Pirates: Six Facts That Might Surprise You

Pirates were a unique brand of criminal.

Pirates were a unique brand of criminal. Photo from Pixabay.

Pirates really had pet parrots

They were not only souvenirs, but a source of revenue. Parrots were popular pets and pirates got good prices for them at the bird markets of 18th century London. Pirates even offered them as presents to officials to bribe them.

One pirate said the best birds came from the Bay of Campeche near Veracruz, Mexico. The red and yellow parrots there were the largest and prettiest, and they were good mimics. Most pirates took one or two aboard.

Months of sailing without any opportunity to forage for food made the parrots dependent on sailors for food and probably made them tame.


The pet trade did more to facilitate the pirate-parrot association than a natural fondness for the birds. Photo from Pixabay.

Long John Silver was based on a real person

Robert Lewis Stevenson based one of the most famous fictional pirates of history on his friend, Victorian poet William Ernest Henley, whose most popular work was the 1874 poem “Invictus.” Henley developed tuberculosis of the bone as a child, and at the age of 19, had to get his left leg amputated below the knee. Henley was a large, jovial man full of energy, who got around on a crutch. Stevenson wrote Henley after he published Treasure Island and admitted, “I will now make a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.”

Pirates with wooden legs were not a myth

Some pirates really did have wooden legs. Since they were not as mobile and had a disadvantage in fighting, they often worked as cooks, just like Long John Silver.

Piece of eight

Piece of eight with an American quarter for comparison.

American dollars were originally based on pieces of eight

Pieces of eight and doubloons are the two coins we all associate with pirates. “Pieces of eight” were coins with the value of eight reales. The piece of eight was the Spanish dollar, first minted after 1598. The United States based the value of its dollar on the piece of eight. Pieces of eight were legal tender in the United States until the 1857.

Take a look at the column and winding ribbon on the left side of this piece of eight. Some scholars say the dollar symbol $ is based on that column. In fact, $ was the original symbol for the piece of eight.

Ship in the sunset.

Photo from Pixabay.

Pirates practiced democracy

“Every Man has a Vote.” Pirates operated under a set of written rules and those were the opening words of Captain Bartholomew Roberts’ rules. Typically, pirates elected their captains. Exceptions were during battle, during which the captain exercised complete control. The only members of the crew couldn’t vote were captives or people pressed into service, because they might not vote in the interests of the crew.

Scholars have debated the origins of democracy on pirate ships. It may have been a reaction to the strict government on commercial and naval ships, or to the monarchy back home.

Charley Ross. River pirates kidnapped him for ransom.

Charley Ross, the first child kidnapped in the U.S. for ransom. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

River pirates committed the first kidnapping for ransom in the USA

 Two men in a carriage kidnapped four-year-old Charley Ross in Philadelphia in 1874. They offered him and his brother candy if they would take a carriage ride with them. When they offered the brother 25 cents to go into a store and purchase fireworks, they rode off with Charley. For the first time in American history, the kidnappers demanded ransom. Charley’s father was unable to pay, but hoped the kidnappers would release him anyway. Unfortunately, Charley was never seen again.

Two men were later shot during a burglary. One died right away, and the other confessed to the Ross kidnapping before he died. Charley’s brother viewed the bodies and identified them. They were members of a band of river pirates. They attacked ships on the Hudson River and its harbors and later on the Atlantic seaboard, as well as in Philadelphia and Baltimore.  Kidnapping for ransom, then, was a new form of piracy.

Charley’s tragic story left us two legacies, a new form of crime and the parental admonition never to take candy from strangers.

Which pirate legacy do you think has had the most lasting influence in the United States culture and history?

Literature on point:

David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life among the Pirates (New York: Random House, 1996, 1st Harvest House ed.)

Carrie Hagen, we is got him: The Kidnapping That Changed America (New York: Overlook Press, 2011)

Tim Travers, Pirates: A History (The History Press)


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Mark Twain in Heilbronn: Awful Accommodations in Germany


I’ll never tell you which castle I stayed at. You have to find it yourself. Image from morguefile.

Back to the Middle Ages?

“Downstairs,” the receptionist said. “In the dungeon.”

Armed with shampoo and a towel, I followed his directions across the courtyard and down two flights of stairs. We had booked rooms in a medieval German castle, and this was one of its disadvantages. Taking a shower meant going down three stories from my room in the turret, across an ancient banquet hall, down more stairs to the courtyard, and taking a quick walk outside to the next building. It was a couple hundred yards in all.

