Ben Miller

Archive for the ‘Pirates, Rogues, and Gangs’ Category

Top Must-Read Autobiographies Part III

In Crime, Justice and Punishment, Federalist Period, Georgian Era, Pirates, Rogues, and Gangs on March 25, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Continued from PART II.

Captain Lightfoot: The Last of the New England Highwaymen (1821)

Captain Lightfoot

Among the early annals of the American republic exists a curious pamphlet, published at Boston in 1821, entitled The Life of Michael Martin, Who Was Executed for Highway Robbery, December 20, 1821, As Given by Himself. What this little volume contains is nothing less than an account of the life of the last highwayman in New England, as dictated by the criminal himself to reporter Frederick W. Waldo of the Columbian Centinal, during the days leading up to his execution.

A highwayman (for those unfamiliar with the term) was a highway robber–a breed of criminal common during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that was often known to adopt a polite, gentlemanly tone while accosting his victims. For this reason, highwaymen sometimes attained the status of folk heroes, especially in countries subjugated by the British (such as Ireland and Scotland), where the wealthy class and agents of the law were assumed to be in league with the colonizing powers. Martin’s account is filled with adventure, intrigue, secret societies, daring escapes, and desperate shootouts, as seen through the eyes of a character who has all the tragic failings of a man who has wasted his life in a world of crime. It is, in many ways, an early nineteenth century version of the movie Goodfellas.

Martin’s tale begins thus:

I have in the course of my short life, assumed many fictitious names. My true name is John Martin.

Martin was born in Ireland, in the parish of Connehy, near the city of Kilkenny, in 1795, to Roman Catholic parents. He was provided well for, sent to church and school, but relates that “as early as I can remember, I was more fond of diversion and play, than of learning. My temper was violent, and I chose rather to be subject to the government of my own passions, than to parental authority.” At age fourteen, Martin was apprenticed to his Uncle, a brewer, but according to Martin, his own “bad habits and vicious propensities” did little to ingratiate him with his benefactor. Eventually his Uncle punished him for some crime, and Martin returned home. According to his account,

At this time, my evil habits were partially fixed; and I began to indulge in those propensities which have eventuated in my ruin…I violated all my promises; often neglected my school, and fell into bad company.

From here it was all downhill. Martin began associating with dishonest people, adopting a debauched lifestyle–which, to maintain, he resorted to stealing from his own family. At age sixteen he was initiated into the United Irishmen, or Ribbon Men, a secret society whose object was to free Ireland from British rule. Martin relates that

The meetings were generally appointed at different places each night—sometimes near my father’s, and frequently many miles off. I would, when necessary, take one of my father’s horses from his barn, and return before day light to my chamber, by the rope. The association to which I belonged, had secret signs and secret places of meeting, which were changed every night. The time was principally employed in discussing our grievances, in drilling the use of the pike, rifle and musket; and when those of higher rank had gone, the others would carouse till next morning. Some of those who remained, would talk over the feats of villainy which they had done, or intended to commit. The perpetration of small crimes was directly contrary to the intention of the founders of the association, and in their presence nothing like robbery was ever mentioned. But many others who were desperate in their fortunes, were continually devising schemes to benefit themselves individually, and not for the common good. From such members it was, that I derived my first disposition to mischief and propensity for taking from others what I had no right to demand.

Six months later, Martin’s father discovered his involvement with the Ribbon Men. He confronted his son, beat him, and disowned him. After stealing some more money from his family, Martin traveled to Dublin, where he took up cheating at cards, and began spending time with swindlers and prostitutes. He briefly landed another job at a distillery, but was fired for bad behavior.

One night, while staying at a country inn, Martin fell into conversation with a supposed “clergyman” who would change his life forever. Seeing that Martin was short of cash, the man generously offered to pay for his food and drink for the whole evening. Martin described him as follows:

The name of this man, was John Doherty. ln the course of this conversation, I thought there was something rather mysterious in his manner, although he appeared to me quite undisguised. But he asked me many questions about my family, myself, and my manner of life, which I thought it impossible for a stranger to be acquainted with…

Doherty was very earnest, in all his inquiries, and was continually plying me with liquor. He asked me at first, if my name was not Martin—If I was the young man just returned from Dublin, and who had been obliged to run away from there. You are a wild fellow, said he, are you not? I answered, yes. You are very fond of spending money? Yes, when I can get it. You don’t much care how you come by it? No, if it doesn’t cost me much trouble. He said it was a shame that such a smart young fellow as I was, should be at any time destitute of money. He at length wormed himself into my confidence, and I told him all the history of my past life. After pumping me for some time, and finding out what sort of a disposition I had; and after we had got pretty warm with liquor, he threw off his disguise of a clergyman, but did not then tell me who he was. He talked about robberies and religion, alternately: and I was confused throughout the evening, not being able to find out what was the real character of the man…

Doherty offered to travel with Martin the next day, and continued to interview him about his life story and talents. He invited Martin to race him to test his running ability, saddled him on his horse to see how he could ride, and leap ditches and fences. Satisfied with Martin’s skills, Doherty invited him to a private dinner. After fastening all the windows and doors, he revealed to Martin his true character and profession:

He said he was a highwayman, and that he was Captain Thunderbolt. I was astonished and alarmed at this information—I had for many years heard of the daring exploits of that man; and his name had for a long time been a terror to that part of the country. He had been often advertised; and but a few days before, I had seen an advertisement offering a reward of 500 pounds for his head. I then felt a little dread at being left alone with a man of whom I had heard so many outrageous crimes, and was anxious to get out of the room. He took out two large pistols and laid them on the table, after cocking one of them, and said, “Martin you must stay with me, I cannot part from so clever a fellow as you are.” I then sat down again, and he urged me to drink more. He then recounted many of his feats; some of which were so amusing, and apparently so innocent, that I listened with great delight to him. He touched my quality exactly…I remained till near midnight, hearing him recount his adventures, and he persuading me to embark with him.

