From the Diary of Samuel Sewall 7 July 1685
“Brother Moody visits us. General Court sits in the Afternoon. Time is spent in ordering a Drum to beat up for Volunteers about 30. Samson Waters, Capt., to go with Mr. Patteshal’s Brigenteen to fetch in two Privateers that this morn are said to be in the Bay, a Sloop and Shalop, in the Shalop, Graham.”
Massachusetts Bay Colony declared piracy a capital offense on 15 October 1673. Pirates had been killed before that, too, but the retribution had not been codified outside the pages of the Bible.
“This Court doeth order, & be it hereby ordered and enacted, that what person or persons soever shall piratically or ffeloniously seize any ship or vessel… or rise up in rebellion against the master, officers, merchants or owners…every such offender, together with their complices, shall be put to death.”
In 1684, Massachusetts Bay put even sharper teeth into its law. It became unlawful to for anyone to “enterteyne, harbour, counsel, trade, or hold any correspondence by letter or otherwise with any deemed to be privateers.”
By the mid 1680’s, piracy had become a terrifying and destructive commonplace along the coast from Maine to Virginia. To combat the growing frequency of pirate and privateer attacks near Massachusetts Bay, the ranking official of a harbor or town was empowered to muster armed forces against the suspect, jail him, and bring him to trial.
If convicted, the pirate would meet his Maker on either Bird Island or Nix’s Mate, both small islands in Boston Harbor. Once owned by John Gallop, Nix’s Mate became the premier place for not only hanging pirates, but also displaying their bodies, even if the knaves had been executed elsewhere. Boston officials let the dead bodies sway and slowly, gently decay in the salty harbor breeze. The bones of pirate William Fry flapped from the gibbet for many months.
On the morning of 7 July 1685, Boston officials heard the story of Captain John Prentice, who had just arrived in Boston from New London, where his ship had a brush with a sloop commanded by Captain Veale, a known pirate. Captain Prentice told the Boston General Court that not only Veale’s sloop, but fellow pirate Captain Graham’s shallop was in the harbor. Captain Prentice had exchanged gunfire with Veale in New London, and told Boston officials that Veale may have purchased several carriage guns from John Wheeler in New London.
The Court wasted no time. It beat the drums to call volunteers to set sail under Captain Samson, on Richard Patteshall’s brigantine, in pursuit of Veale and Graham. Few men answered the call. The Court then ordered that, “For their Incouragement, that free plunder be offered to such as shall voluntarily list themselves.” This tactic helped, since one of Prentice’s men had previously testified that the pirates were stowing booty including silver plate and fine clothing.
Captain Samson was instructed to bring prisoners back to Boston for trial, alive, unless otherwise necessary.
Three days later, the ship returned to port, empty-handed but successful, as the pirate ships had fled Massachusetts Bay.