But then I came down to this: a dark, cavernous cellar straight out of the Middle Ages, with old stone walls and no air circulation. Yes, I found the shower stalls. But they smelled so bad I backed right out again. A whole day of my own day-old body odors was vastly preferable to twenty minutes of this. I passed on my shower. And out of curiosity, I checked the dungeon again at checkout time. Every shower stall was dry. For a castle that offers over 160 beds, the guests’ refusal to shower was statement to the reek in the dungeon.

dungeon stairs

Yup! Down the dungeon stairs to the showers. This is what it looked like. Image from Pixabay.

I’d encountered this odor before, in an archaic French town with Roman and medieval structures. Was an ancient sewage system leaking? Or had centuries of sweat, blood, and fumes permeated into the masonry and cobblestones? It’s something old and European; a price you sometimes have to pay to probe the past. My German husband calls it “The Smell of the Middle Ages.”

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain

Mark Twain in Heilbronn, Germany

In 1878, Mark Twain traveled to Germany and complained about bad accommodations too. From his description in A Tramp Abroad, I think he encountered the same odor. Twain was in Heilbronn and wanted to experience history in the very same room where Götz von Berlichingen – the famous knight with the iron hand whom Goethe wrote about – once spent the night in 1519. The inn doesn’t exist anymore, but local lore says it was the Gasthof zur Krone near St. Kilian’s church.

“Harris and I occupied the same room [Götz von Berlichingen] had occupied and the same paper had not all peeled off the walls yet,” Twain wrote. “The furniture was quaint old carved stuff, full four hundred years old, and some of the smells were over a thousand…. This room … was on the first floor; which means it was in the second story, for in Europe the houses are so high that they do not count the first story, else they would get tired climbing before they got to the top….

peeling wallpaper

Peeling wallpaper dating back to Götz von Berlichingen? Image (c) shutterstock.

“There was a stove in the corner, – one of those tall, square, stately white porcelain things that looks like a monument and keeps you thinking of death when you ought to be enjoying your travels. The windows looked out on a little alley, and over that into a stable and some poultry and pig yards….”

And on top of that, a mouse kept Twain awake at night. He tried chasing it in the dark, broke a mirror, and woke up everyone in the house.

A mouse pestered Mark Twain in Heilbronn

One of these little guys also conspired to keep Mark Twain awake. Image (c) shutterstock.

Bad accommodations are fun, as long as you learn to take them with humor. Where was the worst place you ever spent the night?

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Marooning in the Royal Navy: The Strange Case of Robert Jeffrey

Howard Pyle's painting shows a marooning.

Marooned by Howard Pyle, 1909. Public domain. Deleware Art Museum.

Marooning – the act of intentionally leaving a sailor behind on a deserted island or sandbar – is a punishment we traditionally associate with pirates. Even outside the world of piracy, captains occasionally marooned sailors as punishment for mutiny.

But what about as a punishment for stealing beer? On an island devoid of fresh water? That happened once in the British Royal Navy. This reblog from Antoine Vanner draws back the curtains on one of the most scandalous true crimes of maritime history. It also tells a miracle of survival. A big thank you to Mr. Vanner for letting me borrow from his blog, The Dawlish Chronicles.

A Marooning Scandal in the Royal Navy, 1807

One tends to think of “marooning” – abandoning a seaman alone on an uninhabited island – as being a punishment associated with buccaneers and pirates in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. It is therefore somewhat of a shock that what was probably the last instance of such retribution occurred in the Royal Navy as late as 1807. The story is a fascinating one and it underlines just how omnipotent and capricious a captain could be in the days before radio once his ship had disappeared over the horizon.

HMS Recruit

HMS Recruit (foreground), 1809. Public domain. G. W. Terry (artist) & George Greatbach (engraver) – National Maritime Museum

HMS Recruit was a 100-ft long brig-sloop of the Cruizer class, of which 110 examples were built for the Royal Navy between 1797 and 1815. Small as they were, they carried a very heavy armament – two 6-pounder bow chasers and no less than sixteen 32-pounder carronades. At short ranges the carronades gave the Cruizers a nominal broadside weight greater than that of a 36-gun 18-pounder frigate. The advantage of the design was that the two-masted rig and the use of carronades, with their small gun crews, allowed this to be achieved with a crew one third the size of a frigate’s. These vessels were to see very active service.

Commander Warwick Lake presses a blacksmith into service

The Cruizer design was already a proven one when the newly commissioned Recruit headed for the West Indies in July 1807. Her captain was the 24-year old Commander  Warwick Lake, later to be 3rd Viscount Lake (1783–1848). In view of what was to follow one wonders if he was not influenced by the example of his grandfather, General Gerard Lake, 1st Viscount Lake (1744 – 1808) whose suppression of rebellion in Ireland in 1798 was to be marked by extreme brutality. This reached a climax in the defeat of the rebel army at Vinegar Hill, County Wexford, and brought him into conflict with the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Cornwallis (of Yorktown fame) who instituted an amnesty to encourage rebels to lay down their arms.

