About the beginning of the eighteenth century there lived in Westminster, England, a boy who very early in life made a choice of a future career. Nearly all boys have ideas upon this subject, and while some think they would like to be presidents or generals of armies, others fancy that they would prefer to be explorers of unknown countries or to keep candy shops. But it generally happens that these youthful ideas are never carried out, and that the boy who would wish to sell candy because he likes to eat it, becomes a farmer on the western prairie, where confectionery is never seen, and the would-be general determines to study for the ministry.
But Edward Low, the boy under consideration, was a different sort of a fellow. The life of a robber suited his youthful fancy, and he not only adopted it at a very early age, but he stuck to it until the end of his life. He was much stronger and bolder than the youngsters with whom he associated, and he soon became known among them as a regular land pirate. If a boy possessed anything which Ned Low desired, whether it happened to be an apple, a nut, or a farthing, the young robber gave chase to him, and treated him as a pirate treats a merchant vessel which he has boarded.
Not only did young Low resemble a pirate in his dishonest methods, but he also resembled one in his meanness and cruelty; if one of his victims was supposed by him to have hidden any of the treasures which his captor believed him to possess, Low would inflict upon him every form of punishment which the ingenuity of a bad boy could devise, in order to compel him to confess where he had concealed the half-penny, which had been given to him for holding a horse, or the ball with which he had been seen playing. In the course of time this young street pirate became a terror to all boys in that part of London in which he lived, and by beginning so early he acquired a great proficiency in dishonest and cruel practices.
It is likely that young Low inherited his knavish disposition, for one of his brothers became a very bold and ingenious thief, and invented a new kind of robbery which afterwards was popular in London. This brother grew to be a tall fellow, and it was his practice to dress himself like a porter,—one of those men who in those days carried packages and parcels about the city. On his head he poised a basket, and supporting this burden with his hands, he hurriedly made his way through the most crowded streets of London.
The basket was a heavy one, but it did not contain any ordinary goods, such as merchandise or marketing; but instead of these it held a very sharp and active boy seven years old, one of the younger members of the Low family. As the tall brother pushed rapidly here and there among the hurrying people on the sidewalks, the boy in the basket would suddenly stretch out with his wiry young arm, and snatch the hat or the wig of some man who might pass near enough for him to reach him. This done, the porter and his basket would quickly be lost in the crowd; and even if the astonished citizen, suddenly finding himself hatless and wigless, beheld the long-legged Low, he would have no reason to suppose that that industrious man with the basket on his head had anything to do with the loss of his head covering.
This new style of street robbery must have been quite profitable, for of course the boy in the basket was well instructed, and never snatched at a shabby hat or a poor looking wig. The elder Low came to have a good many imitators, and it happened in the course of time that many a worthy citizen of London wished there were some harmless way of gluing his wig to the top of his head, or that it were the custom to secure the hat by means of strings tied under the chin.
As Ned Low grew up to be a strong young fellow, he also grew discontented with the pilferings and petty plunders which were possible to him in the London streets, and so he went to sea and sailed to America. He landed in Boston, and, as it was necessary to work in order to eat,—for opportunities of a dishonest livelihood had not yet opened themselves before him,—he undertook to learn the trade of a rigger, but as he was very badly suited to any sort of steady occupation, he soon quarrelled with his master, ran away, and got on board a vessel bound for Honduras.
For a time he earned a livelihood by cutting logwood, but it was not long before he quarrelled with the captain of the vessel for whom he was working, and finally became so enraged that he tried to kill him. He did not succeed in this dastardly attempt, but as he could not commit murder he decided to do the next worst thing, and so gathering together twelve of the greatest rascals among his companions, they seized a boat, went out to the captain's schooner, which was lying near shore, and took possession of it. Then they hoisted anchor, ran up the sail, and put out to sea, leaving the captain and the men who were with him to take care of themselves the best that they could and live on logwood leaves if they could find nothing else to eat.
Now young Low was out upon the ocean in possession of a vessel and in command of twelve sturdy scoundrels, and he did not have the least trouble in the world in making up his mind what he should do next. As soon as he could manufacture a black flag from materials he found on board, he flung this ominous ensign to the breeze, and declared himself a pirate. This was the summit of his ambition, and in this new profession he had very little to learn. From a boy thief to a man pirate the way is easy enough.
The logwood schooner, of course, was not provided with the cannon, cutlasses, and pistols necessary for piratical undertakings, and therefore Low found himself in the position of a young man beginning business with a very small capital. So, in the hopes of providing himself with the necessary appliances for his work, Low sailed for one of the islands of the West Indies which was a resort for pirates, and there he had very good fortune, for he fell in with a man named Lowther who was already well established in the profession of piracy.
