Rachel Wall was hanged in Boston in 1789 for stealing a bonnet, but she wanted to be hanged as a pirate.
She was New England’s only woman pirate and the last woman to be hanged in Boston.
She was born Rachel Schmidt in Carlisle, Pa., around 1760, to devoutly Presbyterian parents. Rachel left home at 16 because she loved the sea and wanted to live near the waterfront.
Rachel Schmidt married George Wall, a fisherman, and traveled to New York and Philadelphia before they settled in Boston. He left her, and she worked as a maid on Beacon Hill, where, she said, she lived ‘very contented.’
George Wall returned to her and, she wrote, ‘“enticed [her] to leave [her] service and take to bad company, from which I may date my ruin.”
Rachel Wall, Pirate
The couple turned pirate in 1781. They stole a vessel, Essex, and operated near the Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire coast. They waited for rough weather and then disguised the Essex to look as if it had been damaged by the storm. Rachel called to passing ships for help, and when they docked to the Essex the pirates stormed the ship and robbed it.
It worked for a while. They robbed 12 ships of more than $12,000 in cash and plunder and killed 24 sailors.
Then in 1782 George Wall drowned in a storm and Rachel was rescued. She went back to Boston and worked as a maid.
Her biggest mistake may have been choosing the wrong people to steal from. She carried away the ‘goods and chattles’ of Perez Morton, a Revolutionary patriot, a friend of John Adams, a powerful lawyer and future Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
Finally her life of crime came to an end when authorities arrested her for highway robbery. On March 18, 1789, Rachel Wall suddenly accosted 17-year-old Margaret Bender ‘on the public highway’ in Boston. She took her bonnet, worth seven shillings, and put it on.
Two weeks later, a report of the crime appeared in a newspaper:
As a woman was walking alone, she was met by another woman, who seized hold of her and stopped her mouth with her handkerchief, and tore from her head her bonnet and cushion, after which she flung her down, took her shoes and buckles, and then fled. She was soon after overtaken, and committed to jail.
According to Bender family tradition, Rachel tried to pull out Margaret’s tongue. According to her grandson, “It was said that my grandmother never ceased to deplore the fact that a life was forfeited on her account.” She lived to be 72.
Rachel only lived to 29. On Aug. 25, 1789, she was tried by a jury before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts and found guilty, despite her prominent court-appointed lawyer, Christopher Gore. During the trial she admitted to her crimes as a pirate, but denied the highway robbery.
Gov. John Hancock signed the order that Rachel Wall be hanged.
Why such a harsh punishment? The late 1780s were a time when the ruling class believed they were in the throes of an unprecedented crime wave, and responded with capital punishment, writes Gabriel Gottlieb in Theater of Death: Capital Punishment in Early America, 1750-1800.
“By then the protection of property had become the primary agenda of the death penalty in urban areas,” wrote Gottlieb.
On Thursday, Oct. 8, 1789, Rachel Wall was hanged along with William Smith and William Dunogan on Boston Common. Thousands of men, women, and children came to watch the official procession that wound through the streets. They heard the execution sermon and the last words of Rachel Wall as she stood on the gallows.
As the noose was put around her neck, Rachel Wall proclaimed her innocence. The “witnesses who swore against [her] are certainly mistaken,” she said, but “as a dying person I freely forgive them.”’
She said she hoped “my awful and untimely fate will be a solemn warning and caution to every one, but more particularly to the Youth, especially those of my own sex.”
Her last words were
“…into the hands of the Almighty God I committ my soul, relying on his mercy…and die an unworthy member of the Presbyterian Church, in the 29th year of my age.”
This story was updated in 2021.