Captain Thunderbolt

The interview was interrupted by the arrival of several British dragoons hunting Doherty. The two men arranged to reunite, however, the next day, where Doherty arrived with “a fine pair of double barrelled brass pistols, a dirk, and in his portmanteau, a large blunderbuss.” And thus it was that Doherty invited Martin to become his apprentice. Doherty justified his criminal profession by claiming to be a sort of Robin Hood, professing a doctrine akin to communism:

He said, it was his principle, to make property equal in this world. That he would get as much as he could from the rich, but would never molest the poor—He would take money from those who had more than they knew how to use, but would never take life, if he could avoid it. If there was any danger of detection, or any strong opposition, he thought himself justified in taking life.

Martin, of course, eventually broke down and agreed to partner with Doherty. In July of 1816, at twenty-one years of age, Martin became a highwayman. He described his initiation as follows:

[Doherty] initiated me into the order, by first throwing a glass of brandy in my face, and calling me Captain Lightfoot. He then presented me a double barrel brass pistol—after having drawn the charge, and loaded it again with slugs, he told me to put it in my bosom, and while I kept with him, and observed his instructions, I should never be taken or die. I obeyed most willingly, for my whole soul was with this man, and I thought he would stand a pretty good tug with old Satan himself.

From here the narrative becomes a litany of burglaries, hold-ups and shoot-outs as Martin learns the various intricacies of his new trade. Clearly the robbers took delight in stealing from the well-to-do; when a trembling servant offered up his valuables, Doherty told him, “we are not in the habit of troubling any but gentlemen.” Likewise, while robbing a lavish estate, he used comforting language to soothe the female inhabitants of the house, while terrifying them at the same time:

He told them his trade; that he wished to do nothing to them but what was gentlemanly, and would not take from them a farthing of property; but he had understood that there was valuable treasure in that house, and they must shell out. He laid his pistols on the table—asked for a glass of brandy: They gave it to him in great fright, and he used every means to prevent them from being alarmed. After some time, they went up stairs, and brought down a gold watch, a pocket book, containing bank notes, and a purse, with a quantity of specie in it. Doherty said that this was not all the treasure; he must have more. They went again, and returned with watches and jewels of their own. He said that he would rather be burnt to death, than take any thing from a woman. He told me to lock the door. We took each of us a part of the spoil, kissed the ladies, and bid them good bye. After we had mounted our horses, I threw down the key of the room where the servants were confined; and we took our course across the country, avoiding the public roads. The amount we lifted at this house was about 160 guineas.

Title Page
Often the two desperadoes were forced to disguise themselves to avoid detection, and barely remained one step ahead of the “redcoats,” and other authorities. At one point, Doherty is wounded in the calf while being chased by soldiers through a field. After running more than 10 miles on foot, the two hide themselves in a wood, where Doherty collapses:

he fell down on the ground, and as I thought, was a dying man. He had sense enough after a few minutes rest, to tell me that there was a small bottle in his pocket, which he directed me to give him. He smelt of it, swallowed a few drops from it, and nibbed his head with it. He was soon revived, and directed me to take out the ball from his leg, with my penknife. “Cut as near the lead,” said he, “as you can; I can afford to lose a little blood.” It was the first time that I had ever officiated as a surgeon; but I saw he was so resolute upon the subject, that I cut it out without any fear. He bound up the wound himself, and said we must remain in that wood for some time. I cut down a quantity of bushes to make a bed for the Captain, and we remained in this situation for about twenty four hours, without meat or drink. The medicine that he carried with him, saved his life; for he had bled profusely. The next night, I left him, to go in pursuit of food…I ate very ravenously; but he abstained, although he said, he was quite hungry. “If he was at the most splendid banquet in the world,” he said ” he would neither eat nor drink. This abstinence was the shortest way of curing his wound.”

After robbing a score of others, Doherty was ambushed while sleeping by a company of dragoons, and taken captive. Bound hand and foot, he was set under a careful watch. Martin waited until the moment was right, then daringly attempted to free his comerade:

I concealed myself in the rear of the stable until midnight; and then, by the assistance of my pistol, struck a light, and set fire to the stable. I then cried fire, as stoutly as I could bawl…most of the people who were guarding the Captain, came out to assist in extinguishing the flames. I watched the opportunity, and found out in what room he was confined. I went in, and there were only three soldiers left to guard him. I found them sitting quietly along side of him, their muskets placed in the corner of the room. I drew both my pistols, and swore that I would kill the first man that started. They seemed terrified, and offered no resistance. I took out my knife and cut the cords with which the Captain was bound, and gave him one of my pistols. When he was getting up, one of the soldiers got up and grasped a musket; but before he had time to cock it and present, I fired my pistol and shot him in the leg…He fell, the rest were still more alarmed, and we pushed off on foot, leaving them to mend their legs, and put out their fires, in the best manner they could.