On taking the Recruit to sea Lake encountered a problem common to most captains of his time – shortage of men. He solved the problem by putting in at the Cornish harbour of Falmouth and boarding the privateer Lord Nelson, despite her being under protection of latters of marque.  Several men and boys of the privateer’s crew were pressed, among them a blacksmith called Robert Jeffrey, whose trade made him especially valuable at sea.

The blacksmith steals some beer

Lake, according to one account “profligate and reckless”, now headed for the West Indies and by November was cruising in the Caribbean. Water was in short supply, and according to Lake’s later account Jeffrey stole some rum in a bottle from the gunner’s cabin. It’s not obvious that this offence was followed up but Jeffrey was to admit that on December 10th he drew off two quarts of beer from a cask intended for the captain’s personal use. A shipmate informed on him and Jeffrey was placed on a “black list”.

Map of Sombrero Island

Map of Sombrero Island. Public domain. This map was made in about 1880 for the superintendant of Sombrero, Thomas Corfield.

Three days later the Recruit was passing the island of uninhabited island of Sombrero, the northernmost island of the Lesser Antilles. It is tiny – little over a mile long and a quarter wide and only 94 acres in area – and is devoid of water. Commander Lake came on deck after dinner – apparently under the influence of drink – and decided that he now had an opportunity to punish Jeffrey. He is reported to have said “Lieutenant Mould! Do you see that rock? Lower the boat instantly. I’ll have no thieves on board my ship! Man a boat and set the rascal on shore!”

Marooning of the blacksmith

Jeffrey was now taken to the island in the clothes he stood up in, but without shoes, food or water. Seeing that his feet were being cut by the rock Lieutenant Mould gave him a  pair of shoes ,together with a knife and a handkerchief donated by a midshipman. Mould seems to have delayed, in the hope that Lake would change his mind but in the end had to return to the ship, leaving Jeffrey stranded.

Robert Jeffrey's marooning on Sambrero Island.

Robert Jeffrey’s marooning on Sambrero Island. From “The Book of the Sea,” 1895. Public domain.

The Recruit now headed for Barbados to join the squadron there under Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane. The story of the marooning began to leak out, causing general outrage,  and Lake was ordered to explain himself. Cochrane, enraged, reprimanded Lake for brutality and ordered him back to Sombrero with the Recruit to find Jeffrey. On landing, no sign of him was found other than a pair of trousers – apparently not Jeffrey’s – and a tomahawk (a common boarding weapon). When the Recruit returned empty-handed the Admiral assumed that Jeffrey had been picked up by a passing ship.

Anger was widespread when the story reached Britain and Lake was court-martialled on board HMS Gladiator in Portsmouth in February 1810. Despite an attempt to pass some of the blame to his lieutenants the court found him guilty and dismissed him from the navy.

A miracle of survival

Jeffrey’s whereabouts were now the subject of impassioned interest, questions being asked in the House of Commons and the Government kept under pressure on the case. It finally emerged that he was in the Beverley and Marblehead area in Massachusetts and a ship was sent to bring him back, arriving in Portsmouth shortly after Lake’s court martial. Jeffrey had survived nine days on the rock, in extreme privation, before a passing ship, the American Adams, had spotted him. He had been unable to kill any of the abundant sea birds (the rock was later mined for guano) and he had been saved from death by thirst by a rain shower, having sucked up water from crevices through a quill.

Consequences of the marooning

Jeffrey – who had been unlawfully pressed in the first place, was discharged from the navy, was given his arrears of pay and was taken to his home at Polperro by a naval officer. The entire community turned out to welcome him and an eyewitness reported that “the meeting between the mother and her son was extremely affecting and impassioned.” He accepted a payment of from Lake of £600 – a fortune in those days, when a domestic servant might earn £10 per year – on condition that he would not press legal action against him.  He told his story in London theatres and thereafter bought a coasting schooner. He  did not however prosper and he died young of consumption, leaving a wife and daughter in poverty.

If you want to read more about the HMS Recruit’s history, please visit Vanner’s site.

Do you think Lake’s punishment and his settlement with Jeffrey were appropriate? How would you punish a captain for marooning a sailor?

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A Dog Solves a Murder: A True Story from Spain

It's a rare case in which a dog solves a murder.

