Re__Rachel_Wall_Blog_Post_(Paper)Pirate in a Petticoat: The Legend of Rachel Wall

by Amy Berkley

Video:  Pirate in a Petticoat: The Legend of Rachel Wall

For years, Rachel Wall (1760-1789) assisted her husband in luring merchant ships to their doom near the Isles of Shoals. It was not long before her brutal actions and indiscriminate thievery captured the attention of the public. On October 9, 1789, a crowd gathered on the Boston Common to witness the execution of Rachel Wall, New England’s only female pirate.[1] Word of her death was announced through the publication of a broadside, which contained her crimes and confessions embellished with a woodcut illustration of her corpse dangling from the gallows.[2] Rachel Wall (Picture 1)

Figure 1: Depiction of Rachel Wall’s Execution in Boston, 1798 from the Life, Last Words and Dying Confession of Rachel Wall broadside. Rachel Wall was depicted hanging between two other criminals: William Smith and William Denoffee, alias “Donogan.”

The epic narrative of a female pirate is commonly understood to be an accurate portrayal of Rachel Wall, but a closer look at several historical documents might serve to shed new light on her life and death.

 

From Marriage to Mayhem

In the broadside publication of her confession, Life, Last Words and Dying Confession of Rachel Wall,[3] Wall describes her upbringing. Rachel was born in 1760 in rural Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She was raised by “honest and reputable parents” who gave her a good education and an upbringing in Christianity.[4]

It was not long before Rachel began to rebel from her strict Christian upbringing. At only sixteen years of age, she left home without the consent of her parents. After a short time, she returned and “was received by them, but could not be contented.”[5] Wall remained with her parents for only two years before leaving once again, never to return. Shortly thereafter, she claims to have married George Wall, whom she blames for her descent into a life of crime. The newlyweds traveled to Philadelphia, then to New York, before deciding to stay in Boston. Their relationship must have been tremulous, as Rachel claims that George left her “an entire stranger” in Boston to fend for herself.[6]

In Boston Rachel began her life as a criminal. When George left her, she took as job as a maidservant. George did not stay away long, for when he returned, Rachel claimed that he “enticed me to leave my service and to take bad company, from which I date my ruin.”[7] Leaving her alone once again, she continued a “great many crimes” including: stealing, lying, Sabbath Breaking. . . and “almost every other sin a person could commit, except murder.”[8] Rachel described several particular incidents in which she admits to numerous crimes. In 1785, Rachel attempted to spring her husband from the common gaol, where he was confined for theft. In an attempt to do so, she baked a “brickloaf” with:

a number of tools, such as a saw, file, &c. in order to assist him to make his escape, which was handed to him by the gaoler in person, who suspected such a trick was playing with him; however, it like to have had the desired effect the cratty [sic] contriver intended; for by means of this stratagem, the poor culprit, Wall, had busily employed himself with the implements that his kind help-mate had in this curious manner conveyed to him, and had nearly effected his design before it was discovered.[1]

Rachel Wall (Picture 2)

Figure 2: Detail of John Bonner’s 1722 Map of Boston. The circle depicts the location of the Boston Stone Gaol in which Rachel Wall was housed multiple times on the charges of theft.

[1] Ibid. The Prison Lists from the Stone Gaol in Boston were taken every six, if not every three months. From 1784-1786, George Wall’s name isabsent from the records. This does not mean he was not imprisoned, but it does mean that he must not have been confined for longer than six months. Rachel’s name appears on the records multiple times for theft, once for accessory to robbery, and of course, highway robbery.

 

 

Some of Rachel’s crimes were even more daring. In 1787, Wall writes that during one of her “nocturnal excursions” she entered the captain’s cabin of a ship on Long Warf and stole a “black silk handkerchief containing upwards of thirty pounds, in gold, crowns, and small change” from underneath the captain’s head.[1] The following year, Rachel repeated the crime, this time making off with a captain’s silver watch, silver shoe buckles and some pocket money to share with her “evil companions.”[2] Rachel even confessed to a crime for which the punishment had already been mitigated against one Miss Dorthy Horn. Wall claims that Horn was a falsely accused crippled woman from the Boston Alms-House. Charged with theft, that was Rachel’s doing, Dorthy had already suffered a long imprisonment, was sentenced to stand at the gallows for one hour, and was whipped.[3] It is strange that of all the offences she admitted to, Rachel did not confess to involvement in piracy.

