Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Last Famous Pirate

Quick, who was the last famous pirate to be hanged?

No, not some starving scarecrow from Somalia so desperate for a full meal that he attacks an oil tanker with little more than an inflatable boat and an AK-47.   That poor fool is definitely a pirate, but is neither famous nor (presumably) is he in danger of being taken to the nearest gallows. 

No one is sure exactly how many pirates have had their necks stretched, but the official records are full of them.  In just the eight years following 1716, the British hanged over 400 pirates.  Most of the hangings followed a pattern: After being captured by the British Navy, the pirates would be heavily chained and placed in cramped, miserable compartments in either the cable tier or some other dank dark hold below the waterline, and then be slowly transported back to London for a quick trial and a slow death.

Prisoners awaiting justice before Admiralty High Courts were usually confined to the Old Bailey, though the most famous cases, like Captain Kidd, were incarcerated at Newgate Prison, within sight of the Tower of London.  Court cases normally lasted about two days, after which the vast majority of the pirates would hear the presiding judge say,

Ye and each of ye are adjudged and sentenced to be carried back to the place from whence you came, thence to the place of execution, and there within the flood marks to be hanged by the neck till you are dead, dead, dead, and the Lord, in His infinite wisdom have mercy upon your souls…After this ye, and each of ye shall be taken down and your bodies hung in chains…. 

At least, that’s what the judge said when he sentenced six pirates to a necktie party in 1722.  On the date of execution, the guilty would be taken down to the Execution Dock, where an impromptu gallows would be erected at the low tide mark.  There is an exact science to properly conducting a hanging:  the rope has to be long enough so that the fall will break the neck, but not too far as to prevent the rope from completely removing the head of the condemned.  (If you think that last part was a joke, read this.)

The English were experts at hanging and eventually a Londoner by the name of William Marwood would establish a “Drop Table” specifying the length of rope required for any given weight.  Marwood’s table is still in use around the world.  Marwood also detailed how the proper rope was selected, carefully stretched, then soaped to allow the knot to slide (Actually, none of that matters, since the Admiralty always used a short rope for pirates and let the condemned slowly and painfully choke to death.   This was colloquially called the ‘hemp jig’ or the ‘marshal’s dance.’)

Though it might take a while, eventually the condemned pirate would die.  The Admiralty would leave the corpse on the gallows until three tides had washed the body, then it would be removed and buried in a pauper’s grave—unless the pirate was particularly notorious.  Captain Kidd's body, for example, was covered in tar, placed in a gibbet (an iron cage) and hung along the Thames River as a warning for others for three years. 

As a prevention, this evidently was something of a flop.  For hundreds of years, travelers to London could see the rotting remains and bleached skulls of the executed.  Even Shakespeare wrote about the gibbets in King Henry Vi:  “Against the senseless winds shall grin in vain, Who in contempt shall hiss at thee again.”

London was still publicly hanging pirates as late as 1868, by which time the age of piracy was slowly dying out.  So, who was the last famous pirate hanged for his crimes?  Adolf Eichmannł, the Nazi war criminal.  Seriously.  He was a pirate.

Eichmann, an SS Obersturmbannführer and one of the despicably evil men responsible for the Holocaust, had escaped capture at the end of the war and made his way to Argentina, where under an assumed name, he worked for the local Mercedes Benz dealership.  Still wanted for his crimes, Jacob Wiesenthal—the famous Nazi hunter—aided in tracking Eichmann down.

Since Argentina regularly rejected extradition efforts for Nazi criminals, the Mossad decided to surreptitiously smuggle Eichmann back to Israel.  One evening, as Eichmann got off a bus and strolled along the street back to his home, three men wrestled him into a car, and whisked him away to a safe house.  After double-checking his identity, Eichmann was sedated and smuggled onto an El Al airplane that had brought the Israeli delegation attending Argentina’s celebration for their 150th year of Independence from Spain.

Once the plane landed in Israel, Eichmann’s trial could begin.  There was, however, a small problem.  Eichmann was responsible for countless murders, but none of them had been committed in Israel.  Since the country of Israel had not existed until 1948, none of the victims had been Israeli citizens.  On what charge could Adolf Eichmann be tried?

Under international law dating back centuries, pirates—who frequently committed their crimes in international waters—could be tried by any country for committing “crimes against humanity”.  The precedent was set in 1696 against the pirate Henry “Long Ben” Avery.  In a trial in the Old Bailey, an English judge ruled that though none of Avery’s crimes had been committed against English ships, his actions still impacted the commerce of the world, thus being crimes against all humanity.

So, Adolf Eichmann was tried as a pirate, convicted, and hanged.  I don’t want to get too graphic, but from the details Israel recently released about the condition of the body and the length of time for Eichmann to die—well, let’s just say that Israel probably didn’t use Marwood’s Drop Table.

Eichmann’s corpse was cremated in an oven operated by a former inmate of Auschwitz, then the Israeli Coast Guard—and this is so fitting for a pirate—scattered his ashes in the Mediterranean Sea...Far outside Israeli waters, of course. 

I guess Israel didn’t have a gibbet.


  1. I think I read somewhere that almost all accused pirates had their sentences commuted to transportation, so there must have been thousands captured. I think I read that in "Captain Blood"!

    1. Captain Blood was the first swashbuckler novel I ever read and hooked me on the genre. In that book, Peter Blood was exonerated and made governor at Port Royale. Not many actual pirates wound up that way. Not many pirate success stories got passed along over the years and the Dread Pirate Robertses probably didn't want their stories noised about to keep down the competition. That and the moral police of the day didn't want to encourage piracy as a lucrative career choice.