At one point, the two become wealthy enough to set themselves up in style in Dublin. They develop an elaborate scheme to pose as gentleman and marry a wealthy widow named Lady MacBriar. The plot is almost successful, but is foiled when the frauds have a chance encounter with someone from Martin’s home town who recognizes him. Constantly on the run, the men flee to Belfast, the highlands of Scotland, and eventually Glasgow, where they “went to a house of ill-fame, where we remained four or five days, drinking and spending a great deal of money.” For a while the men masquerade as doctors, selling people fake cures and quack medicines. The two make so much money at this, that Martin considered giving up highway robbery:

I said one day, to the Captain, that I had rather go on in this way, and would never take to the highway again. He laughed at me, and said, “to be sure we can get a living in this business; but money is not worth much to us if we can’t spend it. I want to lay up enough, so that I can get into some other country, and spend it like a gentleman—Besides, I like the fun of frightening the loons, and taking from them what is of no use to them.”

After this the two hijacked a ship and returned to Ireland, where they continued to rob. Martin describes another scene in which he accosts a prominent member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy:

The Lord Lieutenant had a large gold headed cane in his hand; and in a few minutes he sat down on a bench, on the margin of the pond…I then came out of my hiding place, went boldly up to the master, presented my large double-barrelled pistol, and demanded all the money he had about him. He looked at me for a few moments,and then said, “Did you speak to me ?” “Yes, please your honor.” “What do you want, you impudent rascal,” said he, “get out of my presence, or I will have your skin taken off.” “Please your honor,” said I, ” I must first skin your pockets; and if you offer to call for assistance, and do not give over immediately, I shall take your life.”

At one point they become so notorious, and are pursued by so many sheriffs and king’s men, that Martin and Doherty determine to set sail for America. Before they can do so, however, the two friends are split up by circumstance, and are separated for good. Martin relates:

I never saw John Doherty from this time—Since I have been in America, I received a letter from him, informing me, that he had found out my departure from Ireland for New-York, the day after the vessel sailed; that he had scoured the country for some weeks after; and being pressed very close, he had gathered up his treasures, and pushed off to one of the West India Islands, where he was comfortably settled; and under a fictitious name, transacting much business, in an honest manner. He directed to me in the name that I had agreed to take, in case of separation. It was sent to the care of the British Consul, who, advertised the letter, and I sent for it. This man had a great many good qualities; and although he was the cause of much trouble to me, yet I feel a strong affection for him; and trust that he will die a repentant and honest man.

During his trip across the Atlantic, Martin engages in a mutiny when it is discovered the Captain was planning a detour to Canada, and so the course is set for Salem, Massachusetts. In America, Martin takes up his old trade and for some time becomes the terror of New England.

Robbing Major Bray

Unlike in Ireland, however, Martin finds no sympathy or sanctuary among the pious American populace, and is forced to constantly change identities to avoid capture. Soon the inevitable occurs. After robbing a Major Bray, Martin is sighted by authorities in Medford, Massachusetts, who immediately begin pursuit. During the chase, Martin falls off his horse, dislocates his shoulder, and escapes through a marsh. He recounts

I got into a small cluster of woods, and did not see that any one was in pursuit. I then dropped down from fatigue and the pain in my shoulder. After resting a few minutes, I took off my suspenders and cravat, tied them together, fastened one end to a tree, and the other to my wrist, and so pulled the shoulder back to its place. Still it was very painful—I rubbed it with my stocking.

Martin is finally arrested in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he is ambushed while sleeping. He is committed to the jail at Lechmere Point, Cambridge, for the robbery of Major Bray. And it is here that Martin’s account of his life ends.

The Condemned Prisoner
Above: The Condemned Prisoner

As related by Waldo, Martin is put on trial and sentenced to death. Before his execution, he makes a daring escape attempt after sawing through his chains with a hidden tool. The commotion began when, on the morning of December 8th, a turnkey named Mr. Cooledge brought Martin breakfast:

Martin was then standing up, with the great coat over his shoulders, trembling very much, and rattling his chains. Cooledge sat down his breakfast on a small table near him, and was about leaving the cell, when Martin slyly pulled down a paper of tobacco, which was on the table, and then said, in a feeble voice, “Mr. Cooledge, will you please to pick up that paper of tobacco, I am so weak that I can’t stoop.” The other very kindly stooped for the purpose, and Martin at the same moment raised the chain by which his hand was confined. and struck Cooledge a most violent blow over the head, which brought him to the ground—He remained insensible for some minutes. Martin then threw off his coat, put on his hat, and pushed out of the jail. He ran with great violence against a gate, which was about ten yards from the outer door of the jail. This gate was made of thick double boards, placed transversely, and strongly nailed. It was fastened on the inside, with a large padlock, attached to a very stout clasp, and staple. Martin threw the whole force of his body against it four successive times, without success, running some distance back every time. When he came out of the jail, there was a young man in the jailyard, who immediately gave an alarm in the house.

Martin was pursued and recaptured in a cornfield near the jail. After that, a close watch was set upon him. On Thursday, December 20th, Martin was executed at Lechmere Point, Massachusetts. That morning, hours before he was to be executed, Waldo described the prisoner’s attitude and activities:

Before the hour arrived, he asked for a looking glass, and examined his face two or three times, and adjusted his clothes, and hair, as well as his pinions would permit, With perfect composure. I then asked him if the relation of his life, which he had made to me, was correct and true—He answered, most solemnly, that it was. He was led out, about twelve o’clock, and met his fate with most perfect composure and fortitude; not unmixed with a consciousness that he had met a just doom; and with a humble reliance on the mercy of God, for remission and forgiveness.

