Yes, I Am A Pirate


It was Thursday, May 8, 1701.  William Kidd, dressed in his finery, walked, with his back straight, into the Old Bailey courtroom in London for his trial.  He was the first man accused of piracy to ever enter the Old Bailey.

Captain Kidd

After two years of solitary confinement in Boston and then in London, Kidd faced the full onslaught of the British judiciary system.  It was a system that was bent on destroying him.  Through it all, Kidd never gave the court any admission whatsoever that he had been involved in piracy.

As Kidd had let the Admiralty board know earlier, he was never under secret orders to become a pirate. He had chased pirates until his crew mutinied.  At the trial he explained that he had confiscated several vital French passes which made his attack on the Quedagh Merchant legitimate, excusing him of piracy.  But they were nowhere to be found in his papers.  They had been confiscated.

William Kidd, the pirate hunter accused of five charges of piracy, discovered that day, for the first time, that he was accused of murdering a mutineer with a wooden bucket to the head. 

The Tories used the trial as a political opportunity to embarrass the Whig sponsors of Kidd’s pirate hunting endeavor, and the latter chose to give up Kidd as a scapegoat rather than back his possibly correct claims to legitimacy.

As actual pirate Robert Culliford walked free after changing his plea to guilty, Kidd – still pleading “not guilty” – was sentenced to be hanged by the neck.

He said, “My Lord, it is a very hard sentence. For my part, I am the innocentest person of them all, only I have been sworn against by perjured persons.” 

The rope broke when Captain William Kidd, very drunk, was first hanged. Normally, this would have meant a reprieve. But Kidd was hanged again – in one of the most outrageous miscarriages of justice of all time.  You see, some 200 years later, the French Passes that would have exonerated him were discovered in some old British Admiralty files.  They were hidden to prevent him from mounting a strong defense and proving his innocence.   William Kidd was no pirate, he was a patsy.  


The patriot/privateer, Jean Lafitte, was quoted as saying “Of course, I have buried treasure!  I will even tell you where it is.  I bury my treasure in a bank, like everyone else.”  William Kidd is, perhaps, the only supposed pirate to ever really bury money. 

Legend has it that Kidd, believing that he would be betrayed by his Whig sponsors buried several wooden barrels full of coins, jewels and bars of silver and gold, in different locations near New York City.  The alleged total was 40,000 British pounds. In 2022 US dollars that equates to approximately $10,327,896.25.  Some treasure that seems to have belonged to Kidd’s horde was discovered on Gardiner’s Island in 2015 but is worth a fraction of the total amount of alleged wealth.  So, the hunt continues.   

Aftermath- Pirates Among us

In the 16 and 1700s, Sandy Hook and Raritan Bays were ideal locations for ships to weather the intense storms that are so common in the region.  They also provided safe moorings for merchants, privateers, and pirates alike.  The residents of the area frequently traded with the privateers and pirates, forever sullying the reputation of Bayshore towns.  In fact, Lewis Morris, the governor of New Jersey, claimed that Middletown and the other Bayshore communities were inhabited by “perhaps the most ignorant and wicked [people] in the world.”

The legend of Captain Kidd and his crew resonates in folklore around Sandy Hook and Raritan Bays.  Members of his crew, on that last journey home, left the ship when given the opportunity and came ashore in the Bayshore area, settling in Middletown and Highlands.  We know this from the legends of three men: William Leeds, Moses Butterworth, both of whom settled in Middletown, and a man known simply as Cudjoe, who settled in Highlands.  

William Leeds Jr.

William Leeds Jr. was a fabulously wealthy man in 16th Century Middletown, NJ, controlling all of Leedsville in what is now Lincroft.  Some say his wealth came from street smarts, a veritable fortune in land inherited from his father, and savvy investments.  On Wednesday, January 3, 1703, William Leeds Jr., a wealthy middle-aged Middletown resident, fully drew the armor of God upon himself as he was baptized as a Christian.  Some said that the baptism was an attempt to distance himself from his association with Captain William Kidd.