When Low sailed into the little port with his home-made black flag floating above him, Lowther received him with the greatest courtesy and hospitality, and shortly afterwards proposed to the newly fledged pirate to go into partnership with him. This offer was accepted, and Low was made second in command of the little fleet of two vessels, each of which was well provided with arms, ammunition, and all things necessary for robbery on the high seas.
The partnership between these two rascals did not continue very long. They took several valuable prizes, and the more booty he obtained, the higher became Low's opinion of himself, and the greater his desire for independent action. Therefore it was that when they had captured a large brigantine, Low determined that he would no longer serve under any man. He made a bargain with Lowther by which they dissolved partnership, and Low became the owner of the brigantine. In this vessel, with forty-four men as a crew, he again started out in the black flag business on his own account, and parting from his former chief officer, he sailed northward.
As Low had landed in Boston, and had lived some time in that city, he seems to have conceived a fancy for New England, which, however, was not at all reciprocated by the inhabitants of that part of the country.
Among the first feats which Low performed in New England waters was the capture of a sloop about to enter one of the ports of Rhode Island. When he had taken everything out of this vessel which he wanted, Low cut away the yards from the masts and stripped the vessel of all its sails and rigging. As his object was to get away from these waters before his presence was discovered by the people on shore, he not only made it almost impossible to sail the vessel he had despoiled, but he wounded the captain and others of the peaceful crew so that they should not be able to give information to any passing craft. Then he sailed away as rapidly as possible in the direction of the open sea. In spite, however, of all the disadvantages under which they labored, the crew of he merchant vessel managed to get into Block Island, and from there a small boat was hurriedly rowed over to Rhode Island, carrying intelligence of the bold piracy which had been committed so close to one of its ports.
When the Governor heard what had happened, he quickly sent out drummers to sound the alarm in the seaport towns and to call upon volunteers to go out and capture the pirates. So great was the resentment caused by the audacious deed of Low that a large number of volunteers hastened to offer their services to the Governor, and two vessels were fitted out with such rapidity that, although their commanders had only heard of the affair in the morning, they were ready to sail before sunset. They put on all sail and made the best speed they could, and although they really caught sight of Low's ship, the pirate vessel was a swifter craft than those in pursuit of her, and the angry sailors of Rhode Island were at last compelled to give up the chase.
The next of Low's transactions was on a wholesale scale. Rounding Cape Cod and sailing up the coast, he at last reached the vicinity of Marblehead, and there, in a harbor called in those days Port Rosemary, he found at anchor a fleet of thirteen merchant vessels. This was a grand sight, as welcome to the eye of a pirate as a great nugget of gold would be to a miner who for weary days had been washing yellow grains from the "pay dirt" which he had laboriously dug from the hard soil.
It would have been easy for Low to take his pick from these vessels quietly resting in the little harbor, for he soon perceived that none of them were armed nor were they able to protect themselves from assault, but his audacity was of an expansive kind, and he determined to capture them all. Sailing boldly into the harbor, he hoisted the dreadful black flag, and then, standing on his quarter-deck with his speaking-trumpet, he shouted to each vessel as he passed it that if it did not surrender he would board it and give no quarter to captain or crew. Of course there was nothing else for the peaceful sailors to do but to submit, and so this greedy pirate took possession of each vessel in turn and stripped it of everything of value he cared to take away.
But he did not confine himself to stealing the goods on board these merchantmen. As he preferred to command several vessels instead of one, he took possession of some of the best of the ships and compelled as many of their men as he thought he would need to enter his service. Then, as one of the captured vessels was larger and better than brigantine, he took it for his own ship, and at the head of the little pirate fleet he bid farewell to Marblehead and started out on a grand cruise against the commerce of our coast.
It is wonderful how rapidly this man Low succeeded in his business enterprises. Beginning with a little vessel with a dozen unarmed men, he found himself in a very short time at the head of what was perhaps the largest piratical force in American waters. What might have happened if Nature had not taken a hand in this game it is not difficult to imagine, for our seaboard towns, especially those of the South, would have been an easy prey to Low and his fleet.
But sailing down to the West Indies, probably in order to fit out his ships with guns, arms, and ammunition before beginning a naval campaign, his fleet was overtaken by a terrible storm, and in order to save the vessels they were obliged to throw overboard a great many of the heavier goods they had captured at Marblehead, and when at last they found shelter in the harbor of a small island, they were glad that they had escaped with their lives.
The grasping and rapacious Low was not now in a condition to proceed to any rendezvous of pirates where he might purchase the arms and supplies he needed. A great part of his valuable plunder had gone to the bottom of the sea, and he was therefore obliged to content himself with operations upon a comparatively small scale.
