Friday, May 24, 2024

A Pirate Looks at 400

A woodcut image of Gibbs and others throwing people overboard
In April of 1831, Charles Gibbs came clean while awaiting his execution by hanging at Ellis Island. One of the last American pirates of the Caribbean, Gibbs was not actually his real name. Instead, his real name was James Jeffers, and he had been born in Newport, Rhode Island in the late 1790s. Over the course of his short but perversely productive career in pirating, Gibbs claimed to have been involved in the murder of nearly four hundred people. His rationale for so many killings? The sentence for piracy was the same as that for murder, so there was no point in leaving any witnesses behind.

Gibbs' death row confession was preserved by his eager biographers in the form of a chapbook published in Providence soon after his death. In this slim volume, titled Mutiny and Murder, Gibbs reels off an astonishing resume: He claimed to have served on the USS Hornet and USS Chesapeake during the War of 1812, then later became a privateer on the schooner Maria before mutinying against his captain and taking control of the vessel to become a full-fledged pirate. After his villainous crew was decimated by the USS Enterprise in 1824, Gibbs escaped and had further adventures farther asea, first as a commander with the Argentinian Navy during the Cisplatine War and then later as a member of the Barbary Corsairs. Finally, however, his deeds caught up with him. He was captured on Long Island in 1830 after participating in yet another mutiny.

The saga of Gibbs' sordid life was extremely popular well into the mid-19th century: the public displayed a horrid fascination with his sensationalist stories of treachery on the high seas and roving adventures around the globe. As one might expect from a sailor, however, most of Gibbs' confession turned out to be nothing more than one tall tale strung along after the next, the last laugh of an inveterate ne'er'-do-well.

To read the last yarn of one of the last pirates of the Caribbean, come to Rauner and ask for Rare G537.G44 M8.

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