Hicks the Pirate

DESCRIPTION: "A mournful tale heart rending To you kind friends I will relate" of an oyster sloop which had a pirate aboard. Hicks killed the captain and two boys, and took their money, then fled to shore. Taken and brought to trial, Hicks is hung "on Bedloe's Island"
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1860 (broadside, according to Frank-NewBookOfPirateSongs)
KEYWORDS: pirate money ship punishment execution homicide | Albert Hicks
Jul 13, 1860 - Execution of Albert Hicks for piracy (source: Frank-NewBookOfPirateSongs)
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Frank-NewBookOfPirateSongs 27, "Hicks the Pirate" (1 text, 1 tune)
ADDITIONAL: Rich Cohen, _The Last Pirate of New York_, Spiegel & Grau, 2019, p. 217, "Hicks the Pirate" (1 excerpt)

Roud #V28365
Bodleian, Harding B 18(240), "Hicks the Pirate," De Marsan (New York), c. 1860
Library of Congress, American Song Sheets Library of Congress Rare Books and Special Collections, Series 2 Volume 2, "Hicks the Pirate," De Marsan (New York), c. 1860

cf. "The Rose Tree" (tune)
NOTES [3234 words]: There are at least two books about Albert Hicks. One is your standard gallows-confession: The life, trial, confession and execution of Albert W. Hicks, the pirate and murderer: executed on Bedloe's Island, New York Bay, on the 13th of July, For the Murder of Capt. Burr, Smith and Oliver Watts on board the oyster sloop E. A. Johnson, De Witt, New York (no date but presumably 1860-1861). This is available on Google Books; it's a tough read (for one thing, it includes an assessment of Hicks's "Phrenological Character"). Unlike a lot of these books, it is semi-authentic; Cohen, p. 142, says that it is based on Hicks's actual words, but substantially rewritten by the transcriber. It contains a poem about Hicks unrelated to this one.
Presumably more reliable is Rich Cohen, The Last Pirate of New York. A Ghost Ship, a Killer and the Birth of a Gangster Nation, Spiegel & Grau, 2019, though it strikes me as both flamboyant and prone to tangents. It sums up Hicks this way on p. 6: "He operated so long ago, in a city so similar to and yet so different from our own, the word gangster had not yet been coined. He was called a pirate."
According to Cohen, pp. 24-24, Hicks was one of eleven children, and not the only one to get in trouble; the oldest brother, Simon, had been convicted of killing an old man for his money, but had escaped before he could hang. Albert Hicks was almost six feet tall (one record introduced in court said he was six feet one inch; Cohen, p.115), with broad shoulders. His confession said that he was born in Rhode Island "about 1820." He was married and had at least one child, who was still very young in 1860; he was also a Freemason (a potentially significant fact; Cohen, p. 97, thinks that the two lawyers Hicks retained took the case because they too were Masons and felt it to be an obligation of membership. The Masons probably also supplied the fancy clothes in which he was hung; Cohen, p. 199). The officer who arrested him in 1860 gave his age as 32 (Cohen, p. 74; the court record on p. 115 says he was 43, but if he was born in 1820, he would have been 39 or 40). He was apparently illiterate; at least, when he gave permission to be extradited from Rhode Island to New York, he did not sign the paper but authorized it with his mark (Cohen, p. 75), and he dictated rather than writing his confession.
He had left home at fifteen, and tried to make a living by petty theft -- and failed so badly that he came back home (Cohen, p. 145). But the authorities tracked him down; he was sentenced to eighteen months in prison (Cohen, p. 146). He escaped several times but was caught each time (Cohen, pp. 145-147). The experience did not cause him to give up crime; if anything, it made him worse.
He had done honest work at times; after his release from prison, he spent time in a shoe factory, then served on a whaler (Cohen, pp. 148-149). He continued to work as a sailor -- not always happily; he was one of those involved in the Saladin Mutiny (Cohen, p. 151, who thinks it gave him ideas; for the Saladin Mutiny, see "Charles Augustus (or Gustavus) Anderson [Laws D19]"). Supposedly he encouraged other mutinies as well (Cohen, pp. 152-153, 163-164; reportedly he blew multiple fortunes in the process of this). Certainly it was all that time serving at sea that gave him the skills he needed to get a job on the E. A. Johnson.
He also spent time in California during the gold rush... killing miners for their cash. Supposedly some of the crimes attributed to Joaquin Murrieta were actually conducted by Hicks (Cohen, p. 161).
