Joe Bruno on the Mob – Albert E. Hicks – The Last Man To Be Hung for Piracy in the United States of America


Albert E. Hicks, called “Hicksey” by his pals and “Pirate Hicks” by the police, was the last man to be executed for piracy in the United States of America.

Hicks was a freelance gangster, who lived with his wife and son at 129 Cedar Street in downtown Manhattan, only two blocks from the East River. Hicks felt he was better served if he worked alone, and as a result, he never joined any of the other gangs that prowled the waterfront in the treacherous 4th Ward. Working solo, the police suspected Hicks of scores of robberies and over a dozen murders, but Hicks scoffed at the notion. “Suspecting it and proving it are two different things,” he said.

In March 1860, Hicks tied on a big one at a Water Street dive, and he was so drunk, he could not walk the two blocks home. Instead, he staggered into a Cherry Street lodging house, figuring he’d sleep until he was sober enough to manage the rest of the walk. The owner of the establishment was a known crimp, or a man who specialized in shanghaiing, which was the practice of “kidnapping men into duty as sailors on ships, against their will, by devious techniques such as trickery, intimidation, or violence.” Hicks asked the crimp for a nightcap, and that he got, as the crimp, not aware of Hicks’ reputation, laced his rum with laudanum, which is an alcohol solution containing opium.

His nightcap knocked Hicks out cold, and when he awoke the next morning, he found himself at sea on the E.A. Johnson, which was bound to Deep Creek, Virginia, to pick up a load of oysters. Five days later, the E.A, Johnson was found abandoned at sea, a few miles off the coast of Staten Island. The ship seemed to have collided with another vessel, and when it was finally secured, Coroner Schirmer and Captain Weed, of the second precinct police station, boarded the boat to examine the cause of its condition. No one was on board, but in the ship’s cabin they found the room ransacked, and the floor, ceiling and bunks filled with blood. On the deck, they found four human fingers and a thumb lying under the rail.

The next day, two residents of the Cedar Street house where Hicks lived with this family, told the police that Hicks had returned home with a considerable sum of money, and was now gone, with no trace of him, or his family. In fact, Hicks had packed his belongings and escaped with his family to a boarding house in Providence, Rhode Island. New York City patrolman Nevins traced Hicks, and with the help of the Providence police, he arrested Hicks’ entire family. When Nevin searched Hicks’ belongings, he found a watch and a daguerreotype (an early version of a camera), which belonged to Captain Burr, the captain of the E.A. Johnson. The other two missing seamen were brothers, Smith and Oliver Watts, but nothing could be found belonging to them and their fate was a mystery.

As a result, Hicks was arrested and locked up in the Tombs. At his trial in May, it took the jury only seven minutes to convict him of piracy and murder on the high seas. He was sentenced to be hanged at Bedloe’s Island on Friday the 13th, which was certainly a bad luck day for Hicks.

A week after his trail, Hicks decided to become downright chatty. He summoned the Warden and several newspapermen to his cell and began spilling the beans about the whole sordid affair. “I was brooding about being shanghaied,” Hicks said, “and I decided to avenge myself by murdering all hands on the ship.”

Hicks told the assembled crowd that he was steering the ship, and Captain Burr and one of the Watts brother was sleeping in the cabin. The other Watts brother was on lookout at the bow. Hicks lashed the steering wheel to keep the ship on course, then he picked up and iron bar, sneaked to the bow and hit the lookout over the head with the bar, knocking him out cold. The other Watts brother heard the noise and rushed topside. By this time, Hicks had found an ax, and when the boy climbed onto the deck, Hicks decapitated him with one mighty blow. He then then rushed down to the cabin and confronted Captain Burr, who had just awakened from a deep sleep. The Captain put up a brave battle, but in the end, he too was decapitated.

Hicks then said heard rumblings from up top. He rushed to the deck and found the first Watts boy staggering around the deck. Hicks knocked him down with a heavy blow, then picked him up, carried him to the rail and tried to throw him overboard. The boy clutched at the railing, and Hicks used the ax to chop off the boys five fingers, whereby the lad toppled into the murky waters below. Hicks threw the other two bodies overboard, then rushed below and ransacked the cabin for money and valuables. When he saw the coast of Staten Island, Hicks lowered a small boat and rowed the rest of the way to land.

Hicks confession made him an instant celebrity. Hundreds of gawkers paid the prison guards small fees to see Hicks shackled in his cell. And for a few pennies more, they were allowed to speak with Hicks himself. Among Hicks’ visitors was circus man P.T. Barnum, who offered Hicks $25, a new suit of clothes and two boxes of cigars, in exchange for a plaster cast of of Hicks’ head, which Barnum, the enterprising chap that he was, planned to display in his circus, after Hicks’ demise. Hicks agreed, but later on his way to the gallows, he complained to the warden that the suit was cheap and did not fit properly. The warden advised Hicks it was certainly too late for alterations.

On the morning of July 13, Hicks, led my Marshall Rynders and a crowd estimated at 1500 people, started a procession to the docks. Rynders and Hicks boarded the boat with several policemen and sailed for Bedloe’s Island, where a gallows had been erected 30 feet from the water. Hundred of boats had followed the doomed man and when the noose was slung around his neck, it was estimated that 10,000 people witnessed the public execution. Hicks struggled for a full three minutes before he stopped moving. He was cut down and pronounced dead. Hicks body was buried at Calvary Cemetery, but in a few days, it was stolen and sold to medical students, intent on studying the brain of a man who could commit such terrible atrocities.


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