Sunday, April 14, 2024

Oddities & Curiosities: Blackbeard’s Head (Part 2)

Edward Teach’s severed head hangs from Maynard’s bowsprit, as pictured in Charles Elles’s The Pirates Own Book (1837) (Courtesy of Wikimedia)
Warning: This story contains historical details that may not be suitable for all readers. Discretion is advised. -Ed.

WILLIAMSBURG — Last week, we started to tell the pirate’s tale of none other than Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. A man whose legend was only matched by who he really was, we left off with Lieutenant Richard Maynard commanding the sloop, “Ranger,” and staring down Blackbeard’s ship, “Adventure.”

An Epic Battle for Blackbeard’s Head

Maynard ordered the sailors aboard “Ranger” to jettison the ship’s ballast and a brief sea battle between the young lieutenant and the feared pirate captain took place. Maynard was right in assuming that his ship was outgunned by Blackbeard’s fleet and knew that he had to get creative if he were to seize the day.

He ordered the crew below deck and to remain silent as a trap to lure Blackbeard off his ship and onboard theirs.

From across Ocracoke Inlet (N.C.), Blackbeard assumed that they killed all personnel aboard “Ranger” and ordered his merry knot of pirates to lay claim to the seemingly abandoned sloop.

However, once upon deck, Blackbeard’s instincts told him that something seemed off. Everything was too still… too calm. There weren’t any bodies, blood nor carnage littering the deck. He turned to his trusted righthand man, a former slave named Caesar, and told him that if anything went wrong, it was up to Caesar to destroy “Adventure” to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.

Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718 depicting the battle between Blackbeard the Pirate and Lieutenant Maynard in Ocracoke Bay (Wikipedia)

It was then that, out of nowhere, Maynard and his crew leapt from below deck and attacked. The battle was epic and rife with gore. A witness later described the water surrounding “Ranger” as “tinctur’d with Blood.” As the bodies fell on deck, the two opposing ships’ captains met face to face for a final showdown.

Maynard didn’t flinch at the smoke billowing around Blackbeard’s face nor the number of weapons his foe was brandishing. With great intensity, the two fought one another, though Blackbeard proved himself the greater of the two.

Just as he readied to kill Maynard, one of “Ranger’s” crewmen jumped on Blackbeard from behind, slitting his throat. The legendary pirate cocked the hammer on his pistol just before collapsing dead upon the ship’s deck. A report later recounted, “Here was an end to that courageous brute, who might have passed in the world for a hero had he been employed in a good cause.”

Following the Battle

Edward Teach’s body lay on deck, riddled with bullets and approximately twenty stab wounds. Only nine of his men survived the ambush aboard “Ranger,” with Caesar attempting an escape to carry on with his now deceased captain’s final wish. However, two of his frightened shipmates held him back from doing so.

Maynard ordered the remaining pirate crew taken into custody and made them watch as he decapitated the legendary pirate. Blackbeard’s headless corpse was tossed into Ocracoke Inlet and the mass of blood and black hair that was his head hung from the bow sprint of “Ranger.”

In the meantime, Alexander Spotswood, the wildly unpopular governor of the Virginia Colony, passed the Act to Encourage the Apprehending and Destroying of Pyrates on Nov. 24, 1718. In it, he offered a ₤100 reward for the capture of Blackbeard, dead or alive. Once word of this was received by Maynard, he was certain that the prized head would be enough for he and his crew to collect on the prize.

Maynard ordered the ship to Bath, where he hoped to find more of Blackbeard’s crew and a bounty the pirate may have hidden. There they found casks of cocoa, loaf sugar, and sweetmeats, all of which were tied to French trade vessels that the pirate crew recently plundered.

Despite orders to do otherwise, Maynard split the riches with his crew as a token of thanks for their bravery and for saving his life in battle. He also was able to capture additional pirates of whom he felt could implicate Secretary of North Carolina Tobias Knight in a conspiracy with the pirates against the Virginia colony.

On January 3, 1719, the “Ranger” returned to Hampton to a hero’s welcome. Upon site of the mangy, desiccated head of Blackbeard, cheers echoed in the air from those who lined the shore to witness just such the occasion.

Maynard took his prisoners to Williamsburg, where they arrived on Jan. 28.

A Piratical Trial

What was left of Blackbeard’s crew was placed in shackles and left to wait at the colonial capital’s public gaol (jail) for trial.

