Pirates of the Caribbean — and Philadelphia

56 - Entrance Havana castle
Morro Castle at the entrance to Havana harbor.


In an earlier article (June 10, 2019), we discussed Capt. Charles Sandgran and raised the strong possibility that he might have died in a battle with pirates off the coast of Cuba. Another sea captain with a connection to Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church, who encountered a pirate in the same region, was Capt. Oliver Brooks. But unlike Sandgran, Brooks lived to tell the tale.

In the early 19th century, the West Indies was infected with pirates, and a swarm of them used Cuba as a base. Jean Lafitte was one of the most famous of the group, working in conjunction with the American pirate William Mitchell, who wore a patch over his eye. Another notorious cutthroat working out of Cuba, known for his violence, was called Diabolito; he was killed in a bay along the coast of Cuba in 1823 by the U.S. Navy’s “Mosquito Fleet,” which had been sent to help curtail piracy in the region.

Oliver Brooks had an initial run-in with pirates in November 1819, when a raider named Bervasto and his men boarded his brig, the Elizabeth Ann, of the Cuban coast. Around the same time, another Philadelphia mariner, Capt. Martin of the schooner Bee, said that Bervasto had also boarded his vessel and “politely opened the main hatchway and took out 4 bbls of flour and 4 bbls of potatoes, and then genteely left him” (Philadelphia Gazette, Dec. 23, 1819).

In November 1822, Oliver Brooks was walking in a Havana street when he met a pirate captain on the street in the act of acquiring material to fit out his ship. Brooks and the outlaw recognized each other because, some years earlier, Brooks had caught him in the midst of a raid and had turned him over to the authorities—who clapped him in irons.

So when they met years later in the street, the pirate declared to Capt. Brooks that he would get his revenge. He blockaded Havana harbor with his pirate schooner, which had 70 men aboard. From Morro Castle, at the entrance to the harbor, the vessel was clearly visible, lurking just off the coast. The pirate sent word that he was lying in wait for Brooks, and would pursue him even up to the Delaware River if need be.

After several days, Brooks was able to sail safely from the harbor while guarded by a special convoy provided by the Spanish General of Marines, and he returned to Philadelphia with the Elizabeth Ann. Four years later, his wife, Eleanora, died at age 28, and was buried here in the Gloria Dei churchyard.

Oliver Brooks lived until 1848, and was interred at the old Ronaldson’s Cemetery at Ninth and Bainbridge, where the bodies of his second wife Sarah and the rest of their family also rested until the land was converted into a playground in the early 1950s.

Buried treasure in Philadelphia?

Pirates during the early 19th century, just as today, were often considered in the public eye as romantic heroes—living the kind of free and adventurous life that others could never experience. Bookstalls sold piles of potboilers about the exploits, real and imagined, of these swashbucklers of the sea.

58 - pirates book 1837
The “Pirates Own Book” of 1837.

John Fanning Watson, in his “Annals” of Philadelphia history, written in the 1820s with subsequent enlarged editions until 1844, wrote about the driving interest of many Philadelphia residents in finding buried treasure supposedly left by the pirates of more ancient times. Parties roamed the areas along the Delaware with spades and shovels trying to find chests of gold allegedly left by Captain Kidd and Blackbeard and other buccaneers.

Watson wrote in the 1844 edition, for example, of a discovery of treasure in the neighborhood of Gloria Dei, “at the southernmost end of Front Street.” The famous patriot of the American Revolution, Timothy Matlack, then in his old age, told Watson that he had been shown an oak tree at the site, on which the letters KLP were carved. Matlack told him that he saw the stone that had covered the treasure at the home of the alleged finder. Supposedly, the man had been directed to the treasure by a sailor in a hospital in England.

Watson also wrote that several people had confirmed for him that “at the Sign of the Cock in Spruce St., about 35 years ago, there was found in a pot in the cellar a sum of money of about $5000.” (The tavern called The Sign of the Cock was situated in an old wooden building on the south side of Spruce St., two doors east of Front St.)

Even a century earlier, in 1729, Benjamin Franklin had written, “This odd humor of digging for money, through a belief that much has been hid by pirates formerly frequenting the river, has for several years been mighty prevalent among us insomuch that you can hardly walk half a mile out of the town on any side, without observing several pits dug with that design, and perhaps some lately opened.”

Hijacking of the Susquehanna

In 1837, these romantic preoccupations with the buccaneers had an influence on public opinion when word came to Philadelphia that the Susquehanna, a packet ship to Liverpool, had been hijacked by pirates off the capes of the Delaware.