 

Path to the Gallows

On March 18, 1789, 29-year-old Rachel Wall was accused of assailing 17-year-old, upper-class Margaret Bender on the highway.[4] The account goes that Wall, being unarmed, used “bodily force” to snatch a bonnet, having the value of seven shillings, from Bender’s head. Reportedly, Wall quickly made off with the bonnet, Bender cried for help, and Charles Berry chased after the fleeing Wall.

Rachel Wall (Picture 3)

Figure 3: Woman’s hat, black silk, 1770-1780, from the Colonial Williamsburg Collection (1993-335).

Colonel Thomas Dawes tended to Bender’s bleeding mouth while Berry chased and caught hold of Wall, whom he assumed was the thief.[1] Once he grabbed hold of her, Berry asked Margaret Bender if he had captured the correct assailant, to which she replied that “she appeared to be the same person.”[2] Rachel Wall was promptly arrested and escorted to the Boston Gaol. The reason for the altercation was believed by some to be the outworking of a previous quarrel. However, Bender did not concede to the idea, arguing that she was the victim of a “sudden and unprovoked assault” during which, Wall attempted to use “bodily force” to remove her tongue.[3]

The case was brought before the Supreme Judicial Court in Boston on August 25, 1789.[4]  Wall was represented by experienced lawyers, Christopher Gore (1758-1827) and James Hughes.

Rachel Wall (Picture 4)

Figure 4: Detail of Christopher Gore (1758-1827) by John Trumbull. Harvard University Portrait Collection, Gift of Dr. William E. Payne, 1834. Gore served as one of Rachel Wall’s defense attorneys.

Both Gore and Hughes were assigned attorneys by the court, who argued that since the bonnet was not found in Wall’s possession at the time of her arrest, the most the prosecution could charge was attempted robbery.[5] The major impediment to their defense was Wall’s previous, quite similar record. The first crime mentioned was theft—“taking and carrying away the goods and chattles” from Perez Morton, Esq. in 1785.[6] Morton was a well-respected lawyer and close associate of John Adams. When Wall faced the charges of theft from Morton, she pled guilty, was given fifteen lashes, and fined three times the amount of damages. Unable to afford the amount of 18 pounds, Wall was sold into servitude for three years.[7] The same plea and sentence were administered three years later.[8] In 1788, Rachel Wall was found guilty of “breaking up and entering the dwelling house of one Lemuel Ludden, and feloniously stealing, taking and carrying away the goods and chattles.”[9] The list of previous offenses, accompanied by nine witnesses called by the prosecution were enough to convince a jury to find Rachel Wall guilty of the capital offense of highway robbery. The act which gave the court the authority to administer capital punishment in cases of “assault with intent” had been passed only five years earlier.[10] Wall was found to have made “with force and arms. . . an assault, and her the said Margaret Bender in bodily fear of her life, in the highway” and “violently did steal, take and carry away against the peace of the Commonwealth.”[11] It was not long before news of the events spread.

Rachel Wall (Picture 5)

Figure 5: Flogging of an Apprentice. It was typical for a woman’s garments to be removed to the waist before applying the punishment of whipping. This action not only enabled the lashings to inflict more pain, but served as a form of humiliation during public floggings.

As Rachel awaited her execution from inside the Boston Stone Gaol, newspapers had already popularized the events of her apprehension. Knowing this, Rachel commented that the public was, “anxious to know every particular circumstance of the Life and Character of a person in my unhappy situation.”[12] The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser published several articles in which additional, more graphic details of the crime which led to Wall’s execution were included. On April 2, 1789, they stated that Wall “seized hold of her [Bender] 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.”[13] This graphic summary is corroborated by the witness testimony recorded by the prosecuting attorney, Robert Treat Paine. Numerous witnesses confirmed the bloodied state of Mrs. Bender’s face and the highway pavement, which indicated the force Wall used to insert a handkerchief into her mouth. The blood evidence present on Rachel Wall’s hands served as additional proof of her guilt.[14] No witnesses or evidence could corroborate Bender’s claim that Wall attempted to remove her tongue.[15] In the following months, several updates of her trial were published in various newspapers, detailing the specific charge of “highway robbery” and the date and time of her upcoming execution.[16] The Boston Gazette and the Country Journal published an article on September 14, 1789 listing the reported crimes of Rachel Wall. On the third page of the journal appears:

Rachel Wall, indicted for robbery, convicted and sentenced to be hanged. . . The Supreme Executive of this Commonwealth, hath been pleased to appoint Thursday, the 8th day of October next, for the execution of William Smith, William Dennoffee, and Rachel Wall, the three Culprits now under sentence of death, in this town.[17]

 

