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8. HE SAWED OFF A LEG OF ONE OF HIS MEN BUT THEY PICKLED HIS HEAD

Yarmouth Vanguard, February 21, 1989


John Phillips was an Englishman, a carpenter by trade. In the Summer of 1723, he hired himself as a shipwright in a vessel ready to sail to Newfoundland. On its way, the ship was captured by the “Good Fortune”. Seeing that he could not lick his captors, he decided to join them and become a pirate. This is when he started the most extraordinary adventures of his life, which led him to his death within eight months.


The first encounter in which he took part was one of the most detestable ever told of pirates. On their way they came across a ship from Cork, Ireland, on its way to the West Indies. Among the passengers there was a poor woman, whom they started to molest. A colonel by the name of Doyly tried to save her, but all he got out of it were kicks, bruises and cuts. The demons finally threw the poor creature overboard. An author remarks that this is incredible, especially as all the known “Articles” of pirate ships expressly forbid attacks on women under the penalty of death.


Before long, dissensions arose among the crew. Some wanted to petition the King for a pardon and others wished to continue to sail under the “black flag”, the emblem of the pirates. Finally they reached Tobago (Trinidad) from where they sent a petition to England. All the names were signed in a circle to avoid the appearance of any one having signed first and thereby be thought the leader of the gang. This petition was sent home by a merchant ship bound to England from Jamaica and in her went a number of the company who felt certain of a pardon; among them was John Phillips.


While visiting some friends, Phillips learned that some of the crew had been put to prison. Losing no time, he shipped in a vessel on its way to Newfoundland. When the ship reached Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, he promptly deserted, and persuaded a number of men to join him in seizing a schooner from Boston, which lay at anchor in the harbour. The night of Aug. 29, 1723, Phillips and four other pirates sailed out of the harbour with their prize. They renamed the schooner the “Revenge”, and John Phillips was made captain. And the race was on. But before doing anything else, like “good pirates” they had to write down the “Articles” to which every pirate had to comply under oath. Having no Bibles, they swore with their hand on an axe.


From that time till early in October, from the harbours of Newfoundland to the waters of Barbados, they seized no less than ten vessels of different sizes. And the list goes on, some of the captives becoming reconciled to the life of a pirate, others kept prisoners or thrown overboard.


Captain Phillips, thinking that he could get recruits for his piracy, thought of the pirates who had been left at Tobago, when they signed that petition asking to be pardoned. Of the six or eight persons who had been left there, he found only one, who told him that the others had been taken to Antigua, another small island 500 miles north, and hanged. This was bad news. This was not the place to be.


Captain Phillips hurried north, some 50 leagues from Long Island (New York) where at the beginning of February (1724), he captured a scow. He sent four of his men to navigate the captured scow alongside the “Revenge”, on their way south. But what happened is that these four men attempted to get away from the “Revenge” and from their own party. A brisk exchange of shots followed when one William Phillips (no relation known with John) was badly wounded in his left leg, one was killed and the other two others surrendered.


William Phillips’ leg had to be amputated. But there was no surgeon on board either of the vessels. And nobody wanted to perform the “operation”. So finally, Captain John, carpenter by trade, pirate by choice, became surgeon by necessity. He got from his chest his largest saw, took the injured leg under his arm, and went to work as if he were cutting a piece of timber, till finally the leg was separated from the body. Then he heated his axe red hot and cauterized the wound. The man had been saved.


And the seizures kept on, up to the time the “Revenge” approached the coast of what is now Yarmouth county and that of Cape Sable. It was here, on our shores, it seems, that Captain John Phillips was to meet his fate. At the end of March he had tangled with a captain of one of his prizes, who managed to strike him over the head with a handspike, making a dangerous wound. Phillips was able to draw his sword and wound his aggressor, while other pirates “cut him to pieces,” it is said. But this carpenter, turned sea-wolf and pirate, managed to escape with the “Revenge”, when a vessel from Cape Ann, Mass. gave him a chase. Phillips was at the end of his rope. Dragged aboard his own vessel, the “Revenge”, and made to dance about the deck until he could hardly stand. April 17th, Phillips was dead. Of the men who had sailed with him from Newfoundland less than eight months before, all had met a violent death except one. It is said that in seven months and a half, up to the middle of April 1724, Phillips had captured 34 vessels.


This one, who had escaped death so far, and all the others still alive that Captain Phillips had picked up here and there, were brought to a speedy trial by the Court of Admiralty in Boston. During the trial, Captain John Phillips was there, at least his head was there. Those who had taken the pirates to Boston to be judged, to prove that they had done away with the leader of the gang, had cut off his head and pickled it to keep it fresh to show the Court. They were all hanged June 2, 1724, on Bird Island, now integrated into Logan Airport, East Boston.


According to the Massachusetts Archives, where most of this story is told, the trial cost the people of the Province of Massachusetts Bay over 36 pounds.


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