Volume II - No. 6
BLACKBEARD THE PIRATE BREAKS INTO PRINT
How the News Was Carried from Ocracoke to Boston in 100 Days
By Hugh R. Awtrey,
Wounded by five pistol balls and 20 "dismal Cuts" from swords, a savagely fearless, cruel, whimsical giant, breathing liquor fumes and strong language, staggered drunkenly and fell to the deck, dead at last. Eager hands hacked off the great hairy head, worth 100 English pounds, and tied that grim trophy to the bowsprit; the burly frame was tossed unceremoniously overboard. Thus the brief but horrific career of Captain Edward Teach (1), known to every sea-farer of the Atlantic coast as Blackbeard the Pirate. The spectacular finish was not an inappropriate climax to a lurid record of crime beside which the mightiest deeds of a modern Dillinger appear as the petty mischief of a village rowdy. It happened November 22, 1718 --221 years ago-- in Ocracoke Inlet where the waters of Pamlico Sound mingle with the Atlantic and form the southernmost boundary of the 100-square-mile area authorized for inclusion in the proposed Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The reckless life and dramatic death of the murderous, over-married sea rover, who took a showman's pride in his preposterously plaited black whiskers, offer a romantic chapter of Colonial America which the National Park Service well may relate some day to its visitors on the North Carolina Banks. But that is taking the story by its heels.
How Blackbeard first appeared in the West Indies as an apprentice privateer under Captain Hornigold and soon after became a forthright buccaneer who hoisted the black flag on the mast of Queen Anne's Revenge, captured many rich prizes, brought sudden death to scores of innocent voyagers, brazenly blockaded the port of Charleston, connived with the terrorized (or venal) Governor Eden of North Carolina, took some 14 wives in doubtful legal circumstances resulting from the exigencies which arise from the determination of a strong-willed man for expeditious matrimony, and buried his blood-begot treasures along the lonely creeks and inlets of Pamlico - all those facts, some of them weighted with the accretions of two centuries of legend, have been recited by more than a score of chroniclers of Atlantic piracy. Yet, one interesting aspect of that famous marauder's two-year history of ruthless depredations apparently has been neglected. It is Blackbeard's role in the press as America's Public Enemy No. 1.
The Bristol pirate was a leading figure in the colonists' news of the day during many months before his fateful meeting at Ocracoke with Lieutenant Robert Maynard, officer of the royal navy commissioned by Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia to bring an end to the rogue's high-handed pilferings off the Carolina Capes. His defiance of South Carolina and his demoralization of coastal and West Indian shipping had brought his name frequently into the meagre columns of America's first -- and at the time only -- regularly issued newspaper, The Boston News-Letter, a weekly publication established April 24, 1704, by John Campbell, postmaster of Boston (2). Altogether aside from the historical interest which attaches to his heroic exit as a significant episode in the decline of New World piracy, Captain's gory departure at Ocracoke affords an arresting exhibit to illustrate, with a certain grisly humor, the record of laborious progress achieved during the infantile struggles of America's press. The belated and postponed manners of The News-Letter in reporting to the public the exciting particulars of Blackbeard's nefarious comings and goings, and of the climactic reaping of his wild piratical oats, provide a diverting contrast with the customs of 1939 when nothing is so outmoded as yesterday's newspaper.
The News-Letter, a two-columned single sheet about 6x10 inches printed on both sides and charged with an obligation "to carry on the Threed of Occurrences as methodically as it will admit of," (3) informed its readers as early as June 16, 1718, of some of Teach's deviltries. Quaintly punctuated and containing a heavily freighted 385-word sentence, the account is a noteworthy example of the early American reportorial interview:
If Editor Campbell, a cautious Scotsman, appeared to lack enterprise in accelerating the publication of news while his information still was youthful enough to merit that definition -- he once fell 13 months behindhand in his reports from Europe -- he compensated in a measure by turning that failing into something of a virtue. His modest columns were exemplars of journalistic conservatism and his "stories" bear evidence of verifications which possibly were as thorough as the circumstances permitted (6). He received letters from his correspondents in all the colonies, and the sea captains who passed in and out of Boston harbor served not only as his messengers but, in many cases, as reporters also.
