Rachel Schmidt was born in 1760 and spent the early years of her life in the frontier town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. According to Rachel, her parents “instructed me in the fundamental principles of the Christian Religion, and taught me the fear of God.” She also noted that “my father was of a very serious and devout turn of mind, and always made it his constant practice to perform family-prayers in his house every morning and evening; was very careful to call his children and family together every Sabbath-day evening, to hear the holy scriptures, and other pious books read to them each one being obliged, after reading was over, to give an answer to such questions in the Assembly’s Catechism as were proposed to them.”
Unfortunately, a pious, frontier life was not for Rachel. By the time she was a teenager, she had run away from home twice. On the second occasion, she fled to Philadelphia, married a George Wall, and then moved to New York City. After spending three months there, the couple relocated to Boston.
However, upon arrival, George abandoned Rachel, “leaving me an entire stranger.” Having no means to support herself, she became a servant – a position she liked until George returned one day and “enticed me to leave my service and take to bad company, from which I may date my ruin.”
Soon thereafter, Wall fully committed to a life of crime. As she would later confess, “I acknowledge myself to have been guilty of a great many crimes, such as Sabbath-breaking, stealing, lying . . . . and almost every other sin a person could commit, except murder . . . .In short, the many small crimes I have committed, are too numerous to mention . . . and therefore a particular narrative of them here would serve to extend a work of this kind to too great a length.”
One of Rachel’s ventures included “nocturnal excursions” onto ships moored in Boston Harbor. Apparently, she would silently board the vessels, enter the officers’ quarters, and steal their possessions while they slept. In one such instance, Wall recalled “In one of my nocturnal excursions . . . sometime in the spring of 1787 . . . I happened to go on board a ship, lying at the Long-Wharf, in Boston . . . . On my entering the cabin, the door of which not being fastened, and finding the Captain and Mate asleep in their beds, I hunted about for plunder, and discovered under the Captain’s head, a black silk handkerchief containing upwards of thirty pounds, in gold, crowns, and small change, on which I immediately seized the booty and decamped therewith as quick as possible.”
On another occasion, she “broke into a sloop, on board of which I was acquainted, lying at Doane’s Wharf . . . and finding the Captain and every hand on board asleep . . . I looked round to see what I could help myself to, when I espied a silver watch hanging over the Captain’s head, which I pocketed. I also took a pair of silver buckles out of the Captain’s shoes: I likewise made free with a parcel of small change for pocket-money, to make myself merry among my evil companions, and made my escape without being discovered.”
According to Wall, she would often spend the stolen money “in company as lewd and wicked as myself.”
Wall also participated in house breaks. In 1785, she was captured after breaking into attorney Perez Morton’s home. Following a plea of guilty before the court, she was ordered to pay triple damages of eighteen pounds, receive fifteen lashes, and pay court costs. Because she was unable to pay the fines, Wall was quickly sold into servitude for three years.
The experience did little to deter her illicit conduct. Three years later, in 1788, she was once again caught with two accomplices attempting to break into the house of Lemuel Ludden. Wall pled guilty and was sentenced to be whipped, pay restitution and sit on the gallows for one hour with a noose tied around her neck. When she couldn’t pay the fines, she was once again sold into servitude.
On March 27, 1789, seventeen-year-old Margaret Bender was walking to a friend’s house when she felt someone try to pull the bonnet off her head. The teen resisted and fought back. In response, the assailant punched her in the face and then tried to stuff a kerchief in her mouth to silence her. Two men, Thomas Dawes and Charles Berry, heard the disturbance and rushed to Bender’s aid. While Dawes attended to Bender’s injuries, Berry ran after the attacker and eventually seized Wall. He brought her back to Bender, who identified Rachel as her attacker.
When Wall appeared before the court, she surprisingly pled not guilty. Nine people testified at trial but only Bender could identify Wall as her assailant. Defense attorneys argued that Wall was not holding the bonnet when she was captured and thus, was only guilty of attempted robbery. The jury disagreed and found her guilty of highway robbery, a capital crime. Justice William Cushing sentenced Wall to be hung by the neck until dead.
Of course, these criminal exploits were enough to earn Wall some level of notoriety. But what about the assertion that she was also a pirate? Various historians have claimed that during the American Revolution she either served on a privateer that patrolled the waters between Gloucester, Massachusetts and Portsmouth, New Hampshire or served on a pirate vessel that indiscriminately attacked both American and British supply ships near the Isle of Shoals.
Unfortunately, no evidence has ever been produced to verify the claim that Rachel Wall was either. Her own statements allude to a multitude of crimes she committed, but piracy was not one of them. Furthermore, period newspaper accounts of Wall make no reference to her alleged exploits as a pirate or privateer. Finally, there are no court records or witness statements alluding to Wall being prosecuted for crimes on the high seas.
So where did the claim of piracy come from? It appears that this assertion was nothing more than the product of a late 19th Century fabrication. Unfortunately, historian Edward Rowe Snow picked up on the claim and was one of the first to add piracy to her list of misdeeds. Soon others expanded upon Rachel's exploits and by the late 20th Century, Wall had been elevated in some circles to being the first and only female pirate in New England history.
On the night before her execution, Wall dictated her DYING CONFESSION to her gaolers. In it, she continued to maintain her innocence in the robbery and that the witnesses who testified against her were “certainly mistaken”.
On October 8, 1798, Rachel Wall was hanged, along with two other convicts, on the Boston Common. She was the last woman executed in Massachusetts.