Thursday, February 10, 2005

Arrr, Me Hearties!

Rachel Wall, nee Schmidt, was born on a farm in Pennsylvania, just outside Carlisle, in or about the year 1760. As a teenager, Rachel is said to have disliked living in the country, & whether this is true or not the fact remains that, when afforded the opportunity to run away during a trip to Harrisburg, she took it.

To a country girl Harrisburg must have seemed quite the metropolis, though if she did indeed abandon her parents while there she presumably would have been homeless & destitute. Perhaps that is why she became a regular visitor to the city's dockyards, where, at the age of sixteen, she met George Wall — a sailor & former privateer who she soon married.

The couple left Harrisburg for Boston shortly after exchanging vows. Rachel took work as a maid once there (one source claims her employment was on Beacon Hill, which is unlikely, though not impossible, as there were few houses on the Hill at the time), while George obtained a position on a fishing schooner.

In 1781, Rachel & George began their careers as pirates, though accounts differ as to how this came about. Some claim that George's schooner began engaging in piracy & that he lured Rachel to join in on the action after one particularly successful raid. Others assert that George & a few of his fellow sailors decided one night to go into piracy themselves, using one of their schooners, & that George talked Rachel into accompanying them. Still others tell the story that George & Rachel, along with some of his buddies, got rousingly drunk one night aboard a friends boat &, on a whim, took the sea in search of easy pickings.

Regardless of the circumstances, Mr & Mrs Wall, along with their associates, began engaging in piracy in what was, at the time, a unique fashion. During normal weather the crew would engage in fishing, but following a storm or during inclimate weather they would put out a distress signal in hopes of luring a passing ship towards their location. If one happened to arrive, Rachel would to lull the aiding ship's crew into a false sense of security by standing on deck & screaming for help. Once the ship had pulled up alongside the schooner, George & his men would board it, kill the crew & steal anything of value. They would then sink the aiding ship, & blame its disappearance on that day's poor weather.

For about a year the Walls & their men terrorized the waters around the Isle of Shoals, just off the coast of New Hampshire & Maine. In that time they allegedly captured a dozen ships & murdered twice as many sailors.

Success was short-lived, however, for in September 1782 a storm battered the Walls' ship & broke the main mast. George was lost overboard, along with most of his men, which left, it is said, only Rachel alive. Somehow she was rescued & brought back to Boston, where, as a widow with a secretly criminal past, she managed to resume her employment as a maid.

Yet by then thievery was in Rachel's blood, & at night she would sneak down to the Waterfront & board docked ships, there to take whatever valuables she could secret away. For seven years she kept up this activity, apparently undetected, until one night in 1789 she accosted a woman (attempting to steal her bonnet, as one source claims), & was apprehended. She admitted to being a former pirate during the trial that ensued, though claimed she never murdered anyone (unlike her husband & his associates). Her pleas fell on deaf ears, however, & Rachel was not only found guilty but sentenced to death by hanging. Her sentence was carried out on October 8, 1789, on Boston Common, giving her the distinction — & not Bathsheba Spooner — of being the last woman in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to be executed in such a fashion.

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