The Brief Career of Pirate John Quelch
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Joyy roger

Legends of pirates at the Isles of Shoals persist, despite a lack of historical evidence. One band of pirates, however, were captured with their loot at Star Island. Author Clifford Beal tells the story in his revealing and highly readable new book "Quelch’s Gold".






SEE ALSO: Seeking Blackbeard's Treasure

The historical pirate is dead. He was stabbed in the back in the 1880s by a romantic novel called Treasure Island and the operetta Pirates of Penzance. He was keelhauled by the comic Captain Hook in the early 20th century production of Peter Pan. What remained of the truth was fed to the sharks by actor Johnny Depp who plays the quirky conflict-averse Captain Jack Sparrow in three recent Disney films.

Quelch's GoldYes, Virginia, there once were real pirates on real wooden ships. There have been pirates since the days of ancient Greece. There are modern pirates with machine guns and machetes who pray on yachts and sailboats today. But the pirates we most romanticize plundered these waters in the 17th and early 18th centuries. They did not sport beards made from live snakes, but there might have been the occasional hooked arm, peg leg, striped shirt, eye patch and shoulder-parrot. They were, by in large, violent and desperate men living under wretched conditions.

Lucky for the real pirates, there are historians like Clifford Beal who know how to wield a pen and dig for facts. Beal cuts to the heart of one authentic pirate in his new book Quelch’s Gold. John Quelch is not as famous as Captain Kidd and Edmund "Blackbeard" Teach, who also sailed these waters, but his story reveals much about how pirates actually lived. Like criminals of any era, we know the most about those pirates who got caught and went to trial. Quelch was hanged in Boston in 1704 after a single year of looting on the high seas. Legend says Quelch’s men deposited their treasure at the Isles of Shoals in New Hampshire. .

Beal’s adventure begins in August of 1703 as the 80-ton brigantine Charles slipped out of Marblehead harbor. Owned by a syndicate of five influential Bostonians, the Charles was on a mission to attack French privateers, government sanctioned pirates, that were harassing British merchant ships in the North Atlantic. The owners did not know, however, that their captain, Daniel Plowman, lay dying in his bunk. Forty hours after the Charles cleared the harbor, Plowman was dead, presumably of natural causes. John Quelch, the ship’s lieutenant, took command.







The distinction between pirates and privateers, as with patriots and insurgents, is often fuzzy and depends on whom is writing the history. Quelch, technically, became captain of the Charles, although how Captain Plowman actually died is unknown. Was this a mutiny? Quelch did raid enemy ships as ordered by the ship owners. But instead of going north to search for French prey, he headed to South America where his crew captured as many as nine small trading vessels flying the Portuguese flag. Quelch may not have known it at the time, but soon after his departure from Marblehead, Portugal and England became allies in the war against France and Spain.

Despite the romantic legends, pirates rarely found gold. Quelch’s first five captures off the coast of Brazil yielded the typical spoils – fish, molasses, lumber, some crockery, and a little cash. Two African slaves were taken and sold to crewmembers of the Charles. But the next capture was the jackpot. When Quelch returned to Marblehead in May of 1704, he was carrying 960 ounces of stolen gold dust, worth about $2 million today. That did not include the shares given to the crew of the Charles, who each received enough gold to live comfortably for a few years. As soon as the Charles arrived back in port, the crew quickly dispersed, leaving Quelch to carry the gold by horseback along the dangerous roads from Marblehead, to Beverly, Lynn, Charlestown and into the heart of Puritan Boston to settle up with his sponsors.

By the time he returned to New England, John Quelch certainly knew he had broken British law by attacking vessels belonging to Portuguese allies. Quelch and his crew devised a "cover story," telling the owners that they got the gold from Indians who discovered it in a Spanish shipwreck. But a search of the brigantine Charles turned up a number of Portuguese "souvenirs" taken by the crew. Quelch was arrested for piracy and tossed into a bleak Boston jail. Massachusetts Governor Joseph Dudley, in order to curry favor with the King, decided to make an example out of Quelch and his pirate crewmen. But first he had to catch them.

Fearing the worst, a band of Quelch’s men fled to Salem. From there they hopped a boat to the rugged Isles of Shoals, a harsh lawless fishing outpost at the turn of the 18th century. Samuel Sewall, one of the judges at the infamous Salem witch trials, was in hot pursuit. Sewall commandeered a fishing shallop and, without a single cannon, managed to cross a sometimes treacherous stretch of water and sneak up on the escaping seamen at Star Island. "Without striking a stroke or firing a gun" Sewell and his little militia convinced them to surrender. They confiscated 46 ounces of gold dust, but did not search the island. Author Clifford Beal cannot resist stirring up one of the most popular Shoals legends when he writes: "But had Major Sewall recovered all of the treasure? Had more of it been left on Star Island, hidden or left with someone for safekeeping?"

Things did not go well for Captain Quelch. With only half of his gold recovered, Gov. Dudley and his son Paul, the attorney general of Massachusetts Colony, instantly put the accused pirate on trial. They did not see fit to indict the five prominent members of the privateering syndicate who employed Quelch.




Working from the original transcripts, author Clifford Beal recounts Quelch’s trial like a modern courtroom drama. Although high crimes of the sea like piracy were traditionally heard by a jury in England, attorney general Paul Dudley argued for an admiralty trial on the spot, the first of its kind in the New World. In June of 1704, just a month after he voluntarily returned from his privateering mission and handed over the spoils of war to his employers, Quelch was convicted of piracy by the Massachusetts court and sentenced to be hanged.

Quelch did not hang alone. Twenty of his crewmen were caught and convicted and six were selected to die. The seven men stood together on a wobbly plank at a gallows constructed between the high and low tide marks in a mud flat outside Boston Harbor. Quelch was unrepentant and bowed to the enormous cheering crowd that gathered on land in hundreds of small boats to watch the execution.

"They should also take care," Quelch shouted in warning to those gathered, "how they brought Money into New-England, to be Hanged for it!"

After the plank was withdrawn, and the twisting men had slowly strangled under their own weight, their bodies were left, by custom, to rise and fall with three high tides before they could be cut down and deposited in unhallowed ground.

John Quelch

The hangings, without benefit of a jury trial, were considered illegal by many, both in England and in the Colonies. Author Clifford Beal even suggests that the public reaction to this act of judicial homicide helped kindle the spark that became the American Revolution. Although the Dudleys were native-born New Englanders, their actions represented the Crown, and thus angered the citizens of Boston. British lawmakers were also displeased and saw Joseph Dudley, who was also royal governor of New Hampshire at the time, as taking too much power into his own hands.

Even the wealthy Boston syndicate that blew the whistle on their own Captain Quelch was unhappy, since Dudley’s court confiscated their gold, the brigantine Charles and all its cargo. Then the Dudleys used the gold to pay themselves handsomely for one of the most expensive trials in early American history.

And what about the rest of the stolen gold? No one even considered returning it to its Portuguese owners. It was shipped, instead, to England where it was melted down and cast into currency by the master of the British mint, Sir Isaac Newton, the same man who discovered the Theory of Gravity thanks to a falling apple. Quelch’s Gold is a thrilling pirate story, now finally and dramatically told, as bizarre as anything Disney might dream up – but this one is true.

SOURCE: Quelch’s Gold: Piracy, Greed, and Betrayal in Colonial New England by Clifford Beal, Praeger Publishers, 2007, available on

Copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson. Robinson is the editor and owner of the popular web site and author of the newly released book Strawbery Banke: A Seaport Museum 400 Years in the Making, now available in local stores.