The Columbian Centinal related that, on the occasion, Martin

appeared to assist in fixing the fatal noose to his neck, so as to occasion his death without suffering. He then took a handkerchief, and after the cap was placed over his face, and the sheriff and his deputy had descended to the stage, inquired with a firm voice, “When shall I drop the handkerchief?” The sheriff answered, ” When you please.” Martin slowly raised his hands thrice to his breast, as in prayer, and then threw down the handkerchief, and was instantly launched into eternity.

Execution at Lechmere Point

And here the story of Captain Lightfoot ends.

It is not, however, the end of the whole story. In 1847, a resident of Brattleboro, Vermont, revealed that a recently deceased doctor named John Wilson was in fact John Doherty, otherwise known as Captain Thunderbolt. It seems that Doherty had come to America in 1818, determined to start a new life, and began working in the slate industry. Eventually he accumulated enough capital to commence a medical practice, and married a Miss Chamberlain. The marriage was an unhappy one, however, and Doherty does not seem to have led a happy life. When he died, it was noted that among his effects were two double-barrelled guns, two or three duelling pistols, a number of swords, powder horns, shot bags, and a walking cane with a hidden ramrod “which, by pointing the cane towards anyone, and giving it a slight jerk, would make a noise similar to the cocking of a gun.”

Although, at the time of publication, several sources doubted Dr. Wilson and Captain Thunderbolt to be the same person, most modern authorities now accept that they were.

Captain Thunderbolt
Sources and further reading:

The Life of Michael Martin, Who Was Executed for Highway Robbery, December 20, 1821, As Given by Himself. Boston: Russell & Gardner, 1821.

Confession of Michael Martin, or Captain Lightfoot, who was hung at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the year 1821, for the robbery of Maj. Bray. Also, an account of Dr. John Wilson, who recently died at Brattleboro, Vt., believed by many to be the notorious Captain Thunderbolt. Brattleboro, Vt.: J. B. Miner, 1847.

Captain Lightfoot, the last of the New England highwaymen : a narrative of his life and adventures, with some account of the notorious Captain Thunderbolt. Topsfield, Mass. : Wayside Press, 1926.

http://brattleborohistory.com/medicine/captain-thunderbolt-1.html

http://brattleborohistory.com/medicine/dr-john-wilsons-remedy.html

END OF PART III. Stay tuned for Part IV, when we continue to cover more books on the list.

Top Must-Read Autobiographies Part II

In Dueling, Georgian Era, Martial Arts, Military, Pirates, Rogues, and Gangs on February 25, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Continued from PART I.

Expert Sword-man’s Companion by Donald McBane (1728)

Inverness

Donald McBane was a highland Scot born in Inverness during the late seventeenth century. In 1687 he ran away from home, enlisting in the British army under the Duke of Marlborough. He served abroad throughout much of Europe, where he took part in sixteen battles, fifteen skirmishes, and by my own estimation, more than one hundred duels. He was twenty-seven times wounded (not counting the time when he was blown up by his own hand grenade). In his spare time, he also set himself up as a fencing master, gamester, and worked as a pimp. His extraordinary book, the Expert Sword-man’s Companion, was published in 1728 and recounts it all. McBane’s life reads like a strange, drunken dream–a whirlwind of blood, wine, warfare, and women–at turns both intense, shocking, horrifying, humorous, and never for a moment boring. Read, for instance, McBane’s account of one of his first battles, a disastrous confrontation with an army of fellow Highlanders:

At length, our enemy made their appearance on the top of a hill. We then gave a shout, daring them, as it were, to advance, which they quickly did to our great loss. When they advanced, we played our cannon for an hour upon them; the sun going down caused the Highlanders to advance on us like madmen, without shoe or stocking, covering themselves from our fire with their targes [shields]; at last they cast away their muskets, drew their broadswords, and advanced furiously upon us, and were in the middle of us before we could fire three shots apiece, broke us, and obliged us to retreat. Some fled to the water, and some another way (we were for the most part new men). I fled to the baggage, and took a horse, in order to ride the water; there follows me a Highlandman, with sword and targe, in order to take the horse and kill myself. You’d laught to see how he and I scampered about. I kept always the horse betwixt him and me; at length he drew his pistol, and I fled; he fired after me. I went above the Pass, where I met with another water very deep; it was about eighteen foot over betwixt two rocks. I resolved to jump it, so I laid down my gun and hat and jumped, and lost one of my shoes in the jump. Many of our men were lost in that water, and at the Pass.

