Hampton, Va. executed two members of Blackbeard's crew 295 years ago
HAMPTON, Va. — When a Royal Navy expedition led by Lt. Robert Maynard returned to Hampton from North Carolina on Jan. 3, 1719, the grisly sight of Blackbeard's severed head swinging from a bowsprit marked the end of one of history's most notorious pirates.
Cannons roared and townspeople cheered when they saw this horrific trophy — and the indisputable proof of the famous brigand's demise — sailing up the river toward the King Street docks.
But for nine of the crewmen who fought alongside him — plus six other accomplices seized with his loot in Bath, N.C. — the sounds of the port city's celebration merely signaled the opening of a new and — for some, at least — ultimately fatal chapter.
According to the log of HMS Pearl — whose sailors played a critical role in the Nov. 22, 1718 sea battle that killed Blackbeard near Ocracoke, N.C. — two condemned pirates were taken from the ship on Jan. 28, 1719 and hanged on the Hampton waterfront.
The remains of one may have been found in the mid-1980s, when archaeologists exploring the shoreline near what is now the Crowne Plaza hotel uncovered the partial skeleton of an early-18th-century male who had been been buried in a ritual fashion.
Laid face down between the low- and high-water marks at what was then known as Customhouse Point, the orientation of the remains reflected a common practice designed to damn or at least insult the spirits of supposedly "soul-less" buccaneers by denying them a conventional Christian interment.
"It's exactly how they buried the pirates hanged in Charlestown the year before," says N.C. historian Kevin P. Duffus, author of "The Last Days of Blackbeard the Pirate."
"The evidence suggests that these are the remains of a pirate — and possibly one from Blackbeard's crew," adds Hampton History Museum curator J. Michael Cobb, who oversees the collection in which the skeleton has been both preserved and recreated as part on an archaeological exhibit.
Taken to Williamsburg to stand trial, the remaining members of Blackbeard's crew were held in the 1704 public "gaol" on Nicholson Street just north of the Capitol. At least some faced an admiralty court on March 12, when — according to the most cited source — one was acquitted, one pardoned and the rest sentenced to hang.
No direct records of that trial or the execution survive. But in 1992 archaeologists from the College of William and Mary discovered the remains of a large, triangular gallows one mile from the gaol and just yards from Capitol Landing Road — which then was known as Gallows Road.
With its distinctive shape, the early 1700s scaffold was modeled after the infamous "Triple Tree" gallows at Tyburn, London, archaeologist Joe B. Jones says. And with each leg measuring 11 feet long, it also boasted the size needed to carry out a mass hanging.
"This was designed to handle more than one person at a time," Jones says.
"And it was big enough to allow the simultaneous execution of the 13 members of Blackbeard's crew."
If the sentence was carried out as many historians believe, the site was an easily accessible and highly visible location.
Dense scatters of early 1700s artifacts have been found around the postholes from which the gallows rose, including coins suggesting that some onlookers placed bets on the death throes of the condemned.
"In London, people turned out in large crowds for the execution of notorious criminals," says Tom Hay, site supervisor of the courthouse and Capitol in Colonial Williamsburg.
"And it's overwhelmingly likely that it happened here for the execution of Blackbeard's crew."
Still, in Bath, N.C. — where Blackbeard and some of his crew lived for part of 1718 — surviving property and court records suggest that four of the men were still alive long after they were reported hanged in Virginia, Duffus says.
Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood's discussion of pirate testimony in a letter dated before the March 12 trial suggests that some previous but now undocumented legal proceeding took place — perhaps one that invoked a December 1718 royal pardon offering amnesty to repentant pirates.
Duffus believes only six members of the pirate crew died on the gallows because of what was then known as the "king's mercy". He also thinks all six hangings were carried out in Hampton rather than Williamsburg because of the port town's prominence in trade and its location on the water.
Likely hung in chains after their deaths, the remains of the pirates may have been displayed as a grisly warning to others.
And the ritual burial discovered in the 1980s may have been only one of a half-dozen that may have taken place after their bodies were taken down.
Blackbeard's head is said to have been mounted on a pike and placed on the banks of the Hampton River for the same reason.
"Plenty of people have written about it. It was the sort of the thing that would have been done — and we have pretty good evidence from the piece of land that's always been called 'Blackbeard's Point,'" Cobb says.
"But whether it actually happened is a whole other matter — because there's no mention of it in the log of the Pearl."