The Real Story of Edward Owens

December 18th, 2008

The Last American Pirate is a hoax perpetrated by students in History 389 at George Mason University in the Fall 2008 semester. History 389 is a course called Lying About the Past taught by Professor Mills Kelly in the Department of History and Art History. You can read a copy of the syllabus of the course to learn more about both the course and the motivation behind creating the Last American Pirate website. The syllabus downloads as a .pdf file.

Jane Browning does not exist. There was a person named Edward Owens who lived in Virginia in the late 19th century, but as far as we know, he never engaged in piracy. Professor Ted McCord is a real professor at George Mason, but it’s worth remembering that his contribution to the hoax was to point out that it couldn’t be true and was almost certainly a hoax. Professor Lorraine Smith does not exist. The person in the YouTube video is a student in the course who did her best to be the most boring professor possible. The house featured in the YouTube video is a random abandoned home in Central Virginia and the cemetery used in the YouTube video is likewise a random cemetery in Northern Virginia. Neither has anything to do with pirates.

The purpose of this hoax was to spend time thinking about how easily information takes on a life of its own online, ethics in the historical profession, and the role of digital media in popular culture. Read the syllabus to see more about the learning goals for the course and the readings.

Some of the students in the class apologize in advance if you aren’t happy with us for creating this hoax. The rest of the students think it was a very good joke and you should laugh instead of being unhappy. Click on the team photo to see the class.

To find out more about Jane Browning’s search for the Last American Pirate, read on… And read the press.

Videos

December 3rd, 2008

It took me a while to get my YouTube videos uploaded. My roommate was a big help with the shooting and editing. Sorry it took me so long to get them done. My roommate is the narrator for the one at Owens’ house, because it was so windy that day that my voice disappeared in the whooshing of the wind.

Anyway, here they are:

Interview with Prof. McCord
My visit to Owens’ house
Interview with Prof. Smith

I’m Done!!

December 2nd, 2008

I’m shaking from the excessive amount of caffene I’ve had to consume the last 72 hours, but I am finished. I just handed in my final paper!! :D party!!!!!! Well maybe not exactly, but I am really excited.

This project has been a journey for me, not only as a student but as a historian. This may sound a little lame, but I am really proud of the work that I’ve done and how far I’ve come. I’ve learned a lot, not only about Edward Owens, but about the Chesapeake Bay during the late 1800’s, the shipping industry, the U.S. Navy, etc. ( I could go on forever, but I’ll spare you). I’ve also developed my researching skills. (Grad School here I come!)

As for my final paper, in the end I did not have enough to write an entire 20 page paper on Edward Owens, so I fit his story in a larger context, which was a discussion about the Chesapeake Bay during the late 1800s (it’s not as interesting as Edward Owens, so I’m not going to get into too much detail, it might bore you). I’ll post a copy of the paper, once my Professor is finished grading it, so you can read it if you are so inclined. I will also post a copy of my final bibliography.

Thanks for reading!! :)

Jane

Modern Piracy

November 20th, 2008

Well shiver me timbers…(sorry for the lame joke, couldn’t contain myself there), but in recent news there are reports of piracy off the coast of Africa. Apparently in Somalia a group of pirates has hijacked an oil tanker from Saudi Arabia. It’s all over the news!! It’s a little strange that this happens to coincide with my research of the last American pirate, but fitting nonetheless.

The news doesn’t shock me, because let’s face it, as long as there are boats to be plundered there will be pirates to do it. These guys are a bit more legit, then Edward Owens ever was, I mean let’s be real, there were no tankers filled with $110 million dollars worth of oil floating in the Chesapeake Bay in the 1880s. Not to mention, from my research I think its safe to assume Owens did not make that much money robbing small non-commercial ships. No one in his financial situation would have been able to afford the equipment necessary to pull something like that off.

The element that surprised me is the nature of the crime. Somalia is currently in a state of political upheaval and has not had a stable government in over two decades. The lack of stability has driven the people to turn to crime, and other methods just to survive.

