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Rare Broadside of Dying Confession of Rachel Wall, First American Woman Pirate
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This printed broadside features a woodcut illustration of the execution on Boston Common and the text of the dying confession of Rachel Wall, the first American-born woman to become a pirate and the last woman executed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Wall and two others were publicly hanged on October 8, 1789, for the crime of highway robbery. The execution order was signed by Massachusetts Governor John Hancock (1736-1793), who thirteen years earlier as president of the Second Continental Congress had boldly signed the Declaration of Independence.

By early November 1789, “The Lives and Confessions of Rachel Wall, William Smith, and William Denoffe” were for sale throughout New England. One advertisement noted, “Neither of the above had arrived to the age of 30 years, but have been old offenders—the woman in particular. The above are not unworthy the perusal of any person—and if attended to by our rising youth, will doubtless tend to preserve their morals.”[1] Later that month, Boston printer Elijah Russell published The Prisoners Magazine, Or Malefactors Bloody Register, which contained perhaps a different version of “the life and confession of Rachel Wall, William Dunogan and William Smith.”[2]



[1]New-Hampshire Recorder and the Weekly Advertiser (Keene), November 5, 1789, 3:3.

[2]The Herald of Freedom, and the Federal Advertiser (Boston, MA), November 27, 1789, 4:1.

[PIRACY, CAPITAL PUNISHMENT]. Printed Document, Broadside, “Life, Last Words and Dying Confession of Rachel Wall,” October 7, 1789, Boston. 1 p., 13½ x 18 in.

Inventory #26299       Price: $8,500

Excerpts

I RACHEL WALL, was born in the town of Carlisle, in the state of Pennsylvania, in the year 1760, of honest and reputable parents, who were alive and in good health not long since: They gave me a good education, and instructed me in the fundamental principles of the Christian Religion, and taught me the fear of God; and if I had followed the good advice and pious counsel they often gave me, I should never have come to this untimely fate.

At another time, I think it was about the year 1788, I broke into a sloop, on board of which I was acquainted, lying at Doane’s Wharf, in this town, and finding the Captain and every hand on board asleep in the cabin and steerage, I looked round to see what I could help myself to, when I espied a silver watch hanging over the Captain’s head, which I pocketed. I also took a pair of silver buckles out of the Captain’s shoes: I likewise made free with a parcel of small change for pocket-money, to make myself merry among my evil companions and made my escape without being discovered.

Historical Background
According to court records, on March 18, 1789, in Boston, Rachel Wall assaulted Margaret Bender (1772-1844), tried to pull off her bonnet, valued at 7 shillings, and according to some accounts tried to pull out Bender’s tongue by force. Two men heard the attack and came to Bender’s rescue, one remaining with her and the other pursuing her assailant. He nabbed Wall and brought her before Bender, who said that “she appeared to be the same person.”

The trial occurred on August 25, 1789, in the Supreme Judicial Court in Boston, presided over by Chief Justice William Cushing (1732-1810). One month later, President George Washington appointed Cushing as one of the first justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices Nathaniel P. Sargent (1731-1791), David Sewall (1735-1825), Francis Dana (1743-1811), and Increase Sumner (1746-1799) of the Supreme Judicial Court joined Cushing for the trial. Sargent succeeded Cushing as chief justice, and Washington appointed Sewall to the federal district court for Maine; Sumner went on to serve three terms as governor of Massachusetts. Wall pled not guilty.[1]

Massachusetts Attorney General Robert Treat Paine (1731-1814), who had signed the Declaration of Independence, considered Wall to be a hardened criminal and noted that she had twice been convicted of “feloniously stealing.” In 1785, she was convicted of stealing from Perez Morton, and in 1788, she was convicted of stealing from the home of Lemuel Ludden. Both times, she was publicly whipped and had to work for several years for a person who paid her fine. Paine called Bender, her two rescuers, and five other witnesses to the stand. The man who apprehended Wall testified that she was the “robber-assailant” because he “saw her running away from the scene of the crime.”

Court-appointed attorneys Christopher Gore and James Hughes represented Wall and countered that she was not guilty of highway robbery because the bonnet remained on Bender’s head. At most, she was guilty of attempted robbery, which carried lesser sentences than death. A jury of twelve men found Wall guilty, and Paine sought the death penalty. The court sentenced Wall to be “taken to the Gaol of the Commonwealth from whence she came, and from thence to the place of Execution, and there be hanged by the neck until she be dead.”

On September 10, 1789, Governor John Hancock signed an order to Joseph Henderson, the sheriff of Suffolk County to execute Wall on October 8 at “the usual place of Execution” (Boston Common). Wall, Smith, and Denoffee were executed on the Boston Common on October 8, 1789.[2] They were the last executed for highway robbery in Massachusetts. Six years later, the legislature removed the crime of highway robbery by an unarmed person from the list of capital offenses.