Despite the testimony of numerous witnesses and general public opinion, Rachel Wall maintained her innocence throughout her trial even up to the point of execution.[18] Wall claimed in her confession that she had never even seen “Ms. Bendar” prior to her arrest.[19] Notwithstanding, Rachel and the two men who were executed on the same day in Boston would be the last individuals executed for high-way robbery in the state of Massachusetts.[20] Another six years would pass before the Massachusetts legislature would remove unarmed highway robbery from the list of capital offenses.[21]

Figure 6: The Boston Commons in 1789. Rachel Wall was hung near the corner of Boylston street and Tremont street. Later, Wall’s execution would be recalled as the “most unaccountable execution on record in this State [Massachusetts].”[22]

InkedRachel Wall (Picture 6)_LI

Figure 6: The Boston Commons in 1789. Rachel Wall was hung near the corner of Boylston street and Tremont street. Later, Wall’s execution would be recalled as the “most unaccountable execution on record in this State [Massachusetts].”[1]

 

[1] Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 178.

The Making of a Pirate

According to numerous sources, Rachel Wall was guilty of having a great pirating career. Researchers cite the Robert Treat Paine Papers as evidence for rather grand stories of how she accompanied her husband in luring ships to their doom. This is quite a fascinating story and certainly one worth additional investigation. Through examining the records of Robert Treat Paine, I have not been able to find any evidence to support these theories. Included in his papers is mention of two pirates on July 21, 1785.[1] Neither name is listed, but housed in the gaol at the same time on charges of piracy are William Buckley and Belitha  Taylor.[2] Rachel’s name is left absent from this list, but appears on the list written several months later in October of 1785 for the crime of theft.[3]

In 1905, Rachel Wall’s case once again became the topic of investigation when John Noble presented a paper on legislation regarding highway robbery in Massachusetts to the Massachusetts Historical Society. In his review of the events leading to Rachel Wall’s execution, no mention is made of evidence hidden within Robert Treat Paine’s papers, indicating Wall’s association as a pirate. The Massachusetts Historical Society also noted that “no evidence in the case has been preserved, and of all the original papers there remain only the indictments and a bill of costs.”[4] The first public mention of Wall’s pirating career was in 1959 (170 years after her death) when Piracy, Mutiny, and Murder was published by Edward Rowe Snow. Snow was a well-known historian and storyteller who made a name for himself in the mid-twentieth century popularizing stories of pirates and New England maritime history. Writers such as Snow, typically list their source as the “Robert Treat Paine, Trial Notes.” This is a rather vague reference, as Paine’s collection of papers is quite extensive. After reviewing Paine’s trial minutes from 1785 to 1789 concerning Rachel Wall, it is clear that no mention is made of her involvement in piracy. Either the source has been cited incorrectly, or the tale of Rachel Wall is just that—a tale.

Rachel Wall (Picture 7)

Figure 7: Detail of image depicting the gibbeting of a pirate in London from The Lives, Behavior, and Dying Words of the Most Remarkable Criminals: Who have ever Executedin the Library of Congress..

Rachel Wall’s manner of execution and phrasing within her confession makes the claim of piracy questionable. As the legend goes, Rachel was stranded in 1782 when their boat was caught in a nasty swell. George Wall underestimated the strength of the storm and lost his life.[5] However, in her confession she states that, “I hope my unhappy fate will be a solemn warning to him [George Wall].” If he indeed passed away in 1782, she would not have also stated, “He went off again and left me, and where he is now, I know not.”[6] This wording implies that his current situation was unknown to her, not that he had previously passed in a seafaring accident. Furthermore, execution on the gallows of Boston’s Common was not standard practice for those accused of piracy in Boston during the 1700s. Instead, pirates were taken to Bird Island or Nix’s Mate to meet their end via gibbeting. The gibbet was a structure similar to the gallows, but was meant to publically display the body to those in the port in efforts to deter similar offenses. In some cases, the criminals were hung in a cage and left to die of thirst in what was known as “a sun drying.”[7]

Rachel Wall (Picture 8)

Figure 8: Detail of Nix’s Mate, as seen up close from its Eastern side off Gallop’s Island. This is the location that pirates, such as William Fly, would have met their doom via gibbetting.

Another conspicuous omission of Wall’s piracy career is found in the Boston Stone Gaol Prison Lists, currently held at the Boston Public Library. These documents contain records of inmates housed in the Boston Stone Gaol from the mid 1700s to the early 1800s.

Rachel Wall (Picture 9)

Figure 9: Detail of Joseph Otis’ Signature on A List of Prisoners Confined in Gaol in 1777. Joseph Otis was the prison keeper in Boston who maintained accurate handwritten lists of the inmates housed in the Boston Stone Gaol. His signature was affixed to the bottom of all of the lists that included Rachel Wall’s name.

