In 1773 the outlook for Ansell Nickerson, a sailor, was not a good one. Jailed, accused of murdering four men and in the hands of the British Court of Admiralty, there wasn’t much left to do but hang him. Until John Adams took an interest.
Nickerson’s case was a case of piracy. He had been fishing the Atlantic with his cousins and two other crewmen aboard the Abigail and was returning to Chatham on Cape Cod when something happened aboard the vessel. To this day, no one is sure what.
Another ship had approached the Abigail, flying a flag of distress. On board they found only Nickerson alive. Four men, including the ship’s captain Thomas Nickerson, were dead.
“The Conversation of the Town and Country has been about the strange Occurrence of last Week, a Piracy said to have been committed on a Vessel bound to Cape Cod, 3 Men killed, a Boy missing, and only one Man escaped to tell the News—a mysterious, inexplicable Affair!” John Adams wrote in his diary in November of 1772.
The story told by Ansell Nickerson was that the ship was boarded by Englishmen who had arrived on the scene in an armed schooner from which they dispatched a smaller boat. He didn’t know them, but allowed they might be pirates. The men had ransacked the Abigail, stolen everything aboard and departed. They had only spared a young boy named Kent who they took with them and pressed into naval service.
How had Ansell Nickerson survived? He had crawled over the ship’s transom at the sight of the approaching vessel. Initially he feared being pressed into service. As he clung to the side of the ship, supported by molding, he overheard the murder of his fellow crew. The attackers discussed burning the ship, but instead they decided that would draw attention and instead let it just drift to sea. They took most of the vessel’s stores and left.
Ansell Nickerson was not a wholly reliable witness. He had served aboard several pirate vessels, himself. His story was questioned, but the justice of the peace accepted his version of events and set him free.
Colonial Governor Thomas Hutchinson was outraged. He had Ansell Nickerson arrested, and put him in the hands of the Court of Admiralty. Hutchinson was interrogated for hours. With the Court of Admiralty governing his fate, there was not much hope that Nickerson would survive. The court was ruthless in dealing with pirates.
The charge against Nickerson was that the ship had sold its catch and was returning to Chatham with the crew’s money and payment for the fish. Nickerson killed his fellow crew members and had sent the money ashore, either by himself or with aid of another, and concocted the story of the attack. Among the holes in Nickerson’s story, there was some fresh meat found on board the Abigail. It seemed unlikely that actual pirates would have left something so precious behind.
But in jail, Ansell Nickerson began receiving visits from the Sons of Liberty, the gang that was building support for the American Revolution. The Sons took an interest in this poor sailor’s cause because it involved impressment – the practice of seizing sailors and forcing them into service against their will—which the British Navy employed, as well as pirates.
Suddenly Nickerson found himself with two prominent lawyers at his aid – Josiah Quincy Jr. and John Adams. Adams studied the admiralty laws exhaustively and prepared for a June trial. But the Court of Admiralty had a sudden postponement, probably because it was investigating the burning of the Gaspee.
When the court took up the matter in August, Adams and Quincy threw up all sorts of dust. They harped on the fact that Nickerson should have received a jury trial, since the case involved murder. The court, as the British were fond of doing, was acting unfairly in the matter.
The trial was a propaganda success for the Sons of Liberty, even if Nickerson had been convicted and hanged. But the arguments apparently worked. Though the details are lost, historians suspect the court deadlocked with four judges convinced that Adams was correct – a case involving murder was beyond the jurisdiction of the Court of Admiralty.
Ansell Nickerson was finally freed. Some accounts say that Nickerson confessed his guilt on his deathbed in Martinique some 15 or 20 years later. Adams noted in his papers that Nickerson went on to live a peaceful life. In his diary, however, he says he never got paid the £6 and change he was owed for his services and was unsure if Nickerson was guilty or innocent.
“This was and remains still a misterious Transaction. I know not to this day what Judgment to form of his Guilt or Innocence. And this doubt I presume was the Principle of Acquittal. He requested my Assistance and it was given. He had nothing to give me, but his promissory Note, for a very moderate Fee. But I have heard nothing of him, nor received any Thing for his note, which has been lost with many other Notes and Accounts to a large Amount, in the distraction of the times and my Absence from my Business.”
As for Governor Hutchinson, he was positive Ansell Nickerson was guilty, and he wrote later of the trial as one of the events that showed the growing success the Sons of Liberty were having in raising revolutionary fervor in New England.