Captain William Kidd, Vicious Pirate or Enterprising Privateer?

William Kidd supposedly buried treasure off the Connecticut coast before sailing to Boston in 1699. There, he thought, he would receive clemency for his piracy.

He was wrong about that.

William Kidd

William Kidd

The treasure was never found – nor were the uncontested facts about his career. Some considered him a vicious pirate, one of many who crowded Boston’s jails at the turn of the 18th century. Others viewed him as a privateer framed by his benefactors.

William Kidd, Captain

Not much is known about his early life. He was born Jan. 22, 1645 (Old Style), in Dundee, Scotland, to a mariner father lost at sea. Some claim his father was Puritan minister.

In 1689, Capt. William Kidd sailed the Caribbean in a French ship he’d captured as a privateer (some say pirate). England and France were embroiled in a conflict known as King William’s War in the American colonies.

Stories conflict about what happened to him in the Caribbean in 1689, but they agree Kidd’s crew abandoned him.

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 had not yet reached 30 when she married Capt. William 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.

But he preferred the sea, and he sailed to London to obtain a royal commission. He wanted  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 one of the most famous pirate ships in history, Adventure. A galley ship with sails and oars, its crew could row it to overtake becalmed merchant ships. It had 34 big guns and more than 100 men.

Terror of the Sea

Lord Bellomont

Lord Bellomont

Captain Kidd spent the next two years terrorizing merchant ships. He also amassed a fortune in gold, silks and jewels from his prey. Did he do it as a privateer, taking ships he was legally entitled to? Or did he do it as a pirate? History has not settled the question.

When he refused to attack a Dutch ship, his gunner objected. They argued, and Kidd threw a bucket at the gunner’s head. It fractured his 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. Unfortunately for Kidd, a minister at the court of the Indian Grand Moghul owned the ship.

The British government wanted to stay on good terms with the Moghul Empire. They needed someone to blame for capturing the treasure-laden ship.

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 Boston. His financial backer, Lord Bellomont, lived there then during his short tenure as governor of Massachusetts. But Bellomont believed William Kidd had turned into a liability, as people believed he’d descended into piracy. And so he falsely promised clemency to Captain Kidd.

Convicted, then Vindicated?

The body of William Kidd

The body of William Kidd

According to lore, William Kidd took a roundabout route to New York City, sailing around Long Island and burying his treasure. Some think he may have buried it 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 went to prison in Boston, where he languished for a year. In the meantime, he tried to negotiate his freedom by offering to tell where his treasure lay buried.

It didn’t work.

Officials put him on a ship to England. On May 8, 1701, the court convicted him of murdering his gunner and of piracy, despite his claims of innocence. Fifteen days later, he was hanged at Execution Dock. The rope broke and he fell into the mud beneath the gallows.

Eyewitnesses said he was drunk and didn’t realize what happened as the crowd cheered his fall. He was hanged again, and his body dipped in tar, wrapped in chains and put in a steel cage. There his bones hung for many years.

In 1910 at the British Public Records archives, researchers found French passes that Captain Kidd claimed would prove his innocence.

This story was updated in 2021.

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