 

Joseph Otis was the Deputy Gaoler in Boston when Rachel Wall’s numerous confinements occurred. The most interesting contribution of these prison lists come from Otis’ inclusion of details, not recorded elsewhere. For example, Otis included information regarding whether or not this was an inmate’s first time behind bars, or whether or not they had received a conviction for their crimes. The most interesting feature recorded by Joseph Otis were the “alias” names of inmates. In the case of Rachel Wall, Otis logged the inscription “(alias) Fanny Jennings”[8] when she was behind bars on July 1, 1788.[9] Nowhere in the gaol records was Rachel Wall ever accused of piracy. If the records include this inconsequential fact, then it is reasonable to conclude that it would not pass over the crime of piracy, which would have been of utmost significance.

Every primary source from the time surrounding Rachel Wall’s execution omits any mention of the worst, most sensational crime of piracy from the list of her misdeeds. She was not tried for piracy, nor executed like a pirate. If she was not treated as a pirate in her lifetime, why treat her as a pirate today?

[1] Robert Treat Paine, “Council Minutes Abstract Concerning Committee ‘Respecting Two Pirates Apprehended at Machias,’ 21 July 1785,” Massachusetts Historical Society: Robert Treat Paine Papers, (Boston: unpublished, 1785).

[2] Joseph Otis, “A True List of Prisoners, Boston: July 5, 1785,” Boston Public Library Archives, (Boston: Joseph Otis, 1785).

[3] Joseph Otis, “A List of Prisoners Now in Boston Gaol, October 4, 1785,” Boston Public Library Archives, (Boston: Joseph Otis, 1785).

[4] Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 181.

[5] Edward Rowe Snow, Piracy, Mutiny, and Murder, (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1959). Snow does not use any specific citations for the story of Rachel Wall, but many authors have used his writings as a credible source of information.

[6] Wall, Life, Last Words and Dying Confession, of Rachel Wall.

[7] George Francis Dow, Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, (North Chelmsford: Courier Corporation, 2012), 224.

[8] Paine, Reel 17. Rachel Wall identified herself to one of the witnesses, Col. William Dawes, as “Jenkins.” In the gaol records the name is recorded both “Jenkins” and “Jennings.”

[9] Joseph Otis, “List of Criminals Confined in Boston Gaol County of Suffolk, July 1, 1788,” Boston Public Library Archives, (Boston: Joseph Otis, 1788). This alias appears on several gaol lists. Was this a name she used for prostitution? Possibly, but no mention is made of her extramarital affairs by Joseph Otis.

[RA1]Is this a man’s name or a woman/s name?

[1] Alan Rogers, Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008), 51. Colonel Thomas Dawes is remembered as a patriot who advanced into various positions within the Massachusetts State Government.

[2] Ibid., 51.

[3] Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 179.

Robert Treat Paine, “Robert Treat Paine Papers: Minutes of Criminal Trials, 1780-1789,” Massachusetts Historical Society, (Boston: unpublished, 1780-1789), Reel 17.

[4] Record of the Supreme Judicial Court, Held at Boston, for the County of Suffolk, 25 August, 1789, folio 257.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Acts and Resolves of Massachusetts, Vol. 1784-85, (Boston: Adams and Nourse Printers to the Honorable Court, 1889), 171. According to the 1784 Act for the Punishing and Preventing of Larcenies, thieves, “unable to make restitution or pay such treble damages. . . may further sentence him to make satisfaction. . . in service, to any person whomsoever, for such term of time as shall be assigned by the same Justices.”

[8] Alan Rogers, Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008), 50.

[9] Record of the Supreme Judicial Court, folio 257.

[10] Acts and Resolves of Massachusetts, Vol. 1784-85, (Boston: Adams and Nourse Printers to the Honorable Court, 1889), 169.

[11] Record of the Supreme Judicial Court, folio 257.

[12] Wall, Life, Last Words and Dying Confession, of Rachel Wall.

[13] Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser, April 2, 1789, (Boston: Powars & Willis, 1776-1801).

[14] Paine, Reel 17.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser, September 17, 1789 and October 8, 1789, (Boston, Mass.: Powars & Willis, 1776-1801).

The Massachusetts Centinel, September 12, 1789, (Boston: Warden & Russell, 1784-1790).

[17] Benjamin Edes and Son, The Boston Gazette, or, Country Journal No. 1823. 14 September 1789, (Boston: Benjamin Edes, 1789). William Cushing, future U.S. Supreme Court Justice was noted to be the one to authorized the sentencing.

