image courtesy The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, VA
The U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, sitting also on the federal circuit bench in Richmond, presided over the trial of three pirates who, once convicted, were hanged — two of them twice — and then buried, exhumed and electrocuted.
Witnesses for the prosecution included two survivors out of 11 passengers and crew of the brig Crawford, seized by the brigands in the Caribbean. Ringleader Alexander Tardy was already dead and decapitated, his head sent to Baltimore for cranial examinations to determine the cause of his villainy.
The court convened at 10 a.m. on Monday, July 16, 1827, in the Virginia Capitol's Old Hall of the House of Delegates. The trial prompted crowds, making maintaining order difficult.
The courtroom audience didn't perceive the accused Felix Barbeito, José "Courro" Morando and José "Pepe" Cesares as ferocious enough for the indictments of piracy and the murders of Captain Henry Brightman and most of his passengers and crew.
They blamed Tardy.
The appointed defense team included Richmond legal luminary Benjamin Watkins Leigh (as in Leigh Street), a state legislator and future U.S. senator. State's attorney and Richmonder Robert Stanard represented the United States.
The Crawford's fair-haired and engaging first mate Edmund Dobson, his arm in a sling, gave the four-day trial's most compelling testimony. The fateful trip from Providence, R.I., the new ship's third voyage, was to Mantazas, Cuba, to pick up rum, coffee, sugar and molasses for New York City.
Tardy was essentially a high-seas serial killer who, while posing as a physician, mixed arsenic into the sugar ration of passenger ships and then stole from the ill and dying. Tardy blamed the ship's African-American cooks, thereby causing the hanging of one man in Charleston, S.C.
Pursued by authorities, Tardy fled to Cuba. There he assembled a trio of Spanish cutthroats to hijack a ship to Europe. In Mantazas, they charmed their way on board the Crawford, with Tardy again impersonating a physician.
The black cook Stephen Gibbs foiled Tardy's first poisoning attempt by scraping off his "native pepper." Tardy's second effort caused vomiting fits resembling seasickness. His Spanish cohorts favored the bloody expedience of murder. They began at 1:40 a.m. on June 1 by slitting the captain's throat. At daybreak, those left alive were Dobson, Gibbs and a Frenchman, Ferdinand Ginoulhiac. They were forced to clean blood off the deck and sails while the drunken Spaniards celebrated the murders.
Tardy gave Dobson the options of death or of navigating the Crawford to Hamburg, Germany. They'd provision in Norfolk because Tardy was too well known in closer ports. The brig was made to appear Spanish, its name removed and a U.S. flag converted into the Spanish ensign.
By evening on June 12, the Crawford was within 100 yards of Old Point Comfort on the Virginia coast. Under the guise of readying an away boat for Tardy, Dobson grabbed an oar and began paddling to shore.
Dobson reached the military overseeing the construction of Fortress Monroe and told his improbable story to veteran Capt. Nathaniel G. Dana, who dispatched nine men to the vessel.
The Spaniards escaped using a boat somehow liberated from a nearby schooner. Tardy declared that he'd not be taken alive and was later found in his cabin with a slit throat.
Customs officials seized the vessel and took ashore the jittery survivors. A posse captured the fleeing Spaniards in Isle of Wight County.
Not giving testimony in Richmond was Gibbs, the African-American cook, and his absence was scarcely noted.
Separate juries convicted the Spaniards to hang on Aug. 17. During incarceration the pirates admitted their crimes.
They were transported from the Henrico County jail at Main and 22nd streets. Dressed in purple robes with hoods kept in place by nooses, they sat on coffins carried by wagons. The procession wended its way three miles to the prison (where today stands the Virginia Housing Development Authority). Some 5,000 people lined the route, and more crowded around the triple gallows. A minister sermonized on the wages of sin, and a Catholic priest whispered last rites.
When the trap doors sprung, the ropes suspending Cesares and Morando broke. The writhing men were gathered up amid screams from the spectators and were returned to the gallows. The Richmond Enquirer reported this as a melancholy and distressing scene, and many members of the crowd departed out of fear. The two dropped again. The three bodies swayed in the air for an hour.
The pirates were buried nearby. Later that day, however, it was thought they might provide scientific use, so the bodies were exhumed and sent to an armory to test galvanic or electric shock's power to revive a corpse — like in Frankenstein (published 1818).
The dead men told no tales.
Flashback thanks Rick Hatcher, native Richmonder and historian at Fort Sumter National Monument, and Haunts of Richmond's Sandi Bergman.