There is a famous skull in the basement of the old Armory in Salem. A skull belonging to the most famous pirate, Edward Teach. Blackbeard…
His story and how it links to Salem starts with a tale of a group of pirates and the founding of one of the nation’s oldest colleges.
Now Lionel Wafer, John Hinson, and Edward Davis spent five years pillaging and exploring the west coast of South America. A 5-year spree on the high seas of piracy. The trio seized ships, ransomed captives and sacked towns. They left a trail of terror that stretched from Chile to Panama.
By 1687 they sailed on the flagship of a fleet that could muster 1,000 men and strike deep inland. As wealthy men they finally turned back through the Straits of Magellan and sailed north, intent on retirement. Letting someone else to become the dreaded Pirate Roberts… They booked passage from the West Indies to Philadelphia and at the Chesapeake Bay they were arrested near Old Point Comfort on June 22, 1688, with three chests filled with treasure.
They tried to pretend to be traders until their slave ratted them out. Then they tried to claim amnesty under a 1687 proclamation issued by the recently deposed King James II, only to be denied by Gov. Francis Howard, who wrote back to the new government of King William III asking for its decision.
In time they were released and instructed to return to England to receive their pardon. But their treasure was left in legal limbo. Until they met Rev. Blair in London. Through his piety and need for endowments for a new college, they found a legal loophole that freed their loot and gave the crown cover for its decision.
Blair petitioned the King, “I do humbly certify that the Petitioners have devoted and secured towards the carrying on the pious design of a free School and College in Virginia, the Summe of three hundred pounds, providing that the order is given for restoring to them their money.”
Still, two years passed before Blair returned to Virginia with his charter. There he quickly found a use for a sum that today would be worth between $900 thousand to $9 million. The three pirates got to keep the other ¾ of the treasure. So the College of William and Mary was founded by pirate treasure and their Fraternity Phi Beta Kappa spurred the creation of Skull & Bones in 1832 because of a disagreement.
For a time Phi Beta Kappa had in its house the skull of Edward Teach.
Blackbeard seeking repose settled in Bath Town, where he accepted a royal pardon in July 1718 from Governor Eden. Eden gave Teach permission to sail to St. Thomas to seek a commission as a privateer (a useful way of removing bored and troublesome pirates from the small settlement). Eden even gave him official title to the remaining sloop he had taken. Blackbeard renamed her the Adventure.
By the end of August, he was back on the seas and the Governor of Pennsylvania issued a warrant for his arrest. While at sea Blackbeard took two French ships leaving the Caribbean. He told Eden that he had found the ships deserted at sea. A Vice-Admiralty Court was quickly convened and the ship was judged as a derelict at sea, and of its cargo of 20 hogsheads of sugar were awarded to the Customs Official and 60 to Eden; Blackbeard and his crew were given what remained in the vessel’s hold.
Blackbeard gathered with another pirate at Ocracoke Inlet in North Carolina. Governor of Virginia Alexander Spotswood issued a proclamation on July 10th, requiring all former pirates to make themselves known to the authorities, to give up their arms, and not to travel in groups larger than three. As head of a Crown colony, Spotswood viewed the proprietary colony of North Carolina with contempt; he had little faith in the ability of the Carolinians to control the pirates.
He was soon marauding again when he attracted the attention of Spotswood. Spotswood arranged for a party of soldiers and sailors to try to capture the pirate, which they did on November 22, 1718.
Spotswood gave Lieutenant Robert Maynard of HMS Pearl a command of two different commandeered sloops, to approach and kill Blackbeard with a reward from the Assembly of Virginia, over and above any that might be received from the Crown.
Maynard’s two ships ran aground and were blown apart by Blackbeard. Then Blackbeard boarded his ship. Maynard hid the living with himself in the hull to spring up at Blackbeard as he was walking through the corpses from his broadsides. Maynard sprung up with his crew from below and engaged Blackbeard directly and another slashed his throat from behind. In the end, Blackbeard’s head hung from the bowsprit.
The whereabouts of his skull have been shrouded in mystery for generations,. Reported by several sources to have been rescued from the scaffold by his pirate brethren and plated with silver and stamped with a motto – “Death to Spotswood”. Some say it was used at Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern as a strange drinking vessel. Alexandria’s Gadsby’s Tavern had claimed possession for a while too. Then the College of William and Mary had held the silver plated cranium plate fitted with a handle within a fraternity. Could the Phi Beta Kappa fraternity used it over the years in their drinking parties?
A New England collector nearly 50 years ago, acquired it. Upon his death, his widow would donate it to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. They did loan it out to the town of Nahant for a little while at their town library, but have since reclaimed it and it sits in the basement of the Old Armory next to Romanov crown jewels and one of Paul Revere’s church bell’s made for the smuggler’s in town who met at the East Church.
My friend who fell asleep during history class is the reason the bell is in the basement. Now Paul Revere was a horrible bell maker, that is why they all have cracked like the Liberty Bell. This was the only one that did not crack. Till my friend got hammered with a hammer one Halloween season. It cost him $2,000 and 6 months in jail for them to put the plastic recreation in front of the Visitor Center.
Romanov Crown Jewels? If you had a tunnel connected to your museum in all of its previous locations in town for the last 300 years or so, what would you smuggle in…The Crane family in Ipswich had a family member in the Russian ministry during the time the Czar’s family were murdered could explain their presence here.
Salem had its share of pirates. The Derbys, Crowninshields, and Whites to name a few. Well, they prefer to be called privateers…
One last story of pirates and Salem. Isaac Chauncy Wyman was the last lawyer to try a case of piracy. He worked with U.S. Attorney General Benjamin F. Hallett who was the Democratic National Party chairman. Oakes Smith went to prison for engaging in the slave trade but escaped. Wyman acted as a detective and went on the hunt for him, but never found him. The Wyman’s owned a mill where Colonel Francis Peabody would have his black lead mill that supplied graphite for Joseph Dixon’s pencils.
Now Yale over the years will be associated with famous skulls. They supposedly have the skulls of Martin Van Buren, Geronimo, and Pancho Villa.
For more tales like this about how Salem MA has shaped American History read Sub Rosa by Christopher Jon Luke Dowgin available at Barnes & Nobel, Amazon.com, and your favorite local independent bookseller.
Ask for it by name!