Leap
Above: The site of McBane’s “leap”

After losing his first duel in the army, McBane promptly began lessons with a fencing master, challenged his adversary again, and beat him. Later he challenged his own Corporal to a duel after the latter punished him for being absent from duty. McBane describes the fight:

when he came he asked if I was for Death or Life, I told him I was for anything that happened, we drew on each other, after some turns he received a Thrust on the Breast-bone, he falling backward cryed you Rogue run, for I am Killed, I said I wished it were otherways, I took him by the Hand desiring him to rise, but he could not, he threw away his Sword, then I returned mine, I said to him, are you Dead really? he answered, I am in very deed, he opened his Breast and shewed me the Blood, he again desired me to run away, for if I was catch’d I would be hanged; I desired him to give me what money he had, in a very trembling manner he put his Hand in his Pocket, and gave me Three Shillings to carry me off, saying it was all he had, he took me by the Hand and said he forgave me, crying make your Escape…

McBane fled and joined a different regiment in Glasgow. The army eventually set sail for Ireland, and many months later, Holland, where, in a tavern, McBane encountered the formal Corporal he had supposedly killed:

I asked him if ever he was a Corporal in Perth? He said he was; I said was not you once killed at Perth as you said yourself? He said almost but not altogether, by a Roguish Fellow called Daniel Bane, and I believe you are the Man; I took him by the Hand, so we went and took a Bottle. He served as a Sergeant all the wars of Queen Anne; now he keeps a public house [tavern] at Gravesend.

This was not the last time McBane ended up becoming friends with someone he dueled; when his regiment was serving abroad in Limerick, Ireland, a feud erupted between himself and a fellow student. McBane recounts:

my Fellow Scholar and I fell out, he said I was not able to do with the Sword what he could do with the Foil, we went to Oxmentoun-Green and drew on each other, I Wounded him in three places, then we went and took a Pot, and was good Friends.

During his time abroad in Holland, McBane set himself up as a fencing master, gambler and pimp, and soon received the ire of the local competition. According to McBane, “they took all Methods and ways to do me Mischief, which obliged me to be constantly on my Guard, and to fight Twenty-four Times before they would be perswaded that I was Master of my Business.” He further recounts:

I continued keeping my School. A short Time after I came to know that there was Four good Swords men in the Town that kept Women and Gaming, the Wheel of Fortune and Ledgerdemain by which they got vast Money. I resolved to have a share of that Gain, at least to have a fair Tryall for it. I Fought all the Four, one by one; the last of them was Lefthanded; he and I went to the Rampart where we searched one another for Fire Arms. Finding none, we drew and had two or three clean Turns: at last he put up his Hand and took a Pistol from the Cock of his Hat; he cocked it against his shoulder and presented it to me, upon which I asked Quarters, but he refused, calling me an “English Bouger”, and Fired at me and run for it. One of the balls went through my Cravat, I thinking I was shot did not Run as I was wont to do, but Run as I could after him crying for the Guard, the Guard being half a Mile distant I was not heard; at last I overtook him over against the Guard and gave him a Thrust in the Buttocks; then I fled to the Fleshmarket; nobody could take me out there, it being a Priviledged Place. I tarried there till Night, then went Home to my Quarters and called for his Commerads that same Night, who agreed to give me a Brace of Whoors and Two Petty Couns a week. With this and my School I lived very well for that Winter.

Rake

To recount all his duels here would be impossible; suffice to say his book is filled with a vast number of such skirmishes, including “regimental duels” in which McBane had to fight a dozen men, one after the other, back to back. McBane killed or wounded them all. He also depicts the grim brutality of eighteenth century warfare. After being left for dead during the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, McBane was stripped of his clothes and plundered by the Dutch. Freezing and starving of thirst, McBane says

I drank several handfuls of the dead men’s blood that I lay beside; the more I drank the worse I was.

Blenheim

Of the Battle of Malplaquet, in 1709, he relates the following incident of how he had to carry his three-year old son through the thick of battle:

I had two children at this time. Our wives were far in the rear. My wife gave my little boy to a commerad’s wife who had a horse. The woman, hearing her husband was dead, rode until she saw me in the front of the line; then she threw the boy at me. I was obliged to put him in my habersack: He was about three years of age. As we were inclining to the right, the boy got a shot in the arm. I then got a surgeon and dressed it. I had neither bread nor drink to give him. I got a dram to him from an officer and a leg of a foul; then he held his peace and was very quiet all night ; in the morning his mother took him from me.

At the siege of Liège, McBane vividly describes how the last hold-outs were taken by his army:

In ten day’s time we were in readiness, then we began to play our cannon and morter pieces. Before we cut out our trenches we were within ten yards of their pallasades. Our cannon beat down their walls in three day’s time, our morters burnt down their houses. The Governour beat a parley and promised to deliver the citydale to His Grace against ten a clock next morning. That night the Governour sent to the other fort desiring assistance from it.

The Governour desired him to hold it out another day and he would send to his relief. Next morning about nine a clock the Governour hanged his coffine over the wall and fired upon our trenches. Then we fired all our guns and morters, we destroyed a great many of them.

About three a clock afternoon the Duke of Marlborough came to the Grand battery, he commanded twenty Granadiers of each company through the whole army and ten battalions of the first troops to storm the fort sword in hand. Our Orders was to give no quarters to none within the fort. We made all ready for the attack, every Granadier had three grannads. Our word was ‘God be foremost’, when we came we came with a loud huzza and fired our granads amongst them and small shot without number. We continued thus for an hour and a half, then we jumped over the palasados we then made use of our swords and bayonets and made a sore slaughter upon the French, which obliged them to cry for quarters. Although it was against orders we had mercy upon our fellow creatures and turned them all behind us. Then the Dutch used them as they pleased. They hung out their flag, in several places crying for quarters but none was given. This caused them to take courage and beat us two time from the bridge. Then our morters began to play anew. I was one that made the attack at the sallieport. An officer at the head of his platoon kneeled down and asked quarters. I gave it him and took his sword being mounted with silver. After we took the sallieport the officer took me to a cellar under the wall where was ten or twelve trunks full of gold and money. He gave me eleven bags of it for saving his life, what I got was all pistole pieces. I made all speed I could to my company where they were tumbling over the wall all the carcassus that were loaden with hand granades. I took up one of them with design to throw it amongst the enemy but it prevented me and broke in my hands and killed several about me and blew me over the pallasades, burnt my cloaths about me so that the skin came off me. I and my gold fell among Murray’s company of granadeers, I was stead like an old dead horse from head to foot, they cast me into water to put out the fire about me. The fort was taken and plundered; our army got the money that was to pay the French army.

