|John Quelch was hanged, and his soul hurled
into eternity on Friday, June 30, 1704. But for one of his ilk,
it was a fitting punishment. One year earlier, he and his crew
of rascally seamen had seized the brigantine Charles -- a fully-armed
and well-provisioned privateer -- as she lay at anchor in Marblehead
Harbor. With her gravely-ill captain, Daniel Plowman, locked
aboard in his cabin, Quelch and his crew then set forth on a
cruise that would line their pockets with gold and silver coins,
earn them an unsavory reputation and ultimately an engagement
with the hangman. And as chance would have it, the cruise that
began at Marblehead also ended in its harbor.
Soon after the Charles had cleared the harbor and entered the waters of Massachusetts Bay, the mutineers disposed of her luckless captain by tossing him overboard. They then scoured the sea lanes of the North and South Atlantic in search of vessels laden with gold, silver, fine linens and precious jewels. In less than a year, they overhauled almost a dozen merchantmen and took from them practically everything of value.
The buccaneers then called it quits and returned to Marblehead to enjoy their ill-gotten riches.
By this time, however, Quelch was known for what he was: an unbridled brute, and a cruel and merciless sea rover. To put an end to his career, the provincial authorities declared: "Whereas John Quelch, late Commander of the brigantine CHARLES and Company to her belonging ... Have lately Imported a considerable Quantity of Gold Dust, and some Bar and coin'd Gold, which they are Violently Suspected to have gotten & obtained by Felony and Piracy, from some of Her Majesties Friends and Allies ... and have imported and Shared the same among themselves ... they are to be apprehended and their valuables seized."
Within a week, Quelch and 24 members of Charles's crew of 43 were lodged in a Boston jail, while three others lay sick in bed in Marblehead. Shortly afterwards, Governor Joseph Dudley appointed a Committee of Inquiry "to repair to Marblehead, & to send for and examine all persons whom shall have Information or Just ground of suspicion of gold, silver and treasures brought in by the pirates, either at Marblehead or parts adjacent." Committee members were authorized to reclaim any loot the marauders had stashed away or had exchanged for food, drink and shelter.
On Tuesday, June 13, 1704, Captain John Quelch was arraigned before the "Court of Admiralty for the Trial of Pirates." Eight days later, that tribunal found him guilty of piracy and murder, and sentenced him to be hanged by the neck until dead.*
Meanwhile, members of the Court of Inquiry scoured Marblehead in an attempt to recover the gold and goods stolen by Quelch and his crew for evidence. Much later, the Crown received 788 ounces of "Coyn'd, Bar and Dust Gold imported by Capt. John Quelch." And Judge Sewall and his Commission of Inquiry were paid 25 pounds, 7 shillings and 10 pence for "sitting at Marblehead."
On the day he was to be hanged, Quelch was marched under escort to a nearby church, so that a minister could beg him to purge himself of sin and shame. There, he was preached to, prayed over and exhorted. There, he heard: "We have told you often, we have told you Weeping, that you were born a sinner ... and that the Sins for which you are about to die are of no common aggravation." There, shackled hand and foot, the hapless and helpless prisoner was told of the many agonizing torments and unbearable pains that would be his lot in the next world unless he repented.
On the day the notorious buccaneer was to be hanged, the area surrounding the gibbet was a mass of milling people, men and women who had come from near and far to witness the gruesome event. (This in an age when dancing at weddings and other social occasions was beyond the realm of proper behavior!) They had a long wait for it was mid-afternoon before the condemned, guarded by a contingent of red-coated soldiers, was led to the scaffold.
There, John Quelch -- freebooter, mutineer and murderer -- was compelled to stand beneath the noose that was to claim his life and there listen to yet another lugubrious, long-drawn-out prayer that served to prolong his agony and to tantalize the waiting multitude!
As recalled by Samuel Sewall, First Judge of the Province of Massachusetts Bay who witnessed the execution:
"When the Scaffold was let to sink, there was such a screech of the Women that my wife heard it sitting in our Entry next the orchard ... a full mile from the place."
But just before he was launched into eternity, Captain John Quelch bid that ghoulish assemblage a gallant adieu ...
He doffed his hat, and with a graceful sweep, delivered his waiting audience a courtly bow!
*Though 15 members of Quelch's crew were also condemned to death, only two were executed. And happily, not one Marbleheader had served aboard the Charles! The hangman's noose did, however, claim the life of a seaman from the community bordering the far side of Forest River.