Council Files 1789-1793 at State House. Commonwealth of Massachusetts. To Joseph Henderson Esq. Sheriff of the County of Suffolk. The same signature that was just a few years earlier was so prominently affixed to the Declaration of Independence, would find itself upon the death warrant for Rachel Wall. The first Governor of the Commonwealth, John Hancock (1737-1793), saw to it that Rachel Wall’s life was quickly put to an end. His seal is found on the death warrant of Boston’s last female to be executed in Massachusetts with the following charge “on Thursday the eighth day of October next between the hours of twelve and four o’clock in the afternoon, at the usual place of Execution you cause Execution on the person of the said Rachel Wall to be done and performed.”

[18] Record of the Supreme Judicial Court, Held at Boston, for the County of Suffolk, 25 August, 1789, folio 257. “It is Considered by the Court here, that the said Rachel Wall be taken to the Gaol of the Commonwealth from whence she came, and from thence to the place of Execution, and there be hanged by the neck until she be dead.”

[19] Wall, Life, Last Words and Dying Confession, of Rachel Wall.

[20] Rogers, 52; Commonwealth v. Smith (1789), SJC Records, case #105405; Commonwealth v. Denoffe (1789), SJC Records, case #105406. Rachel Wall was hung with two other criminals charged with a similar offense. William Smith and William Denoffee were sentenced to execution for armed robbery of three men from which they acquired a silk handkerchief, silver shoe buckles, and a coat among other items. They were charged with highway robbery and sentenced to death alongside Rachel Wall.

Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 178. Margaret Bender was said to have “never ceased to deplore the fact that a life was forfeited on her account.”

[21] Thomas H. O’Connor et. al., Boston’s Histories: Essays in Honor of Thomas H. O’Connor, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004), 25.

[22] Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 178.

[1] Ibid., Rachel Wall must have had some working knowledge of boats in order to know exactly where to look for valuables as the captain’s head is an expression used to refer to a latrine. Conversely, Rachel Wall, abandoned spinster, might have been lured into a life of prostitution in order to make ends meet. Although she does not specifically mention her guilt in this area, she does incorporate language into her confession which might have raised a few eyebrows. When describing the time that she had stolen from a French Captain docked on Long Wharf, she states that she had done so during one of her “nocturnal excursions, when the bright goddess Venus shined conspicuous.” The inclusion of the reference to the goddess Venus within the context of a nighttime excursion might give credence to the theory that she was indeed, acting as a prostitute. If this was in fact the case, it is no wonder that she would have been able to easily gain intimate access to the sleeping quarters of the men on the ship.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 178. The trial records record the date as the 27th of March, 1789. Also, according to the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Margaret Bender was said to have “never ceased to deplore the fact that a life was forfeited on her account.”

[1] “Rachel Wall, New England’s Only Lady Pirate,” New England Historical Society, Accessed 1 March 2017: http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/rachel-wall-new-englands-only-lady-pirate/.

[2] Rachel Wall (1760-1789), Life, Last Words and Dying Confession, of Rachel Wall, who, with William Smith and William Dunogan, were Executed at Boston, on Thursday, October 8, 1789, for High-way Robbery. (Boston: s.n., 1789).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. Her father was a Congregational Presbyterian who was known to be “very serious and devout turn of mind, who always made it a practice to perform family prayers in his house every morning and evening.” Raised on a farm, Rachel received daily training on the scriptures and lamented that, “if I had followed the good advice should never have come to this untimely fate.” This type of comment is typical of printed confessions of this era. Although Rachel included information about her father’s religious preferences, she did not mention the names of her parents or her maiden name. I have not been able to locate this information in any primary or secondary sources.

Daniel Asher Cohen, “Pillars of salt: The Transformation of New England Crime Literature, 1674-1860,” Brandeis University, (Waltham: ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1989).

[5] Wall, Life, Last Words and Dying Confession, of Rachel Wall. Rachel Wall lawfully married to George Wall, but blamed him for her progression into a life of crime lamenting, “If I had never seen him I should not have left my parents.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. In her confession, Rachel Wall strived to address young women, whom she believed could be in danger of finding themselves among bad company. She states, “I hope my awesful [sic] and untimely fate will be a solemn warning and caution to every one [sic], but more particularly to the youth, especially those of my own sex.” She admits that her life was not well-lived as she did not “regard the the kind admonitions and councils of man.”

[8] Ibid. She also mentioned “disobedience to parents,” but does not specifically mention piracy.