McBane served in the Regiment until the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1712. He finally retired from the service at age forty-nine, with two musket balls in his thigh and a silver plate in his skull. At age fifty he commenced fighting as a gladiator at the Bear Gardens (see this previous post for a description), where he fought thirty-seven prizes. At age sixty-three, McBane fought his last combat against a tough young Irishman named O’Bryan. McBane wounded his adversary seven times and broke his arm with a falchion (short sword). After winning the fight, McBane decided to fight no more, “but to repent for my former wickedness”. He proceeded to write the story of his life, including an elaborate fencing treatise that contained sections on how to fight with the backsword, smallsword, quarterstaff, shield, and knife.

James Miller
Above: Eighteenth-century backsword fencers, after James Miller

The Expert Sword-man’s Companion is an incredible book and should be read by any serious student of dueling, fencing, or eighteenth century history. In 2017, a new edition was released, which includes a foreword verifying many of the historical details related by McBane in his memoir. It can be purchased by following this link, or by clicking on the image below:

cover

END OF PART II. Stay tuned for Part III, when we continue to cover more books on the list.

Gang Warfare in 18th Century Boston

In Colonial (American) Period, Crime, Justice and Punishment, Customs and Traditions, Pirates, Rogues, and Gangs on February 16, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Pope Night in Boston

By Ben Miller

Anyone who thinks that New York City is a dangerous place now (or even was in the dreadful 1970s) needs only to take a look at the film Gangs of New York to get a little perspective, and realize that however bad things may seem at present, the rule of law and order in the American northeast has vastly improved over the last one hundred fifty years.

Boston, as it turns out, was the setting of equally sensational pitched battles between hordes of armed street-fighters—and much earlier so than New York.

During the eighteenth century, on November Fifth of each year, thousands of racially-diverse ruffians from Boston’s two most notorious gangs would fill the streets in celebration of Guy Fawkes’s foiled attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605 (popularly known as the Gunpowder Plot).

These were the North End and South End gangs, and their elaborate pageantry and ceremony must have been quite a spectacle to behold. Each had its own wagon and effigies, its own “officers,” “captains,” and “lieutenants.” Each had its own huge vehicle, varying from 20 to 40 feet long, 8 or 10 feet wide, and 5 or 6 feet high, from the lower to the upper platform. Their festivities exhibited a blatant, vitriolic anti-Catholic bias (Fawkes and his group had been Catholics trying to topple a Protestant government). Each year the respective gangs, dressed in masks, costumes, tricorns and pointed grenadier hats, would parade an effigy of the pope and one of the Devil, “clad in tar and feathers” on a large platform, which was carried by a crowd on a large platform surrounded by burning firecrackers. Small boys concealed below the platforms worked strings attached to the figures, which would “elevate and move around at proper intervals the movable head” as they were carried toward Boston Common. Some gang-members would blow horns and conch-shells known as “Pope-horns.” Every house along the route was required to contribute money “to the expense of the show.” If they did not, windows would be broken, or the house otherwise damaged. The procession would continue through the Common, past the state house, and would typically end on Cornhill or Copp’s Hill, where the effigies were consumed in giant bonfires—and the two mighty clans would engage in a violent contest of strength and arms.

South End Wagon

In 1745, a newspaper described one of these events:

Tuesday last being the Anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, two Popes were made and carried tho’ the Streets in the evening , one from the North, the other from the South End of the Town, attended by a vast number of negroes and white servants, armed with clubs, staves and cutlashes, who were very abusive to the Inhabitants, insulting the Persons and breaking the windows, &c., of such as did not give them money to their satisfaction, and even many of those who had given them liberally; and the two Popes meeting in Cornhill, their followers were so infatuated as to fall upon each other with the utmost Rage and Fury. Several were sorely wounded and bruised, some left for dead, and rendered incapable of any business for a long time to the great Loss and Damage of their respective Masters.

Another letter-writer recounted,

What a scandal and Infamy to a Protestant Mob, be it of the rudest and lowest Sailors out of Boston, or even the very negroes of the Town, to fall upon one another with Clubs and Cutlashes in a Rage and Fury which only Hell could inspire or the Devil broke loose from chains there could represent! …what madness must seize the two mobs, united Brethren, as they would appear against Popery, to fall upon each other, break one another’s Bones or dash one another’s Brains out?

North End Wagon

A 1755 account noted that “the Devil, the Pope, and the Pretender [Catholic King in exile], at night were carried about the city on a bier, their three effigies hideously formed, and as humorously contrived, the Devil standing close behind the Pope, seemingly paying his complements to him, with a three-pronged pitchfork in one hand, with which at times he was made to thrust his Holiness on the Back, and a lanthorn in the other, the young Pretender standing before the Pope, waiting his commands.” In later years these were sometimes accompanied by additional figures who had “incurred the indignation and hatred of the mob,” such as as Admiral Byng, Earl Bute, and Lord North. One period source notes that “ancillary devils and popes were drawn or carried by men and boys, as various in size as the men and boys who bore them; some even on shingles and bits of board.”

