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Early American Criminals: John Quelch’s Piratic Joy Ride

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In the fall of 1703, the owners of the 80-ton brigantine, the Charles, desperately wrote to various West Indies ports in an attempt to discover any information on the whereabouts of their new ship, but without success.

This leading group of Boston merchants—Charles Hobby, Col. Nicholas Paige, William Clarke, Benjamin Gallop, and John Colman—built the ship as a privateering vessel specifically to attack French ships off the coasts of Acadia and Newfoundland. Most likely, their goal was to protect their own ships from pirates, reduce competition in trade from the French, and profit from the spoils of capturing French merchant ships all at the same time. But their resourceful plan ran into a major snag.


England was at war with France and Spain during the early eighteenth century, and one of its means of patrolling the waters of the Atlantic was by enlisting privateers, i.e., private citizens commissioned by European governments to sail the seas and attack and plunder enemy ships. For these nations, the privateering system was a handy way to supplement their naval power, disrupt the trade routes of their enemies, and accumulate wealth.

Charles Brooking, "The Capture of a French Ship by Royal Family Privateers"

Daniel Plowman, the captain hired by the owners of the Charles, received from Joseph Dudley, the Governor of Massachusetts, a privateering commission that authorized him “to War, Fight, Take, Kill, Suppress and Destroy, any Pirates, Privateers, or other the Subjects and Vassals of France, or Spain, the Declared Enemies of the Crown of England.” But before Plowman could set sail from Marblehead, he fell sick. He also sensed that something was wrong with his crew, because he wrote the ship’s owners on August 1, 1703 and advised them to send someone up from Boston to investigate the state of their ship.

One of the owners made the trip to Marblehead and after surveying the situation recommended that the ship set sail as planned, but with a different captain. When Plowman learned of the decision, he wrote the owners once again and implored them to sail the ship down to Boston and replace the crew. But it was too late. The Charles went out to sea before anything could be done.


Apparently, while Plowman’s second letter was headed towards Boston, the crew of the Charles locked the captain in his cabin. John Quelch, the lieutenant-commander of the ship, then agreed to take control and sail southward, where they could find more lucrative ships to attack than the French ones in the north. After setting sail, the crew threw Plowman overboard, although it is not known if he had succumbed to his illness or was still alive at the time.

It is not surprising that the crew enlisted to sail on the Charles turned out to be a rough bunch. They had to be, because in many respects the only difference between privateers and pirates was that the former were officially sanctioned by a particular government and the latter sailed independently of any nation-state. So by setting sail without authorization of the ship’s owners, and by radically changing the course of their original mission, John Quelch and his crew became pirates.

Quelch reached the waters off the coast of Brazil in November, 1703 and over the next three months he captured nine ships, which yielded a significant booty: a hundred weight of gold dust, gold and silver coins worth over 1,000 pounds, ammunition and arms, fine fabrics, provisions, and rum. But the problem was that Quelch attacked vessels belonging to Portugal, which at the time was an ally of England.

Arrival at Marblehead

In May 1704, a small notice appeared in the Boston News-Letter: “Arrived at Marble-head, Capt. Quelch in the Brigantine that Capt. Plowman went out in, are said to come from New-Spain & have made a good Voyage.” Soon after the ship landed, most of the crew began to disappear. This fact, combined with the abrupt departure of the ship in the fall and the inability of the owners to discover its whereabouts before it surfaced again in Massachusetts, raised questions about the ship’s recent voyage.

Quelch claimed that he and his crew acquired the treasure during the recovery of a wreck in the West Indies in order to hide his pillaging of Portuguese ships and justify the rich rewards he brought back with him,. But the owners knew this story to be false, since they had received no word from any port in the West Indies that their ship had been spotted in the area.

Acting on their suspicions, two of the owners of the Charles lodged complaints with the Attorney-General, and a manhunt began to find Quelch and his crew. Within two days, Quelch and six other crew members were apprehended, and others were soon to follow. The Governor also sought to confiscate the gold that Quelch brought with him into Massachusetts and managed to recover seventy ounces of it and an equal weight of silver. In the end, 25 of the 43 pirates were captured along with a considerable amount of the treasure, which ensured that rich awards would be handed out to the informers and to the officials involved in bringing the pirates to justice.

The captured pirates were quickly brought to trial in Boston on June 3, 1704. Quelch was accused of committing piracy, robbery, and murder, and two crew members who claimed that Quelch had refused to set them on shore after taking over the ship provided testimony about how the pirates had attacked and killed the captains and crews of the Portuguese ships.

In the end, Quelch and six other pirates were sentenced to death. The rest were held in prison for a year until they finally received royal pardons. At one point during their stay, some members of the crew paid 30 pounds for the right to walk around freely within the prison yard, but after two or three days, they were returned to their cells and held as before.

Led by the Silver Oar

On Friday, June 30, 1704, the seven pirates condemned to die walked in procession from the prison down to Scarlett’s wharf with “the Silver Oar” carried in front of them. They were loaded on a boat and carried to their place of execution, near where Langone Park and the Andrew P. Puopolo Jr. Athletic Field in the North End of Boston are today. Forty musketeers guarded them to make sure nothing went wrong.

Thousands of people gathered to witness the executions. Some of them stood on what is now Copp’s Hill, while 100 to 150 boats crowded the Charles River to watch the spectacle from the water.

As Quelch climbed up to the scaffold, he said to one of the ministers, “I am not afraid of Death, I am not afraid of the Gallows, but I am afraid of what follows; I am afraid of a Great God, and a Judgment to Come.” But his fears seemed to be overcome once he reached the spotlight of the stage, because he pulled off his hat and deeply bowed to his audience. Rather than express repentance when the ministers called upon Quelch to address the crowd, he declared, “Gentlemen, ‘Tis but little I have to speak; What I have to say is this, I desire to be informed for what I am here, I am Condemned only upon Circumstances. I forgive all the World: So the Lord be Merciful to my Soul.” And while one of the other pirates warned the crowd about associating with “Bad Company,” Quelch chimed in, “They should also take care how they brought Money into New-England, to be Hanged for it!”

At the last minute, one of the pirates received a reprieve, but the remaining six were not so lucky. After the scaffold dropped, some people claimed to have heard the shrieks of the women in the crowd from more than a mile away. As was the custom with pirates after execution, the six corpses were placed in gibbets and remained in them until they decayed and eventually disappeared.


An Account of the Behaviour and Last Dying Speeches of the Six Pirates. Boston: Nicholas Boone, 1704. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.

Boston News-Letter, May 22, 1704, issue 5, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

Boston News-Letter, July 3, 1704, issue 11, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

Dow, George Francis and John Henry Edmonds. The Pirates of the New England Coast 1630-1730. New York: Dover Publications, 1996.

[Mather, Cotton]. The Deplorable State of New-England, By Reason of a Covetous and Treacherous Governour. [Boston], 1721 [Reprint of 1708 copy]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.

Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.

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