In Episode 147, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger stroll the grounds around Newport Harbor Lighthouse in Rhode Island, because it’s here that 26 men are buried somewhere below the picturesque lighthouse. This was the site of New England’s largest state sanctioned mass execution. This is the tale of pirates on the high seas!
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[OCEAN WAVES SEA GULLS]
RAY: Another week, another lighthouse, Jeff. I’m seeing a trend.
JEFF: Yeah, I get it. It’s almost summer, the weather is getting nicer, and I figure Newport, Rhode Island, is beautiful this time of year.
RAY: It is. So why are we standing by the Newport Harbor Lighthouse?
JEFF: Like last week’s adventure in Stratford, Connecticut, the lighthouse is the location, but not the story.
RAY: Then what are we looking for here at the tip of Goat Island?
JEFF: This is where the story of New England’s largest mass execution ends, Ray. Today, we’re searching for pirates.
JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to Episode 147 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
JEFF: We’re a community of legend seekers who are on a quest to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. And we can’t do that without the help of our patreon patrons. These folks pledge just $3 bucks per month to help us with our production costs and for that, they get early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. If you want to join our growing army of legend hunters, head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
RAY: We also appreciate it when you tell others about our show. That’s also how we grow.
JEFF: We have another cool announcement this week. The New England Legends television series on PBS and Amazon Prime, just earned its first Telly Award for the category of Television: General Entertainment. There were more than 12,000 international submissions, so it’s a pretty cool honor. You can watch the show right now on Amazon Prime.
RAY: Congratulations! And it looks like congratulations are also in order for this lovely couple here standing by the lighthouse.
[CAMERA CLICKS SNAPPING PICTURE]
JEFF: This is a really popular spot for wedding photos.
JEFF/RAY: Congratulation you two!
JEFF: Oh man, if they only knew what’s right below their feet…
RAY: I can’t wait to find out.
JEFF: The Newport Harbor Lighthouse isn’t the tallest lighthouse around. It’s only 35 feet tall, it’s white stone with a black top. But it’s pretty, and sits right on the water not far from the Rose Island Lighthouse, a haunted place we covered on the New England Legends television series.
RAY: Also known as the Goat Island Lighthouse, it was built in 1842, it may not be the grandest, but it was the first lighthouse in Newport. Today Goat Island is connected to the mainland by a short bridge called Gladys Carr Boathouse Road. It’s still an island, but you can easily drive out here.
JEFF: Our story takes place long before the lighthouse stood, back to a time when Newport was a British colony, and when the biggest problem sailors faced wasn’t unpredictable New England weather, but pirates.
RAY: Let’s head back to 1723, to the tail end of the golden age of piracy, and set this up.
RAY: It’s June of 1723 here in Newport, and it’s still very much a time for pirates. As the British colonies of New England continue to expand, and more people move to the region, the need for shipping goods and supplies across the ocean increases. More ships with goods and gold naturally draw in more pirates looking to plunder.
JEFF: It’s a huge problem for everyone. The royal navy can only do so much to protect the waters from pirates, so when they do make a capture, punishment is usually swift and brutal, because they want to make an example to warn other pirates and would-be pirates.
[SFX OCEAN SAILING]
RAY: It’s early in the morning on June 10th, when British Captain Peter Solgard, the commander of a man-of-war ship called The HMS Greyhound, is patrolling the waters near Block Island. That’s when a lookout spots two sloops sailing to the north.
JEFF: At this point, the HMS Greyhound turns south to give them space, but then they notice something… the two sloops are turning into what looks like an intercept course for the Greyhound.
JEFF: After a few hours of the sloops closing the distance between the ships, it becomes clear to Captain Solgard, that these two sloops are a threat. He orders all hands on deck.
RAY: Captain Solgard watches through his looking glass as the two approaching ships each raise a black flag on their masts.
RAY: The incoming canon fire confirms what Captain Solgard already knows… Pirates.
JEFF: And not just any pirates. One of the ships is called Fancy, and is captained by the notorious pirate Ned Low. Ned Low has a reputation for brutally torturing his victims before murdering them. In his relatively short career so far, he’s already been prolific. The other sloop is the Ranger, with Captain Charles Harris at the helm. Make no mistake, Ned Low is the man in charge. He’s public enemy number one around here.
RAY: The pirate ship, Fancy has 10 guns and 70 men, and the Ranger has 8 guns and 48 men. Compare that to the Greyhound’s 20 guns, and 130 men on board, and Captain Solgard likes his chances of taking down both pirate ships, but it’s still two moving targets against one.
JEFF: Captain Low knows that one British man-of-war can’t easily take down two pirate ships at once. So he brings his ship, the Fancy, to the far side of the Ranger.
RAY: The Ranger is taking a pounding from the British guns. Both pirate ships are returning fire.
RAY: But it’s clear the Greyhound is gaining the upper hand. They’ve just gunned down the main sail of the Ranger. It’s a critical blow to the pirate ship.
JEFF: That’s when Ned Low sees his chance. With the Ranger almost dead in the water, the Fancy makes her escape, leaving their comrades behind.
