Why is the rum always gone?
Albert W. Hicks was one of the last men executed for piracy in the United States. According to Hicks' testimony at trial, he was born in Foster Rhode Island. His father was a farmer who had seven sons, of whom Hicks was the next youngest. The eldest, Simon, was convicted of robbing and murdering an old man after befriending him. Sentenced to death, he escaped from jail and was never seen again. Albert was known to be headstrong and a fighter. He never attended school and worked on the farm until age 15, when he ran away to Norwich Connecticut and began a life of crime. Arrested for theft he was put in jail, where as a teenage runaway more likely than not to be buggered by older inmates. Hicks escaped a number of times but he was reapprehended and given increasingly severe sentences, including a year in solitary. He swore vengeance against all. The account given by Hicks for the next 20 years is one of murder and mayhem on the high seas, the gold fields of California, throughout South America, Mexico, the South Pacific and the Atlantic trade triangle. Fomenting crew mutinies and highway robberies were his main trade. He and an accomplice named Tom Stone typically killed their victims and stayed on the move spending money on alcohol, prostitutes, and fine clothes until it ran out. He was a raconteur and when his confessions were published, doubts were raised about their accuracy, but there was evidence to support at least some of the claims. Hicks eventually ended up in New York City at the age of 40, with an Irish immigrant wife who knew nothing of his criminal past and a young child to support. Needing money for his family he turned to the skills he knew best, often as hired muscle for Five Points gangs like the Dead Rabbits and Forty Thieves. Hicks signed on as first mate (being a skilled helmsman, rigger and carpenter) with the oyster sloop E.A. Johnson, which he knew to be carrying a large amount of cash for buying oysters in Virginia to be transported back to New York. There were three other men aboard - Captain George Burr and the Watts brothers. It was nighttime on March 21, 1860 as the ship neared the Narrows. Captain Burr and Oliver Watts retired to their quarters to sleep. Smith Watts had watch duty and Hicks joined him on deck, taking a turn at the wheel. Hicks saw something and pointed it out to Watts, asking what it was. Watts didn't see anything and Hicks said to look again. When Watts turned his back Hicks grabbed an axe and struck a blow to the back of his head, causing him to collapse. Hearing the commotion Oliver Watts stuck his head out through the cabin hatchway and Hicks swung his weapon again, decapitating him. Hicks recalled that the body slowly sagged downward and the head rolled onto the deck, sprayed with the blood of the two brothers. Hicks went below and into Burr's cabin. The captain was also a strong man and in the ensuing fight almost overcame Hicks, but Hicks managed to slash the captain with the axe, slicing off half his face with an eyeball and nose left hanging on the blade. Although exhausted from the struggle, Hicks searched the quarters for loot. When Hicks returned on deck, he was shocked to see Smith Watts on his feet moving towards him, thinking it was a ghost. Hicks forced the injured man overboard but Watts grasped a rail and hung on. Hicks chopped off his fingers, dropping onto the deck while the rest of Watts slipped into the water. Hicks threw the other bodies and axe overboard. The E.A. Johnson had been running with the helm unattended and struck the schooner J.R. Mather (hauling molasses to Philadelphia), breaking the former's main mast and bringing down its rigging. Hicks set out to sink the ship, along with the evidence of the killings, by punching holes into the keel with an awl. He then took the money and the possessions of the murdered crew, abandoning ship in a yawl. Rowing for shore he landed at daybreak next to a farmer's field on Staten Island just above Port Richmond. Believing that he would not be caught, he made his way back home to Manhattan, stopping at saloons and calling attention to himself. The abandoned but still afloat E.A. Johnson was discovered at dawn's light in the Lower Bay by the Telegraph, a schooner out of New London Connecticut. Its crew members boarded the vessel and found the deck and cabin awash with gore. The tugboat Ceres towed the E.A. Johnson back to Manhattan. City residents were shocked by details of the gruesome scene and intrigued by the mystery of what happened. Detective George Nevins was assigned the investigation and began a search for the missing yawl. After a few days a local boy led him to where it had been abandoned in the woods. Nevins began following a chain of witnesses who had seen a strange man carrying a large heavy sea bag. The detective followed these sightings back to an apartment in Manhattan, but Hicks learned the police were on his trail through newspaper reports and fled the city. Nevins continued to follow another group of witnesses who remembered a large man with a wife and small child taking trains and boats northward. When he found the last man to see Hicks, a livery driver who took him to a boarding home outside Providence Rhode Island, police surrounded the house in the middle of the night and took him into custody without a fight. They found in his possession Burr's watch, several money bags, a daguerreotype belonging to Smith Watts of his 17 year old girlfriend and other damning evidence. Hicks was put on trial in Manhattan beginning May 14th in the U.S. Circuit Court, as piracy was a federal crime. The physical evidence of his guilt was overwhelming and defense attorney Sayles made little effective rebuttal. The jury deliberated for about seven minutes on May 17th before returning a guilty verdict. Judge Smalley ordered him to be hanged. Afterwards, Hicks gave a full confession of the murders and his life story which was published as a book on the day of his execution. Enjoying a celebratory atmosphere, spectators viewed the event both on the island and from boats (including the repaired E.A. Johnson) anchored in New York Bay. The condemned man was smartly dressed in an electric blue suit he had tailored for the occasion. The showman P.T. Barnum had met Hicks in prison and made a deal that if he would allow Barnum to take a death mask while still alive, Barnum would purchase Hicks a new set of clothes. In exchange Barnum would use the casting to create a life size wax effigy of Hicks, wearing the same clothes as when he committed the murders. As a newspaper account described - 'His coat was rather fancy, being ornamented with two rows of gilt navy buttons and a couple of anchors in needlework. A white shirt, a pair of blue pants, a pair of light pumps, and the old Kossuth hat he wore when arrested completed the attire.' Hicks liked to wear the hat down low over one eye to give him a mysterious appearance. He made no gallows speech, only directing the executioner to "Hang me quick - make haste." Soon after his burial at Calvary Cemetery, grave robbers dug up and possibly sold the cadaver to medical students at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons. Because his body was missing, for years after his death there were rumors of his survival and escape. Hicks became a legend in the New York underworld. His wax figure was on display in Barnum's American Museum until it was destroyed in a fire on the fifth anniversary of his hanging.
