The Complete Newgate Calendar
The following is taken from The Complete Newgate Calendar:
Captain of a
notorious Gang of Pirates. Executed at Execution Dock, 11th of August,
1729 for Piracy
JOHN GOW was a native of one of the Orkney Islands, in the
north of Scotland, and was instructed in maritime affairs, in which he became so
expert that he was appointed second mate of a ship, in which he sailed on a
voyage to Santa Cruz.
When the vessel was ready to weigh anchor the merchants who had shipped goods on
board her came to pay a parting visit to the captain, and to give him their
final instructions. On this occasion the captain, agreeable to custom,
entertained his company under an awning on the quarter-deck; and while they were
regaling, some of the sailors preferred a complaint of ill-treatment they
pretended to have received, particularly with regard to short allowance. The
captain was irritated at so undeserved a charge, which seemed calculated to
prejudice him in the opinion of his employers; but, conscious of the uprightness
of his intentions, he did not reply in anger, but only said that there was a
steward on board who had the care of the provisions, and that all reasonable
complaints should be redressed; on which the seamen retired, with apparent
The wind being fair, the captain directed his men to weigh anchor as soon as the
merchants had quitted the vessel. It was observed that Paterson, one of the
complainants, was very dilatory in executing his orders; on which the captain
demanded to know why he did not exert himself to unfurl the sails; to which he
made no direct answer, but was heard to mutter: "As we cat, so shall we work."
The captain heard this, but took no notice of it, as he was unwilling to proceed
The ship had no sooner sailed than the captain considered his situation as
dangerous, on reflecting that his conduct had been complained of and his orders
disobeyed. Thereupon he consulted the mate, and they agreed to deposit a number
of small-arms in the cabin, in order to defend themselves in case of an attack.
This precaution might have been extremely salutary, but that they had spoken so
loud as to be overheard by two of the conspirators who were on the quarter-deck.
The captain likewise directed the mate to order Gow, who was second mate and
gunner, to clean the arms-a circumstance that plainly insinuated to the latter
that the conspiracy was at least suspected.
Those who had overheard the conversation between the captain and mate
communicated the substance of it to Gow and the other conspirators, who
thereupon resolved on immediate action. Gow, who had previously intended to turn
pirate, thought the present an admirable opportunity, as there were several
chests of money on board the ship: wherefore he proposed to his companions that
they should immediately embark in the enterprise; and they determined to murder
the captain and seize the ship.
Half of the ship's company were regularly called to prayers in the great cabin
at eight o'clock in the evening, while the other half were doing duty on deck;
and, after service, those who had been in the cabin went to rest in their
hammocks. The contrivance was to execute the plot at this juncture. Only two of
the conspirators remained on duty, the rest being among those who retired to
their hammocks. Between nine and ten at night a kind of watchword was given,
which was, "Who fires first? " On this some of the conspirators left their
hammocks, and going to the cabins of the surgeon, chief mate and supercargo,
they cut their throats while they were asleep.
The surgeon finding himself violently wounded quitted his bed, and soon
afterwards dropped on the floor and expired. The mate and supercargo held their
hands on their throats, and going on the quarter-deck solicited a momentary
respite, to recommend their souls to Heaven; but even this favour was denied,
for the villains, who found their knives had failed to destroy them, dispatched
them with pistols.
The captain, hearing a noise, demanded the occasion of it. The boatswain replied
that he did not know, but he was apprehensive that some of the men had either
fallen or been thrown overboard. The captain hereupon went to look over the
ship's side, on which two of the murderers followed, and tried to throw him into
the sea; but he disengaged himself and turned about to take a view of them, when
one of them cut his throat, but not so as to kill him, for he now solicited
mercy; but instead of granting it the other stabbed him in the back with a
dagger, and would have repeated his blow but that he had struck with such force
that he could not draw back the weapon.
At this instant Gow, who had been assisting in the murders between the decks,
came on the quarter-deck and fired a brace of balls into the captain's body,
which put a period to his life.
The execrable villains concerned in this tragical affair having thrown all the
dead bodies overboard, Gow was unanimously appointed to the command of the ship.
Those of the sailors who had not been engaged in the conspiracy secreted
themselves, some in the shrouds, some under the stores, in dreadful apprehension
of sharing the fate of the captain and their murdered companions.
Gow now assembled his associates on the quarter-deck, and appointed them their
different stations on board; and it was agreed to commence as pirates. The new
captain now directed that the men who had concealed themselves should be
informed that no danger would happen to them if they did not interfere to oppose
the new government of the ship, but keep such stations as were assigned to them.
