Captain Death was in command of the Terrible, a ship equipped with twenty-six carriage guns, and manned with 200 sailors. On 23 December 1756, the Terrible engaged the Alexandre le Grande, a large French ship sailing from Saint-Domingue. The Alexandre le Grande was captured, but 4th Lieutenant John Death, Captain Death's brother, died in battle, and 16 other men were lost. Captain Death assigned 40 men to secure the French ship, and they made for Plymouth, England.
As the ships entered the English Channel on 27 December, they met the French Vengeance, a privateer from Saint-Malo, with 36 large cannon and 360 men. The Vengeance sailed towards the Terrible under an English ensign, but hoisted the French colours when she came near, sailing between the faster Terrible and the slower Alexandre le Grande. The French retook the Alexandre and doubled up on the Terrible, which lost her main-mast in first broadside. When the battle ended, the French commander, his second in command, and 2/3 of his company were lost. The French boarded the Terrible and found only 26 men alive, 16 of whom were severely wounded. John Withy, the 3rd Lieutenant of the Terrible and a survivor of the battle, claimed that Captain Death initially survived the battle, but was shot after he had struck the colours. His body was tossed into the sea.
The badly damaged Terrible was towed to Saint-Malo. When word of the battle reached England, funds were raised for William Death's widow, as well as the survivors. Captain Death's battles against the French were cited as examples of English courage against superior odds.
A young Thomas Paine had intended to join Captain Death's crew, but was dissuaded by his father. In his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, Paine cited Captain Death's battles in his argument that the American colonies should raise a naval fleet. An English folk ballad titled "Captain Death" was printed as early as 1783, and laments the loss of the "brave Captain Death."
- Mulligan, Hercules (15 June 2007). "John Jay: The Forgotten Federalist". Retrieved 11 July 2010.
- Smollett, 201
- The Gentleman's and London magazine. 1757. p. 490.
- Long, 44
- Long, 45
- Long, 46
- The Gentleman's and London magazine. 1757. p. 491.
- Smollett, 202
- Vickers, Vikki J. (2006). My pen and my soul have ever gone together: Thomas Paine and the American Revolution. Routledge. p. 51. ISBN 978-0-415-97652-7.
- Katz, Jon. The Age of Paine Wired Digital, Inc.
- Wells, Steven. Bring the Paine! 8 February 2006, Philadelphia Weekly
- See Wikisource document Common Sense
- Kidson, Frank (2008). Traditional Tunes - A Collection of Ballad Airs. Read Books. pp. 104–106. ISBN 978-1-4437-7290-7.
- Long, William H. (1899). Naval yarns of sea fights and wrecks, pirates and privateers from 1616-1831: as told by men of wars' men. F. P. Harper.