Pope Night Wagon

In 1764, outrage erupted after a young boy fell under the North End gang’s “pope-wagon” and died of a head injury. In his diary, John Rower recounts the incident as follows:

Nov. 5. A sorrowful accident happened this forenoon at the North End. the wheel of the carriage that the Pope was fixed on run over a Boy’s head & he died instantly. The Sheriff, Justices, Officers of the Militia were ordered to destroy both S° & North End Popes. In the afternoon they got the North End Pope pulled to pieces. they went to the S° End but could not Conquer upon which the South End people brought out their pope & went in Triumph to the Northward and at the Mill Bridge a Battle begun between the people of Both Parts of the Town. The North End people having repaired their pope, but the South End people got the Battle (many were hurt & bruised on both sides) & Brought away the North End pope & burnt Both of them at the Gallows on the Neck. Several thousand people following them, hallowing &c.

The next year, in an effort to dampen the violence, some of Boston’s political leaders persuaded the North End and South End “captains” to put aside the tradition of building “Pope-Night” wagons and fighting, and instead lead a march protesting the Stamp Act. Wealthy locals organized a feast at their own expense, and presented the two gang captains gifts of “red and blue uniforms, gold-laced hats, speaking trumpets, and rattan canes.” Two years later, the artist Pierre Eugène du Simitière visited Boston and drew a series of sketches, including this picture of the two new gang leaders, still sporting their rich uniforms, canes and trumpets:

Gang Leaders: The Captains of the North and South End gangs

Gang Leaders: The Captains of the North and South End gangs

By the 1770s the South End gang consisted of two thousand men and was led by a Scottish-born shoemaker named Ebenezer MacIntosh, described as “slight of build, of sandy complexion and a nervous temperment.” The North End gang could boast of a similar number and was led by Samuel Swift, a Harvard-educated fifty-year old, who had originally studied for the clergy but had turned instead to law. Swift in particular had influential friends, including members of the Loyal Nine (forerunner of the Sons of Liberty) who tried to use the gangs to their advantage, leveraging them as muscle, and hence a threat, against British rule. In 1765 McIntosh was arrested after a mob of his men burnt loyalist Governor Hutchinson’s house to the ground, but was immediately released after the leading figures of the town intervened on his behalf. Such was the power and sway of the gangs.

The climactic battles of November Fifth were fought near Mill Creek, a dividing line between the gangs’ respective territories. The memoir of Isaiah Thomas describes the moments preceeding the initial onslaught:

Assembling about dusk, North end and South end under their respective leaders, processions were formed, the lanterns, great and small, lighted, and through a speaking trumpet the order was given to “move on.” With this the noise and tumult began, the blowing of conch shells, whistling through the fingers, beating with clubs the sides of the houses, cheering, huzzaing, swearing, and rising about all the din the cry “North end forever” or “South end forever.” The devils on the stages were not the only or chiefest proof that the underworld was let loose. The procession that first reached the Mill creek gave three cheers and rushed on to meet their foes. As they approached the strife began; clubs, stones, and brickbats were freely used, and though persons were not often killed, bruised shins, broken heads and bones, were not infrequent.

Samuel Breck, another participant, described the manner in which the ensuing battles were fought among the more juvenile gang-members:

Spokes were fixed in a large mast, on the top of which was placed a barrel of pitch or tar, always ready to be fired on the approach of the enemy. Around this pole I have fought many battles, as a South End boy, against the boys of the North End of the town; and bloody ones, too, with slings and stones very skilfully and earnestly used. In what a state of semi-barbarism did the rising generations of those days exist! From time immemorial these hostilities were carried on by the juvenile part of the community…nothing could check it. Was it a remnant of the pugilistic propensities of our British ancestors; or was it an untamed feeling arising from our sequestered and colonial situation?

Whichever gang won the annual battle would publicly anoint its captain “First Captain General of the Liberty Tree.”

8dd66-boyscelebrating
Above: young Boston gang members dressed in costume

During the 1760s, the arrival of British troops in Boston provided the gangs a common foe with which they could both satiate their blood-lust, and riotous acts against soldiers became a common feature of pre-Revolutionary Boston street life. In August 1770, Sgt. Thomas Thornley of the army’s 14th Regiment recounted to a local magistrate how on the previous 5th of November he had been

oblig’d to go through a large mob to the relief of the Sentries, the mob called him and his party Lobster scoundrels, what business had they there, & damn’d Governor [Francis] Bernard, the Commissioners, and the rest of the scoundrels of Ministers that ordered the Soldiers to Boston, on which he the Deponent was obliged to order his party to charge their bayonets to make way through the mob, all the while receiving a great deal of abusive language.

Ironically, despite the considerable efforts made by the gangs to help foment revolt against Great Britain, it was the American Revolution which eventually brought their celebrations to an end. Breck states that with respect to the battles and parades, “everything of the kind ceased with the termination of our Revolutionary War.” The anti-Catholic sentiment expressed on November 5th was, of course, contrary to professed American ideals of religious toleration. When Catholic France began to be seen as a potential ally in the war against the British, and large numbers of Catholics from Maryland and Pennsylvania began filling the ranks of the Continental Army, American leaders decided to vigorously discourage anti-Catholic displays. Thus came the orders of General George Washington:

At this juncture and under such circumstances, to be insulting [the Catholic] religion, is so monstrous as not to be suffered or excused; indeed, instead of offering the more remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our brethren, as to them we are indebted for every late happy success over the common enemy in Canada.