Captain Kidd

Though there never was any proof, there was contemporary speculation that Leeds came by his fortune as a member of Captain Kidd’s crew.  Still, others did not believe that the Reverend William Leeds Jr. was a pirate.  However, they believed that he was in collusion with Kidd as a fence for stolen property.  Some even claimed to have seen them together in New York City.  Perhaps they did.  Kidd shrewdly married a wealthy widow and was considered one of the most prosperous residents of New York City. From 1691 to 1695, when Kidd was a respected privateer and merchant captain, so even if Leeds was seen with Kidd, there was no impropriety.  

Unfortunately, after 1701 and Kidd’s hanging, he will always be seen as a pirate and anyone that associated with him in any way, at any time, was just as guilty in the collective eyes of the community.  We will probably never know if the Reverend William Leeds, Jr. was a pirate or smuggler. 

William Leeds Jr grave

Leeds befriended Reverend George Keith, who preached at Christ Church Middletown’s first recorded service on June 17, 1702.  William Leeds was so taken by Keith and the church that he and his sister, Mary, “late converts from Quakerism,” were baptized by Keith into the Church of England at Middletown.  Later Keith and Leeds established one of the first churches in New Jersey.

William Leeds Jr. died sometime between 1735 and 1739.  An excerpt from his will read: 

“after decease of wife and brother Daniel” — all of his considerable real estate be gifted to “the Venerable and Honorable Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, for a perpetual glebe for use of a clergyman of Church of England to preach to the inhabitants of Middletown and Shrewsbury.”

On January 10, 1935, the Red Bank Register ran a reprint of an article in the New York Times.  The title read:  “Old Church Setup by Pirate legacy”.  As they say, “Talk is cheap if the story is good”.  The question remains to this day.  Was William Leeds a Pirate and part of Kidd’s crew or a fence for Kidd’s ill-gotten gains?  Or was he just a hard-working man that inherited some property and leveraged it into a fortune of his own legitimate means?  


 “ An old Negro man, named Cudjo, was murdered by an unknown person during the Spring of 1743 in the hills of the highlands of the Navesink overlooking Sandy Hook.” 

This might have been the first recorded homicide in the Bayshore area. Given that the area was sparsely populated in 1743 it is no wonder that there is very little documentation on the killing.  The story appears in Beecher’s Illustrated Magazine, volume 4, number 18 and was published July of 1871.

For decades, the people of the Highlands area watched an old man fussing around a rustic hand-hewed cabin, with a porch, high on Red Clay hill overlooking Sandy Hook Bay and what is now lower Scenic Drive.

A stone staircase meandered up the hill from the beach below, until it reached Cujo’s porch.  (Occasionally, over the centuries, after a hard, drenching rain, locals occasionally see parts of that stone staircase protruding from the muddy hillside.) He rarely left the area around the house and was constantly peering out at sea from the porch, through a worn brass spyglass.  At night, he kept a burning lantern hanging from the porch.  Every Spring and Summer, Cudjo would clear-cut the trees in front of his cabin so as to have a clear view of Sandy Hook Bay and the peninsular beyond.  It was clear that he was waiting for something.  Something that would be coming from the sea.  

The locals, all fishermen and clammers, somehow came up with the idea that old Cudjo was holding onto Captain Kidd’s lost treasure and waiting for Kidd’s people to return to get the loot to bribe the Captain’s way out of prison and the Gallows.  Wild talk.  By then, Kidd was dead by hanging for 42 years.  But talk is cheap when the story is good.  Eventually, some of them got up enough nerve to do it.

After noticing that there was no smoke coming from the chimney on Cudjo’s cabin, several townspeople decided to investigate.  They found Cudjo’s body on the floor of his cabin, his head all stove in,  Most of the floorboards had been torn out, and there were deep holes in the soil beneath.  Two of the men that came to check things out were acting quite peculiar.  But nobody paid it much mind.  Now they were convinced that Cudjo had been the caretaker of old Captain Kidd’s treasure.  

Had there really been treasure beneath those floorboards? Or, was he just an old man that kept to himself and was cut down by rumors and greed.  

