Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Lady Pirates: Simply Getting By

Hard times breed hard people and Colonial America was no picnic for most of the citizens living up and down the Atlantic coast. Many were so poor that they had turned to crime in the “old country”, usually Scotland or Ireland, and were shipped off to a life of indentured servitude (read: slavery) in the colonies. Others found themselves in such dire straights that they would sell themselves into indenture for passage to the New World and a shot at a better life. For an excellent commentary on the system of British Colonial indenture, see this article from History.org which also provides the picture at the header.

It was out of the practice of indenture and it’s aftermath that today’s lady came. Rachel Wall was probably born in the late 1760’s to an unwed mother in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Rachel’s mother’s name is lost to history but she was almost assuredly the child of indentured servants and herself a housemaid. Rachel followed suit at a young age, going into service in a household somewhere in or around the Boston area by 1780.

Service in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was not the living wage job that it would become in the Victorian era. The work was just as hard, but the pay was abysmal and most “girls” took up other occupations as well. Theft was one. So was prostitution and Rachel took to both like the proverbial fish to water. She seems to have had a soft spot for sailors and by 1782 she was married to a fisherman and client named George Wall. The other thing Rachel had a soft spot for was rum and she and George got drunk at every opportunity. In fact it appears that she either left her job in favor of the booze or was fired because of it.

George had friends who joined him and his wife in their days long drinking bouts. These men claimed to have been aboard privateers during the Revolution but their inclinations certainly leaned more toward piracy. During one particularly rollicking binge, George and Rachel were talked into leaving land and the fishing trade and turning freebooter. They even had an ingenious idea to incorporate Rachel into the process. But where to get a ship?

George, fortuitously, had an invalid friend whose fishing boat was not in use. Promising a share of the “catch”, George talked the friend into letting him use the boat. It is unclear whether George’s mate thought “catch” meant fish or knew of the Walls’ intentions. Regardless, the five would-be pirates cruised to the islands off the coast, known as the Shoals, and went into action. When a storm came in, they put in at a cay to beat the boat up and make it look like a drifting wreck. Then they set out to look for fishermen and merchants.

When a ship was sighted Rachel, her hair loose and her skirts torn, would stand at the rail of the boat signaling distress. If a ship took the bait, Rachel and her mates would climb aboard posing as thankful survivors then cut the throats of their hosts and take whatever wasn’t nailed down. In most cases they would then return to their own boat and sink their victim. One such outing netted upwards of $350 in hard money as well as saleable fishing gear and fish. Good times were ahead for Rachel and George.

The Walls and their privateer/pirate pals got good at their operation. They went out whenever a storm blew in and tweaked their routine according to the situation. If the ship offering assistance had too large a crew to handle directly, they simply asked that a few men come aboard them to assist with a hole below the waterline. Once the good Samaritans were below decks they were dispatched and then a friendly boarding of the prize could commence without the worry of being overwhelmed.

Eventually the little band of freebooters got cocky. In a particularly rough sea, they sighted a large fishing vessel and misjudged the winds. Pulling out of their sheltering cay, they were dismasted. Waves swept over their deck and two men, one of them George Wall, were dragged overboard and drown. When a passing ship offered assistance Rachel and the others were all too glad to take it. This time without killing those who literally rescued them.

Returned to the port of Boston, the jig was up for Rachel and her mates. They went their separate ways and Rachel returned to the life of a housemaid. It wasn’t long before she was back to her old ways though and, since the rum didn’t come free, she returned to pilfering and probably prostitution as well. Now knowing what to look for, she spent a lot of time on the docks. Here she would climb aboard unattended ships and rummage through the cabins. She claimed to head for the Captain’s quarter gallery first; evidently the most saleable items were in the bathrooms.

Probably through carelessness, drunkenness or both, Rachel Wall was caught stealing aboard ship in 1789. Though she insisted on her innocence throughout her trial, she was convicted and hanged the same year. The story goes that she confessed and repented her crimes before she died. Indeed, this is the alleged source of her story – her own confession – as written down in E.R. Snow’s Women of the Sea published in 1962.

Whether or not Rachel Wall the individual actually existed is open for debate. There can be no question, however, that women like Rachel peopled the docksides of hundreds of seafaring cities and towns. Even if all of these women didn’t actually go to sea, as some of them surely did, they turned pirate in their own way and eked out some kind of living by hook or by crook. For so many of our nameless ancestors, simply getting by had to be enough.


Undine said...

There was a Rachel Wall who was hanged in Massachusetts in 1789--contemporary newspaper accounts confirm that (although her crime was officially "highway robbery.") Last woman ever hanged in that state. (Although I agree that those "last confessions" which were such popular reading in that era are generally best interpreted as historical fiction, so who knows what her true story may have been.)

By the way, if you don't mind a comment about your "fact of the week": There's a school of thought that "The Corsair" was at least partially inspired by the 4th Earl of Bothwell (Mary Stuart's notorious third husband.) Bothwell's first wife, Jean Gordon, was an ancestor of Byron's. Personally, I find the identification rather tenuous, but as Bothwell's my all-time favorite historical rogue, I'd like to think there was some truth to it.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Undine and thanks. You're absolutely right that the documentation is there re: Rachel Wall's hanging in 1789. The back story may or may not be embelished but she was obviously considered a criminal.

I had not heard that story about "The Corsair", so thank you for that too. It makes sense, certainly, that Byron would have known of and admired Bothwell particularly given the relation. Now there's a role Errol Flynn missed out on (Bothwell I mean; not Byron)!

Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! Whether or not the Rachel Wall of this story actually existed it is still an interesting and entirely plausible story (in my humble opinon, anyway) Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I agree. Her story is very similar (at least the dockside theft part) to the stories of Thames river "pirates" from the same historical period. No doubt there were women like the Rachel Wall Snow wrote about, historically speaking.