A Freebooter's glossary . . .
Schooner (Sailing ship with two or more masts, typically with the foremast smaller than the mainmast and having gaff-rigged lower masts), Foremast (Mast of a ship nearest the bow), Mainmast (Principal mast of a ship, typically the second mast in a sailing ship of three or more masts), Gaff Rig (Sailing rig - configuration of sails, mast and stays - in which the sail is four-cornered, fore-and-aft rigged, controlled at its peak and usually with its entire head by a spar - pole - called the gaff), Fore-and-Aft Rig (Sailing rig consisting mainly of sails that are set along the line of the keel rather than perpendicular to it) Bowsprit (Spar extending forward from a ship's bow, to which the forestays are fastened), Forestay (Piece of standing rigging which keeps a mast from falling backwards), Rigging (System of ropes, cables, or chains employed to support a ship's masts - standing rigging - and to control or set the yards and sails - running rigging), Forecastle (Forward part of a ship below the deck, traditionally used as the crew's living quarters), Captain’s Daughter (Whip made of usually nine knotted lines or cords fastened to a handle, also known as a cat o’ nine tails), Sloop (Sailboat usually with one mast and fore-and-aft rigged sails), Mainsail (Sail rigged on the mainmast - the lowest and largest on a square rigged vessel), Square Rig (Primary driving sails are carried on horizontal spars which are perpendicular - square - to the keel of the vessel and to the masts. These spars are called yards and their tips beyond the last stay are called the yardarms), Jib (Triangular sail set forward of the forward most mast), The Narrows (Tidal strait separating Staten Island and Brooklyn, connecting the Upper and Lower New York Bays and forming the principle channel by which the Hudson River empties into the Atlantic Ocean), Spanish Main (Imperial colonies in the Caribbean Sea and surrounding the Gulf of Mexico, rich in gold, silver and precious gems), Shanghai (To kidnap someone for service as a sailor, usually by force and with the consumption of liquor or drugs involved), Grog (Drink made of rum and water, introduced in 1740 to the British West Indian naval squadron commanded by Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, who typically wore a coat made of grogram cloth - a mix of silk and wool - and was nicknamed "Old Grogram" or "Old Grog"), The Seven Seas (From ancient times refers to all the world's navigable waters and since the 19th century means the Arctic Ocean, North and South Atlantic Oceans, North and South Pacific Oceans, Indian Ocean and Antarctic Ocean), Shanty (Seafarers' song sung in rhythm to their work), Yawl (Small boat or dinghy typically hoisted at the stern and used mainly to ferry people to and from the ship)
Twins separated at birth.
Hicksey appeared in a Twilight Zone episode titled The New Exhibit starring Martin Balsam which aired on April 4, 1963 (clockwise from left - himself, Henri "Bluebeard" Landru, Jack the Ripper and Rod Serling).
Tick-Tock will ne'er have the rest of me!
Though the hat passed from piracy to gangsterdom, the 'Hicks look' remained.
Ladies and gentlemen, neglect not the Egress.
All that remained of the crew were four severed fingers and a thumb.
Hanging was the Bedloe's Island main attraction before the Statue of Liberty, with thousands witnessing the last public execution at Fort Wood (and in New York City) on that Friday the 13th.
Albert W. Hicks (c. 1820 - July 13, 1860) a.k.a. Elias W. Hicks, William Johnson, John Hicks and Hicksey
Beware of him in the monkey coat and Kossuth hat, for when a man is no longer with God all things are permissible.
According to Herbert Asbury, author of the classic 1928 Gangs of New York , in an alternate narrative Hicks was the victim of a shanghai, going to sleep in a waterfront flophouse and waking up aboard the E.A. Johnson at sea. Hicks was quoted as saying "After I realized what had been done to me, how I'd been mistreated and taken from my wife and child, I determined to avenge myself by murdering all hands aboard." Hicks was a Freemason, his degree lost to history.
You get a gist of this tale in the first song, but for the whole story and a flavor of the times you need to read Rich Cohen's The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer and the Birth of a Gangster Nation (2019). Check out his Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams (1998) while you're at it, and learn about the canary who could sing but couldn't fly.