It was all folks could talk about. In shops and at church, in bars and on street corners, people were saying the same thing over and over. “Have you heard the latest in the trial? How do you think it’s going to turn out?”
Sound like South Carolina in 2023? Try South Carolina in 1718.
Three centuries earlier, our ancestors were utterly captivated by another Lowcountry trial. In fact, there were more than a dozen trials in rapid succession over several weeks that autumn with almost five dozen defendants. And it is no stretch to say South Carolina had a lot riding on the outcome.
This is the story of Charleston’s Pirate Trials.
Piracy was a very serious problem in the early 18th century. South Carolina was an English colony barely five decades old. The sea was its link to the outside world. Immigrants and the goods it needed came in by ship; the crops it harvested for export went out the same way. And that link was threatened by pirates.
Their plundering was so rampant, the era was known as the Golden Age of Piracy. It was no mere inconvenience; it was a severe blow to South Carolina’s bottom line.
It’s important to understand at the outset that these weren’t the cute, lovable “Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum” scamps found in Disneyland. There was no Johnny Depp’s flamboyant Capt. Jack Sparrow. They were cutthroats who robbed, raped, and murdered with a criminal organization every bit as ruthless, and just as deadly, as today’s drug cartels.
When Britain’s navy cracked down on piracy in the Caribbean, many of the seagoing bad guys fled to North Carolina’s barren coastline and operated from there, preying on Virginia and South Carolina’s nautical lifelines.
Foremost among them was the infamous Blackbeard, a man as brazen and cunning as he was evil. He had the nerve to blockade the port of Charleston in May 1718 for a week looting several ships, taking hostages, and threatening to kill some of them unless he was given a chest of medical supplies. (Which he got, and then sailed away.)
After several other humiliating incidents, the colonists finally had enough. They sent Col. William Rhett and a handful of armed ships to catch the scoundrels. The South Carolinians caught up with them at Cape Fear. After a pitched battle that would have made an action movie proud, the pirate ship Revenge was captured and its crew hauled back to Charleston to stand trial. Among the prisoners was Stede Bonnet, the so-called “Gentleman Pirate.” Despite his genteel nickname, Bonnet was a criminal honcho. It was a major bust, to put it in today’s lingo.
A second punitive raid that fall, this one led by Gov. Robert Johnson himself, resulted in another naval fight and the driving off of more pirates.
In Charleston, 58 men accused of piracy were prosecuted in 13 separate trials held in rapid succession over five weeks. South Carolina’s first newspaper was still more than a dozen years off. But we have an excellent account of what happened thanks to a book called “The Tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, and Other Pirates” that was printed in London the next year.
The trials commenced on October 28 and continued into November. To say public interest in the proceedings was keen would be an understatement. The pirates had made life miserable for the colonists; now those colonists wanted to see the pirates receive the painful end of justice.
Two pirates turned state’s evidence (or rather, King’s evidence) and ratted out their crewmates for clemency. Space doesn’t permit delving into the fascinating details of the cases. Suffice it to say the justice colonists demanded was swift and severe.
By the end of 1718, 49 pirates were dispatched to the Hereafter at the end of a rope. Among them: The notorious Stede Bonnet. But these were no ordinary hangings.
(Click to view)
The condemned pirates were strung up at the extreme southernmost part of White Point on the beach within sight of ships. The location was not coincidental. It was intended to discourage sailors from joining the pirate’s ranks.
Evidence suggests the bodies were left hanging for a while to make sure the message got through.
Piracy gradually faded away over the next few years. Other sensational public trials came and went with time. But few, if any, dominated public interest the way the Pirate Trials did in 1718.
(Note: A tip of the editorial hat to Dr. Nic Butler, historian at the Charleston County Public Library, whose superb research helped make this story possible.)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ...
J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at [email protected].
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