If you haven’t read about it, you should. Here’s some articles to take a look at:

This one is from the Washington Post and explains the situation in more detail…

And this one was the first one that popped up on google…

Success!!

November 19th, 2008

I am happy to announce that my wikipedia entry made it through the night and the first major round of editting. Whew!! I almost had a stroke while I was doing it last night, I thought it would never make it through. In fact I probably would have cried if it didn’t make it. But alas! Edward Owens is officially an entry on Wikipedia!! :) :)

Wikipedia Entry

November 18th, 2008

As part of the requirement for the class, we have to write an entry for Wikipeidia. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. It’s a nightmare, if you don’t have enough sources then it gets like wiped out in the first hour by the bots. Hopefully it’s still there tomorrow.

Some Help from the Experts

November 16th, 2008

By the advice of my Professor, I have been contacting experts on various experts who could offer information and advice on the topic of my paper.

I managed to track down an underwater archeologist who does some part time work for the Archeological Society of Virginia in the area where Owens lived. I asked him what the Society new of Edward Owens but he said he hasn’t heard anything more then rumors and stories. I asked him about if it would be even possible for a pirate to operate on the Chesapeake and amazingly he said that its very likely something like that could happen.

After some research I had discovered that many of the ships operating on the bay were run on steam which would have made it difficult for a pirate with limited financial means. However, he was able to offer some information about the kind of boat Owens likely would have had — a bugeye (who made up that name?). He said it was a small sailing ship that was very common on the Bay at this time. They were used mostly by oystermen and under the right conditions could outrun a steamship, so it seems very reasonable that this would be the kind of ship Owens would use. Lastly he told me to be careful about disclosing locations, because treasure hunters are notorious for disturbing wrecks looking for treasure.

I also asked him about the guns that were used during that time period. After I gave him the description of the gun that had been described in the newspaper articles that I found, he said it was very common for ships to have a gun like that to use for duck hunting on the Bay. He showed me a video of it being fired and my jaw dropped to the floor. This thing just doesn’t hunt ducks, it vaporizes them. Their wouldn’t be anything left of a duck after you fired it, that alone could be very useful and successful in persuading potential victims. He told me that these “punt guns” (another strange name) could certainly blow a hole in the side of a wooden ship if fired from close range.

Here’s the you tube clip:

punt gun

punt gun 2

Enjoy :)

Last Will and Testament of Edward Owens

November 12th, 2008

As promised I uploaded the picture of the Last Will and Testament, unfortunately, my digital camera is kind of old so the quality is not that good. I do have one fragment that’s really clear so you can look at what the handwriting was like.

Here is my transcription of the section of the will that pertains to Edward Owens exploits on the Chesapeake. Since I was unable to take it with me, I had to make notes. Here is the most important part:

My Dear Family,

[…]

Though you have known me all my life as a simple man, in this, my final will and testament, I must confess to a darker path that I took when I was just a young man. You may have heard rumor of that path through our Community’s long fascination with the Chesapeake Bay Pirate.

I was the pirate that they speak of- though I must admit that most of the stories are fanciful, with no basis in fact. It happened in the 1870s. After my fortune took a turn and I had lost my job during the market crash, I turned to that way of life that I am not proud of. With a small cache of guns, I robbed several ships on the Chesapeake Bay over the years with the help of a few men that I have remained close to until this day. Though I robbed only when I needed the income, the guilt from these actions haunts me even now.

I want to assure you that I did not hurt or murder anyone. I only threatened. However, I know this small assurance cannot erase the crimes I have committed. I was never caught nor punished by the authorities. I left the life after my prospects picked up and met my dear Elizabeth shortly after I began working again. Since that time, I have tried to live an upright and moral life.

[…]

There is no money left from my former exploits- I blended what I had with my own fortunes and spent it for the good of my family within a decade. The House my children grew up in was bought with these illicit proceeds. But, to my youngest son, I leave, upon my death, any land for them to occupy and use and enjoy, and appropriate to his own use any portion of the cleared and uncleared Land which is not already in possession of the Church.

