When Pirates became media sensations
In April 1828, the pirate attack on the brig Morning Star became the first truly global pirate story. Of course, back then there was no live footage being streamed over the internet or frantic tweets from passengers. It still took the surviving crew and passengers two months to report the incident. However, after the first report, the story of the attack spread like wildfire.
I examine the extraordinary breadth of its distribution in my book, Atlantic Piracy in the early 19th Century: The Shocking Story of the Pirates and Survivors of the Morning Star. I tell how it first appeared in the Hampshire Telegraph the day after it was reported to Lloyds. Two days later, it had spread across southern England. In six days, it had reached Cornwall, Manchester, Edinburgh and Cork. By 10 June it had landed on the front page of the Diario Mercantil de Cadiz, where, it just so happened, the pirates were carousing and celebrating their plunder. By the end of 1829, when preparations were almost complete for their prosecution, the initial story appeared in the newspaper for the penal colony of Hobart, 13,174 nautical miles away.
If there had been reporters then, we can only imagine how they would have hounded the Morning Star’s traumatised survivors. Few of them were interested in publicising the story. Instead, people claiming to be witnesses fabricated and fictionalised statements, and subjected members of the crew to erroneous and malicious criticism for not fighting the pirates off. In direct refutes of these accusations, at least two real survivors of the attack wrote long missives in an attempt to correct the record. But it was to no avail. As my book describes, the distortion of the story of the Morning Star had already begun. It would never be corrected until now.
The Morning Star attack was only the beginning of how the clash between romanticised pirates and their real-life counterparts played out in the rapidly evolving media environment. The pirates of the early 19th century proved excellent fodder for the new style of newspaper that emerged in the United States: the tabloid. Gone were the days publishers simply compiled newspapers haphazardly from correspondence and government documents. Now editors placed their personal opinions into the story. I also show how the press coverage of the piracy trial of the Panda crew in 1835 proved influential in pressuring President Andrew Jackson into a pardon for one of the convicted men: Bernardo de Soto. Sympathetic press coverage stemmed from Soto’s brave rescue of the American passengers of the Minerva off the Florida coast some years earlier.
In 1832, the press published the increasingly fantastic confessions of convicted pirate Charles Gibbs to the great entertainment of the public. Recognising the thirst for first-hand pirate stories, New York’s Morning Herald secured the first documented interview with a convicted pirate called Cornelius Willhems. Although Willhems protested his innocence to his end, the article told the story of his numerous depredations. It ensured a crowd of around 6,000 people gathered at Ellis Island to watch him hang.
By the 1840s, influential New York publisher James Gordon Bennett swung the full support of his New York Herald behind convicted murderer and pirate William “Babe” Brown. Babe’s conviction rested on little evidence and no body. Bennett’s sympathetic coverage of his case drew the attention of Julia Gardiner Tyler, the President’s wife. Under pressure from Bennett and Julia, President Tyler issued six stays of execution for Babe. Tyler stopped short of a pardon, leaving that to President James Polk, who most likely did it just to be rid of the whole affair.
The last pirate hanged in New York, Albert W. Hicks, worked out that publishing his exploits before his death was a way to provide an income stream for his wife and child after it. Although we are not to know whether Hicks’ effort to monetise his notoriety worked, it is clear that the survival of his confessions and the media coverage of all of the early 19th century’s pirates helped secure their longevity in pirate lore.
This guest post was written by Sarah Craze, an independent researcher and author of Atlantic Piracy in the early 19th Century: The Shocking Story of the Pirates and Survivors of the Morning Star, now available. She is the author of The Truth behind a Pirate Legend https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/the-truth-behind-a-pirate-legend and operates @PiracyinPictures on Instagram.