Rachel Wall, New England’s Female Pirate
Rachel Wall, nee Schmidt (1760 – 1789), was the first American born woman known to have turned pirate, and the last woman executed in Boston. Born into a devoutly Presbyterian family of Pennsylvania farmers, she was never happy with life on the farm. Instead, the sea called for her from an early age, and she liked spending as much time as possible on the waterfront.
There, she was attacked by a group of girls when she was 16, and was rescued by a sailor named George Wall. The two fell in love, and despite her family’s objections, Rachel and George Wall were married and moved to Boston. There, she got a job as a maid, while her husband did stints on merchant ships and fishing vessels. The couple befriended other sailors and their lovers, who all shared a desire for a life on the seas.
In 1781, George Wall got his hands on a schooner, and he and Rachel convinced their friends to join them on a piracy spree. Their first voyage was successful, as they cruised New England’s sea lanes in the aftermath of storms, pretending to be a ship in distress, battered by the recent tempest. To add to the effect, Rachel would cry out for help to passing vessels. When the Good Samaritans stopped to help, the unsuspecting vessel would be boarded and seized, with all on board murdered and robbed. Within a few months, Rachel and her companions had captured twelve vessels, murdered dozens of sailors, and netted about $6000 in cash, plus thousands more worth of looted goods.
That came to an end in 1782, when a navigational error got them shipwrecked. George Wall was drowned, but Rachel and other pirates survived. Without a ship, the pirates dispersed, returning to their previous occupations, and Rachel Wall went back to being a maid. She kept dabbling in crime, however, and became notorious for stealing from ships docked in Boston Harbor, and ended up with numerous convictions for petty theft and larceny.
Her criminal career came to a screeching halt in 1789, when she stole from the wrong person. Until then, she had been preying on sailors and other lower class people around the waterfront. But on March 18th, 1789, Rachel saw a 17 year old rich kid wearing a bonnet that she coveted. So she stepped up to her, punched her in the mouth, threw her to the ground, grabbed her bonnet, and ran. However, passersby gave chase, apprehended Rachel, and turned her over to the authorities.
She was charged with robbery, but requested she be charged with piracy instead, confessing to the piratical spree of 1781-1782 – although she denied having personally killed anybody. She was tried for highway robbery for the March 18th, 1789 assault and carrying off of a bonnet, convicted, and sentenced to death. On October 9th, 1789, Rachel Wall earned the dubious distinction of becoming the last woman to ever be hanged in Massachusetts, when she ascended a gallows erected in the Boston Commons. Her last words before the trapdoor was released were: “into the hands of the Almighty God I commit my soul, relying on his mercy, and die an unworthy member of the Presbyterian Church, in the 29th year of my age“.