The Susquehanna was the luxury liner, the QE2 of her day, with many wealthy Philadelphians on board, and a hundred more in steerage. The company that booked her promised that she would leave port promptly on the 20th of every second month for Liverpool. Moreover, the ship was towed down the Delaware by a steamship, enabling her to reach the open sea on the same day that she left port.

On October 20, 1837, after the pilot boat had left the Susquehanna at the mouth of Delaware Bay, the pilots managed to observe the ship approached by a low-slung schooner, painted all black, and bristling with men. They watched the schooner come abreast of the Susquehanna, and men seemed to be boarding her. The pilots returned to dock and the news soon spread to Philadelphia and up and down the East Coast about the raid on the Susquehanna by piracy.

Ships were quickly launched from Philadelphia, from New York, and from the Chesapeake to search for the marauders, fearing that they had kidnapped some of the notable passengers and stolen the gold that was rumored to have been aboard. The U.S. Navy also joined the search.

Newspapers in Philadelphia and around the country ran the headline, “Audacious piracy!” and for the next month featured articles on the nefarious affair. Rumors were the meat of many of the articles. Some people recalled seeing Jean Lafitte’s former confederate, the notorious pirate and killer William Mitchell, on the streets of Philadelphia; others said that he appeared to be fitting out a black-colored schooner. That rumor turned out to be largely true. Mitchell had been in prison in Philadelphia on charges by one of his wives of bigamy, but he was not released until June 23, 1837, a month after the reported attack on the Susquehanna.

60 - William Mitchell's schooner
Pirate chief William Mitchell’s black schooner.

Two days after the attack, a columnist named JUNIUS wrote the following in the National Gazette: “The bold and audacious capture of this noble packet, almost within sight of our very doors, has thrown the community into a state of excitement not to be conceived by those at a distance.

“I ask the American people—I ask our distressed and sympathizing community—to hear me, when I assert, and I hope to prove to them, that this distressing event is owing to the negligence and inefficiency of one of the President’s Cabinet … the Secretary of the Navy.

“Would such an event have occurred on the coast of Great Britain, France, the Mediterranean, or on any part of the coast of Europe? I will answer no; their cruisers are out attending to their duties.”

It wasn’t long, however, before a couple of vessels had arrived in U.S. ports that reported having sighted the Susquehanna at sea. They said that all seemed well with the famous ship. Even then, however, many refused to believe that the report of the pirate attack had been bogus. The news came from Maryland that people had sighted the timbers of a ship washed up on a beach, and it was suggested that it was perhaps the remains of the doomed Susquehanna.

Nevertheless, reports eventually got back to Philadelphia that the Susquehanna had docked in Liverpool right on schedule, and all the passengers were safe and oblivious to the panic that had arisen on their behalf in the States. A month later, when the Susquehanna returned to its homeport, the story came out about what had taken place in October. The black schooner, the captain related, had belonged to fishermen who were selling fresh-caught shellfish, and the steward had loaded crates of the delicacies onboard in order to stock up his larder for the voyage.

A columnist for one of the Philadelphia newspapers summed up the affair by remarking, perhaps remorsefully, that the days of Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, and other buccaneers was long gone.

Blackbeard in Philadelphia

Of course, a century earlier, when the city of Philadelphia was quite young, pirates not unlike those of Treasure Island were a relatively common sight right off our coast.

Edward Teach or Thatch, better known as Blackbeard, appeared in these parts in the summer of 1717. Blackbeard reportedly had visited Philadelphia two years earlier as a mate and was said by some to have a wife and family here. It was rumored that Blackbeard was known in the taverns of the Philadelphia waterfront, and frequented a tavern run by a Swedish woman down in Marcus Hook.

62 - Blackbeard contemporary drawing
Contemporary drawing of Blackbeard.

In the autumn of 1717, Blackbeard captured a 16-gun French slave ship that he dubbed Queen Anne’s Revenge and converted into the lead ship of his pirate fleet. The Philadelphia mayor at the time, Jonathan Dickinson, mentioned a vessel belonging to Blackbeard with a similar name, but there is a good chance that it was a different ship.

Dickinson spoke about Blackbeard in a couple of letters on file at the Pennsylvania Historical Society. Dickinson’s own son, Joseph, had witnessed an attack by Blackbeard off Cape May. On Oct. 21, 1717, Dickinson wrote that the pirate was “yet at our capes, plundering all that comes, cutting away their masts, and letting them dive ashore.” Dickinson said that, based on the report of his son and others, Blackbeard had spared one ship, which contained passengers, but in general, the river was completely blocked up.

