Day 801: Billy The Kidd – A Brutal Pirate. Well, Maybe

originally published March 11, 2014

Sometimes our most loathsome villains have been misunderstood, their legacies forever stained by the thick-bristled brush of historical “common knowledge”. William Kidd’s name is uttered in the same venomous breath as Blackbeard, Black Bart, and that Rupert guy from Survivor. He makes nearly every list of famous historical pirates, and is the only documented privateer to have actually stashed some buried treasure in the dirt.

But how much actual pirating William Kidd undertook has become the subject of scholarly debate. Was he actually a foul-mouthed degenerate scumbag, out to pilfer profit and goodies from innocent traders, or was he simply a hapless schnook in a game too big for one man to control?

I’ll present the facts as I’ve found them through my countless minutes of research, and let you decide for yourself.

By 1695, William Kidd (who was already pushing 50) had earned a reputation as a successful sailor with a knack for catching pirates rather than losing his goods to them (though the pirate Robert Culliford did swipe his boat in Antigua once). He was a loyal citizen, pitching in on the construction of Trinity Church in New York. He got along well with Richard Coote, the Earl of Bellomont, who was acting as governor of New York at the time. The Earl decided the crown could benefit from Kidd’s skills, and formally requested Kidd’s assistance in capturing a most-wanted list of pirates.

Kidd couldn’t refuse. To do so would be an act of disloyalty to the crown. He planted himself in London and gathered a crew of 150 fiercely loyal troops, loaded onto the Adventure Galley – a pristine ship, armed to the gills. The Earl helped to finance the voyage, as did a number of other dignitaries, including perhaps King William III. Kidd was off to pirate-hunt, Boba Fett-style. It took about an hour for things to go wrong.

After embarking down the Thames, the Adventure Galley neglected to salute a passing British Navy ship. The British fired off a warning shot, hoping to stir some manners into this vessel, and a number of Kidd’s men responded by smacking their own asses in the direction of the ship. Their smart-assery resulted in the Navy vessel boarding the Adventure Galley and scooping a number of able-bodied men into mandated service. Kidd had to round up a new crew in New York, many of whom were criminals, possibly pirates.

In September of 1896, Kidd set sail for the Cape of Good Hope, along the southern elbow of Africa. Shortly after arriving, roughly a third of his crew died from a cholera outbreak. They aimed for the Red Sea, but couldn’t find any pirates to attack. When they did spot a Dutchman and what appeared to be a New York privateer, Kidd resisted the urgings of his crew to attack. Bits of his crew would desert whenever they’d land ashore. Finally things got ugly one day in October, 1897.

Kidd’s gunner, William Moore, really wanted to attack a legitimate Dutch ship. This would not only have angered King William III (who was born Dutch), but would have been a true act of piracy. Kidd said no, the two got into a skuffle, and Kidd threw an ironbound bucket at Moore’s head. Moore died the next day from his wound.

There were reports of Kidd’s cruelty to prisoners, but little documentation to back it up. Another Navy ship once demanded 30 of Kidd’s men, but Kidd slipped away rather than give up more crew to conscription. The Royal Navy officer became the first to brand Kidd a pirate for his actions.

Early in 1868, Kidd’s ship captured an Armenian ship, chock full of gold, silk, and other goodies. It was a great haul, until Kidd learned that the ship’s captain was an Englishman with notes of passage from the French crown. Kidd wanted the ship released, but given that his crew was already tiptoeing around the fringes of mutiny, and given that they really wanted the score in the Armenian ship’s cargo, Kidd relented and they kept the booty. This was the point where Kidd was officially branded a pirate.

Kidd hung onto those French passes, hoping they’d somehow exonerate him should he ever come to trial.

After most of Kidd’s remaining crew ditched their captain on Madagascar to follow Robert Culliford (the dink who had stolen Kidd’s ship years earlier), Kidd took his remaining 13 men on a voyage back to New York. He knew he was a wanted man, but he’d hoped to clear his name. Along the way he stopped at Gardiners Island in East Hampton to stash some of his treasure in the ground, just in case he needed it to bargain for his freedom. Upon arrival, he learned the Earl of Bellomont was away in Boston. The Earl summoned his old buddy, but deep down he was scared of being implicated in Kidd’s crimes. When William Kidd stepped into Boston, he’d stepped into a trap.

Kidd was arrested on July 6, 1899. After a year in Stone Prison, that notorious Boston facility that had once held numerous suspected witches, Kidd was transferred to England to face questioning in Parliament. His passes, which he’d hoped to use to explain the situation with the Armenian ship, were lost – the victims of mismanaged paperwork. No worries. William Kidd knew that the King, along with his highly-placed political backers, would step up in his defense. Everything was going to be just fine.

The Tories wanted to use Kidd’s testimony to incriminate their Whig opponents. He might have been spared had he simply divulged who had funded his pirate-snaring voyage, but Kidd was a loyal guy. Unfortunately, his Whig backers were not. They pitched in to help the prosecution, and with their assistance Kidd was sentenced for five counts of piracy and the murder of William Moore with a bucket. He was hanged, then gibbeted over the River Thames for three years as a warning to other would-be scoundrels.

The French letters that could have helped with Kidd’s defense were finally located in a London building about a hundred years ago. His buried treasure had been exhumed by the Earl of Bellomont and shipped to England to be used as evidence against him. Some believe there is more buried treasure out there, but that’s just the stuff of pirate lore, the type of myths that keep us entranced with these sorts of shenanigans and buying tickets to Disney-funded Johnny Depp films.

Captain Kidd remains one of the era’s most infamous pirates, though it would appear he may only have ever been a privateer, not particularly grand at his job but with noble intentions in his work. That’s a brutal legacy to leave in one’s wake.

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