The treasure was never found – nor were the uncontested facts about his career. To some, he was a vicious pirate, one of many who crowded Boston’s jails at the turn of the 18th century. To others, he was a privateer who was framed by his benefactors.
William Kidd, Captain
By 1689, Capt. William Kidd was sailing the Caribbean in a French ship he’d captured as a privateer (some say pirate). England was at war, as usual, with the French in a conflict known as King William’s War in the American colonies.
There are conflicting versions about what happened, but they agree Kidd was abandoned by his crew in the Caribbean.
He returned to New York City, where in 1691 he married Sarah Bradley Cox Oort. She had married one of the wealthiest men in New York and inherited his money when he died early in their marriage. Twice, widowed, she was not yet 30 when she married Captain Kidd.
Kidd lived large in New York, a respected member of society. He lived with Sarah and their two daughters in a tall house on Wall Street with Turkish carpets on the floor and wine in the cellar. He lent the runner and tackle from his ship to raise the stones for Trinity Church, where he owned a pew.
He preferred the sea, however, and he sailed to London to obtain a royal commission to fight pirates attacking British East India ships in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. He also got financing from investors, including Richard Coote, Lord Bellomont.
In 1696, Kidd sailed out of Portsmouth, England, in what would become one of the most famous pirate ships in history: The Adventure, a galley ship with sails and oars that could be rowed to overtake becalmed merchant ships. It had 34 big guns and more than 100 men.
Terror of the Sea
Captain Kidd spent the next two years terrorizing merchant ships, amassing a fortune in gold, silks and jewels from his prey. Whether he did it as a privateer – taking ships he was legally entitled to – or a pirate is open to dispute.
When he refused to attack a Dutch ship, his gunner objected. During the argument, Kidd threw a bucket at his head. It fractured the gunner’s skull, and he died the next day.
In January 1698, William Kidd made his fatal mistake. He captured the Quedah Merchant, a handsome vessel loaded with treasure. But the captain was an Englishman who bought French passes from the French East India Company, and the ship was owned by Mukhlis Khan, the Great Mogul of the Indian Empire.
The British government wanted to stay on good terms with the Mogul Empire and the East India Company. They needed a scapegoat.
By then, Kidd knew he was wanted for piracy. He saved French passes he had seized as proof he was a privateer and not a pirate, and he sailed for home. There, his patron Lord Bellomont had been appointed governor of New York in 1698 and of Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 1699. Bellomont had falsely promised clemency to Captain Kidd.
Convicted, then Vindicated?
According to lore, William Kidd took a roundabout route to New York City, sailing around Long Island and burying his treasure. Some think it may have been buried on Charles Island off the coast of Milford, Conn.
On July 6, 1699, Kidd was arrested at the home of Lord Bellomont. Historians agree on this: Bellomont and the British government used him as a fall guy to pacify the Mogul Empire and the East India company.
William Kidd was sent to prison in Boston, where he languished for a year before he was sent to England to be tried.
On May 8, 1701 he was convicted of murdering his gunner and piracy despite his claims of innocence. Fifteen day later, he was hanged at Execution Dock. The rope broke and he fell into the mud beneath the gallows. Eyewitnesses say he was so drunk he didn’t realize what happened, or that the crowd was cheering his fall. He was hanged again, and his body dipped in tar, wrapped in chains and put in a steel cage, where his bones hung for many years.
In 1910 at the British Public Records archives, French passes were found that Captain Kidd claimed would prove his innocence.