We've met today’s pirate before as he was filtered through the imagination of Charles Ellms in The Pirates’ Own Book. But the story of Edward “Ned” Low is shocking without any of Ellms’ usual embellishments, for Ned was the kind of pirate that actually reveled in the tortures that most other pirates only wanted their foes to think they enjoyed. Ned, much like the buccaneer Francois L’Olonais, was a dyed-in-the-wool sadist.
Born in England some time in the last decade of the 17th century Low, whose last name is also spelled Lowe or Loe in some documents, grew up wild. He was most probably an abused child (his father appears to have been a hopeless drunk who regularly beat Ned’s mother) and Ned spent much of his youth on the streets leading a gang of boys in petty thefts and apparent animal torture. He did time in a work house in Devon before stowing away with his brother on a merchant ship bound for Boston. Discovered at sea, the young men were put to work and Ned got a taste of the seafaring life.
Once in the New World, Low seems to have made an honest attempt at a respectable life. He opened a store near the Boston wharves, married and fathered children. A summer epidemic, possibly cholera or yellow fever, took the life of his wife and young son and Low seems to have lost it at this point. He left his remaining offspring, a daughter, with her maternal grandparents and went to sea. There was never a time when Low would try to be “respectable” again.
Low began his new livelihood with the logwood gangs in the Gulf of Honduras. The logwood trade was booming, with French and British colonies buying up the wood for houses and shipbuilding, but all the wood cut in the Darien gap was harvested illegally. The men who worked the trade were hanged if caught by the Spanish. Low immediately became a thorn in his Captain’s side, eventually shooting at the man in the middle of an argument. Missing the Captain and killing a mate, Low stole the boat he was in and he and ten compatriots turned to piracy.
Some time in 1721, Low met George Lowther, a successful pirate, in the Cayman Islands. While their men hunted turtles, the two Captains decided to join forces. Lowther was a sadist as well, and Low learned a thing or two about extracting information such as the whereabouts of hidden loot, from captured crewmen. Lowther was known for his chosen torture: forcing splinters of wood soaked in oil under the finger- or toenails of a prisoner and setting them on fire. If the prisoner spoke up about his money or jewels or the ship’s strongbox, the splinters would be extinguished. Otherwise the under side of each nail would slowly be burned away.
Lowther and Low went their separate ways in 1722 after capturing some fifteen vessels together. Low then turned to the tactic he would use for the rest of his brief but bloody pirating career. He would sail into an unsuspecting port, now with a small flotilla of his ships in tow, and attack merchants or whalers at anchor. Frequently the ships were not fully manned so resistance was rarely an option. Crews that did put up a fight would be killed to a man and their ship commandeered for Low’s piratical fleet. It was in these raids that Low became creative and branched out from his mentor’s torture techniques. Many unfortunate sailors, and in particular Portuguese sailors whom Low hated for some unknown reason, from Maine territory to Panama were treated to Ned Low’s horrific imagination.
One Lieutenant who refused to reveal the location of money aboard ship had his abdomen ripped open, his intestine nailed to the main mast and was beaten into walking around the mast until his guts encircled it like a gory wreath. He died without revealing his secret and Low chopped up his body and threw it into the sea. A Captain, of Portuguese descent, who thought to stand up to Low threw a purse of gold coins overboard in front of the pirate. Low came unglued, had the man tied to his ship’s mast and then sliced the Captain’s lips off with his cutlass. Low had the lips cooked while the Captain watched and then force-fed them to the helpless man. He followed this atrocity with the systematic disembowelment of the entire merchant crew, saving the suffering Captain for last. Low was also known to scoop a Portuguese man-of-war, those nasty multiple-creature jelly fish, out of the water with his cutlass and apply the stingers to the naked genitals of a subdued captive. After capturing a whaler off Newfoundland, Low had her Captain’s ears sliced off, roasted with red pepper and salt, and fed to his unfortunate victim.
After abandoning one of his own ships and her crew to a British warship in June of 1723, resentment began to build among Low’s men. He was now taking his anger out not only on prisoners but on his followers as well. The situation came to a head when Low got into an altercation with the quartermaster aboard his flagship, Fortune. The man would not pay off a gambling debt according to Low and one night while the quartermaster slept, Low cut his head off. His crew, now in reasonable fear for their lives, mutinied and set their Captain adrift in one of the ship’s boats along with two loyal mates. The boat was picked up by a French merchant out of Martinique but one of the crewmen, who had escaped Low’s cruelties, recognized and identified him. On docking in their home port the merchant vessel’s Captain turned Low and his men over to the authorities and he was hanged within a week in February of 1724.
After taking well over a hundred ships and countless human lives, the pirate Ned Low’s horrible reign of terror was over at the end of a rope.
Header: Edward Low’s red skeleton flag