He met his wife (whose first name apparently is unknown, although the family name was probably Bunting; Cohen, p. 91) while working as a sailor on the Isaac Wright in 1853; she was one of a family of Irish immigrants on the ship (Cohen, pp. 87-88). Her family apparently found him untrustworthy, but he courted her carefully, offering many gifts; Cohen, p. 89, says they were married in April 1853, although either this date or the date of her voyage to America must be wrong. She apparently didn't realize what she was getting into when she married him; when his crimes were brought to her attention, she became very angry (Cohen, p. 86. I find it ironic and revealing that Hicks apparently didn't use his real name even with his wife; when she bade him farewell for the last time, she said, "Goodbye, Willie. Willie, Goodbye"; Cohen, p. 197). What happened to her and her son after Hicks died seems to be unknown (Cohen, p. 214).
There was a story that he had been shanghaied as a young man, and learned about the sea on that voyage, but Cohen, p. 27, denies it. Cohen does, however, describe him as a thug for hire, and maybe a hit man, in the 1850s in New York (Cohen, p. 26).
Hicks met his downfall when he became interested in the E. A. Johnson. She was an "oyster sloop" -- a ship that went down to Virginia to buy oysters which it carried to New York. This meant she had to carry a lot of cash so that she could purchase the oysters on the spot, load them, and get them back to New York before they spoiled. And her crew was small -- Captain Burr and a pair of half-brothers; they were looking for a fourth man. Hicks signed on as a seaman and carpenter (Cohen, pp. 28-29).
There is no way to know exactly what came next, because Hicks was the only surviving witness.
Apparently the Johnson went on a short voyage starting on March 16, 1860, more of a shakedown than anything else (Cohen, p. 32). Her real voyage began on March 20. After Captain Burr and crewman Smith Watts went to bed that night, Hicks mortally wounded the third crewman, Oliver Watts, with an ax (Cohen, pp. 33-34, though it took him some time to die, and Hicks ended up cutting off his fingers as he clung to the side of the boat). Smith Watts heard the commotion, came up on deck, and was murdered in turn -- Hicks cut off his head, and the body fell into the cabin. (Cohen, p. 34). Hicks then went for the captain. This time, there was a fight, but Hicks was able to split the captain's head (Cohen, pp. 34-35).
Hicks's plan was apparently to take the ship back into the harbor, strip the valuables, set her afire, and flee (Cohen, p. 36). He would not have time. The ship was too much for one man to really handle, so he lost control of her. Soon after, on the night of March 21, the J. R. Mather collided with the E. A. Johnson. Not too surprising -- the Johnson was without lights (Cohen, pp. 11-12). Hicks was still aboard, but was able to hide, then flee with some of the loot (Cohen, p. 37. He couldn't stay with the Johnson, which was badly damaged). When officials came to inspect the ship, the amount of blood gave clear indications of foul play (Cohen, pp. 11-12).
Investigations quickly found records of Captain Burr and the Watts Brothers. But they could find nothing about the fourth crewman, whose name was recorded as "William Johnson" (Cohen, p. 42). The only other lead was that the Johnson's yawl was missing. It was eventually found on Staten Island (Cohen, p. 43). Investigators followed from there. Hicks didn't do much to hide himself. He was carrying a heavy sack; he just missed the ferry off the island; while waiting for the next ferry, he got a drink at a saloon and flashed a lot of money (Cohen, pp. 48-49). He seems to have gotten pretty drunk; at least, once he got to Manhattan, his trail was surprisingly easy to trace. He was trying to hide, though; he moved and his family out of his apartment (Cohen, pp. 58-60), and he went to a bank to trade in his money for something harder to trace; a broker named Albert James gave him $260 for his collection of miscellaneous cash and notes from various banks (Cohen, pp. 60-61).
Having (he thought) escaped and laundered his money, Hicks did not take the necessary next step of laying low. He seems to have continued to drink and make a spectacle of himself, as well as telling wild and inconsistent stories about where his money came from. Cohen, p. 62, believes he thought he was clear; there was nothing to connect him to any crime -- and, indeed, no proof that a crime had been committed. He didn't even change his false name -- when he and his family took a ferry, he continued to use the name "William Johnson." The detective on the case had trouble with false leads (Cohen, pp.62-64), but persisted. However, it was a reporter, Elias Smith, who correctly guessed where Hicks went (Cohen, pp. 66-67). He was located at a cheap boarding house in Providence, Rhode Island (Cohen, pp. 68-70). The detective pretended that his crime was passing counterfeit bills. Hicks, when found, admitted to his real name although he also admitted to the "William Johnson" alias (Cohen, pp. 70-71). When his effects were searched, they contained several items that later proved to have been taken from the shipmates he had murdered (Cohen, p. 72), and he didn't have a coherent explanation for where the effects or his money had come from (Cohen, p. 73). When told of the actual charges, he denied them (Cohen, pp. 74-75), but of course was shipped back to New York anyway.
