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Maritime Image of the Day: “Execution Dock”

Two pirates hanging in high tide, illustration from A True Relation of the Lives and Deaths of the two most Famous English Pyrats, Purser and Clinton, by Thomas Heywood, 1639.

PortandTerminal.com, January 16, 2020

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – At one-time, the city of London was the largest port in the world, and as such attracted its fair share of pirates and smugglers. The punishment was harsh for those who were caught and convicted. Death by hanging at Execution Dock was the most common sentence.

Painting: The West India Docks, by Rowlandson and Pugin (1810)
At one time London was the largest port in the world. Painting: The West India Docks, by Rowlandson and Pugin (1810). National Maritime Museum, London

Execution Dock was the place on the Thames River in London that was used for more than 400 years to execute pirates, smugglers and mutineers who had been sentenced to death by the Admiralty courts.

The executions were public spectacles and would draw hundreds of people who came to watch. According to reports of the time, the streets were often lined with spectators and the river was packed full of boats, all keen to see the execution take place. 

This suited that the officials just fine – nautical justice was seen and put on display, in order to warn others of the omnipotence of the English Admiralty.

A pirate en route to his hanging at Execution Dock, London, England. Copper engraving, English, 1724.
A pirate en route to his hanging at Execution Dock, London, England. Copper engraving, English, 1724.

Pirates meeting their gruesome end on the gallows at Execution Dock were allegedly subject to an especially brutal hanging. The rope used was too short to break the neck on the drop, so the condemned would be strangled, appearing to dance as their limbs twitched as they died. 

“Their speeches (last words) completed, they were led to the gallows one by one and hanged, kicking and gagging. When the last man finished twitching, the sheriff’s deputies dragged the bodies onto the mudflats, lashed them to posts, and left them to be slowly engulfed by the incoming tide”

Colin Woodard, The Republic of Pirates – Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down

The custom was to leave the bodies lashed to posts and only remove them after they had been washed by three tides.

Drawing of Captain Kidd in a giblet at Execution Dock in London.
The gruesome death of the pirate Captain Kidd at Execution Dock

Particularly notorious pirates would be covered in tar and placed in iron cages that were hung at prominent points along the river as a warning to others. Captain William Kidd is probably the most famous pirate to meet his end this way in 1701; his gibbeted body was left in the Thames estuary for three years.

The final hangings on Execution Dock were for two men named George Davis and William Watts, both of whom were charged with piracy and met their maker on December 16, 1830.

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