Newport pirate Charles Gibbs, hanged in 1831 in New York, was undoubtedly a nasty piece of work. As some historians pointed out, he was the last pirate in New York who didn’t make his living on Wall Street.
He was born James D. Jeffers in Newport, R.I., in 1798, the son of a sea captain who distinguished himself as a privateer in the Revolutionary War. A privateer, of course, is a sort of pirate with a government license. James Jeffers, aka Charles Gibbs, had no such license.
Pirate Charles Gibbs
As the son of a well-to-do family, it’s a bit of a mystery why he became a pirate. For whatever reason, he began his life as a sailor around 1816. Sometime between then and 1820, he slipped into piracy.
Charles Gibbs didn’t gain notoriety as a significant pirate during his sailing days, which lasted roughly from 1816 through 1830.
Only after his conviction for murder and piracy did Gibbs’ amazing tale began spilling forth. A short, stout man with a fondness for alcohol and women, he never stood out as much of a success at anything.
But during his trial and confessions, Charles Gibbs told an epic tale. He had, between 1820 and 1830, cut a swath through the seas from Latin America to the West Indies and Europe, leaving a trail of blood behind him.
Charles Gibbs claimed to have raided dozens of ships, usually butchering the crew and passengers and burning the vessels after he robbed them. He had killed as many as 400 people, he reckoned, with some rape and assorted other crimes thrown in for good measure.
According to the trial transcript, in November 1830, Charles Gibbs signed on as crew on the brig The Vineyard, in New Orleans. The ship had nine men aboard, including captain and mate, on its voyage to Philadelphia.
Along the way, the seven-man crew plotted to kill the captain and first mate. They intended to steal a stash of money, in the form of Mexican coins, from the ship’s cargo. On the night of November 23, they clubbed the captain and mate and tossed them into the ocean just north of Cape Hatteras.
From that point, the crime turned into farce, or an ill-scripted set of lies.
The mutineers continued sailing northeast for another day and a half, holding course for Long Island. They planned to split up, with three going north to Block Island and four to Long Island and New York City. The crew had trouble managing the vessel, however, and they hastily scuttled it off the coast of Long Island by plunging an axe through its hull.
Immediately their two escape boats – a longboat and a jollyboat — began taking on water. The three men on the jollyboat drowned when their boat sank — at least according to the mutineers. The four men in the longboat jettisoned some of the coins and made it to shore on Pelican Island.
There, and on nearby islands, they buried parts of their treasure.
According to the official version, one of the surviving pirates, John Brownrigg, encountered a stranger. Brownrigg told him his companions had committed murder. Soon all four found themselves in custody.
But what really happened? Did the three pirates in the jollyboat drown, or did the others kill them? Was all the treasure really left buried, or did the turncoat Brownrigg make a deal with the stranger? Could he have asked the stranger to help him in return for part of the treasure?
Any certainty about what happened was lost from the start. But soon Charles Gibbs would establish his place in history.
Publishers gobbled up his story with glee, reprinting it, replete with his admonitions to the youth of the day not to follow in his footsteps. There is little doubt that Gibbs was a pirate. And there’s equally little doubt that he committed some of the crimes he claimed. But most suspect he padded his resume dramatically to make himself into a gangster legend.
In going over that legend, we came across 10 interesting items we didn’t know about Charles Gibbs/James Jeffers:
1. Family Thought Him Dead
James Jeffers famously changed his name to Charles Gibbs to avoid tarnishing the family’s reputation. But he also ensured they wouldn’t look for him by convincing them he died. Shortly after he left his family, he penned a letter to his sisters. In what amounts to an 1820s version of Internet trolling, he claimed to be a shipmate of their brother and told them their brother died of fever in the West Indies.
Newporters found out Charles Gibbs was James Jeffers when he summoned a Rev. Mr. Jones from Newport to his jail cell. His reason: to inquire about the well-being of his family.
2. Racism Defense
Thomas Wansley, executed with Gibbs, claimed racism in his defense.
There were a few black pirates in 1830. Thomas Wansley was one of them, but not necessarily by design.
