Today (May 23) in London History – Pirate Executed!

The famous pirate Captain Kidd was executed at Execution Dock on this day, May 23, 1701. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Storytime. History time.

Captain Kidd. Along with Blackbeard his is the big name in the Pantheon of Pirates. We’ve all heard of him. We picture him with a cutlass in one hand, a flintlock pistol in the other, a gold ear-ring, a big floppy hat, a scarf, a sash round his waist, loose-fitting clothes and cavalier boots. And lots of wild hair and a beard and a ferocious, take-no-prisoners expression. He probably didn’t have an eye-patch but if he did have one we’d be more than happy with that final touch. 

And that’s all we know. Except that he was executed.

And what a way to be executed. He was hanged. Here in London. At Execution Dock. They had to hang him twice because the first time the rope split. 

Execution Dock is in Wapping. It’s opposite Brewhouse Lane, where it joins Wapping High Street. Captain Kidd was hanged at the low-water mark and left there till three tides had flowed over him. He would have been a London focal point for those three days – thousands of Londoners will have watched the hanging – and stayed on to watch the tide come ashore, rise up the gallows,  come up to his feet, his ankles, his legs and just keep on rising. What I’m guessing is they will have wanted in particular to see the moment when just his head was above the water. And, yes, a lot of them will have been back twelve hours later to see the top of the gallows emerge from the ebbing tide, and then the rope, and then the crown of Captain Kidd’s head, and then his forehead and eyes, and on down. That’ll have been a sight none of those Londoners will have ever forgotten. 

And I suspect that’s one of the reasons Captain Kidd is still with us, in a sense, over 300 years later. 321 years to be exact. Captain Kidd was hanged at execution dock on this day, May 23rd, 1701. That date’s another tiny brushstroke in the overall effect. A fine spring day – what a day to have your life taken from you. 

But there were lots of pirates hanged at Execution Dock. So why else do we remember Captain Kidd? I think there are a couple of reasons. One, Captain Kidd was an example of good stock that went bad. Exotic good stock that went bad. The Captain was a Scot. A Scot born into the family of a Church of Scotland Minister. So tongues would have clucked about that. He was born about 1645. He makes his first appearance in the historical record – apart from his antecedents, that is – in 1689. He’s a member of a pirate crew who the governor of the Leeward Islands talks into doing his bidding as privateers. Poachers turned gamekeepers. The governor wants them to go into action against the hated French. Yes, it almost goes without saying, there was a war going on. The governor made Kidd Captain of a ship called the Blessed William and it sailed into action off the island of Marie Galante. 

We don’t know how Kidd took to the straight and narrow – if you can call being a privateer the straight and narrow. We do know how his men took to it. They didn’t like it. They disliked it so much they stole his ship out from under his eyes and sailed it to New York City, which was a known pirate haunt at the time. You listening New Yorkers? 

To add insult to injury, they also stole Kidd’s booty which was worth £2000. The governor of the Leeward Islands gave Kidd a new ship and he gave pursuit. 

Fruitlessly. Never found them. 

Never got the first ship back. Never got his booty back. In New York he took up with that well known New Yorker – Robert Livingstone, a fellow Scot who was an important politician, merchant and landowner. Still walking the straight and narrow, Kidd joined the royal forces putting down the rebellion of Jacob Leisler. He decided to stay in New York. Married the twice-widowed Sarah Ooht. In ten years’ time, she’d of course be the thrice-widowed Sarah Kidd. But no holding back a strong-minded New York female. When her third husband, Captain Kidd, did his three-day stint at Execution Dock and then went to the bottom of the Thames a fourth and final time at Tilbury, Sarah didn’t waste any time in getting herself a fourth husband. Footnote here: some say Captain Kidd’s final descent into Davy Jones’ locker was a long time coming. That in fact his corpse was tarred and gibbetted – for perhaps as long as 20 years. The Captain doing his stint as a deterrent. Well, that was the idea, anyway. 

But I’m getting ahead of the game.

