Statue of Liberty

 

 

With the exception of Canal Street's market stalls and their "cut-price" DVDs, we rarely associate New York City with pirates. Yet throughout the 1800s the city was plagued by swashbuckling rapscallions; murderers, looters, kidnappers to a man and boy. 

 

In the 18th century, the majority of residents still lived at the southern tip of Manhattan. During its British occupation, the city's population exploded along the shoreline of the East River. Beyond the gaze of the rest of the city, a plethora of new piers stretched into the waters and when Americans wrestled power back from the British, these wards became the most intense region of shipbuilding in the country. 

Heavy industry drove out the well-to-do and drove down the quality of life, and the neighbourhoods descended into lawless squalor; it was here that the city’s first tenement buildings were built. Sailors, shipbuilding and poverty beyond compare – the conditions were primed for the rise of the pirates in New York City, and not a ship that sailed the East River was safe. 

Albert W. Hicks was the last to be executed in New York City for "the crime of robbery on the high seas." Hicks was caught after attempting to make off with "blood-stained plunder" after murdering a captain and two crew. In June 1860 The New York Times recorded explicit details of Hick's trial, as well as the grave verdict handed down: "The sentence of the law and the Court is that you be taken from this place to the prison from whence you came, there kept in close confinement until Friday, the 13th day of July next, and on that day taken from thence to Ellis' Island or to Bedloe's Island, in the Bay of New-York, as the Marshal for this District may elect, and there, between the hours of 10 o'clock in the morning and 3 o'clock in the afternoon, be hung by the neck until you are dead." 

After a curious encounter with the world-renowned showman PT Barnum, who requested a plaster-cast of Hicks' head for his exhibition (according to The Gangs of New York, Hicks agreed and received "$25 in cash and two boxes of five-cent cigars"), the prisoner was taken to Bedloe’s Island in New York harbour. Such was the notoriety of Hicks, that over 10,000 New Yorkers snapped up tickets to board steamboats and view the spectacle from the bay; newspaper classifieds offered readers "a fine chance... to view the exit of one of the most atrocious of these scourges." Row boats lined the island's shore, ladies twirled their parasols, peanuts were sold and lager was swilled as the roaring crowd watched a man executed.

Why the tales of a forgotten criminal and an unfamiliar island? Because the story leads us to the world's most iconic attraction. In 1811, half a century before Hicks was hung there, a granite battery called Fort Wood was built on Bedloe's Island, shaped like an 11-point star. Within this garrison, architect Richard Morris Hunt constructed an 89-foot-high pedestal, upon which stood a giant metal skeleton, designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel and covered by a skin of copper. 

 

Bedloe's Island was renamed Liberty Island in 1956; the structure is of course Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi's La Liberté éclairant le monde, better known as the Statue of Liberty, which celebrates its 125th birthday this week. Lost to the seas of time, few know why sightseers first sailed across the harbour, yet every day thousands of visitors retrace the voyage of those ghoulish crowds who cheered on the death of New York's last pirate.

 

   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.