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Early American Criminals: Joseph Andrews in the News

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As soon as Joseph Andrews read the newspaper article in the St. Christopher’s Gazette, which reproduced the deposition William Harris gave to the authorities, he knew he had to leave the Caribbean island of St. Eustatia immediately.

The decision was a wise one, because as soon as Governor John De Windt read the same story in the same newspaper, he issued a proclamation that anyone caught assisting Andrews or his partner, Nicholas Johnson, in leaving the island of St. Eustatia would have to pay a penalty of 50,000 pieces of eight. But the governor’s action came too late. Andrews had already left the island on board a coasting sloop bound for Casco Bay under the name of Joseph Saunders.

De Windt quickly wrote Governor Francis Bernard of Massachusetts Bay to inform him of Andrews’s pending arrival. Bernard responded by issuing his own proclamation on December 2, 1766 that ordered all justices of the peace, sheriffs, and civil officers to use their “utmost Diligence” in locating and capturing Andrews.

What was in the newspaper article that initiated the manhunt for Andrews and Johnson?

William Harris’s Deposition

In August 1766, Joseph Andrews left New York and headed to the West Indies in the sloop Polly. He observed that the captain and the passengers had a lot of money with them, so he and Nicholas Johnson devised a plan to take possession of it.

With William Harris at the helm on the night before the ship was due to arrive at the island of St. Christophers (now Saint Kitts), Johnson walked over to the captain, who was sleeping up on deck, and with one blow of an ax killed him “without a Groan or Struggle.” Andrews and Johnson then turned on the rest of the passengers and crew and killed them in similar fashion. They even struck the young mate with an ax and threw him overboard while he was still alive. (Andrews later gave the excuse that the boy was mortally wounded, so he figured that it would be best to finish him off then and there rather than make him suffer over the course of weeks.)

When Harris saw what was happening, he cried out, “For God Almighty’s sake, Andrews, what are you about?” With ax in hand, Andrews then chased after Harris, who ran to the end of the bowsprit with a knife as his only defense. Andrews figured that they might need Harris to help with navigation, so Andrews told him that with everyone else on board dead, the ship was now in their possession. But if Harris joined them and swore to keep what happened a secret, they would not harm him and would share the plunder. Harris realized that he had little choice, so he agreed to the proposal.

The three men broke open the chests and lockers of the captain and crew and toasted their success with a bottle of wine. They also found a Bible, and the two instigators made Harris swear upon it never to betray them. After a few days of sailing, they spotted land, so they transferred their booty into a smaller boat and abandoned the ship. They let Harris steer the boat towards land, but along the way Andrews and Johnson fell asleep. Harris quickly stripped down, slipped off the boat, and swam to safety. Good thing, too, because the other two had concocted a plan to kill Harris just before they reached land.

When Harris arrived on St. Christophers, he consulted with a minister, who assured him that the oath he took on the Bible was not binding, and, more than that, that it would be criminal for him to keep the oath. So Harris went straight to the Judge Surrogate of the Admiralty and gave a deposition that detailed everything that had happened on the Polly, which was subsequently printed in the Gazette.

Nicholas Johnson’s Crucial Error

Nicholas Johnson apparently made the crucial error of not reading the same newspaper article that Andrews and Governor De Windt did, because he was quickly captured on St. Eustatia. According to the law of the island, no one could be put to death without first confessing his crime, no matter how much evidence is accumulated or how many witnesses step forward to testify. To get around this legal obstacle, the suspect was normally put on “the Rack” (although in this case, it is also known as the Breaking Wheel) and tortured “more or less in proportion to the Appearances or Evidence against him” until he finally declared his guilt. Most suspects confessed right away rather than face the torture, and in so doing limited the need to accumulate evidence against them.

Such was the case with Johnson, who, in fear of the rack, gave a full confession and made bringing Harris in from the island of St. Christopher to testify against him unnecessary. Johnson was sentenced to be publicly executed on November 15, 1766–by means of the rack.

At 9 a.m., Johnson was brought out of the fort that held him and was secured with cords to a wooden cross lying parallel to the ground. The executioner surveyed the scene, then held aloft a heavy iron bar, and brought it down on Johnson’s right leg. In the same way, he then proceeded to break Johnson’s other leg and two arms. Up until this point, Johnson took the punishment without so much as a groan, but when the executioner hammered away on Johnson’s thighs, the condemned criminal screamed out in pain. With Johnson’s limbs now “mangled and shattered,” the executioner began to strike Johnson’s stomach. After twenty-two blows to his middle, Johnson finally expired.

Johnson suffered this gruesome end because he happened to be caught on an island that did not fall under English rule and consequently was not governed by English law.

Who Was Joseph Andrews?

