There are criminals who are remembered only during their lifetime, and then there are those who live in infamy. The 18th century pirate Blackbeard is such a figure.
The Scourge of the Caribbean
He carved out a niche for himself terrorizing the Caribbean where he and his group of bandits seized ships and looted cargo. His exploits stretched across the Atlantic from the Carolina’s in America to New Providence in the Bahamas. People around he globe spread news about his thievery inciting tall tales, books, and films to be ade about him over the years. The stories fulfilled the public’s need to learn bout Blackbeard without having to actually be in his posse.
Born Edward Teach in Bristol, England around 1680 according to author Sue Hamilton in her biography of the pirate, tales of Blackbeard’s exploits became a source of peculation for historians, literary writers, and filmmakers alike. Hamilton describes Blackbeard as a Master of Fear which aided him in persuading his victims o acquiesce to his demands.
Author Patrick O’Brien also wrote about the pirate as a towering figure during the Golden Age of Piracy. His presence was so ominous in the Caribbean that it compels modern filmmakers to include him in stories about the Caribbean such as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” film series which had Blackbeard’s flagship vessel Queen Anne’s Revenge make an appearance in the 2003 installment “The Curse of the Black Pearl”. Since Blackbeard is mainly based on lore, filmmakers have needed to take artistic liberties when portraying him. Some interpretations attribute redeeming qualities to him such as the 1968 comedy “Blackbeard’s Ghost” while most adapt a more dramatic depiction of him like the 2006 film “Blackbeard: Terror at Sea” starring James Purefoy.
Though Blackbeard never sat for his portrait to be made, people have a preconceived image about what he looked like. The contestant Rupert Boneham from the 2010 season of the TV show “Survivor” was nicknamed Blackbeard because he fit everyone’s preconception of what the pirate looked like in his day.
Blackbeard spent a number of years honing a lucrative business in crime. His raids peaked and terminated in the same year. In May 1718, Blackbeard’s flotilla set up a blockade at the port of Charleston, South Carolina so no ships could enter or leave the port without paying Blackbeard’s price. At this time, Blackbeard gave himself the title of Commodore and was at the height of his game.
In July 1718, Alexander Spotswood, the Governor of Virginia was frustrated with law enforcers in the Carolina’s who failed to rein in Blackbeard and his posse. Their thievery was disrupting Virginia’s commerce, so he rendered the services of US naval officer Lieutenant Robert Maynard to capture Blackbeard, and in November 1718, Maynard and his men cornered Blackbeard and his posse anchored off of Ocracoke Island. According to the accounts, a brutal battle ensued in which Maynard’s men killed Blackbeard. They severed the pirate’s head and hoisted it atop of Maynard’s bow. The headless body was tossed over board and according to rumor, it circled around the ship. The tale added to Blackbeard’s legacy and mystic as a criminal who lived on beyond his death.
The American outlaw Jesse James had a very different story from Blackbeard,though he too lives on in infamy. James’ picture appeared on Wanted posters throughout America during and after the Civil War (1861-1865). He is widely known for his brass robberies and shameless murders. His exploits made him into a formidable character in America’s Wild West, and a tragic figure that became fodder for Hollywood’s movie industry. A number of Hollywood productions offer depictions of Jesse James including the 2001 film “American Outlaws”, Tyrone Power’s 1939 flix “Jesse James”, and the made for TV series “The Legend of Jesse James” which aired from 1965 to 1966.
James’ infractions began at the cusp of the Civil War when he was barely 14 years old. Born in Clay County, Missouri in 1847, James’ family was in the middle of the tension between the pro-slave Confederates and the anti-slave Unionists. His family owned farmland and slaves so he and his older brother Frank joined the gangs of Confederate sympathizers who engaged in guerilla warfare to combat the Unionists.
When the Confederates surrendered to the Unionists to end the Civil War, the gang’s activities accelerated and became more aggressive. They engaged in acts of robbery canvassing banks, trains, and stagecoaches. They justified their actions under the guise that the group was exacting revenge on the Republican Unionists who impoverished the Confederates and held a majority of the country’s wealth, although many of the people that the gang killed were not Republicans or Unionist soldiers.
Jesse James was brought into the spotlight by a former Confederate cavalryman John Newman Edwards who was the editor and founder of the Kansas City Times. His articles made Jesse James sound like a defender of the people, a modern day Robin Hood only James and his gang kept all the booty they stole. Edwards’s articles managed to influence sectors of public opinion to favor James and his gang. At one point in 1875, Missouri legislators nearly granted James and his gang amnesty for their crimes. They were particularly swayed after an attempt to capture James on his homestead failed in 1874. His mother was maimed in the incident and his stepbrother was killed which garnered greater public support for James and his gang.
James’ gang disbanded after a bank robbery in Minnesota in 1876 went awry leaving several members killed. His brother Frank abandoned their life of crime, but Jesse continued and formed a new gang with Charles and Robert Ford. When Robert Ford shot Jesse in the back of the head in 1882, he received a quick pardon from Missouri’s Governor Thomas Crittenden. The swift measure caused people to suspect that the Governor had conspired with the Ford brothers to have Jesse James killed.
James’ killing added to his public sympathy. In 1989, the chanteuse Cher recorded the hit song “Just like Jesse James” written by Desmond Child and Diane Warren with lyrics making a reference to the American outlaw. Additionally, rock musician Jon Bon Jovi and his wife named their first born son Jesse James after the American outlaw. The lore surrounding Jesse James has made him into a hero even amidst all the bloodshed at his and his gang’s hands.
Jack The Ripper
Legends like Blackbeard and Jesse James seem like child’s play compared to Jack the Ripper. The malevolent slasher repeatedly eluded authorities taunting the public to speculate about his identity and profession. The motives for his murders had not been to rob his victims or to gain public attention, rather he killed for more subversive reasons that still puzzle investigators and historians today.
The moniker “Jack the Ripper” was given to the unidentified serial killer who murdered five prostitutes all within 1888. Their bodies were found in the slums of East London, particularly in and around the Whitechapel district. Other nicknames applied to the killer at the time include “The Whitechapel Murderer” and “Leather Apron”, but “Jack the Ripper” is the name that the killer is best known by around the world.
The five victims who are widely believed to be murdered by Jack the Ripper include Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. It was the way in which these women were killed that linked them to the Ripper. Their throats had all been deeply slashed. In some cases, their faces had been hacked and their abdominal areas mutilated. Butchers, surgeons, and physicians were suspected because of the manner of the mutilations but no one was ever charged for the murders due to lack of evidence.
The media’s attention of these killings generated an urban lore around the Ripper. Jack the Ripper was the first serial killer to create a worldwide frenzy and manhunt. The term “ripperlogy” was coined by Colin Wilson in the 1970’s to refer to the study and analysis of the Ripper cases.
Similarly to the lore about Blackbeard and Jesse James, Jack the Ripper inspired multiple works of fiction not to mention the guided tours which go through Whitechapel each year for tourists who want to re-trace the steps of the Ripper’s victims and murders. The artistic communities have taken liberties with the Ripper making him into a cannibal in the 1971 thriller “Seven Murders for Scotland Yard”and having schizophrenic tendencies in M. J. Trow’s book “The Many Faces of Jack the Ripper”.
Blackbeard, Jesse James, and Jack the Ripper are infamous and remain alive in lore. They are bad guys whom modern society won’t let go of and continue to speculate about, even though everyone knows nobody will ever know what drove them to a life of crime.