they had more gold, but he may not have known that the English and the Portuguese had signed a treaty outlawing piracy against each others’ ships.
In May 1704 Quelch sailed the Charles back into Marblehead, claiming his treasure came from a shipwreck in the West Indies. The owners of the ship were suspicious and alerted the authorities, and the crew aroused more suspicion by bragging in the local taverns.
Quelch and several crewmen were arrested, and their share of the treasure was seized, but a handful of others slipped away. Anxious to secure the pirates’ gold, Governor Joseph Dudley sent a party to Marblehead to track them down. The pirates were captured at the Isles of Shoals with only a small amount of gold dust.
Quelch and his crew were tried in Boston in a trial that was later called “one of the clearest cases of judicial murder in our American annals.” The pirates were found guilty, and Quelch and five others were sentenced to death. In the days leading up to their execution, local ministers visited them to pray and preach sermons, and Reverend Cotton Mather himself attended the execution.
As he stood on the scaffold with the rope around his neck, Quelch made one final speech, warning the crowd to “take care how they brought money into New England, to be Hanged for it.” In fact, Quelch was hanged for deeds that might have been legal had they been committed a few years earlier.
Furthermore, in 1707 the crown paid Dudley a share of the treasure as a bounty, revealing that he stood to gain from Quelch’s conviction. Those who helped round up the pirates also got a substantial share of the gold. And in 1708, Mather accused Dudley of charging Quelch’s crew 30 pounds for the privilege of walking around the prison yard, a privilege he withdrew again shortly after getting the money. Not all the pirates, it seems, were on the high seas.
The strange afterlife of Thomas Veal
The only evidence that Thomas Veal ever existed is a dubious local legend, but the story of his ghost is more interesting than anything attributed to him in his lifetime.
According to the story, Veal was one of four men who were seen leaving a ship on the Saugus River sometime in 1658. The next day, workers at the Saugus Iron Works found a note asking that they make shackles and various other items and leave them in the woods. The ironworkers complied, and the next day, they were paid with a cache of silver in the same spot.
The four sailors built a hut and planted a garden in a spot that is now part of the Lynn Woods Reservation. Eventually the king’s men arrested three of the pirates, but the fourth, Thomas Veal, lived peaceably as a shoemaker for some time, hiding his treasure in a nearby cave, until an earthquake caused the mouth of the cave to collapse, trapping him inside with his ill-gotten gains. The spot is known as Dungeon Rock.
“It’s such a good story, but I don’t even think it’s a real legend,” says Diane Shephard, librarian and archivist at the Lynn Historical Society. “I think it’s almost entirely literary.”
Shephard says the first reference to the story that she can find came from Lynn historian Alonzo Lewis. “He was talking about it in the 1820s as an old legend, but his version of it was pretty bare bones,” she says. When James Newhall revised Lewis’s History of Lynn in 1865, he cautioned, “I once directly questioned Mr. Lewis as to whence he obtained the information; but he declined answering.”
By then the story had taken on a life of its own. A 19th century psychic named Moll Pitcher declared that the secrets of Dungeon Rock would be revealed, and Nathan Ames, a Saugus native best known as the inventor of the escalator, wrote poems titled “Pirate’s Glen” and “Dungeon Rock” that introduced new characters, including a wife, into the pirate’s story.
Around 1850, Jesse Hutchinson, a Spiritualist and a professional singer, bought the land around Dungeon Rock and started digging for Veal’s treasure. He believed he was guided by the spirits of the dead and hoped that finding the treasure would convince the world of the truth of Spiritualism, that the living could communicate with the dead. In 1852 he moved to California and sold the land to Hiram Marble, who shared his goal.
Marble worked with a medium named Nanette Snow Emerson, who wrote a book about Veal and Dungeon Rock, taking dictation from spirits. “She did all this in a trance, but she ended up communicating with the characters [Ames] made up for his poem 30 years earlier,” says Shephard.
Starting with $1,500 in capital, Marble began excavating the rock, guided by instructions from Veal and several companions, real and fictitious, including a friend of Marble’s named Long, who died in 1851. By 1865, Newhall, the Lynn historian, was already skeptical, pointing out that the 17th-century pirates used modern spelling and that the pious Long had taken to consorting with rogues in the afterlife. But Newhall described Marble as intelligent, energetic, and enthusiastic, “just such a person as often accomplishes great things,” and held out the possibility that he just might succeed.
Shortly after he began digging, Marble found an ancient dagger, a broken sword, and a pair of scissors in the rock, which encouraged him to continue. The spirits’ instructions resulted in a tunnel that is more of a spiral than a straight shaft, but Veal explained that God had Moses wander for 40 years in the desert: “God wanted to develop a truth, and no faster than the minds of the people were prepared to receive it,” he told Marble in one of the spirit letters. Members of the public frequently visited the site, and when his initial money ran out, Marble funded the work with donations.
Marble planned to use the treasure, when he found it, to build a Spiritualist center at the site. Although he told a newspaper in 1857 that he expected his work to be done within a year, he continued his work until his death in 1868. His son Edwin, who had joined him in his work, continued digging until his death in 1880 and is buried at the site. The tunnel and a few of the structures the two men built remain at Dungeon Rock, but the treasure was never found.
Pirates of the American Revolution
Piracy on the high seas peaked around 1720, according to historian David Cordingly, and increased enforcement by the British Navy, combined with the capture and public trials of many notorious pirates, helped to bring the pirate era to an end.
On Cape Ann, it was a different story, Garland says: Colonial privateers had a significant impact on the Revolutionary War. In 1775 they captured a British vessel sailing off the coast of Gloucester.
“She was loaded to the decks with armaments and gunpowder and cutlasses and guns and cannons for the British forces occupying Boston,” he says. “They captured her and tucked her in behind Doliber’s neck up in Fresh Water Cove, where she was out of sight from the sea.” Since the British couldn’t see the ship, they couldn’t recapture it.
Meanwhile, the revolutionaries seized the arms and brought them to Cambridge, where General George Washington was trying to gather the military strength to drive the British out of Boston.
“Every single piece that went to Cambridge was one that did not go to Boston,” says Garland. The British general asked his superiors to allow him to send a force to Gloucester to deal with the privateers, but he got no response. Instead, Washington, bolstered with the British arms, forced the British to evacuate the city and broke their hold on the Northeast. Garland tells the story in his new book, “The Fish and the Falcon,” which was published just a few weeks ago.
Pirates still roam the seas today, and in fact, 234 pirate attacks occurred during the first half of 2003, compared to between 40 and 50 in 1718, during the peak of the Golden Age.
Last year an American passenger ship, the Seabourn Spirit, was attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. In true pirate-movie fashion, none of the passengers were injured, and the captain, called to deal with the crisis while he was still in his bathrobe, managed to outrun the pirates.
But most modern pirates use speedboats rather than sail, attack oil tankers and bulk carriers, and fight with AK-47s and rocket launchers. It will be another 200 years before that begins to seem poetic.