Captain William Kidd: Pirate and New York City Forebear

Posted on: September 4th, 2014 at 10:35 am by
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A piece about pirates and New York.

Hello, 17th century. Welcome to the newborn New York; not necessarily the island that comes to mind when thinking of pirates and their swashbuckling tales of plunder.

Nevertheless, here making port and home was one of the most infamous pirates of them all, Captain William Kidd, pictured in the illustration above. Perfection. No idea where I found it so many years ago. I believe it was Harper’s Weekly.

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Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930) Captain Kidd in NY Harbor upon his arrival

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“The Legend of New Amsterdam” by Peter Spier

Fledgling New York in the 1690s was crawling with buccaneers, but none quite as enduring as Kidd.

England and France were at war as per usual for the time. Each country commissioned private vessels to attack the opposing fleets. Privateers and pirates (same difference) all carried “Letters of Marque” which permitted them to get away with basically, well, everything. ‘Twas like a piece of paper that made the illegal not. The first such Letter was issued in 1243 by Henry III of England, and became a common practice for the next six centuries. When the Declaration of Paris was signed in 1856, this type of legitimized piracy was outlawed.

Below is the Letter of Marque which King William III issued to Captain William Kidd in 1695 (seriously, WikiCommons has this gem).

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Three years later in 1698, Captain William Kidd, while on break from commandeering ships and wealth, lent his runner/block (machine to hoist stones) and donated money to help build Trinity Church. Yes, that is correct – the first Trinity Church was, in part, built by a pirate. Yet we have a timeline carbuncle here.

Trinity Church in its third incarnation says this:

In our Vestry Meeting Minutes from January 6, 1982, it is noted in the Rector’s report that:

“Captain Kidd, the infamous pirate who died on the gallows, was never a Vestryman of Trinity Parish in spite of the claim made by “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” He was on the pew list of 1696 and lent equipment for raising stones of the first Trinity Church. Since Captain Kidd left New York in September of 1696, two years before Trinity held its first service, he never worshiped in the church.”

However, Kidd did not leave New York in 1696. He arrived that year, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

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(Nerd Alert)

Here’s an illustrative glimpse of NY in the the late 1600s from Edwin G. Burrows’ and Mike Wallace’s Gotham:

Pirate money pulsed through New York. “This boodling was worth a hundred thousand pounds a year to the city…Tavern keepers, whores, retailers and others flourished as buccaneers swaggered through the streets with purses full of hard money — Arabian dinars, Hindustani mohurs, Greek byzants, French louis d’or, Spanish doubloons.”

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Kidd on the Deck of the Adventure Galley by Howard Pyle

New York merchants such as Stephen De Lancey – you know all about his son, James – financed ships that sailed across the seas, even selling weapons to New York pirates along the way.  Shares invested in these voyages were openly traded in taverns along Wall Street, one of which, the Tontine Coffee House, became the home of the New York Stock Exchange.

Side note about Stephen – he was born Etienne de Lancy in France and arrived in NYC by way of England (after fleeing French Catholic persecution) on June 6, 1686.

Delancey changed his name, married Anne van Cortlandt (gawd, this whole first families intermarriage is endless) and built a house on land purchased by his father-in-law on Pearl St.  Their home, 54 Pearl Street is now known as Fraunces Tavern after Samuel Fraunces who purchased it in 1762. As you’ll see below it was quite the neighborhood.

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54 Pearl, 1832. Courtesy Of Fraunces Tavern Museum

This was Kidd’s home, a stately white house (possibly number 119 Pearl) on the corner of Hanover Square and Pearl Street, the street made up of oyster shells, just steps up from the Water Gate that once stood at the intersection of Wall and Pearl.

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A happy life until Kidd encountered the Quedagh Merchant vessel in January of 1698. It would ultimately prove fatal.

From Robert C. Ritchie’s Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates:

…an Armenian ship that carried gold, silk, spices, silver and other valuable merchandise. It was captained by an Englishman…It, however, carried French passes to ensure safe passage [Letters of Marque] by the French. Because of these French passes, Kidd considered its capture to be in accordance with his commission and therefore claimed the ship. It was, however, not a French vessel…

….A large portion of his crew mutinied…. Kidd and his remaining crew of 16 chose to sail the Quedagh Merchant, which he renamed the Adventure Prize. Eventually he made it to the Caribbean where he learned that he had been labeled a pirate … Captain Kidd was captured in Boston, arrested and sent to England for trial.

During his trial the French passes of the Quedagh Merchant could not be found… As punishment for his crimes he was hung in May of 1701 at Execution Dock. His body was left in an iron cage for public display over the River Thames for years. The sight of his rotting body was meant to be a warning to pirates.

….The belief that he buried treasure has played a part in the vision of him as a pirate. Although the buried treasure has never been found, the remains of the Adventure Prize, or Quedagh Merchant, was discovered in 2007 in the Connecticut River.

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Below is some footage of the wreckage discovery … try not to wish you had a job like this.

My name was Captain Kidd, when I sail’d, when I sail’d,

And so wickedly I did, God’s laws I did forbid,

When I sail’d, when I sail’d.

I roam’d from sound to sound, And many a ship I found

And them I sunk or burn’d. When I sail’d.

I murder’d William Moore, And laid him in his gore,

Not many leagues from shore, When I sail’d.

Farewell to young and old, All jolly seamen bold,

You’re welcome to my gold, For I must die, I must die.

Farewell to Lunnon town, The pretty girls all round,

No pardon can be found, and I must die, I must die,

Farewell, for I must die. Then to eternity, in hideous misery,

I must lie, I must lie.


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