Joseph Andrews was captured in Boston shortly after he arrived in New England. He denied being involved in the murders on the Polly, but several items with the captain’s name on them were later found in his possession, along with large sums of money and gold. When he was discovered, Andrews had cut off his black, curly hair and was wearing a wig. But his disguise failed to keep his identity a secret. What remained a secret, however, were the biographical details of his life.

Conflicting accounts of Andrews’s background circulated in the colonial American media, to the point where it is impossible to know which story is the correct one. The Last Dying Speech and Confession of Joseph Andrews, which is written in the first person, claims that Andrews was born to Portuguese parents. His father was a Mendicant friar who renounced his vows to marry Andrews’s mother, and, in order to escape judgment and shame, the two moved from Lisbon to Vigo, Spain. Andrews’s mother died while in childbirth, and his father later died of dysentery when the boy was 13.

Free of supervision, Andrews moved to Lisbon and worked on the docks. After he married the older widow of an acquaintance who had died, Andrews started to drink to excess and eventually left his wife after he became intoxicated and beat her “in a most shocking Manner.” He briefly joined a group of banditti and committed “Sundry excesses, and depredations upon innocent People who had never injured me” before leaving the country on board a ship headed for Brazil. He traveled around South America and the West Indies, all the while “meditating Schemes to get suddenly Rich.”

The Last Dying Speech lists several murders that Andrews supposedly committed, including one in which he murdered the captain of a French schooner and his crew, and then set a wife, child, and a “Negro Wench” who were on board off in a canoe without any food or drink. But other accounts accuse Johnson of having committed some of these very same crimes, and it is not clear if they carried any of them out together.

An Account of the Trial of Joseph Andrews for Piracy and Murder gives an entirely different account of Andrews’s life. It claims that Andrews was born in Wales in the town of Swansea to poor, but honest, Protestant parents. He traveled to Boston as an indentured servant and was apprenticed to a captain. But he deserted his master when they were at port in Lisbon, and his ability to speak Portuguese is attributed to the time he spent there afterward. He later lived in New York, where he married–and later abandoned–a widow.

Newspapers give varying accounts of Andrews’s background as well. Some insist that he was Welsh, while others say that he was Portuguese and was always trying to pass himself off as a Welshman, which was the case when he was apprehended in Boston.


When Governor Henry Moore of New York learned that Andrews was being held in Massachusetts, he requested that he be transferred to his province to receive trial. Before Andrews could be moved, however, he tried to kill himself by slitting his throat, but the knife was too small to accomplish its end.

Under the guard of two men, Andrews sailed to New York along with the evidence that was found on him–that is, except for the money and gold, which remained in Boston until “further Order.” When Andrews arrived, a crowd of spectators gathered to see him transferred from the ship to the gaol.

Andrews remained in prison for almost two years before he was tried. Finally, after a long trial, Andrews was found guilty of piracy and murder on May 18, 1769 and was sentenced to be executed with his body to be afterwards hung in chains, as was the custom for pirates.

The night before he was executed, Andrews tried to use his life story as a means of blackmail. He said that he would “give a particular account of the Transactions of his Life” if the authorities agreed not to hang his body in chains after this death. But if they could not meet his demand, “the World should have little Satisfaction from him.”

Andrews was executed on May 23 by hanging on the east side of the Hudson River, near Domini’s Hook. His body was afterward hung in chains “on the most conspicuous Part of the Pest or Bedlow’s-Island, in New York Bay, as a Spectacle to deter all Persons from the like atrocious Crimes”–which is perhaps why we will never know the true story of Joseph Andrews.


  • An Account of the Trial of Joseph Andrews for Piracy and Murder. [New York], 1769. Database: America’s Historical Imprints: Readex/Newsbank.
  • Andrews, Joseph. The Last Dying Speech and Confession of Joseph Andrews. [New York]: Swiney & Stewart, [1769]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints: Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, April 6.” New-York Journal, April 16, 1767, issue 1267, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, December 22.” Boston Gazette, December 22, 1766, issue 612, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, December 22.” New-Hampshire Gazette, December 26, 1766, issue 534, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, December 29.” Boston Evening-Post, December 29, 1766, issue 1632, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • “By His Excellency Francis Bernard, Esq. . . . a Proclamation.” Boston Evening-Post, December 8, 1766, issue 1629, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • “The Deposition of William Harris.” New-York Journal, November 13, 1766, issue 1245, p. 1. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • “The English Prints . . .” New-York Mercury, June 6, 1767, issue 813, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • A Narrative of Part of the Life and Adventures of Joseph Andrews. [New York, 1769]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints: Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New-York, May 18.” New-York Journal, May 18, 1769, issue 1376, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New-York, May 29.” New-York Gazette, May 29, 1769, issue 918, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • “St. Christophers, November 19.” Boston News-Letter, December 12, 1767, issue 3306, p., Supplement [1]. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • “St. Eustatia, November 12, 1766.” New-York Gazette, From Monday December 8, to Monday December 15, 1766, issue 401, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.

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