Back in New York, Captain Kidd got restive. He and Livingstone cooked up a plan that would take advantage of Kidd’s skill set. The idea was for Kidd to sail to the Indian Ocean where pirates were wreaking havoc. The thinking was Kidd would capture the pirates and their treasure and return to Massachusetts Bay or England, where the pirates would be tried, their treasure condemned, and the profits divided among the investors.

Oh and French commerce was also fair game. That almost goes without saying. 

Kidd recruited a crew, in New York, of 90 pirates. And set sail. He headed off to the Red Sea. Where his greed got the better of him. He spotted shipping that he thought would be rich pickings. The only problem was, they weren’t pirates, they were commercial vessels beyond reproach,  en route for India loaded with cargo and pilgrims returning from Mecca. Well, that wasn’t the only problem. There was an even bigger problem. Kidd’s prey were accompanied by the East Indian Company vessel The Sceptre and it joined the fray. It aggressively defended the pilgrim ships. 

And it was all downhill from there. Kidd and his 90 pirates had come away empty-handed. And given that his men were on a no prey no pay contract… well, you can see what was in the offing. Kidd steered for the Indian Ocean. Tensions were rife on the ship. In an altercation, Kidd killed his gunner. Smashed him over the head with a wooden bucket hooped with iron.

He had an ugly, vicious, nasty crew that had pretty much had their fill with their Captain. He had to do something and do it fast. He attacked and captured six ships. Of which only two – carrying French passes – could be considered legitimate prey. By now his ship was in bad condition. He sailed for the pirate base of Ste Marie, just off the coast of Madagascar. Once he got there, well, it was as if he was among friends. The Captain crossed back over. Openly consorted with the pirates he’d been sent out to capture. 

He probably didn’t know it but fraternising with the pirates he was signing his own death warrant.

The East India Company was getting heat from the Mughal government because of the pirate plague. It had to be seen to be doing something. It needed a fall guy. Captain Kidd fit the bill. He went back to New York and tried to get some of his backers and friends to go to bat for him. They didn’t want to know. In the end he was arrested and shipped back to England.

Back here he became a political pawn. The tories, who were now in power, approached him. They wanted him testify against his patrons the Whig lords. Kidd refused to play their game. His read was that only the whigs could save him. But they weren’t just out of power – they were facing charges of treason themselves. Kidd was a serious black mark in their book. Getting him out of the way meant one less problem for them. 

The outcome of his trial was a foregone conclusion. He was guilty of piracy so it’s unlikely that even had circumstances been different he would have walked free. But I suppose a pardon might have been a possibility. But there was no chance in the Tory-led England of 1701. 

As for his legacy after his gruesome end… many people believed that he’d salted away maybe £400,000 of treasure. That’d be worth tens of millions of pounds in today’s money. That pot of Captain Kidd’s gold at the end of rainbow has sparked endless treasure hunts. All of them have come away empty-handed. He had transferred £6400 pounds to his wife and his erstwhile friend Livingston. That’d be maybe 3/4 of a million in today’s money. The crown seized it and in time Queen Ann donated it to the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, for its charitable purposes and the construction of the Old Royal Naval College. So, on the tried and trusted principle that it’s always a good idea to follow the money, when you see the Old Royal Naval College, by all means murmur under your breath, Captain Kidd helped build that. Or go even further, make it, “piracy helped build that.”

And on that note, time for a Today in London recommendation – this one’s another no-brainer. Have a drink at the Town of Ramsgate Pub on Wapping High Street. The foreshore out the back of the pub is believed to be the site of Execution Dock. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

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Aaron’s a Cambridge University palaeontologist who has another string to his bow: he moonlights as a brilliant guide.

Goes without saying he’s in that London Walks all-star lineup of genuine experts – guides who are well-connected, experienced, accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, historians, archaeologists, palaeontologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors. Let alone London Walks’ Delta Squad members: the creme de la creme of Blue Badge, Westminster and City of London professionally qualified guides. Several of whom come trailing the big one, MVP honours  – winners of the coveted Guide of the Year Award. Guides who make the new familiar, and the familiar new. And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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