Did You Know…
The typical diet of a prisoner in Williamsburg’s public gaol consisted of “salt beef damaged and Indian meal.” Prisoners who were reported as having gastrointestinal distress were given a “physick” in order to force them to purge.

Prior to the trial, Gov. Spotswood wrote to the Governor’s Council in order to seek council regarding trials for the African and formerly enslaved crewmen. He asked if these trials should fall under different pretenses than the rest of the pirates. It was ultimately decided that these crewmen were subject to the same trial and fate as the others.

Public Gaol at Colonial Williamsburg (WYDaily/Nancy Sheppard)

On March 12, 1719, the trial was scheduled to take place. Due to early eighteenth century maritime law, the defendants were not afforded a trial by jury. Therefore, the crew was to stand trial in front of the Court of Vice-Admiralty. The lack of jury was to the advantage of Gov. Spotswood as he knew that a jury may be sympathetic to the plight of the pirates, considering the common person’s mixed feelings regarding them.

Fifteen pirate prisoners, including Blackbeard’s righthand man, Caesar, were crowded into the courtroom in Williamsburg. Five pirates, including African crewman Israel Hands, testified in a fruitless attempt at garnering some sort of leniency.

Unfortunately, the court transcripts have been long lost to history but the verdict was not. Fourteen of the fifteen men tried were found guilty for piracy and sentenced to hang for their crimes.

The only prisoner acquitted was Samuel Odell, as it was proved definitively beyond a doubt that he was reluctantly aboard “Adventure” at the time of capture and had not participated in any illegal acts. The night before battle, he was onboard for a rousing time of drinking and merriment. With no way to disembark the next day, he was forced to defend himself and sustained injuries during battle. The court deemed that Odell had already suffered enough.

Hangman’s Noose

A new gallows was constructed on Gallows Road (now Capitol Landing Road). It was shaped like a triangle, which would allow for more men to be hung at the same time.

The day before execution. Israel Hands received a pardon from the Crown which stated, “Proclamation for prolonging the time of His majesty’s pardon to such of the Pirates as should surrender by a limited time therein expressed.” He was released with a stern warning to never find himself a participant in such activities or consorting with nefarious types again.

Throngs of residents flocked to the gallows to pay witness to the macabre spectacle, with some even wagering on the prisoners’ fates. Each former pirate was allowed to be attended to by a minister before heavy chains were wrapped around their bodies before being stood on carts at the gallows.

Each man was given the opportunity to speak last words, though what they were has also been lost to history. Heavy ropes tied into nooses were placed around the necks of the frightened prisoners with the knots and chains double checked for good measure.

When the order was given, the carts were pulled out beneath the men. The prisoners’ heavy bodies dropped; their necks snapping. The rather unfortunate, grisly deed was done.

Once it was certain that all thirteen men were dead, their bodies were cut from the gallows, with four selected for public display. Under orders from Gov. Spotswood, two bodies were placed at Tyndall Point in Gloucester and two more along the Rappahannock River in Urbanna. The men’s remains were meant to serve as a grisly reminder to all those who came into the southern Virginia waters how pirates were handled in this part of the colonies.

Blackbeard’s Head

The executions did not provide Spotswood the adulation that he hoped to garner from it. Many felt the punishment was too harsh for the crimes and the loss of inexpensive goods that were once sold by pirates to residents was deeply felt by those who could no longer afford certain things they needed.

Lieutenant Maynard never received the financial prize he felt owed for bringing back the head of the pirate. It was determined that, because he disobeyed orders by handing out the captured bounty to his crew, the money was to go to the two men who recruited Maynard for the mission. He eventually retired from the Royal Navy as a “Master and Commander,” before dying quietly at his home in Kent, England at the age of sixty-seven.

What happened to the head of the infamous pirate?

What was left of the pirate was taken from “Ranger’s” bow sprint and placed on a pole at a junction for the Hampton and James rivers. Today, this spot is known as “Blackbeard’s Point.”

Ocracoke Inlet (Wikipedia)

Eventually, all that remained was his skull, which was eventually taken off display. Local lore says that it was turned into a grotesque punchbowl. The truth is, like the trial transcript and the last words of his crew, the last of his corporeal remains have been lost to history with no human artifact ever found. The whereabouts of the rest of the pirates’ remains another mystery for the ages with much speculation but no concrete evidence to support.

However, on a still night when the moon shines over Ocracoke Inlet, keep a watchful eye on the sea. Some say that the ghost of Edward Teach swims in the water, still searching for his long-lost head.

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