Moses Butterworth

It was March of 1701.  Captain Kidd was in prison and so was Butterworth. He had been drinking last night.  He always became sullen when he drank.  He couldn’t keep his mouth shut.   Rum was a witch.  He told anyone with ears at the Tavern that he sailed with Kidd.  They even all drank toasts to the Captain.  What was he thinking?  “No drop of Rum or Beer, or both will ever pass my lips again,” He said out loud to an empty cell.  “Awwright, maybe I don’t believe that either” then he laughed.

Moses Butterworth was a real pirate.  He never, to his own detriment, denied the fact.  Like many young Englishmen in the late 18th century,  He had, more than likely, joined a crew and sailed the Indian Ocean on a quest to plunder rich Muslim and Mughal Empire merchant ships laden with silks, and jewels, gold, and silver.  How he wound up with Kidd, the Pirate Hunter is unknown.  It is likely that he was not given much of a choice.   After these young men made their fortunes, they typically came ashore in Charleston, New York or New Jersey, a state that historically looked the other way when it came to pirates.  

“Yeah, I was a pirate.  So, what?”

On March 25, 1701, Moses Butterworth came to trial in Middletown Village. When he was captured, Butterworth admitted sailing with Captain William Kidd and coming ashore when Kidd’s ship arrived in Boston.  He eventually made his way to New Jersey and Middletown Village, where he became a respected member of the community.  The admission was stunning enough to catch the interest of New Jersey Governor Andrew Hamilton, who with his entourage raced to Middletown Village to help prosecute and hang the swashbuckling Butterworth.  Moses Butterworth, for his part, seemed entirely unconcerned while languishing in his cell.  

On the day of the trial, local leader, Samuel Willet, hired a drummer to beat out a cadence in front of the courthouse.  It was loud!  Soon followed some 80 or so men, armed with clubs and farm implements.  Their intent was to attack the courthouse. The din made it impossible to examine Butterworth.  Soon the doors were breached, and a skirmish ensured.  The sheriff and his men put up a fight, wounding two brother’s attempting to free Moses.

When it was over, Moses Butterworth, in a procured carriage, sped off towards Sandy Hook Bay, and Governor Hamilton, his entourage, the sheriff and his constables were residing in Butterworth’s former cell.  The crowd held them there for four days, giving Moses, their friend, a head start. 

And run he did.  Escaping New Jersey in a long boat that he “found” on the beach, Moses Butterworth made his way to the freewheeling town of New Port, RI.  There he purchased his own ship, having obtained a charter to chase down Royal Navy deserters.  (For pay, of course.)


The Ballad of Moses Butterworth

I’m Moses Butterworth.

They say that I’m a pirate. A pirate! Ha!

…I don’t disagree.

Who says I’m a pirate?

The Governor, the Attorney General, and the Justices.

They say I fly the skull and crossbones. …Aye, and what of it?

On militia training day, the town crier in Monmouth called for me to plead to the charges of piracy. I’ll tell you, Monmouth County rose in anger! There wasn’t a man who’d serve on the jury.

“Moses Butterworth a pirate! Well, yeah… So what?”

We all go down to the courthouse, and the Governor hisself is right there, and he starts the proceedings.

But Sam Willett, the tavernkeeper, my old friend Sam, he calls for a drum and he beats it so loudly in the ears of the Governor that no one hears a word it.

The Attorney General calls for Sam’s arrest, but the bailiff didn’t move.

In fact, he yawned.

The Attorney General calls the militia! Forty armed men surrounded Sam, but they didn’t lift a finger to stop him from beating that infernal drum.

Then the Governor orders the militia to come for me, Moses Butterworth, and they surrounded me! But they were facing out, with their guns toward the Governor!

At this, the four Justices and the Attorney General, they draw their swords, they did, but the militiamen stood fast.

Then a hundred more men come running, they’d been drinking in Willett’s barroom, they heard what was going on, and they attacked the court.

They seized the Governor, the Attorney General with his damned wig and sword, and the four fat justices, the sheriff, and the court clerk. They threw ’em in the gaol, and four days later they agree to drop the pirate charges against me, Moses Butterworth, and to grant amnesty to Willett and his men.

They didn’t fear pirates in fair Monmouth County, in East Jersey, they prospered by ’em.

Yer fair state always was a friend to the pirates!

And Moses Butterworth is a pirate! Ya got a problem wit dat?



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