Captain Kidd: From Untold Riches to the Hangman’s Noose

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William Kidd, privateer, pirate. 18th century portrait by Sir James Thornhill.

Captain Kidd was either a bloodthirsty pirate of his own volition, or else a victim of mutinous circumstances beyond his control. The result was the same: a hanging.

Captain William Kidd –no relation whatever to Billy the Kid– was born in Scotland, either in 1645 or 1654, and died in 1701 when he had a date with the hangman’s noose.

Kidd was a well-regarded and able man of the seas. Who better to call on than Kidd when, in 1695, King William III of England as well as other posh, powdered, periwigged and prestigious financial backers were in the market for a pirate purger of the seas. The captured spoils were to be divided among Kidd and his illustrious backers.

Kidd was given command of the Adventure and 155 seamen and set off in May to get after those “wicked and ill-disposed persons who were committing many and great pyraces to the great danger and hurt of our loving subjects.”

Nothing for a very long time was heard from Captain Kidd. It seems that while he was supposed to be out catching “pyrates,” he himself had become one.

At some point Kidd’s Adventure met with a misadventure: despite it being a brand-new ship, leaks abounded; it could not be kept afloat and was soon abandoned. All its cannons and contents were transferred to the recently captured French ship the Queda.

It is relevant to note that a large portion of Kidd’s crew became increasingly mutinous as time went on as Kidd refrained from, at least at this point, attacking and plundering sufficient numbers of ships to suit their piratical needs In fact, much of Kidd’s hand-picked crew he had set out with had been pressed into service by the passing HMS Duchess shortly after the Adventure had set out from England, and Kidd’s new crew was made up largely of criminals and former pirates.

One William Moore, a gunner and strong supporter of the mutinous elements, challenged Kidd on deck on October 30, 1697, the result of which was that Moore was the unhappy recipient of an ironbound bucket crashing into his head, thus killing him as ironbound buckets are wont to do when hurled with sufficient force.

Perhaps goaded on by his crew or fearful of his crew carrying out a full-fledged mutiny, Kidd resorted to indiscriminately attacking other vessels more and more as time went on.

HMS warships were eventually sent out to capture Kidd, who was found in Boston, after which he was brought back to London to stand trial. Charges were trumped up and the proceedings speeded up. Kidd was not allowed a defense attorney. He was accused of high-sea piracy and the murder of William Moore. Kidd professed his innocence, claiming that he had been at the mercy of the mutinous elements on board his ship and, besides, he said, he could prove that most of the ships he’d attacked were within the bounds of his commission. The only trouble was that the documents proving this had somehow been misfiled by the court and were unavailable at the time of the trial.

Kidd was hanged on May 23, 1701. He was lucky yet unlucky at the same time. The first rope put around his neck snapped. Would he now be spared? No, not a chance. A second rope was immediately furnished, and this time it held. As an example to other aspiring young would-be pirates, Kidd’s body was put in a cage contraption known as a gibbet along the Thames, and there left to rot. It would be many years before it was taken down. His English backers, though tainted by the piracy scandal, kept their estates and power.

Most of the limited evidence points the way to his being 47 on the day of his death, while Paul Lorain, the minister in attendance at Kidd’s execution in London, reported that his age was 56. However, Kidd’s excessive alcoholic ways in his final years may have made him appear much older than he really was.

Though Kidd may have died, the persistent rumors of a buried treasure belonging to him have not. Various possible locations include then-isolated areas in the vicinity of Plymouth, Cape Cod, Long Island and even Manhattan. Treasure hunters, weekend adventurers and fools galore continue to search.

If you ever happen to be out for a walk in some out-of-the way part of Long Island and suddenly fall into a hole, you can probably thank one of the treasure hunters from a previous century or decade. But if you have a shovel on you, you might like to dig further down in that hole, because you never know: the person who first began digging it might simply not have dug deep enough for the treasure.