Manhattan Socialite and Philanthropist Hanged For Piracy
The Scotsman William Kidd (circa 1645 – 1701) was one of New York City’s leading citizens and socialites, who became personal friends with at least three governors of the colony of New York. Among his philanthropic civic activities, Kidd had played a leading role in building New York City’s now historic Trinity Church. There was thus little in his background to indicate that he would end up swinging from the gallows, executed as the notorious pirate, Captain Kidd.
Kidd’s first sea command was as a privateer, commissioned in 1689 by the governor of Nevis to fight the French. He was granted what were known as “letters of marque”, authorizing him to prey on French vessels for the duration of hostilities between Britain and France. Later, he was issued additional letters of marque by the governors of New York and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
In 1695, Kidd’s mission was expanded. He was presented with a letter of marque signed by King William III, giving him a roving commission to attack pirates in the Indian Ocean. The voyage started inauspiciously: sailing out of London in a newly equipped ship, the 34 gun and 150 men crew Adventure Galley, Kidd offended a Royal Navy captain by failing to salute his warship. The captain retaliated by stopping the Adventure Galley, and seized half of its crew to press them into the Royal Navy.
Crossing the Atlantic short-handed, Kidd made it to New York, where he replenished his crew with whatever out-of-work seafarers he could find. Most of them were hardened criminals and former pirates. Sailing into the Indian Ocean, a third of Kidd’s crew died of cholera by the time they reached the Comoros Islands. To top it off, he was unable to find any of the pirates he had been sent to hunt down.
The enterprise seemed a failure, and the crew, getting antsy, urged him to attack some passing vessels in order to make the voyage worth their time. When Kidd declined, his men threatened mutiny. Under pressure, he gave in, and reluctantly started attacking ships not covered by his privateering letters. By 1698, he had abandoned reluctance and any pretense of privateering, and turned full pirate. That year, he sealed his fate when he attacked a British East India Company ship. The powerful company exerted its influence in London, and Kidd was declared a pirate and outlaw.
Unbeknownst to him, by the time he returned to the American Colonies, Kidd’s public image had been transformed into that of an infamous pirate. During his absence, attitudes towards piracy had changed from the wink, wink, nudge, nudge, which had been the norm when he began his voyage. Now, crackdown was in the air, and the authorities were eager to make an example of somebody.
Kidd was thus very unlucky to return when he did. He was arrested as soon as he arrived in Boston, and he was sent in chains across the Atlantic for prosecution in London. There, word of his previous connections with government elites caused a scandal, and the powerful supporters whom he had expected to defend him abandoned him in droves. He was swiftly tried and convicted, and on May 23, 1701, he was hanged. His corpse was then left to rot in a cage on the Thames for all to see.
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