I can't help but feel that the police really abused their powers in this case. Ignore the fact that Hicks didn't get a Miranda warning; that right wouldn't be established for another century. But the police lied to him by refusing to tell the nature of the charges, they searched his effects without a warrant, and indeed they pursued him without judicial authority.
Despite all that, Hicks was apparently so confident that they could not prove anything against him that he went voluntarily to New York, and made no attempts to escape despite riding on a commercial train without any physical restraints (Cohen, pp. 77-79); his only fear was of the crowds that wanted to get their hands on him.
The case would become a circus -- almost literally; P. T. Barnum struck a deal with Hicks to make a cast of his face (Cohen, pp. 106-107). This was in no small measure because the man who took charge of Hicks was U. S. Marshal Isaiah Rynders (Cohen, p. 78). He was hardly a paragon of virtue, having been involved in fighting, gambling, liquor-selling, and gang activities, but President Buchanan had made him Federal Marshall of New York for political reasons (Cohen, p. 82). Rynders promptly set about finding witnesses to demonstrate that Hicks had been associated with the Johnson (Cohen, pp. 84-85).
The reason Hicks was charged with piracy rather than murder was the lack of bodies; without a body, murder was beyond proof, but piracy was still a hanging crime (Cohen, p. 108). This led to a legal debate about whether "piracy" could take place on a ship that was in harbor. The judge said it could.
The defense -- properly, I think -- asked for a change of venue; the judge denied it (Cohen, p. 109). The trial proper began on May 14, 1860, after two days of jury selection (Cohen, p. 111).
Witnesses quickly demonstrated that Hicks was the William Johnson who had signed on to serve on the Johnson (Cohen, pp. 115-116). Cohen considers this "devastating" testimony, but Hicks did not deny using the "Johnson" name; he just denied being on the boat. The one item that I would consider serious evidence against him came from Daniel Simmons, who had supplied the money with which Captain Burr was to buy oysters. Simmons testified that Hicks was had had the money bag which Simmons had given to Captain Burr (Cohen, p. 116).
Over the course of six days of the trial, 27 witnesses would testify (Cohen, p. 117). But much of the testimony simply proved that Hicks spent money, or that the Johnson had been damaged in her collision, or that it looked as if someone had been murdered aboard her (examples on pp. 118-119 of Cohen).
It appears to me that the testimony pretty well proved that:
1. Hicks served on the Johnson.
2. That someone had attacked the crew of the Johnson, either kidnapping them or murdering them, probably the latter.
3. That Hicks had ended up with a great deal of loot from the Johnson, including both money and personal possessions of the crew.
To me, that doesn't seem like proof of murder. He could have left the ship before the crew was attacked, and found the loot, stolen it without killing anyone, or gotten it from the actual killer. To be sure, this does not explain why he denied serving on the Johnson.
The prosecution also brought in the mother of one of the missing men and let her sob for the jury (Cohen, p. 122). It had nothing to do with Hicks's guilt or innocence, but Hicks's lawyers don't seem to have brought that out very well.
Based on the description in Cohen, it really sounds to me as if the defense blew it. The prosecution hadn't proved that Hicks killed his shipmates -- only that he had taken their property and lied about it. They should have brought that out. Instead, they got into an argument with the judge about jurisdiction -- an argument which they naturally lost (Cohen, p. 123). Then they got into another argument over the change of venue, a fight that they had lost even before the trial started (Cohen, p. 124). Only then did they take up the circumstantial nature of the evidence (which wasn't really circumstantial -- it included a lot of eyewitness testimony -- but it was indirect). This argument should have been strong; I personally don't think the evidence sufficient to prove anything stronger than receiving stolen goods. But the judge no doubt was getting irritated with legal pettifogging by then; he turned that argument down too (Cohen, pp. 124-125). And juries back then were willing to convict on what strikes me as pitifully inadequate evidence.
The lawyers finished late on Thursday, May 17, 1860. The judge gave the jury its instructions, and sent them to deliberate at 10:36 a.m. the next morning. They were out for just seven minutes before returning a guilty verdict (Cohen, p. 128).
The lawyers wanted a new trial. They didn't get it (Cohen, pp. 128-129). The sentencing was the next week. And the punishment for piracy was clear. The judge sentenced Hicks to hang on July 13, 1860 (Cohen, pp. 129-132). (The judge also said that "no one could doubt the correctness of the verdict"; Cohen, p. 131. Well, I do doubt it. Oh, Hicks did it. But the state didn't prove it!)
