The spring of 1839 was a time of desperate measures along Florida coastline from St. Marks to St. Joseph (Port St. Joe). Revenue cutters. civilian posses and U.S. Army troops tried to find and capture an unusually large crew of pirates responsible for a series of bloody attacks.
These outlaws had commandeered three vessels and badly wounded the first mate of a fourth, killing several men in the process. To learn more about these crimes, please read the two previous articles in this series: Pirates at St. Marks, Florida! and Pirates of Cape San Blas, Florida.
Captain J.D. Wilson of the General Parkhill, one of the vessels attacked by the pirates, continued his journey to Liverpool and then New York from Apalachicola. It was in New York that his story took a bizarre twist as Wilson himself was arrested:
Flogging a Negro – W. Dayton Willson, Master of the ship General Parkhill, was brought up before Justice Kirtland, charged with cruelly treating a huge negro called Ceasar Forbes, cook of the vessel. It appeared that the negro had been guilty of some mal practices, respecting the Captain’s ducks, neglected the crew’s meals, and to climax his offences cheated the Captain out of his dinner. For all these misdeeds, the Captain determined to flog the cook, and that too in presence of the ship’s company. For the purpose he piped all hands, seized up the cook and directed the second mate to lay on. When the cook had taken two dozen he began “to slew round,” and the Captain to keep his shoulders square took a capstan bar to pry him back again. Somehow or other this weapon, either by accident or design, slipped and hit the cook on the head. This was the assault complained of. – (New York Herald, August 21, 1839).
The complaint against the captain was dismissed, however, after the judge ruled that he did not have jurisdiction to hear the case. He suggested to the unfortunate cook that he “sue the Captain in a civil suit.”
The captain’s dealings with the law were far from over. Almost immediately after being released on the charges of battering his ship’s cook, he ran face to face into one of the pirates that had seized his ship off St. Marks!
…[Y]esterday afternoon as he was crossing the Park near the post office, who should he meet but the veritable Lionel Watson, his former second officer. – Capt. W. immediately seized upon Watson, and procuring the necessary aid marched him off to the police. He was temporarily committed by justice Bloodgood, until capt. W. had time to make affidavit of the facts relative to the piracy, before the U.S. district attorney when he was fully committed for examination before the proper authorities. – [New York Observer, reprinted in Niles National Register, August 31, 1839].
The alleged pirate’s name turned out to be John Watson. Lionel was a pseudonym. He entered a not guilty plea to robbing Captain Wilson and was thrown into prison to await trial. He was eventually convicted for his role in the attack but was pardoned by the President of the United States before he could meet his fate on the gallows.
Watson was not the only former member of the ship to be captured in unusual circumstances. John Barney, the former first mate of the General Parkhill and now a captain in his own right, was walking down a street in Liverpool, England, when he suddenly found himself face to face with another of the pirates.
John Allain, one of the men allegedly involved in the brutal attack on Barney, was taken into custody and soon brought before a tribunal of judges, one of whom was the United States Consul. Barney related the circumstances of the taking of the ship off St. Marks, but the British judges quickly realized that they faced jurisdictional issues in hearing the case:
…It was intimated, of course without any knowledge of the fact by the magistrate, that the Oxford packet ship would sail on the following day. Mr. Rushton said, he had no power to detain the prisoner: he must be discharged. The prisoner looked greatly elated on hearing this intelligence. He was permitted to leave the dock, and was discharged from English custody. He was no sooner out of the frying pan, however, than he found himself in the fire. He was taken possession of by the Consul and Captain Barney, and two or three of our police officers accompanied them down to the Oxford, just to see that the peace was not broken. – (Liverpool Chronicle, reprinted in the Boston Weekly Messenger, August 7, 1839).
Allain was sent to New York to stand trial in a U.S. District Court, but he quickly proved that he was unwilling to risk being convicted and sentenced to hang for murder and piracy. He waited for the right opportunity to escape and it came when the ship on which he was sailing arrived at quarantine off New York Harbor:
…Allain contrived to effect his escape – his irons having been removed by some of the ship’s crew. He escaped over the ship’s side, swam about three miles down the bay, where he went ashore. He then got on board an oyster boat, and came up to the city. He immediately shipped on board the brig Ewes, bound to Campeachy. Thence he sailed to Havana, and there he shipped on board a vessel bound to Savannah. While in the latter port he was recognized by the mate of the Howard, from whom he previously escaped. – (Pensacola Gazette, July 4, 1840).
Allain was arrested by the U.S. marshal at Savannah and soon found himself back in New York for trial. His eventual fate will take a bit more research to uncover.
Most of the pirates involved in the series of attacks off St. Marks and St. Joseph appear to have escaped justice, at least in the United States. Their bloody rash of piratical activity soon faded from memory and their eventual fates remain unknown.
Watch for more pirate stories soon at www.exploresouthernhistory.com