The postmaster-editor generally let each report stand on its own bottom, so to speak, and apparently made little effort to coordinate intelligences emanating from different quarters even when they concerned the same topic. An entertaining instance of that casual editorial habit occurred in the issue of June 30-July 7, 1718, when he published the news from South Carolina (dated June 6) that Blackbeard had blockaded Charleston, set its business at a virtual standstill, and exacted a chest of medicines from the city (7). The item ends with a portentous notice to the shipping of eastern ports: "We hear they are bound to the Northward and Sware Revenge upon New England Men & Vessels." Yet on the same page, separated by unrelated materials, is a letter from Philadelphia, dated June 26, reporting the grounding of Teach's flagship at Topsail Inlet, North Carolina. The latter incident was described in greater detail the following week by a report from New York, dated July 14, "that Capt. Teach the Pirate and his Crew of about 300 Men were ashore and had surrendered to the Government, and that on purpose they Run their Ship ashore at Topsail Inlett, and also a Sloop which are lost, the other two Sloops they carried up into the Country as far as Pentlico." (8)
For the next four months Editor Campbell printed no news of Blackbeard and his reading public was left in doubt concerning the activities of the ocean rover who, according to the recent warning, might be planning an incursion into New England waters. Although The News-Letter contained during that period many reports of piratical operations by Yeatts, Worley and other freebooters of lesser magnitude, it was not until November 10-17 that Teach reappeared in its columns. Then a Rhode Island item dated November 16 provided the news of disquieting developments:
In the next issue of the paper, November 17-24, buried in the middle of a long report from Philadelphia (dated November 13), appears more definite news of the event which had been suggested the week before: "They say Capt. Teach alias Blackbeard is out on the Pirating account again." (10). That and nothing more. Then, in the number of December 22-29, published five weeks after the death of Blackbeard, there appeared the information that a reward of 100 pounds would be given for his destruction:
Besides being badly in arrears in spreading the already stale news, the editor was in error here in most of the details reported by the confused "Gentleman from Virginia." The royal proclamation of September 15, 1717, provided a reward of 20 pounds for sailors, and the allowance of 100 pounds for captains was to be doubled in the event of conviction. (12) The "Quarter Master" was William Howard, who once had been an aide of Blackbeard, but Howard's seizure in Virginia had no connection with the expedition to Ocracoke. It is possible that the execution of Major Stede Bonnet in Charleston, an event described in the same issue of The News-Letter, led to some confusion in identities. Bonnet, who reputedly took to piracy to flee the managerial naggery of a tireless-tongued wife, also had served for a period as an officer of Blackbeard. Howard was spared by royal amnesty, while Teach's "escape" is altogether a fiction (13). Yet, despite its historical discrepancies, the item deserves a golden page in the dog-eared scrapbook of American journalism. It is entirely possible that it contains the only sentence on record in which a proper but unforced distinction is drawn between "hanged" and "hung".
The News-Letter disclosed somewhat apologetically in its issue of January 19-26, 1719, that a speech made on the preceding December 1 to the Virginia Assembly by Governor Alexander Spotswood had been omitted by the editor the week before because, "finding it too long, . . .we reserved it to begin our second Sheet." It is a question whether Campbell, up on his first examination of the speech, which dealt chiefly with governmental affairs in Virginia, noted a significant statement tucked away near the conclusion:
Fourteen days later, some 11 weeks after Blackbeard's spectacular passing, Campbell's news hinted something might be piratically afoot in the South. The issue of February 2-9 reproduced an item written January 12 in New York: "It's variously reported that Teach the Pirate is taken at North Carolina by some Vessels fitted out from Virginia. . ." (15) The editor stepped backward into his own tracks the following week, however, when he published a proclamation (dated December 24) by William Keith, "Governor of the Province of Pinsylvania and of the Territories upon the Delaware," which itself reproduced "in the same words as it has been issued" the proclamation of Governor Spotswood (of November 25), offering rewards for Blackbeard and his plunderers (16). At long last, in the next issue, the unhurried purveyor of public intelligences began to get down to cases. Said he:
Finally, in the number of February 23-March 2, exactly 100 days after Blackbeard had gone to his doom at Ocracoke, the harassed Boston editor distributed to his subscribers the printed details of the death of the most redoubtable pirate afloat. The belated story, although containing here and there a few of Campbell's favorite rhetorical infelicities and orthographical peculiarities, conforms roughly to the historical account. It reads:
And that is how the news, always a bit garbled and never fully corrected, was carried in fourteen weeks and two days from lonely Ocracoke Inlet to the office of America's only newspaper.
(1) Also Tach, Tache, Thach, Thack and Thatch. The Dictionary of National Biography (edn. of 1921-1922, London), XIX, 4 81-482, admits Thach and Thatch to its reputable pages and cites them (erroneously) as the only names appearing in official papers; but it cautions against the acceptance of either spelling . Teach is the orthography which has gained widest currency, although some writers advance the opinion, without conclusive substantiation, that Drummond was the true family name of the notorious Bristol sailor. Cf. Philip Gosse, The History of Piracy (Longmans, Green and Company, London, New York, Toronto, 1932), p. 193.