How small and contemptible this scale was it is scarcely possible for an ordinary civilized being to comprehend, but the soul of this ignoble pirate was capable of extraordinary baseness.
When he had repaired the damage to his ships, Low sailed out from the island, and before long he fell in with a wrecked vessel which had lost all its masts in a great storm, and was totally disabled, floating about wherever the winds chose to blow it. The poor fellows on board greatly needed succor, and there is no doubt that when they saw the approach of sails their hopes rose high, and even if they had known what sort of ships they were which were making their way toward them, they would scarcely have suspected that the commander of these goodly vessels was such an utterly despicable scoundrel as he proved to be.
Instead of giving any sort of aid to the poor shipwrecked crew, Low and his men set to work to plunder their vessel, and they took from it a thousand pounds in money, and everything of value which they could find on board. Having thus stripped the unfortunate wreck, they departed, leaving the captain and crew of the disabled vessel to perish by storm or starvation, unless some other vessel, manned by human beings and not pitiless beasts, should pass their way and save them.
Low now commenced a long series of piratical depredations. He captured many merchantmen, he committed the vilest cruelties upon his victims, and in every way proved himself to be one of the meanest and most black-hearted pirates of whom we have any account. It is not necessary to relate his various dastardly performances. They were all very much of the same order, and none of them possessed any peculiar interest; his existence is referred to in these pages because he was one of the most noted and successful pirates of his time, and also because his career indicated how entirely different was the character of the buccaneers of previous days from that of the pirates who in the eighteenth century infested our coast. The first might have been compared to bold and dashing highwaymen, who at least showed courage and daring; but the others resembled sneak thieves, always seeking to commit a crime if they could do it in safety, but never willing to risk their cowardly necks in any danger.
The buccaneers of the olden days were certainly men of the greatest bravery. They did not hesitate to attack well-armed vessels manned by crews much larger than their own, and in later periods they faced cannon and conquered cities. Their crimes were many and vile; but when they committed cruelties they did so in order to compel their prisoners to disclose their hidden treasures, and when they attacked a Spanish vessel, and murdered all on board, they had in their hearts the remembrance that the Spanish naval forces gave no quarter to buccaneers.
But pirates such as Edward Low showed not one palliating feature in their infamous characters. To rob and desert a shipwrecked crew was only one of Low's contemptible actions. It appears that he seldom attacked a vessel from which there seemed to be any probability of resistance, and we read of no notable combats or sea-fights in which he was engaged. He preyed upon the weak and defenceless, and his inhuman cruelties were practised, not for the sake of extorting gain from his victims, but simply to gratify his spite and love of wickedness.
There were men among Low's followers who looked upon him as a bold and brave leader, for he was always a blusterer and a braggart, and there were honest seamen and merchants who were very much afraid of him, but time proved that there was no reason for any one to suppose that Edward Low had a spark of courage in his composition. He was brave enough when he was attacking an unarmed crew, but when he had to deal with any vessel capable of inflicting any injury upon him he was a coward indeed.
Sailing in company with one companion vessel,—for he had discarded the greater part of his pirate fleet,—Low sighted a good-sized ship at a considerable distance, and he and his consort immediately gave chase, supposing the distant vessel might prove to be a good prize. It so happened, however, that the ship discovered by Low was an English man-of-war, the Greyhound, which was cruising along the coast looking for these very pirates, who had recently committed some outrageous crimes upon the crews of merchant vessels in those waters.
When the two ships, with the black flags floating above them and their decks crowded with desperate fellows armed with pistols and cutlasses, drew near to the vessel, of which they expected to make a prize, they were greatly amazed when she suddenly turned in her course and delivered a broadside from her heavy cannon. The pirates returned the fire, for they were well armed with cannon, and there was nothing else for them to do but fight, but the combat was an extremely short one. Low's consort was soon disabled by the fire from the man-of-war, and, as soon as he perceived this, the dastardly Low, without any regard for his companions in arms, and with no thought for anything but his own safety, immediately stopped fighting, and setting all sail, sped away from the scene of combat as swiftly as it was possible for the wind to force his vessel through the water.
The disabled pirate ship was quickly captured, and not long afterwards twenty-five of her crew were tried, convicted, and hung near Newport, Rhode Island. But the arrant Low escaped without injury, and continued his career of contemptible crime for some time longer. What finally became of him is not set down in the histories of piracy. It is not improbable that if the men under his command were not too brutally stupid to comprehend his cowardly unfaithfulness to them, they suddenly removed from this world one of the least interesting of all base beings.