Live

Watch CBS News

"The Last Pirate of New York": One of the most sensational murder hunts in American history

The story of "The Last Pirate of New York"
The story of "The Last Pirate of New York" 05:10

In 1860, the country was on the verge of a civil war -- and the city of New York was hunting for one of the most infamous criminals of all time.  His name was Albert Hicks, and he's been called "The Last Pirate of New York," a bridge between Blackbeard and Al Capone, when the worst of the worst transitioned from raiding ships to joining mobs.

Hicks' chilling story is detailed in a new book by Rich Cohen: "The Last Pirate of New York."  "When I first heard about Albert Hicks and his crimes, I learned about his ghost ship…" Cohen said. "And I could not get that image out of my head for years and years and years." 

Cohen has been trying to write a book about Hicks, and what he calls the craziest summer in the history of New York, for more than two decades.
 
"This is the home of the river pirates," Cohen said, "who would come out of the sewers of the city on rowboats at night, and hit the ships in the harbor, steal and kill and then disappear back into the sewers."

The story took place right before the Civil War, a time when "everyone who was an operator downtown in the slums, which are the five points, was a member of a gang." He was drawn to Hicks, he said, because he wasn't in one. "People were in gangs because they protected them. It was protection," he said. "Albert Hicks wasn't in a gang because cause he didn't need to be protected by anybody. People needed to be protected from him."

Police believe Hicks killed more than 100 people as he traveled the world from New York to California, Hawaii, Mexico, and Tahiti. He would join a ship, kill the crew, and plunder.
 
But in 1860, he returned to New York one last time. He murdered the crew of an oyster sloop, threw the bodies overboard, and tried to sink the ship, but it didn't go down. A haunting empty ghost ship was found the next day -- and one of the most sensational murder hunts in American history was on.
 
Detectives followed his trail to Providence, Rhode Island, and found Hicks with $121 and the murdered captain's belongings.
 
"He gave a very famous, colorful, unbelievable confession," Cohen said. "It's one of the strangest documents in American history."
 
Hicks said there were five people on the boat when he committed his final crimes: The three people he killed, himself, and the devil, who he said possessed him and urged him to kill. The jury took only seven minutes to convict him. The sentence was public execution at Bedloe's Island.

"They wanted him to be on high ground," Cohen said. "And they wanted him to be able to see the water, the city, and the narrows."
 
As he looked out on the island, Hicks likely saw "a carpet of ships," Cohen said. "He came onto the island surrounded by thousands, a huge howling crowd, he falls to his knees, said a prayer, and said 'make haste, hang me quick.' Those were his last words."

Tens of thousands of giddy New Yorkers watched from the harbor and the island, which is now Liberty Island – the home of the Statue of Liberty.
 
"If you wanted to write a book about America and you were a novelist … that was something you'd make up," Cohen said. "But it happens to be true, which is the fact that right underneath at the feet of the Statue of Liberty stood the gallows where the last pirate was hanged."

"It's medieval," Cohen added. "It was like something out one of those old paintings. You could come down here and travel on the ship [where] Hicks was being brought to his death. And for $1, you could travel on the same ship as him, drink all the beer you could drink, all the oysters you can eat, and watch the execution."

The government was trying to send a warning, but the barbarism of the public execution appalled even the most jaded tabloids. It became the last time New York City executed someone in this way.
 
The story of Albert Hicks can help the public "learn about what came before the New York that they know," Cohen said. "They learn about what America was like when it was still wild and lawless. And they learn how those elements that made that city go are still all around us. This is still the same New York, and that's what fascinated me. It was just like a picture earlier in the stage of development." 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.