On May 23, 1701, Captain William Kidd was hanged after being convicted of murder and piracy during a sensational trial before the Admiralty. Although he’s gone down in history as a notorious pirate, it’s more likely Kidd was a privateer who wound up being the victim of really bad circumstances.
Kidd was born in Scotland but spent most of his life in New York, where he made many influential friends and helped build Trinity Church. By the time he was in his 40’s, he was operating as a privateer, legally attacking French colonies and ships in the Caribbean. In 1695, he was commissioned by the governor of New York to attack a handful of notorious pirates. His venture was backed by several prominent Whig lords in England.
Kidd carefully selected a crew for the venture, but many of them were pressed into service by the navy before Kidd could even leave England with his newest ship. Kidd sailed to New York shorthanded, and took on a new crew there that mostly consisted of hardened criminals and former pirates.
The expedition was a failure: Kidd was unable to find the pirates he was looking for, and at one point he’s said to have attacked a convoy that was off-limits, which was, in itself, an act of piracy. Some of his crew deserted, and the rest kept threatening mutiny. The rebellious crew started attacking other ships on their own, while Kidd was otherwise occupied, and many of the more outrageous acts Kidd was later accused of were actually committed by the crewmen.
In 1698, Kidd captured an Armenian ship carrying a very rich cargo of silks, gold, and silver. The captain of the ship was an Englishman, sailing under the protection of the French crown. When Kidd realized the captain was English, he tried to give the booty back and let the ship go, but the crew protested, and he was afraid of what might happen if he angered them, so he kept the prize. When news of this reached England, Kidd was declared a pirate.
Kidd learned of his new wanted status before he made it back to New York. He ditched his ship and sailed home in a sloop, hoping to return unnoticed. Unfortunately, one of his investors, hoping to avoid suspicion of abetting piracy himself, lured Kidd out and had him arrested in July 1699. After more than a year in prison, he was sent to England and questioned before Parliament. The newly installed Tory ministry was hoping to use Kidd’s testimony to discredit the Tories who had once backed him, but Kidd refused or was unable to play along and they didn’t get what they wanted from him. He was made to stand trial before the High Court of Admiralty on one charge of murder and five charges of piracy. He was found guilty and hanged at Execution Dock in Wapping, London. His body was left to hang for 20 years, as a warning to future would-be pirates.