The men, whose terrors had taught them to expect immediate death, were glad to
comply with these terms; but the pirates, to enforce obedience to their orders,
appointed two men to attend with drawn cutlasses, to terrify the others into
submission. Gow and his companions now divided the most valuable effects in the
cabin; and then, ordering liquor to be brought on the quarter-deck, they
consumed the night in drinking, while those unconnected in the conspiracy had
the care of working the ship.
The ship's crew originally consisted of twenty-four men, of whom four had been
murdered and eight were conspirators, and before morning four of the other men
had approved of the proceedings of the pirates; so that there were only eight
remaining in opposition to the newly usurped authority.
On the following day the new captain summoned these eight men to attend him,
and, telling them he was determined to go on a cruising voyage, said that they
should be well treated if they were disposed to act in concert with the rest of
the crew. He said that every man should fare in the same manner, and that good
order and discipline were all that would be required. He further said that the
captain's inhumanity had produced the consequences which had happened; that
those who had not been concerned in the conspiracy had no reason to fear any ill
consequences from it; that they had only to discharge their duty as seamen, and
every man should be rewarded according to his merit.
To this address these unfortunate honest men made no kind of reply, and Gow
interpreted their silence into an assent of measures which it was not in their
power to oppose. After this declaration of the will of the new captain they were
permitted to range the ship at their pleasure; but as some of them appeared to
act very reluctantly a strict eye was kept on their conduct, for, as guilt is
ever suspicious, the pirates were greatly apprehensive of being brought to
justice by means of some these men.
A man named Williams now acted as lieutenant of the vessel; and being
distinguished by the ferocity of his nature he had an opportunity of exerting
his cruelty by beating the unhappy men-a privilege that he did not fail to exert
with a degree of severity that must render his memory detestable.
The ship thus seized had been called the George galley, but the pirates gave her
the name of the Revenge; and, having mounted several guns, they steered towards
Spain and Portugal, in expectation of making a capture of wine, of which article
they were greatly deficient. They soon made prize of an English vessel laden
with fish, bound from Newfoundland to Cadiz; but having no use for the cargo,
they took out the captain and four men, who navigated the ship, which they sunk.
One of the seamen whom they took out of the captured vessel was named James
Belvin, a man admirably calculated for their purpose, as he was by nature cruel,
and by practice hardened in that cruelty. He said to Gow that he was willing to
enter into all his schemes, for he had been accustomed to the practice of acts
of barbarity. This man was thought a valuable acquisition to the crew, as
several of the others appeared to act from motives of fear rather than of
After various adventures they observed a French ship bearing down towards them,
on which Gow ordered his people to Jay to; but observing that the vessel mounted
two and thirty guns, and seemed proportionately full of men, he assembled his
people, and observed to them that it would be madness in them to think of
engaging so superior a force.
The crew in general were of Gow's opinion; but Williams, the lieutenant, said
that Gow was a coward, and unworthy to command the vessel. The fact is, that Gow
possessed somewhat of calm courage, while Williams's impetuosity was of the most
brutal kind. The latter, after behaving in the most abusive manner, demanded
that the former should give orders for fighting the vessel; but Gow refusing to
comply, the other presented his pistol to shoot him, but it only flashed in the
This being observed by two of the pirates, named Winter and Patterson, they both
fired at Williams, when one of them wounded him in the arm and the other in the
belly. He dropped as soon as the pieces were discharged, and the other seamen,
thinking he was dead, were about to throw him overboard when he suddenly sprang
on to his feet, jumped into the hold, and swore he would set fire to the
powder-room; and as his pistol was yet loaded there was every reason to think he
would actually have done so if he had not been instantly seized and his hands
chained behind him, in which condition he was put among French prisoners taken
from ships they had pirated, who were terrified at the sight of. him; for the
savage ferocity and barbarity of his nature is not to be described, it being a
common practice with him to beat the prisoners in the severest manner for his
diversion (as he called it), and then threaten to murder them.
No engagement happened with the French ship, which held on her way; and two days
afterwards the pirates took a ship belonging to Bristol, which was laden with
salt fish and bound from Newfoundland to Oporto. Having taken out the
provisions, and many of the stores, they compelled two of the crew to sail with
them, and then put the French prisoners on board the newly captured vessel,
which was just on the point of sailing when they began to reflect in what manner
that execrable villain, Williams, should be disposed of.
At length it was determined to put him on board the Bristol ship, the commander
of which was desired to turn him over to the first English man-of-war he should
meet with, that he should experience the justice due to his crimes, and in the
meantime to keep him in the strictest confinement.
