The Very Public Death of Captain Kidd

A recent article by Mike Rendell from the London Historians describes the conviction in 1701 of Captain Kidd for murder and piracy.


A visitor to Wapping on 23 May 1701 would have been intrigued by the large crowd gathering to witness the conclusion of one of the great ‘political show trials’ of the period – that of William Kidd – on five counts of piracy and one of murder.


William Kidd by James Thornhill

Early that morning a slow procession had wended its way from the Marshalsea, furiously protesting his innocence. The raucous parade crossed London Bridge from the south, and travelled through to Wapping where gallows had been set up by the low tide mark. Here, demonstrating the power and responsibility of the Admiralty Court, the gallows were sited in such a way that the pirate, once hanged, would be covered by the tide.



Previously Captain Kidd had obtained financial backing, bought a ship and obtained a Letter of Marque, signed personally by William III, entitling him to go off and hunt pirates in the area of the Red Sea.


Following an incident on his way down the Thames, half his crew were pressed into government service. This left Kidd with no choice but to pick up a new crew when he reached New York. The replacements were not ‘honest tars’ but hardened criminals and pirates.

The crew knew that they would only get paid if they were successful in capturing pirates and they were livid when Kidd appeared to want to stick rigidly to the terms of the Letter of Marque. At one point, Kidd hurled an iron-hooped bucket at one of his crew, named William Moore, striking him on the head and smashing his skull. The crew threatened mutiny unless Kidd agreed to the plunder of a captured merchant ship and he caved in.

The English authorities were outraged – plundering an innocent merchantman was in itself piracy. Kidd was captured, brought back to explain his actions before Parliament, thrown into Marshalsea prison, and then tried both for the murder of William Moore and for piracy. He was convicted and sentenced to death.

Kidd’s fate showed how piracy and politics were closely inter-twined. He was never a particularly successful plunderer of other ships, he showed weakness when faced with a recalcitrant crew, and he lacked judgment. His misdeeds were nothing like as inexcusable and illegal as those of many other pirates, but the government needed a scapegoat and Kidd was in the wrong place at the wrong time.


His name lives on and in the 1980s a pub was built on Wapping High Street, overlooking the Thames, close to where the seventeenth century pirate was executed. The Captain Kidd is has a nautical theme and retells the story of Captain Kidd and his hanging.

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