By that time, Blackbeard had seized six or seven ships in Delaware Bay, according to James Logan, who succeeded Dickinson as mayor, in a letter to the governors of New York and New Jersey that warned them to be on guard.

Around the same time, the Boston News-letter carried an article based on accounts of Blackbeard’s pirate attacks outside Delaware Bay. The article described how Blackbeard took several vessels coming inbound, including one that had come from Liverpool and Dublin with about 150 passengers, including many indentured servants. The pirates threw the entire cargo of the ship overboard, except for a few articles that they fancied.

Then the pirates captured two snows that were headed outbound. One was commanded by William Spafford (who many years later built the large house that still stands on the northwest corner of Front and Bainbridge St. and is slowly being renovated). Spafford was carrying barrel staves for Ireland, while the second snow, the Sea Nymph, carried wheat for Portugal. The pirates threw all the wheat into the ocean and converted the Sea Nymph into a pirate ship, while putting all of the passengers onto Spafford’s vessel—after having dumped the barrel staves into the sea. The following year, Blackbeard was killed in a battle off the coast of North Carolina, and his severed head was displayed on a pole.

Nearly 300 years later, in 1996, researchers discovered a shipwreck in North Carolina, which after intense archaeological examination, is thought to be the remains of Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge. Over 250,000 artifacts have been found in the wreck, including 31 cannons, two anchors, pages of a book that were used as wadding in a cannon, and small ceramic and metal objects like spoons and one coin made of brass—but no chests full of pirates’ gold so far.

And further investigation has also been done on the life of Blackbeard himself. It is thought by some researchers that Blackbeard turned to piracy after having served as a privateer in the Caribbean during Queen Anne’s War, which ended in 1714.

In 2015, historian Gaylus Brooks, under the auspices of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, found evidence that seems to counter much of the bloodthirsty villainy that has been attributed to the pirate. Records suggest that Blackbeard, Edward Teach, was an educated aristocrat whose family owned a slave plantation in Jamaica, and likely the grandson of an Anglican minister. Brooks blames many of the lurid tales about Blackbeard to a book about him, written by a man called Nathaniel Mist called “A General History of the Robberies and Murder of the Most Notorious Pyrates,” which was published in 1724, six years after Blackbeard was killed.

Protection for the city

After Britain and France declared war on each other once again, in 1743, French privateers—who operated similarly to pirates but with legal backing—found good hunting grounds in Delaware Bay. A favorite trick was to run up English colors, and then signal for a pilot. They then captured the pilot and his boat, and when other vessels entered the bay, the privateers would approach them in the innocent looking pilot boat, which made them easy prey.

But Philadelphia captains soon outfitted their own privateering vessels. Two of them, the ship Pandour and the brigantine George, went to sea in 1743, and aspiring crew members were told that they could sign up at the tavern called the Sign of the Boatswain and Call, which was originally called the Blue Anchor, possibly the oldest building in Philadelphia. It was located at the corner of what is now Front and Dock Streets, where the Holiday Inn wants to build a new 30-story tower. I imagine that the archeological diggings at the site might be extremely interesting.

In May 1748, a Spanish brigantine, the St. Michael, with a crew of 160 men and carrying 34 guns, entered Delaware Bay and proceeded up the Bay in order to capture a large merchantman that they had sighted and to loot and burn the town of New Castle. Fortunately, an English seaman named George Proctor, who had been impressed onto the St. Michael in Havana, escaped during the night, and after much difficulty, succeeded in convincing the authorities in New Castle that the brigantine, which had put up English colors, was really a Spanish privateer. Proctor later told the Pennsylvania Provincial Council that “the Spanish Captain is of a savage, barbarous disposition, & declared frequently that he wou’d rob, plunder, & burn whatever he cou’d.”

However, after she was fired upon by people in New Castle and by an armed merchantman in the river, the St. Michael retreated.

In the meantime, the alarm had gone up to Philadelphia that the city was in danger of attack. The British had sent a sloop of war, the Otter, to combat the privateers, but the ship required repairs and was unseaworthy. The captain then suggested that the Otter’s cannons be removed and placed in shore batteries to protect Philadelphia. The smaller of the two batteries was placed on Society Hill at Lombard St., while the principle one, later called “The Old Fort,” was located on high ground just south of this church, near what is now Washington Avenue.


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