[…]

Relatives- please try to refrain from judging me for my sordid past. I have done my best to repay my debt to society without turning myself in- by living well and making restitution to God through donations to the Church over the years. As an old man now, I ask that you help me continue to keep this secret, in order to uphold our family’s reputation in the community.

[…]

Yours,

Edward Owens

And here are some images of the will…

Meeting George

November 11th, 2008

While I hate to admit it, I was scared for absolutely no reason. But I am happy that I managed to sucker my boyfriend along for the ride. I was really curious to see if this guy actually had proof that he was related to Edward Owens. I mean I was convinced he was just some whack job who had it out for me, but deep down I was hoping that it actually came to something. Of course he gave me his information over the phone, but many people are hesitant to share their information over the internet, also I did not want to give out his name if it turned out to be a dead end. After speaking to him we decided that it would be best to refrain from using his last name. Therefore I will refer to him as George.

When I got there a man about my parents age answered the door. His sandy brown hair was streaked with gray and his big 70’s style spectacles were perched halfway down his nose has he squinted at us. He had on worn blue jeans and a blue plaid button down shirt. After I introduced myself, his face lit up and he boomed, “Well hello there, you can call me George, please do come in.” He beckoned us through the door to a small kitchen, in which the counters were littered with paper and the sink was overflowing with dishes. From the looks of it, it seemed to be a typical bachelor pad. He apologized for the mess, before saying he had been busy with work lately and had not been able to clean. Though I am still not quite sure what he does for a living.

George told us to hold on a minute before disappearing into another room. He re-entered the room with a briefcase. He sat down and opened the briefcase. From inside of it he pulled out a worn, browning document. “This,” he said, “is the last will and testament of Edward Owens.” He then proceeded to tell me the tale of his great-great-grandfather.

According to George, Owens lost his job as an oysterman, during the 1870s, (which ties into the Financial Crisis of 1873 that I wrote about earlier) and turned to piracy to support his wife and children. He had operated out of Watt’s Island after hearing about it’s past of harboring pirates. Since he targeted non-commercial ships he was never caught and was able to return to his former occupation once pirating was no longer necessary. He left behind no treasure to speak of, it was all spent on his family. Instead he left his land to his family, which was sold from the family years ago, however George let me know where I could find Owens old house.

Ashamed of his past he hid his identity as the pirate from his family by changing his name. His double life as a pirate remained a secret until his last will and testament. Suffering from guilt he decided to share his dark past with the rest of his family. Therefore, George was adament about keeping the identity of his family name a secret and asked me out of respect to refrain from mentioning his last name. Since the will was a piece of his own family history, I was unable to take it with me to get a scan of it. However, George let me take a photograph of it. I’ll upload it later along with my transcriptions so you can view it.

I’m so excited about this document because it is final proof my pirate really existed!

More than a Sketchy Phone Call??

November 6th, 2008

I am currently chock full of mixed emotions. I hadn’t gotten any feedback on the fliers that I posted around town. Despite my recent successes at the locating the letter from the Cutter Service at the National Archives, and the newspaper articles that I found, but that was the only substantial evidence I found, which is something but it would be too bold that these documents prove anything. So when I received a phone call this afternoon, I was both excited and frightened. The person on the other line was a man claiming to be the great-great-great-great grandchild of Edward Owens. Now I know that I can’t simply discriminate against him because he’s a man, but being a girl and having a mother drill all those horror stories of girls disappearing, not to mention the abundance of media coverage to back it, it starts to get under your skin. I mean that definitely was not the first thought the crossed my mind. I believe my reaction was more like, “when can we meet?!” more than “who are you? and should I believe you are telling me the truth.” But nonetheless (me being the history obsessed fool that I am) I instantly cleared my schedule to take a trip out there. After talking to him for a few minutes, I learned that he had all kind of family documents to prove it. We made plans to meet this coming weekend.

As soon as I hung up the phone I realized that it could just be some ploy to get a young woman into his house. (Clearly I’ve watched way too many lifetime movies) But better save then sorry I decided to get my boyfriend or someone else to tag along.

I am praying that this turns out to be helpful!