Friday, December 28, 2018

"I Acknowledge Myself to Have Been Guilty of a Great Many Crimes" - The Notorious Thief Rachel Wall

While the nerds were recently researching privateer activities in Newburyport and Salem, we came across several secondary references to a female pirate named Rachel Wall. Who was this woman and why couldn’t we locate any first-hand accounts of her misdeeds on the high seas?

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.


Sunday, December 9, 2018

Think Massachusetts Militiamen Carried Hatchets on April 19, 1775? Think Again ....

On the eve of the American Revolution, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and its Committee of Safety were scrambling to arm its minute man and militia companies with bayonets. By April 14, 17775, only 10,108 bayonets existed for 21,549 muskets. So how did Massachusetts authorities address this shortage?

Some modern historians, as well as many reenactors, believe minute and militiamen simply armed themselves with hatchets, tomahawks or axes. Unfortunately, existing evidence does not support such a proposition. Instead, it appears that hatchets were seen either as camp tools or as a last choice substitution for bayonets. As a result, the extensive carrying of hatchets by reenactors at living history events may be an over-representation of their intended and actual use on April 19, 1775.

First, a review of Massachusetts militia laws from the 18th Century (1700 - 1775) reveals a single reference to the use of hatchets. Specifically, in 1757, Massachusetts Bay Colony revised its militia laws and started to place an emphasis on men acquiring bayonets. The law does indicate that swords were an acceptable substitute and hatchets were to be treated as a last choice. Specifically, “that any Soldier born on the training Lists in the several Regiments, shall be excluded from any Penalty for not being furnished with Swords, in Case they provide themselves and appear with good Hatchets.”

A review of the resolutions of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and the Committee of Safety between October 1774 and April 1775 suggests there was no recommendation for hatchets, tomahawks or axes to be treated as combat weapons. Typically, Congress’ recommendations for arms and equipment of minute companies stated “that each of the minute men, not already provided therewith, should be immediately equipped with an effective firearm, bayonet, pouch, knapsack, thirty rounds of cartridges and balls.”  Any reference to hatchets or tomahawks is noticeably absent.

Likewise, a search of the 1774 and 1775 minutes of both the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and the Committee of Safety for various terms synonymous with "hatchets" yielded negative results. For example, a search of the term “tomahawk” produced no results. The term “hatchet” yielded three references, however each was part of correspondence to Native American Tribes. The term “axe” revealed several results, but the item always appeared in conjunction with the terms “shovels”, “spades” and “pick-axes”; which suggests Massachusetts authorities viewed the item as a camp tool rather than a combat weapon.

On the local level, a review of several dozen Massachusetts town orders and resolutions regarding the arms and equipment of its militia and minute companies produced not a single instance of tomahawks or hatchets being ordered as a substitute for bayonets. Similarly, most towns hired local carpenters to modify gun stocks, blacksmiths to make bayonets and edged weapons and saddlers to make cartridge boxes and belting. Surprisingly, there is no known evidence of local tradesmen receiving compensation for the production of hatchets for local minute or militia companies. Finally, a review of the available 1775 returns of arms and equipment for provincial forces does not make any reference to tomahawks or hatchets. For example, A Return of the [Chelmsford] Company of the 7th Regiment of Militia in the County of Middlesex lists canteens, blankets, ramrods, priming wires and brushes and cartridge boxes, but makes no note of hatchets or tomahawks. 

Naturally, some historians have pointed towards the “scalping” incident of a British soldier at the Battle of Concord as evidence that militiamen were armed with hatchets. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that a hatchet or tomahawk was actually used in the incident. In fact, one period descriptions implies the soldier may have been beaten with a blunt instrument and then mutilated with a knife or sword, not a hatchet. As General Gage noted, several of his soldiers in Concord “observed three Soldiers on the Ground one of them scalped, his Head much mangled, and his Ears cut off, tho’ not quite dead; a Sight which struck the Soldiers with horror.”

Of course, the nerds want to be clear that we are not saying tomahawks and hatchets were NOT used by Massachusetts minute and militia companies. A 1776 document purported to be from a Bristol County, Massachusetts militia regiment states "List of Men & accouterments of Each man [illegible words] Regiment in Bristol County [Massachusetts] . . . Men including officers - 678, Firearms - 446, Ramrods - 129, Springs - 9, Worms - 160, Priming wires -193, Brushes - 138, Bayonets - 175, Scabbards - 142, Belts - 181, Cutting swords & hatchets - 255, Cartridge box and powder - 274, Buckshot - 10373, Jackknives - 403, Tow for men - 258 flints for men - 2084, pounds powder - 244 1/2, Bullets - 11934, Knapsack - 365, Blankets - 386, Canteens - 295."

