Bound by the tide.
by Gloria Merchant
Bright sunshine enhanced the holiday spirit in Newport, Rhode Island on July 19, 1723. Drinking began early at the White Horse Tavern. Its patrons poured into the streets to join Newport's citizens lining the route from the prison on Bull Street, to the Parade in front of the Towne House, north on Thames Street and through the Point section to Water Street.
Newporters fortunate enough to live along the route hung out of second-story windows. Children and dogs ran ahead of the crowd to the gallows erected between the high and low water mark on Gravelly Point at the south end of Water Street.
Small boats full of merrymakers vied for position in the Basin and Newport Harbor. Sailors climbed the rigging of ships at anchor to get a good view of the spectacle.
Expectations were high.
On June 10th, Captain Solgard, commander of the man-of-war The Greyhound, engaged two Caribbean pirate ships off Block Island. One, captained by the notorious Ned Low, escaped. The Greyhound captured the other, a sloop called Ranger. Captain Charles Harris, thirty-five surviving crewmembers, and the badly damaged Ranger arrived in Newport Harbor on June 14th.
It was the largest pirate capture to occur in the colonies. New Englanders rejoiced at the news. Admiralty Judges, including Rhode Island's Governor Cranston, assembled in Newport.
Witnesses and colonists from Maine to New York filled Newport's boardinghouses. One Witness, Captain Welland, arrived minus his right ear—Low had hacked it off. Tales of capture and abuse at the pirates' hands made the rounds of Newport's taverns. The court of public opinion ran against the pirates during the three day trial.
By July 12th the final judgment was in: twenty-six guilty verdicts, eight acquittals and two reprieves.
On execution day, the expectant crowd turned in the direction of a funereal cadence beat by a single drummer. Sheriff Brenton, carrying a miniature silver oar, symbol of the admiralty, followed the drummer on horseback. An armed guard surrounded the pirates.
Prayers and a sermon preceded the hangings. Many pirates accepted the invitation to speak to the crowd. It took two hours to execute all twenty-six men; the largest mass execution in the colonies. By two in the afternoon, their bodies had been buried between the low and high water mark at the north end of Goat Island.
The Gravelly Point executions marked the end of Newport's role as a pirate haven. Early colonial pirates attacked foreign, not local shipping. Newport welcomed their goods and gold. By 1714, Caribbean pirates victimized many Newporters. The colony turned against them.
The Basin and Gravelly Point were filled in during the nineteenth century. Today, Long Wharf leads past the Newport Yacht Club and the Wyndham Inn. Gravelly Point is buried beneath them. An important episode in Rhode Island history is buried there as well.
Gloria Merchant is the author of Pirates of Colonial Newport (History Press 2014).