Before the trial, it wasn’t clear which of the three other surviving pirates would be charged. Robert Dawes got off the hook because of his youth. So did John Brownrigg, because he agreed to testify.
Meanwhile prosecutors indicted Wansley. He replied with an eloquent plea to the court. He pointed out that, as cook on the ship he had not started out with an eye toward piracy. When presented with the plan, he had only grim choices. . If he failed to go along with the mutiny, he feared Charles Gibbs and the others would kill him. If he did go along, he feared the court would kill him because white judges tended not to show much mercy to black criminals. The judge proved his fears correct and sentenced him to hang.
3. What Might Have Been
Had Joseph Lockwood served on the jury, Charles Gibbs would quite likely have been cleared. Lockwood was selected from 30 citizens to serve as a juror. He declared he opposed capital punishment. He said that in a capital case, he would give great weight to any evidence that supported the charged man’s innocence. Prosecutors preempted him from serving on the jury.
4. Dead Men Tell No Tales
In confessing, Charles Gibbs explained why he chose to kill so many people: The penalties for murder and piracy were the same. When confronted with the choice of killing witnesses to a crime or letting them live, the choice was easy because ‘dead men tell no tales.’ Less severe penalties for property crimes, he said, would give criminals incentive to not murder so many people. During the capital punishment debates of the era, people cited Charles Gibbs’ arguments.
5. Stephen Girard
Of the $54,000 stolen, the pirates managed to keep only a few thousand dollars. But who wanted to ship all that money to Philadelphia in the first place? Perhaps not surprisingly, the money belonged to the wealthiest man in America, Stephen Girard. The philanthropist still has a reputation in Philadelphia and New Orleans for his generosity to those cities. In fact, America itself owes him a huge debt as he singlehandedly financed the end of the War of 1812.
Not surprisingly, Girard doesn’t figure prominently in the trial of Gibbs. Exactly one month after the pirates stole his money, a carriage ran him down in the streets of Philadelphia. He died a year later. No one seems to know why he was shipping Mexican silver currency to Philadelphia in unmarked kegs.
6. Honor Among Thieves
Dawes, in his testimony, said that two of the pirates attempted to intimidate him into selling his share of the Mexican silver for $1,000. He accepted the deal, but Charles Gibbs intervened when he learned of it. He insisted the young man receive his full share.
7. Charles Gibbs, America’s 1st Gangsta-artist
Charles Gibbs wrote a song about his experiences long before Biggie and Tupac drew on their criminal pasts to fuel their careers. He reportedly sang it before his execution. Sung to the tune of a chantey called The Rocks of Scilly, it is excerpted from the Gibbs family history. Of course, Charles Gibbs, being James Jeffers, didn’t belong to the Gibbs family history.
8. Charles Gibbs, Grocer
Charles Gibbs worked as a grocer before turning pirate. Some versions of his story hold that he started a grocery store in Boston near the infamous Tin Pot dive bar on Ann Street.
In some tellings, he used his loot from his early days as a pirate to stake his business. According to others, he used a bequest from an uncle to fund the venture. In all versions, he flopped at the business, mainly because he loved to drink and whore more than he liked working. That’s easy enough to believe given all we do know about his character.
9. Pirates of the Caribbean
Charles Gibbs’ quest for fame finally paid off. His likeness is on display at Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Regardless of the historical inaccuracy of his tales, visitors can look at a cartoon of Gibbs while waiting to board Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
10. Silver Coins Don’t Stay Buried
While authorities never officially recovered the treasure Charles Gibbs stole from the Vineyard, a good portion of it likely ended up in the hands of Long Islanders. News accounts in the 1840s tell how coins surfaced on the beaches of Pelican Island, leading to wild treasure hunts.
In one case, the Long Island Democrat reported a Mr. Smith happened on a cache of the treasure on Barren Island. He returned home and went back to the island the next day to recover the rest. His mistake: He told his wife.
“The news was too good to keep,” the newspaper reported. “The next day there was a general stampede for the pirate’s treasure.” Details of where the money went after that are scarce. Dead men aren’t the only ones who tell no tales.
This story was updated in 2020.