Just over two weeks later, President George Washington rode into Boston on a white horse as part of a month-long tour of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, the New England states that had ratified the Constitution. During his four days in Boston, the new President likely passed the site of Wall’s execution on Boston Common. A Boston newspaper at the end of the nineteenth century recounted Wall’s story and deemed it “the most unaccountable execution on record in this state.”[3]

Rachel Schmidt Wall (1760-1789) was born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and left home at age 16. She met and married a fisherman named George Wall, and they traveled to Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. When he left her, she took a job as a domestic servant in Boston, but he returned and convinced her to join him as a pirate in 1781.[4] They stole the Essex and preyed on vessels off the New Hampshire coast. Posing as though the Essex were damaged, they called to passing ships for help. When the unsuspecting ship lashed to the Essex, the Walls and their crew boarded and robbed the crew. They robbed at least a dozen ships and killed at least two dozen sailors. In 1782, George Wall and several of their crew apparently drowned when their ship wrecked in a storm. Rachel Wall survived and returned to Boston, where she boarded and robbed vessels docked at the city ports. Accused of stealing a bonnet, shoes, and buckles from a seventeen-year-old young woman, Wall was arrested for highway robbery. She denied the theft but admitted to several acts of piracy. The court found her guilty, and she was executed by hanging on Boston Common on October 8, 1789.

Condition: Laid to board with showthrough of backing or adhesive; early repairs along old vertical and horizontal folds slightly obscuring some text; a few spots in text and old stains to margins.

Complete Transcript

Life, Last Words and Dying CONFESSION,

of RACHEL WALL,

Who, with William Smith and William Dunogan, were executed at Boston, on Thursday, October 8, 1789, for

HIGH-WAY ROBBERY.

BOSTON-GOAL,Wednesday Evening, October 7, 1789.

I RACHEL WALL, was born in the town of Carlisle, in the state of Pennsylvania, in the year 1760, of honest and reputable parents, who were alive and in good health not long since: They gave me a good education, and instructed me in the fundamental principles of the Christian Religion, and taught me the fear of God; and if I had followed the good advice and pious counsel they often gave me, I should never have come to this untimely fate. When I left home I had three brothers and two sisters alive and well.

            Without doubt the ever-curious Public, (but more especially those of a serious turn of mind) will be anxious to know every particular circumstance of the Life and Character of a person in my unhappy situation, but in a peculiar manner those relative to my birth and parentage

            With regard to my Parents, I have only room in this short Narrative to observe, that my father was a Farmer, who was in good circumstances when I left him. Both my parents being of the Presbyterian, or rather Congregational Persuasion, I was educated in the same way. My father was of a very serious and devout turn of mind, and always made it his constant practice to perform family-prayers in his house every morning and evening; and was very careful to call his children and family together every Sabbath-day evening, to hear the holy scriptures, and other pious books read to them; each one being obliged, after reading was over, to give an answer to such questions in the Assembly’s Catechism as were proposed to them.

            I left my parents without their consent when I was very young, and returning again was received by them, but could not be contented; therefore I tarried with them but two years, before I left them again, and have never seen them since.

            I came away with one George Wall, to whom I was lawfully married: If I had never seen him I should not have left my parents. I went with him to Philadelphia; we tarried there some time, but left that place and went to New-York, where we staid about three months.— From thence we came to Boston, where he tarried with me some time, and then went off, leaving me an entire stranger: Upon which I went to service and lived very contented, and should have remained so, had it not been for my husband; for, as soon as he came back, he enticed me to leave my service and take to bad company, from which I may date my ruin. I hope my unhappy fate will be a solemn warning to him. He went off again and left me, and where he is now I know not. As a dying person I freely forgive him, as I expect forgiveness at the bar of God, through the merits of my dear Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ, who is able to save all those that, by faith, come unto him, not refusing even the chief of sinners.

            I hope my awful and untimely fate will be a solemn warning and caution to every one, but more particularly to the youth, especially those of my own sex.

            I acknowledge myself to have been guilty of a great many crimes, such as Sabbath-breaking, stealing, lying, disobedience to parents, and almost every other sin a person could commit, except murder; and have not lived in the fear of God, nor regarded the kind admonitions and counsels of man.

            In short, the many small crimes I have committed, are too numerous to mention in this sheet, and therefore a particular narrative of them here would serve to extend a work of this kind to too great a length; which crimes I most sincerely desire to confess to Almighty God, humbly hoping forgiveness thro’ his dear Son.

            But as I could heartily wish that the innocent may not suffer with the guilty, I shall, in some degree, deviate from my first intention, by relating the particulars of some material transactions of my life, which, perhaps, may serve as a solemn warning to the living, of my sex at least; especially to those whom they may more immediately concern: They are as follow, viz.