The fact is, Williams would have been hanged at the yard-arm if an opportunity
had not offered of putting him on board the Bristol ship. When he learned their
intention respecting him he earnestly besought a reconciliation; but this being
refused him, and he being brought on deck in irons, he begged to be thrown
overboard, as he was certain of an ignominious death on his arrival in England;
but even this poor favour was denied him, and his companions only wished him " a
good voyage to the gallows."
When the captain of the Bristol ship reached the port of Lisbon he delivered his
prisoner on boar an English man-of-war, which conveyed him to England.
As soon as the Bristol ship had left them, Gow and his crew began to reflect on
their situation. They decided to steer northward; and, entering a bay of one of
the Orkney Islands, Gow assembled his crew, and instructed them what tale they
should tell to the country people to prevent suspicion.
Now it was that the fate of the pirates seemed to be approaching; for such of
the men as had been forced into the service began to think how they should
effect their escape, and secure themselves by becoming evidence against their
When the boat went ashore one evening, a young fellow who had been compelled to
take part with the pirates got away from the rest of the boat's crew, and, after
lying concealed some time at a farmhouse, hired a person to show him the road to
Kirkwall, the principal place on the islands, about twelve miles distant from
the bay where the ship lay at anchor. Here he applied to a magistrate, said he
had been forced into the service, and begged that he might be entitled to the
protection of the law, as the fear of death alone had induced him to be
connected with the pirates. Having given information of what he knew of their
irregular proceedings, the sheriff issued his precepts to the constables and
other peace officers to call in the aid of the people to assist in bringing such
villains to justice.
About this juncture ten of Gow's sailors, who had likewise taken an involuntary
part with the pirates, seized the long-boat and, having made the mainland of
Scotland, coasted the country till they arrived at Edinburgh, where they were
imprisoned on suspicion of being pirates.
Notwithstanding these alarming circumstances, Gow was so careless of his own
safety that he did not put immediately to sea, but resolved to plunder the
houses of the gentlemen on the coast, to furnish himself with fresh provisions.
In pursuance of this resolution he sent his boatswain and ten armed men to the
house of Mr Honeyman, high sheriff of the county; and the master being absent,
the servants opened the door without suspicion. Nine of the gang went into the
house to search for treasure, while the tenth was left to guard the door. The
sight of men thus armed occasioned much terror to Mrs Honeyman and her daughter,
who shrieked with dreadful apprehensions for their personal safety; but the
pirates, employed in the search for plunder, had no idea of molesting the
ladies. They seized the linen, plate and other valuable articles, and then
walked in triumph to their boat, compelling one of the servants to play before
them on the bagpipes. They then sailed to an island called Calf Sound, an
intention of robbing the house of Mr Fea, who had been an old schoolfellow with
Gow. This house was the rather pitched upon as Gow supposed that Mr Fea could
not have yet heard of the transactions at Mr Honeyman's; but in this he was
mistaken. Mr Fea's house was situated near the seashore; he had only six
servants at home when the pirates appeared off the coast, and these were by no
means equal to a contest with the plunderers.
The tide runs so high among these islands, and beats with such force against the
rocks, that the navigation is frequently attended with great danger. Gow, who
had not boats to assist him in an emergency, and was unskilled in the navigation
of those seas, made a blunder in turning into the bay of Calf Sound; for,
standing too near the point of a small island called the Calf, the vessel was in
the utmost danger of being run on shore. This little island was merely a pasture
for sheep belonging to Mr Fea, who had at that time six hundred feeding on it.
Gow having cast his anchor too near the shore, so that the wind could not bring
him off, sent a boat with a letter to Mr Fea, requesting that he would lend him
another boat to assist him in heaving off the ship, by carrying out an anchor,
and assuring him that he would not do the least injury to any individual.
As Gow's messenger did not see Mr Fea's boat the latter gave him an evasive
answer, and on the approach of night ordered his servants to sink his own boat
and hide the sails and rigging.
While they were obeying this order five of Gow's men came on shore in the boat
and proceeded, doubly armed, towards Fea's house. Thereupon the latter advanced
towards them with an assurance of friendship, and begged that they would not
enter the house, for his wife was exceedingly ill; that the idea of their
approach had greatly alarmed her, and that the sight of them might probably
deprive her of life. The boatswain replied that they had no design to terrify
Mrs Fea, or any other person, but that the most rigorous treatment must be
expected if the use of the boat was denied them.
Mr Fea represented how dangerous it would be for him to assist them, on account
of the reports circulated to their discredit; but he offered to entertain them
at an adjacent ale-house, and they accepted the invitation, as they observed
that he had no company. While they were drinking, Mr Fea ordered his servants to
destroy their boat, and when they had done so to call him hastily out of the
company and inform him of it.
