Albert W. Hicks

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Albert W. Hicks
Alfred Hicks.jpg
Bornc. 1820
Died(1860-07-13)July 13, 1860 (age 39-40)
Spouse(s)1 wife
Criminal penaltyDeath by hanging

Albert W. Hicks (c. 1820 – July 13, 1860), also known as William Johnson, John Hicks, and Pirate Hicks, was a triple murderer, and the last person executed for piracy in the United States (though the execution of the slaver Nathaniel Gordon in 1862 was under the terms of the Piracy Law of 1820).

Criminal career[edit]

In March 1860, Hicks, a long-time deep-water sailor, was hired as a crew member of the oyster sloop the A.E. Johnson. Hicks, while sailing south to buy oysters to be sold in New York City, attacked his shipmates Captain George H. Burr and brothers Smith and Oliver Watts with an ax, murdering them and then throwing the bodies overboard. During his escape, the ship collided with the schooner J. R. Mather.

On the night of the murder, Captain George H. Burr and Oliver Watts retired to their quarters to sleep.

Smith had night duty as lookout on the A.E. Johnson. While Hicks had control of the wheel, Smith turned his back for a moment to look out near the starboard. This is when Hicks took the opportunity to attack Smith from behind. Punching Smith repeatedly, Hicks forced him to stumble backwards. Watts nearly fell overboard, grasping the side of the ship and hanging on for dear life. Hicks then grabbed an ax used for chopping wood for the coal furnace and sliced Smith's fingers off. Smith fell into the ocean and drowned.

After hearing the commotion, Oliver Watts jumped out of bed and ran from his quarters. Finding that Hicks was alone and Smith was nowhere to be found, Watts pulled his sword and began to attack Hicks. In retaliation, Hicks then struck Watts over the head with the ax, killing him.

By now two crew members were dead but the Captain was still asleep in his quarters. Hicks decided to take complete control of the ship while he had the opportunity. He entered the Captain's room. The Captain was a very tall, strong man and the ensuing fight lasted for an hour but eventually Hicks managed to cut the Captain's throat. After killing the captain, the murderer searched his living quarters for loot.

Hicks then took all the money on board (about $500) and abandoned ship in a yawl, landing on Staten Island. When the abandoned A.E. Johnson was brought ashore, with the murder victims' blood still in evidence, Hicks’s day of reckoning neared. After being pursued by authorities through several states, he was captured in Providence, Rhode Island and found to be in possession of the watch of Captain Burr, several money bags, and a coat of Watts's containing a daguerreotype belonging to Oliver Watts.


Hicks confessed to the three murders, and also claimed to have killed 97 others in California gold camps, as well as having committed a similar act of piracy in South America. He gave his reason as "...the devil took possession of me."

"The affair occurred," said Hicks, "about half past nine or ten o'clock at night, while Captain Burr and one of the Watts boys were asleep in the cabin. I was steering at the time, and the other Watts was on the lookout at the bow. Suddenly the devil took possession of me, and I determined to murder the captain and crew that very night. Creeping forward softly I stole upon the boy at the bow, and with one blow knocked him senseless. I believe he died in a few minutes after I struck him. The noise attracted the attention of the other Watts, who jumped out of bed, and came up the companion way to see what was the matter. Just at that moment I struck him a heavy blow on the head with the axe and soon he was dead. Then I went down in search of the captain, and upon going into the cabin we immediately came in contact. Captain Burr, who was a strong, able bodied man fought hard with me for several minutes; but at last I brought him down, and he, too, was soon dead. After rifling the captain's money bags, I commenced to throw, the bodies over board. They had been dead about an hour at this time, and sank into the sea the minute I threw them over the rail.

The knife marks found on the gunwale of the sloop were not made by me. I had no occasion to make them, as the men had all been dead an hour, and could not have clung to the rail, as was supposed. I should think we were about fifty miles at sea at the time, so that it was improbable that any of the bodies will ever be recovered. While I was on board the sloop the devil was always by my side and sustained me, but while I have been locked up here he has deserted me, and I feel bad."[1]


He was executed by hanging, on Bedloe's Island, now known as Liberty Island. An estimated ten thousand people viewed the event from boats anchored in New York Bay. His last wish was to see the steamship Great Eastern, the world's largest passenger ship at the time, which was docked in New York.[2] Soon after his burial, grave robbers stole his body and sold it to medical students. For years after his death, there were unfounded rumors of his survival and escape.

In popular culture[edit]

A ballad was written about him by Henry Sherman Backus, titled Hicks the Pirate in March 1860. P. T. Barnum’s American Museum featured a wax image of Hicks. Barnum also arranged for Hicks to be hanged in a silk pirate costume, which he later charged admission to view.[3]

His name became a slang gambling phrase, meaning "Six on a pair of dice."[4]

He was portrayed as a wax figure who apparently comes to life and commits a murder, in The Twilight Zone episode "The New Exhibit".


  1. ^ "The Pirate Hicks." Archived 2006-03-13 at the Wayback Machine. "New York Herald," July 14, 1860.
  2. ^ Dugan, James. The Great Iron Ship, 1953 (regularly reprinted) ISBN 0-7509-3447-6 , pp. 70-71
  3. ^ "Velda magazine. December 1954. PDF" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-01-14. Retrieved 2007-05-02.
  4. ^ Monteleone, Vincent (2004). Criminal Slang. New York: Lawbook Exchange. ISBN 1-58477-300-6.

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