            In one of my nocturnal excursions, when the bright goddess Venus shined conspicuous, and was the predominant Planet among the heavenly bodies, sometime in the spring of 1787, not being able to ascertain the exact time, I happened to go on board a ship, lying at the Long-Wharf, in Boston;—the Captain's name I cannot recollect, but think he was a Frenchman: On my entering the cabin, the door of which not being fastened, and finding the Captain and Mate asleep in their beds, I hunted about for plunder, and discovered, under the Captain’s head, a black silk handkerchief containing upwards of thirty pounds, in gold, crowns, and small change, on which I immediately seized the booty and decamped therewith as quick as possible; which money I spent freely in company as lewd and wicked as myself, fully proving the old adage, “Light come light go.”

            At another time, I think it was about the year 1788, I broke into a sloop, on board of which I was acquainted, lying at Doane’s Wharf, in this town, and finding the Captain and every hand on board asleep in the cabin and steerage, I looked round to see what I could help myself to, when I espied a silver watch hanging over the Captain’s head, which I pocketed. I also took a pair of silver buckles out of the Captain’s shoes: I likewise made free with a parcel of small change for pocket-money, to make myself merry among my evil companions and made my escape without being discovered.

            I would beg the patience of the public for only a few minutes, while I relate another adventure that happened in the course of my life, which, were it not for the novelty thereof, might be thought too trifling to mention in this sheet; but with a view of gratifying the curiosity of some particular friends, who have been very kind to me under sentence. I have consented to give it to the publisher for insertion, which is as follows:

            Sometime about the year 1785, my husband being confined in the Goal in this place for theft, I had a mind to try an expedient to extricate him from his imprisonment, which was to have a brick-loaf baked, in which I contrived to enclose a number of tools, such as a saw, file, &c. in order to assist him to make his escape, which was handed to him by the goaler in person, who little suspected such a trick was playing with him; however, it like to have had the desired effect the crafty contriver intended; for, by means of this stratagem, the poor culprit, Wall, had busily employed himself with the implements that his kind help-mate had in this curious manner conveyed to him, and had nearly effected his design before it was discovered.

            I do now, in the presence of God, declare Miss Dorothy Horn, a crippled person in Boston Alms-House, to be entirely innocent of the theft at Mr. Vaughn’s in Essex-Street, tho’ she suffered a long imprisonment, was set on the gallows one hour, and whipped five stripes therefor.

            As to the crime of Robbery, for which I am in a few hours to suffer an ignominious death, I am entirely innocent; to the truth of this declaration I appeal to that God before whom I must shortly appear, to give an account of every transaction of my life.

            With regard to the above Robbery, I would beg permission to relate a few particulars, which are, that I had been at work all the preceding day, and was on my way home in the evening, without design to injure any person: in my way I heard a noise in the street; what it was I knew not, until I was taken up; I never saw Miss Bendar (the person I was charged with robbing that evening) and was quite surprised when the crime was laid to my charge. The witnesses who swore against me are certainly mistaken; but as a dying person I freely forgive them.

            I return my sincere thanks to the Hon. gentlemen who were my Judges, for assigning me counsel, and to them for their kindness in pleading my cause.

            I likewise return my hearty thanks to the several Ministers of the town, who have attended me since I have been under sentence: also to a number of other kind friends, for the care they have shewn to me, both for soul and body, which gratitude obliges me to acknowledge. May God reward them all for their kindness to me.

            And now, into the hands of Almighty God I commit my soul, relying on his mercy, through the merits and mediation of my Redeemer, and die an unworthy member of the Presbyterian Church, in the 29th year of my age.

Taken from the prisoner’s mouth, a few hours before her execution, and signed by

                                                                        Rachel Wall.

JOSEPH OTIS, Deputy-Goaler.

Wm. CROMBIE, Assistant.



[1]For accounts of the trial, see Alan Rogers, “‘A Long Train of Hideous Consequences’: Boston, Capital Punishment, and the Transformation of Republicanism, 1780-1805,” in James M. O’Toole and David Quigley, eds., Boston’s Histories: Essays in Honor of Thomas H. O’Connor (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004), 23-25; John Noble, “Legislation in Regard to Highway Robbery in Massachusetts,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 19 (March 1905): 178-85.

[2]Smith and Denoffe had been convicted of the armed highway robbery of three men from whom they stole a silk handkerchief, silver shoe buckles, and a coat, among other items.

[3]The Boston Herald (MA), February 28, 1896, 10:3 ; see also Boston Evening Transcript (MA), February 4, 1905, 22:7.

[4]Some have questioned whether Rachel Wall was ever a pirate, in part because she makes no mention of piracy in this “dying confession” nor was she executed like a pirate. Amy Berkley concludes, “Every primary source from the time surrounding Rachel Wall’s execution omits any mention of the worst, most sensational crime of piracy from the list of her misdeeds.” Amy Berkley, “Pirate in a Petticoat: The Legend of Rachel Wall,” at Robert Allison, History of Boston and Beyond blog (https://robertallisonhistory.wordpress.com/2017/04/08/pirate-in-a-petticoat-the-legend-of-rachel-wall-by-amy-berkley/).


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