With this, Pope Night celebrations largely came to an end, and accounts of gang warfare in Boston dwindled. After Benedict Arnold’s defection to the British in 1780, crowds began replacing effigies of the Pope with those of Arnold, lending the processions a less religious and more patriotic air. During the 1790s, local newspapers occasionally printed complaints about “Anticks”—young rogues, possibly remnants of the old gangs, who visited houses around Christmas, performing traditional mummers’ plays and asking for money. Samuel Breck recalled

They were a set of the lowest blackguards, who, disguised in filthy clothes and ofttimes with masked faces, went from house to house in large companies, and, bon gré, mal gré, obtruding themselves everywhere, particularly into the rooms that were occupied by parties of ladies and gentlemen, would demand themselves with great insolence. I have seen them at my father’s, when his assembled friends were at cards, take possession of a table, seat themselves on rich furniture, and proceed to handle the cards, to the great annoyance of the company. The only way to get rid of them was to give them money, and listen patiently to a foolish dialogue between two or more of them. One of them would cry out: —

‘Ladies and gentlemen sitting by the fire,
Put your hands in your pockets and give us our desire.’

When this was done, and they had received some money, a kind of acting took place. One fellow was knocked down and lay sprawling on the carpet, while another bellowed out: —

‘See, there he lies!
But ere he dies,
A doctor must be had.’

He calls for a doctor, who soon appears, and enacts the part so well that the wounded man revives. In this way they would continue for half an hour; and it happened not unfrequently that the house would be filled by another gang when these had departed. There was no refusing admittance. Custom had licensed these vagabonds to enter even by force any place they chose.

Just what happened to the gang-members after this is a matter of conjecture, although we do know that, after the commencement of the Revolution, South End gang leader Ebenezer McIntosh fled British-held Boston with his two small children. After reaching American lines, he made his way on foot to North Haverhill, New Hampshire, where he remained, and died in 1812.

The writer and blogger J. L. Bell makes a good case that certain elements of Pope Night did not die out, but survived to be transformed into customs which were incorporated into another well-known American holiday. Namely, the act of dressing up in costume, lighting bonfires, and going door to door asking for coins. These traditions only needed to shift six days earlier–from November 5th to October 31st, which is, of course, Halloween.

Boy

Sources and Further Reading:

South end forever, North end forever. Extraordinary verses on Pope-night. or, A commemoration the fifth of November, giving a history of the attempt, made by the papishes, to blow up king and Parliament, A. D. 1588. Together with some account of the Pope himself, and his wife Joan: with several other things worthy of notice, too tedious to mention. Sold by the printers boys in Boston [1768].

Thomas, Isaiah, The history of printing in America, with a biography of printers, New York: Burt Franklin, 1874.

Pierce, Edward Lillie, Letters and diary of John Rowe, Boston merchant, 1759-1762, 1764-1779, Boston: W.B. Clarke, 1903.

Sons of the American Revolution, Minnesota Society Year Books. Minnesota Society, William Henry Grant, 1889-1895.

Bourne, Russell, Cradle of Violence: How Boston’s Waterfront Mobs Ignited the American Revolution. John Wiley & Sons, 2006.

Morgan, Edmund S. & Morgan, Helen M., The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1995.

Fradin, Dennis, Samuel Adams: The Father of American Independence, Clarion Books, New York, 1998.

Rothbard, Murray N., Conceived in Liberty, Vol III, Advance to Revolution, 1760-1775, Mises Institute, Auburn, Alabama, 1999.

http://display.5thofnovember.us/2007/10/bostons-gangs.html

http://boston1775.blogspot.com/

Now That’s Love

In Dueling, Gender Roles, Love and Courtship, Pirates, Rogues, and Gangs on January 30, 2010 at 12:48 am

By Ben Miller

Traditionally, the custom of dueling was a privilege accorded only to gentlemen. However, every now and again (and rather more frequently than most historians suppose), tradition was turned on its head. The female pirate Mary Read reportedly fought a duel to save the life of her lover, a young “artist” who been captured and forced into piracy:

Her Passion was no less violent than his, and perhaps she express’d it, by one of the most generous Actions that ever Love inspired. It happened this young Fellow had a Quarrel with one of the Pyrates, and their ship then lying at an Anchor, near one of the Islands, they had appointed to go ashore and fight, according to the Custom of the Pyrates: Mary Read was to the last Degree uneasy and anxious, for the Fate of her Lover; she would not have had him refuse the Challenge, because, she could not bear the Thoughts of his being branded with Cowardice; on the other side, she dreaded the Event, and apprehended the Fellow might be too hard for him: When Love once enters into the Breast of one who has any Sparks of Generosity, it stirs the Heart up to the most noble Actions; in this Dilemma, she shew’d, that she fear’d more for his Life than she did for her own; for she took a Resolution of quarrelling with this Fellow her self, and having challenged him ashore, she appointed the Time two Hours sooner than that when he was to meet her Lover, where she fought him at Sword and Pistol, and killed him upon the Spot.

– Capt. Charles Johnson, A General History of the Pyrates. Reprint of the 1724 edition.

A vintage image of Mary Read. Note the fencing stance.

A vintage image of Mary Read. Note the fencing stance.