These orders were exactly complied with; and when he had left the pirates he
directed six men, well armed, to station themselves behind a hedge, and if they
observed him to come alone with the boatswain instantly to seize him; but if he
came with all the five desperadoes he would walk forward, so as to give them an
opportunity of firing without wounding himself.
After giving these orders Fea returned to the company, whom he invited to his
house, on the promise of their behaving peaceably, and said he would make them
heartily welcome. They all expressed a readiness to attend him, in the hope of
getting the boat; but he told them he would rather have the boatswain's company
only, and would afterwards send for his companions.
This being agreed to, the boatswain set forward with two brace of pistols,
walking with Mr Fea till they came to the hedge where his men were concealed.
Here Mr Fea seized him by the collar, while the others took him into custody
before he had time to make any defence. The boatswain called aloud for his men;
but Mr Fea, forcing a handkerchief into his mouth, bound him hand and foot, and
then left one of his own people to guard him, while he and the rest went back to
There being two doors to the house, some went to the one, and some to the other,
and, rushing in at once, they made prisoners of the other four men before they
had time to have recourse to their arms for defence.
The five pirates, being thus in custody, were sent to an adjacent village and
separately confined, and in the interim Mr Fea sent messengers round the island
to acquaint the inhabitants with what had been done; to desire them to haul
their boats on the beach, that the pirates should not swim to and steal them;
and to request that no person would venture to row within reach of the pirates'
guns. On the following day the wind shifted to the north-west and blew hard, on
which the pirates conceived hopes of getting out to sea; but the person employed
to cut the cable missing some of his strokes, the ship's way was checked, she
turned round and, the cable parting, the vessel was driven on Calf Island.
Reduced to this dilemma, without even a boat to assist in getting off the ship,
Gow hung out a white flag, as an intimation that he was willing to treat on
friendly terms but Mr Fea, having now little doubt of securing the pirates,
wrote to Gow and told him he had been compelled to make prisoners of his men on
account of their insolent behaviour. He likewise told him that the whole country
was alarmed, and that the most probable chance of securing his own life would be
by surrendering and becoming an evidence against his accomplices.
Eventually by a ruse Gow was induced to go ashore, where he was disarmed of his
sword, and made prisoner, after begging to be shot with his sword in his
possession. The leader of the gang being thus secured, Mr Fea had recourse to
stratagem to get all the rest into his power. He compelled Gow to make signals
for some of them to come on shore, which they readily did, and were apprehended
by men concealed to take them as they arrived.
Thus, by an equal exertion of courage, conduct and artifice did Mr Fea secure
these dangerous men, twenty-eight in number, without a single man being killed
or wounded, and with only the aid of a few countrymen: a force apparently very
insufficient to the accomplishment of such a business. When all the prisoners
were properly secured, Mr Fea sent an express to Edinburgh, requesting that
proper persons might be sent to conduct them to that city.
The express from Mr Fea being arrived at Edinburgh, another was forwarded to
London, to learn the Royal pleasure respecting the disposal of the pirates; and
the answer brought was, that the Lord Justice Clerk should immediately send them
to London, in order to their being tried by a Court of Admiralty, to be held for
that purpose. When these orders reached Edinburgh a guard of soldiers marched to
fetch them to that city; and on their arrival they were put on board the
Greyhound frigate, which immediately sailed for the Thames.
On their arrival in the river a detachment of the guards from the Tower attended
their landing, and conducted them to the Marshalsea Prison, where they once more
saw Lieutenant Williams, who had been conveyed to England by the man-of-war
which received him from the Bristol captain at Lisbon. This Williams, though
certain of coming to an ignominious end, took a malignant pleasure in seeing his
companions in like circumstances of calamity.
A commission was now made out for their trial; and soon after their commitment
they underwent separate examinations before the judge of the Admiralty Court in
Doctors' Commons, when five of them, who appeared to be less guilty than the
rest, were admitted evidences against their accomplices. Being removed from the
Marshalsea to Newgate, their trials came on at the Old Bailey, when Gow,
Williams and six others were convicted, and received sentence of death; but the
rest were acquitted, as it seemed evident that they had been compelled to take
part with the pirates.
Gow, Williams and six of their accomplices were executed together.
A remarkable circumstance happened to Gow at the place of execution. His
friends, anxious to put him out of his pain, pulled his legs so forcibly that
the rope broke and he dropped down; on which he was again taken up to the
gibbet, and when he was dead was hanged in chains on the banks of the Thames.