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The Confession of Albert Hicks: the last pirate of New York

The dubious honour of being the last American executed for piracy went to Albert W Hicks in 1860. Soon after he died, Robert M de Witt published The Life, Trial, Confession and Execution of Albert W Hicks. De Witt was a prolific publisher of quickly written and cheaply produced potboiler-style publications collectively called ‘dime novels’. A dime novel (often sold for more or less than 10 cents) was a superficial and lurid story designed to appeal to a wide audience and produced entirely for entertainment. The key to a successful dime novel was the ability to write huge amounts of text very quickly. Dime novel publishers like de Witt sought to sell new titles every week so these small books were never intended to be an accurate historical record or even to be kept for long periods of time. Hicks, it seemed, sought to capitalise on the intense media interest in him while recognising the value of a good pirate story as a way to provide income for his wife and child.

Hicks was prosecuted and convicted in New York for the murder of the three other crewmen onboard the oyster sloop E A Johnson. He protested his innocence throughout his five day trial. Then, a month before he was due to die, he dramatically confessed not just to the E A Johnson murders but to raiding and plundering in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans for twenty years without detection. His survival, said Hicks, was proof of the ‘protection of a superior power he had felt his whole life.’ This statement conflicted with how impressively quickly he was arrested and the trail of witnesses to his movements after abandoning the blood-soaked ship he left behind him.

US Marshal Rynders tasked Mr G W Clackner with recording Hicks’ confession in the presence of the deputy marshal assigned to him, Lorenzo de Angelis. In a letter to the New York Times, Lorenzo wrote that Mr Clackner had recorded it ‘word for word’. Lorenzo then arranged for the Confession to be forwarded to Robert de Witt. He then quickly published it with the details of his arrest, trial, execution, and, as was common at the time, a short analysis of his phrenological character: how the bumps in his head predetermined his life of crime.

Hicks proved a master storyteller. He filled the narrative with mutinies, raids, murders, buried treasure, highway robberies, Californian gold heists, great wealth lost to gambling and carousing, chivalrous acts towards women, hurricanes, not one but two sole-survivor shipwreck stories, and a ‘series of adventures almost too numerous to mention’. All of this appeared before his confession to the E A Johnson murders. Wrote the New York Times, ‘his so-called confessions, for which he seeks a notoriety for crimes which, from the nature of the circumstances, he could not have committed, must be accepted with great caution’.

While the arrest and trial information matches the other public records on it, the confession reads as ridiculously over-exaggerated. Yet despite the absence of any real dates, it did follow an accurate historical chronology. Some aspects of Hicks’ story connected, either deliberately or coincidentally, with similar events. Whoever constructed the story knew their history of the Pacific coast of America in the 1840s and 1850s. For example, Hicks mentioned an altercation with the US store ships Southampton and Lexington in Monterey after the California Campaign (1846-1847) of the Mexican-American War. A news article confirmed both ships were in port at Monterey in October 1848. He also said he thought many of his gang’s crimes in California were probably attributed to the ‘notorious Joaquin’. Joaquin was a real person who plundered, robbed and slaughtered victims in the mountains of southern California during the early 1850s. It’s also possible Hicks borrowed a story about plundering several Portuguese and Spanish ships and murdering the crews from a Spaniard called Cambiaso. Cambiaso engaged in piracy around the Magellan Strait in the early 1850s before being executed in 1852. Some of the more unusual ship names he mentioned, such as the Charles Mallory of Mystic and the Fanny Fosdick, were real ships.

Lorenzo de Angelis was adamant the ‘Confession’ came directly from Hicks and ‘there is no doubt of its truth’. While he earlier said Mr Clackner had written it ‘word for word’ he conceded that it was ‘not in [Hicks’] own words, [because] his command of language [was] exceedingly limited.’ How much of it was true and how much of it really came from Alfred Hicks, well, I expect only Robert de Witt knew the truth about that. Perhaps Hicks provided a broad outline and de Witt engaged one of the numerous adventure writers on his books to fill it in with exciting detail. Or maybe Hicks spent his last days concocting the entire story himself. We can only hope his poor wife and child managed to see some financial benefit from it.

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