Though he is one of the most famous pirates in history, modern scholarship has questioned whether Captain Kidd should have been considered a true pirate. Apparently the English crown considered him a pirate, because he was held at Newgate Prison and then hung on this day in British history, 23 May 1701.

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A portrait of Captain William Kidd.

Early in his life, William Kidd served as an apprentice on board a ship, but before long he’d become a member of a pirate ship’s crew. Before the ship had embarked on its voyage, however, Kidd had spent time in New York where he befriended many influential socialites and politicians. Shortly after the ship sailed, its crew mutinied and Kidd became the new captain. He chose to rechristen the ship the Blessed William. As captain of that ship, Kidd was involved in several skirmishes and he oversaw the loot of the French town of Mariegalnate. Somehow, Kidd emerged from his time behind the helm as an esteemed man. The government of New York awarded him £150  for his “successful privateering” in the Caribbean. During the War of the Grand Alliance, he’d captured an enemy ship and commissioned it into service, “successful privateering” in the eyes of New York’s governor.

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A painting entitled “Captain Kidd in New York Harbor,” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

Following that contribution, in 1695 Kidd was approached by the governor of New York and asked to serve as a privateer. He obtained a new ship, the Adventure Galley, and acquired a crew in London. Under the terms of his agreement, Kidd would capture any  ships belonging to the French or to pirates, in return for funding from the Crown and the nobility. Kidd’s first voyage was a simple one from London to New York. He captured a French ship en route, but a large number of his crew were pressed into military service by a British navy captain who had taken offense to Kidd’s lack of salute. Thus, when Kidd reached New York he had to gather a large number of new crewmen, many of whom were criminals and former pirates.

From there, Kidd set off for the coast of Africa. He expected to find pirates in Madagascar, but when they reached the Cape of Good Hope it became apparent that there were no pirates to be found. The crew began to complain, some of them abandoned ship when it docked in Africa, and many of them threatened to mutiny. Kidd needed to capture enough plunder to make his voyage worthwhile and satisfy his uneasy crew, so the Adventure Galley continued on to the Indian Ocean.

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A scale model of Captain Kidd’s ship, the Adventure Galley.

It is at this point that the stories about Captain Kidd diverge. Many historians follow the traditional view that Kidd began his run of piracy while in the Indian Ocean. He is supposed to have flown false colors on several occasions and attacked the ships of local countries. He gained a reputation for acting brutally toward his own crewmen, and is thought to have killed several of his crew on separate occasions. Kidd’s fortunes took a turn for the worse when he captured the Quedagh Merchant, an Armenian ship loaded with rich wares from the East. The ship’s captain was an Englishman, and when Kidd discovered that fact, he regretted having taken the ship. Deferring to the wishes of his increasingly mutinous crew, he kept the ship anyway.

Kidd and the two ships returned to Madagascar and encountered the pirate captain Robert Culliford. Again, the story diverges here. Some claim that Kidd befriended the pirate captain, even offering him gifts and spending time on the pirate ship. Others claim that Kidd simply waited for his entire force to arrive before attacking the pirate. Regardless of the reality, Kidd’s crew had grown tired of the underachievement of their captain. With a new pirate captain in the picture, they chose to mutiny. Kidd was left with 13 crewmen and two ships. He burned his initial ship, the Adventure Galley, and returned to New York aboard his captured vessel.

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A 19th century illustration of Captain Kidd’s body hanging as a warning at Tilbury Point, Thames.

Kidd was arrested upon his arrival in New York. His reputation had fallen due to his actions in the Indian Ocean and his rumored befriending of Culliford. The governor of New York decided to send Kidd to Parliament in London, hoping that the arrest and surrender of the pirate would prevent New York from being implicated in his crimes. Once in London, Kidd became a pawn in the political game between the Whigs and the Tories. Many historians believe that Kidd should not have been sentenced to death but the politicians realized they would get no useful information from him, so they gave him to the High Court of Admiralty. He was eventually found guilty of murder (apparently the murder of one of his crewman) and was hanged on 23 May 1701. In a particularly morbid display, Kidd’s body was gibbeted for three years over the Thames River. By locking his body in a chain contraption and hanging it over the water, the government hoped to deter would-be pirates from choosing that lifestyle.

In the end, it is hard to prove that Kidd was completely innocent. His wide-spread reputation for brutality and piracy had support from the testimony of several of his remaining crewman. As is the case with many famous pirates, Captain Kidd has become the subject of legends and rumors of treasure. It is fascinating, though. Kidd knew he was wanted for piracy before he docked in New York, and it is documented that he landed in the Caribbean to deposit some treasure. That treasure was recovered by the local governor, but it is quite possible other treasure remains buried on some distant island.