Can those eyes tell you what they’ve seen? Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

A missing hunter

When a man doesn’t come home from a hunting trip, it can mean a lot of things. Maybe he’s just late. Maybe he really didn’t go hunting, is doing something he isn’t supposed to, and just lied about it. Maybe he’s lying somewhere out there in the wilderness, injured and in need of help. Or maybe it’s even worse. He could be murdered.

As the hours tick by and he still doesn’t come home, family members at home slip into whirlpools of anxiety. When they search for him and can’t find him, their fear deepens. Is there any torture worse than not knowing?

One wife in 19th century Seville experienced the same situation, but the case is even stranger because the pet dog knew exactly what happened. He had witnessed his master’s murder. But how can a dog communicate that fact to his human family?

It’s an unusual case in which a dog solves a murder. But it actually happened. This is case in which a dog attempted to communicate what he knew and actually succeeded. It was reported in a 19th century German true crime anthology, and I’ve translated and abridged it for you.

The dog knows….

Juan, a butcher in Seville, had the habit of going hunting every Saturday with his godfather and trusted friend, Marquez, and staying out until Monday. They left together as usual on a Saturday in November, but on Monday, only Juan came back. When Marquez’s wife asked him where her husband was, he said they had separated during the hunt and he thought Marquez was already home. “He must be coming back any time now,” he reassured her.

The day passed without Marquez’s return, but towards the evening, his dog, “Como tu,” who accompanied him everywhere, came home alone. “Como tu, where is your master?” asked Marquez’s wife. The dog became very agitated, and by grabbing her dress with his teeth, tried to pull her out of the house.

At first the wife paid no attention to the dog’s behavior. She thought her husband might be socializing with some of his hunting friends and decided pay them a visit to check on them. While she was dressing, Como tu continually tried to drag her to the door.

She went to Juan’s house, but Como tu, who was usually friendly with Juan, sprang for his throat. The wife had to pull Como tu off. Juan protested that Como tu must have rabies and should be shot, but she resisted him and went to the police station. Como tu was quiet at the police station, but became aggressive as soon as he heard Juan’s voice. The police commissioner thought Juan might have abused Como tu. She told the police her story and included the dog’s behavior.

On Wednesday, she took Como tu out for a walk in the area where her husband had gone hunting to see what she could find. They came to a cliff over a river where people customarily threw dead animals and all sorts of garbage from Seville. Forcefully grabbing her dress, the dog tried to pull her forward. He howled and then tried to pull her to the edge of the cliff. Because the bottom of the cliff was heaped with garbage and stank, she pulled back, and despite Como tu’s efforts, quickly returned home. As they passed Juan’s butcher shop, Como tu jumped up on a table and again tried to attack Juan.

A police officer finally understands dogspeak

Comu tu was suddenly aggressive to Juan. What was he trying to say?

Comu tu was suddenly aggressive to Juan. What was he trying to say? Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Marquez’s wife now returned to the police station to find out if the police had discovered anything about her husband while she was gone. She told an officer what had happened with the dog. The police officer didn’t say anything, but the following morning, he went to the cliff with four pall bearers. When they arrived, they noticed people at the bottom. One of them was Juan. They were trying to pull the blood-smeared clothing off a human body. The men were arrested.

The police removed the body. It was Marquez. They found entry wounds from a full load of shot in Marquez’s face and on the left side of the head. The back of the head had been smashed, probably by the butt of a shotgun. The two men with Juan testified he had offered them a handsome reward for helping him remove the body and throwing it in a river.

Juan was charged with Marquez’s murder and confessed in court. He had killed his godfather over a fight about a partridge both had claimed to have shot. Both hunters had loaded their shotguns, and as the fight intensified, both threatened each other. Juan aimed at Marquez and fired just to disable him, but angry and slightly drunk, he finished the job by cracking him on the head with the shotgun butt.

The court found no evidence of premeditation and some evidence to support self defense. It sentenced Juan to five years punishment in the galleys. The other two men were sentenced to six months in prison.

A dog solves a murder

It's a rare case in which a dog solves a murder.

It’s a rare case in which a dog solves a murder.

Como tu had been there and witnessed the murder, and the amazing thing was that he was able to communicate that and lead people to his dead master. He even indicated a suspect. The annals of history record at least one case in which a dog solved a murder.

Do you know of any cases in which a dog helped solve a crime? Has your dog ever been able to communicate something to you?

Literature on point:

Hitzig, “Ein Hund verräth den Mörder seines Herrn,”Annalen der deutschen und ausländischen Kriminal-Rechtspflege, Heft 4 (Berlin: Fernidand Dümmler, 1828) 93- 96.

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