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The Brief Career of Pirate John 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After the plank was withdrawn, and the twisting men had slowly strangled under their own weight, their bodies were left, by custom, to rise and fall with three high tides before they could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.


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