After the sentence came down, Hicks started talking to a Catholic priest (Cohen, pp. 134-138). The priest convinced him that he had to confess his crimes to receive forgiveness. Gradually, Hicks started to admit to the murders (Cohen, pp. 138-140, reprints his earliest, incomplete, newspaper confession). He eventually sold his story to raise money for his wife and child (Cohen, p. 141). He spent a morning telling the story in prison.
Hicks confessed to a lot more than just the killings on the Johnson. It was an incredibly litany of crimes -- but it should be remembered that he was trying to raise his "value." And he was probably a boaster anyway.
New York by this time had banned public executions, but because Hicks had been under federal jurisdiction, he would hang in public -- the last public execution in New York (Cohen, pp 133-134). He was hanged on Bedloe's Island, later to become the site of the Statue of Liberty (Cohen, pp. 195-196).
The newspapers variously estimated the crowda at ten to twenty thousand people (Cohen, pp. 208-209). Many of them were drunk and seem to have tried to get close to Hicks -- whether to touch him or insult him or hasten his death. Hicks himself was in a hurry -- his last words were the utterly prosaic "Hang me quick -- make haste" (Cohen, p. 210). They dropped him at 11:15 on July 13. At least it was competently done; the hanging broke his neck (Cohen, p. 211).
He was given a common burial -- and the corpse was quickly stolen (Cohen, p. 214).
Toward the end of his time in prison, Hicks (claimed to have) composed a gallows-confession song (Cohen, pp. 191-192, gives the text. He thinks this actually happened!). This refers to his time on the Saladin, and has a peculiar resemblance to "Charles Augustus (or Gustavus) Anderson" [Laws D19]; see the notes to that song for details.
Cohen never seems to figure out why Hicks did what he did. But Hicks had a number of revealing traits. As a child, he had been very hard to control. He was often angry and paranoid (Cohen, p. 143). He was very restless and easily bored, which resulted in him moving around a lot and quitting jobs (Cohen, p. 89). He apparently sponged off his wife's family (this is how I read a letter to his wife from her mother printed on p. 91 of Cohen. Despite her anger when he was arrested, she seems to have forgiven him since she visited him in prison until the end; Cohen, p. 197). He did very little long-term thinking and clearly thought he could worm his way out of things. He had no trouble sleeping on the night before his execution (Cohen, p. 198). This is a very standard "recipe" for a criminal, and it seems to stem from an inability to learn from mistakes and a failure to accept the rights of others; this antisocial person is in it only for himself. But the lack of self-control often leads to trouble -- as it did for Hicks.
Those traits make me doubt much of his confession; most people try to conceal their misdeeds, but a certain sort of criminal will exaggerate them to try to be more notorious. Hicks sounds like that sort. I simply do not believe it possible that he did everything he claimed to have done (e.g. getting wrecked on two different ships in one voyage, losing his long-time partner in crime the second time; Cohen, pp. 174-175), In fact, Harper's Weekly, June 16. 1860 (available on Google Books), p. 374 (by the internal page number; it's p. 350 in Google's PDF) cites a case where Hicks claimed a murder that someone else committed!) Cohen on p. 181 admits the possibility that Hicks made it up while claiming it helped investigators solve certain unsolved crimes. He doesn't say which ones, though.
As Ben Schwartz commented, such a notorious case would call for a gallows confession, and De Marsan (or someone) supplied it in the form of this broadside. The surprise is that no Hicks song seems to have gone into tradition.
At least the broadside is relatively original (and unusually accurate for this sort of thing; clearly the author had been following the stories in the newspapers). The meter is quite unusual -- eight line stanzas with alternating lines of 78787878 syllables rather than the usual ballad form of 8686.
Lines with some historical meaning:
"Of three that met a tragic fate" -- three men did indeed die on the Johnson.
"An Oyster Sloop was sailing" -- as we saw, the Johnson was an oyster sloop.
"The captain and two boys did slay" -- the two Watts brothers weren't really boys, but that's a nitpick.
"He seized the gold and silver Which this poor captain had in store" -- a lot of it was bills, but that again is a nitpick.
"His watch and clothes did pilfer" -- the watch in fact was used as evidence against Hicks.
"He overboard soon threw them" -- a little more complicated than that, but they ended up in the sea.
"In a boat he left the vessel" -- true.
"He soon was overtaken And to New York was brought again" -- true.
"On Bedloe's Island Hicks was hung" -- true.
"Some thousands there attended" -- true.
Thus every historical fact in the broadside is basically true if occasionally slightly embroidered. - RBW
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