Right out of the gate we should note we do have a concern with this document because no one has seen the original. For the past two decades, only a transcription of this privately owned record exists. 

Nevertheless, assuming that the information is accurate, of the 678 men enlisted in this regiment, 255 were carrying swords or hatchets. Unfortunately, what the breakdown is between the two items is unknown. That said, what is of note is that an almost an equal amount (248 men) carried no edged weapons while an additional 175 carried bayonets.   Thus, in a best case scenario, approximately thirty-six percent of the men in this regiment carried hatchets. However, a more likely scenario is approximately twenty percent of the regiment, or two in every ten men, may have carried a hatchet. 

So where did the idea that minute and militiamen used hatchets extensively as a substitute for bayonets come from? Most likely it came from Galvin’s The Minute Men. In that work, the author does suggest that “many” militiamen utilized hatchets as an edged weapon of choice.   Naturally, many historians and reenactors simply ran with the concept and the idea spread.

Obviously, this issue needs to be examined more closely. That said, living historians who portray militiamen who fought at the Battles of Lexington and Concord may want to rethink whether or not a hatchet is an appropriate addition to their respective kits.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

"Massacred By The Inhabitants There" - The Mysterious Death of Captain Thomas Parsons

Yesterday, a c. 1757 needlework sampler by Sarah Sawyer of Newburyport was posted on a facebook page and quickly caught our attention. However, it wasn’t the sampler itself that peaked our interest but rather the reference to Sarah’s late husband. According to the post, Sawyer “was the second wife of Thomas Parsons . . . They married on July 18, 1762, and resided in Newburyport. Thomas Parsons was a mariner who was thought to have been murdered aboard his ship in February of 1772.”

Naturally, any reference to murder or intrigue is going to inspire the nerds to dig further. Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding the demise of Captain Parsons and his crew still remains a mystery.

Thomas Parsons was born April 29, 1739 in Newbury, Massachusetts and was the son of a very well respected Congregationalist minister. His first wife, Mary Gibson, died in August, 1761. Less than a year later, in July of 1762 he married Sarah Sawyer. The couple had three daughters, the last of whom was born in 1771.

From what little information we can gather, Captain Parsons commanded a small schooner with a crew of eight men. On February 10, 1772, the vessel departed Newburyport for the West Indies. While off the coast of St. Mary’s, Nova Scotia, the ship was possibly boarded by local mariners.  According to Joshua Coffin’s 19th Century narrative, A Sketch of the History of Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury, the crew “were massacred by the inhabitants there, after plundering the vessel, and setting it on fire.”

The incident understandably horrified New Englanders and royal authorities quickly moved in to arrest the perpetrators. Evidence suggests the men responsible went into hiding. While it is unknown what happened to most of the men, at least one, Bezel Bonderot, remained on the lamb for over four years.

In April of 1776, Captain Hector McNeil of Boston somehow encountered Bezel in an unknown port and learned that he was one of the persons responsible for the murder of Parsons and his crew. The ship captain seized Bezel and transported him to New York City for prosecution.

On July 19, 1776, the Newburyport based newspaper Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet reprinted a New York City account of what happened next: 

“Last Sunday one Bezel Bonderot, a native of Nova Scotia, was brought to this city from Canada, charged with being a principal in the murder of Captain Thomas Parsons and eight other persons, in Nova Scotia, in February, 1772. Soon after this murder was perpetrated, he fled his country and has been wandering from place to place ever since, till last April, when he was providentially detected by Captain Hector McNeil, properly secured and sent forward to receive the just reward of his crime. He was yesterday sent on from this city to Newbury Port, the place where Captain Parsons last lived, for examination and trial.”

Unfortunately, the story ends here.  What became of Bezel after his departure from New York City is unknown. There is no record of him reaching Newburyport or being prosecuted in Essex County for the murder of Thomas Parsons.  Newburyport and Massachusetts records are silent on the matter as well.

Hopefully we’ll be able to get to the bottom of this mystery soon!