(2) Willard Grosvenor Bleyer, Main Currents in the History of American Journalism (Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1927), 47 et seq.; James Melvin Lee, History of American Journalism (Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1917), 17 et esq.
(3) The Boston News-Letter, May 10-17, 1708, cited by Bleyer, op. cit., 51.
(4) Presumably Simon van Worst and five companions, hanged November 15, 1717, "within flux and reflux of the sea." See John Franklin Jameson, editor, Privateering and Piracy in the Colonial Period: Illustrative Documents (The Macmillan Company, New York, 1932), pp. 303-306.
(5) The Boston News-Letter, No. 739, June 9-16, 1718, p. 2, col. 1
(6) In the issue of April 26-May 3, 1708, (cited by Bleyer, op. cit., p. 50), the editor regretted that in a description of a Plymouth fire, published in the preceding number, "whereas it is said that Flame covering the Barn, it should be said Smoak."
(7) Blackbeard's "dictatorship" at Charleston and other episodes of his career are described by the noted piratographer, Captain Charles Johnson, in his authoritative A General History of the Pirates, which appeared in many editions from 1724 to 1736. Probably the most useful is the third edition, dated 1725, edited by Philip Gosse (The Cayme Press, Stanhope Mews West, 1925) pp. 21-35. Cf. also Philip Gosse, The Pirates' Who's Who (Dulau & Company, London; Charles E. Lauriat Company, Boston, 1924), pp. 291-296; S. Wilkinson, The Voyages and Adventures of Edward Teach, Commonly Called Black Beard, the Notorious Pirate (Book Printing Office, Boston, 1808); John S. C. Abbott, Captain William Kidd, and Others of The Pirates or Buccaneers Who Ravaged the Seas, the Islands, and the Continents of America Two Hundred Years Ago (Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, [c.1874]; C. Lovat Fraser, Pirates (Robert M. McBride Company, New York, 1922); Charles Ellms, The Pirates Own Book (Boston, /c1836/, reissued as Publication No. 4 of the Marine Research Society, Salem, Mass., 1924); Charles B. Driscoll, Doubloons, the Story of Buried Treasure (Farrar and Rinehart, Ne, York, [c1930]); Lloyd Haynes Williams, Pirates of Colonial Virginia (Dietz Press, Richmond, 1937).
(8) The Boston News-Letter, No. 744, July 14-21, 1718, p. 2, col. 2.
(9) Ibid., No, 761, November 10-17, 1718, p. 2, col. 2.
(10) Ibid., No. 762, November 17-24, 1718, p. 2, col. 1.
(11) Ibid., No. 767, December 22-29, 1716, p. 2, col. 1.
(12) Cf. Williams, op. cit., 133-135. Actual payment of the rewards was not authorized until May 2, 1719. See Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia (published by the Virginia State Library, Richmond, 1928), III, 501.
(13) Cf. Driscoll, op. cit.
(14) The Boston News-Letter, No. 771, January 19-26, 1719, p. 1; Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1712-1714, 1716, 1718, 1720-1722, 1723-1726 (H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Richmond, 1912), 233; cf. also The Official Letters of Alexander Spotswood, Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony of Virginia, 1710-1722 (R. A. Brock, ed., 2 vols., Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, 1882), II, 272-276; 305-306.
(15) The Boston News-Letter, No, 773, February 2-9, 1719, p. 4, col. 2. The paper had added two pages, not, perhaps, as a result of prosperity, but because Campbell had been superseded as postmaster and probably devoted more time to his editorial functions.
(16) Ibid., No. 774, February 9-18, p. 1.
(17) Ibid., No, 775, February 16-23, 1719, p. 4, col. 2.
(18) Bartholomew Green, Campbell's printer, who succeeded to the editorship in 1722, was a careful typographer. This error is one of the few observed in the pages of The News-Letter.
(19) Ibid., No. 778, February 23-March 2, 1719, p. 4.
(20) Virtually all writers agree that Blackbeard received 25 wounds. A notable exception is Ellms, Op. Cit., who said there were "20 cuts, and as many shots." Samuel Odell, one of the prisoners acquitted at the Williamsburg trial because he had been forced to join Teach on the eve of the battle, is said to have suffered 70 wounds. Cf. Johnson, op. cit., p. 32.
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