RAY: Which is the most back-stabbing pirate move he can make, really.
JEFF: British Captain Solgard no doubt curses to himself at the loss of Ned Low, but to capture the entire crew of the Ranger… well now, that’s not bad for a day’s work. Plus, both pirate vessels took their licks. He’s not giving up on Ned Low just yet.
RAY: As the black skull and crossbones pirate flag comes down, and the white flag of surrender goes up, Captain Solgard takes control of the Ranger pirate ship, and her crew. And from there he sails his prisoners and their battered ship down to Newport Harbor.
RAY: Captain Solgard ultimately captures the pirate captain Charles Harris and 35 surviving crew members of the Ranger to be tried for piracy. But Solgard doesn’t hang around Newport very long, he’s quickly off to try and chase down Ned Low.
JEFF: It’s important to understand the way pirate ships work these days. Sometimes when a pirate captain captures another ship, he may offer some of his captors the opportunity to serve aboard his ship as a pirate as opposed to walking the blank or facing the business end of the captain’s cutlass blade.
RAY: In other cases, sometimes captured crew of merchant ships are pressed into service of the pirate captain against their will.
JEFF: Right, the point is not everyone aboard the Ranger may be guilty of piracy.
RAY: Still, the entire crew of the Ranger do face the magistrate in Newport. The local court interviews each of the surviving prisoners, and by the end of the trial, a few are set free because it’s determined they were pressed into service. But 26 are found guilty and sentenced to hang.
JEFF: Hangings are nothing new to the New England colonies. Public execution has been used as a deterrent for crimes for many centuries in Europe, but this event is different. We’re talking about 26 pirates being executed. July 19th is going to be the day—just about a week from now.
RAY: Word spreads throughout New England of the capture of a pirate ship and her crew. When folks learn the entire crew is to be hanged, not only are they elated, but they want to be there.
JEFF: In the coming days, hotels and boarding houses fill with reservations for lodging. By mid-July, it’s a carnival like atmosphere in town. This is the single largest pirate capture in New England history. Judges are making the trip to witness the execution, Rhode Island Governor Cranston is attending, ships are sailing into Newport harbor to watch from the water, and people have traveled from as far away as Maine and New York to be here.
RAY: The morning of July 19th is sunny a clear—a perfect summer day, which only adds to the festivities. Locals and visitors start drinking early at the White Horse Tavern. The crowds line the streets as the prisoners are marched from the prison on Bull Street, by the Towne House, and all the way down to gravelly Point at the south end of Water Street where the gallows have been erected.
[LONE DRUM WITH SLOW BEAT]
JEFF: A pirate flag hangs from the gallows as the condemned are offered the chance to give any last words. A lone drum thumps out a beat as the execution time draws near. 26 men are going to die. Final words are said. Some give speeches warning the crowd to avoid piracy. Others say very littles before the noose is fastened around their neck.
RAY: A hush falls over the crowd as the men begin to drop to their deaths. One witness describes the scene.
WITNESS: Never was there a more doleful sight in all this land than while they were standing on the stage, waiting for the stopping of their breath and the flying of their souls into the eternal world. And oh! How awful the noise of their dying moans!
JEFF: When the deed is finished, and all 26 are dead and rotting at the end of the rope, the crowd slowly dissipates with the complex mixed feelings of being glad that some blood-thirsty pirates won’t torment these waters any longer, but realizing they’ve just watched people die, some of which may only be guilty by association.
RAY: Word of the execution travels north, all the way to the Revered Cotton Mather’s pulpit, where he uses the event in his sermon.
COTTON MATHER: There are now to Come unto you Twenty Six in a crew together from the Dead, who with an Hoarse but Loud Voice, terribly call upon you to Repent of your Sins and not Persist in such Crimes as have brought them to what they are now come unto. If you will not hear the Warnings of your Faithful Pastors, hear the Roarings of Twenty Six terrible Preachers, that in a Ghastly Apparition, are now from the Dead, calling upon you to Turn and Live unto GOD.
RAY: And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: During the 1800s, Gravelly Point was filled in with dirt as Newport expanded into a city. Today, Goat Island, and its iconic lighthouse mark the spot right about where the 26 executed pirates were buried.
RAY: Geeez, that should give all of these newlyweds something to think about as they pose for pictures.
JEFF: Consider this: Rhode Island performed 52 public executions between 1673, and its last in 1845. Exactly one half of them occurred right here in Newport on July 19th, 1723.
RAY: This was the largest state-sanctioned mass execution in New England history.
JEFF: Most of us don’t think of the largest mass execution when we think of Newport, do we?
RAY: No, we don’t.
JEFF: We appreciate it when you tell others about our show. We’re building an army of legend hunters who are swapping stories. If you haven’t done so already, you should join our super-secret Facebook group, check out our web site, or call or text our Legend Line anytime at 617-444-9683. We love hearing from you, and you can leave our show closing on our voicemail.
RAY: We’d like to thank Lorna Nogueira and Michael Legge for lending their voice acting talents this week. And our theme music is by John Judd.
VOICEMAIL: Hi, this is Stephanie Roswell from Austin, Texas. Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.