Treasure at the Archives

November 5th, 2008

I finally managed to make time to go to the Library of Congress and the National Archives. I went a few days ago, but have been so busy with schoolwork that I haven’t been able to update on what I found.

My original plan was to search for some documents based off the information I had gathered about the local sheriffs, in the surrounding counties. I also wanted to look into seeing if I could find out any reports of suspicious activity on the Bay, or reported crimes. Going off the newspaper articles I located at the local historical society, I narrowed the search field to around 1876, going a year before and a year after.

Unfortunately there was not much. Perhaps there was another courthouse fire, or the records are buried somewhere, or they don’t exist. A lot of local records get lost and destroyed. Whatever the reason I was unsuccessful in finding anything that helped me.

I then decided to change my focus. From my conversation with Sarah and my own research, I found out that the U.S. Coast Guard did not exist officially until 1915, but there was a Cutter Service. All its essential functions were the same, but it simply operated under another name. Therefore, I decided to go through the records for the Cutter Service. With the help of the archivist I was able to locate quite a few.

Anyway, the Cutter Service seems to have sent back an awfully short, slightly condescending letter to the sheriff of Gloucester County that stated simply that it was too busy to deal with someone as minor as the small-time pirate that the initial letter (which I was unable to locate) described.

The following is a transcription because I was unable to copy the document any other way because I forgot my camera:

“To: Sherriff Hance Lawson

We have received your notification regarding the misconduct of a vessel on the Chesapeake Bay. However, I have to inform you that it is not probable that the Department will have occasion to pursue your request.

Very Respectfully,

{Signature was illegible}

I was able to make out neither the position of the person who signed the letter nor the signature itself, but there you have it. [However, due to research I believe the document was written and signed by S. Kimball, the Chief of Revenue Marine who worked for the US Cutter Service in 1878 – but, not 100% accurate.] This is proof that someone actually did seek larger legal help for this situation and was unable to get any because the case was deemed too insignificant! This must have made our pirate feel both slighted and relieved; it was probably as a result of not being pursued harder that he was able to continue.

At the Library of Congress, one of the librarians helped me find this map of the Bay from the time I’m working on. It’s on their website, but I found the website super confusing. She was able to locate it in a snap though.

The Name Game

November 2nd, 2008

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”- Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet

We often place more importance on a name then perhaps we should. I know I have. I had placed a lot of importance on finding out the pirate’s name, but so far all it’s led me to is dead ends. I found a few potentials, but I figured the only way to be certain would be to go to the source. So I decided to get in contact with the people from Gloucester County, through some research I was able to find out that all the records would have been kept in Richmond. I am not entirely sure why the records were held in Richmond, they could have been relocated during the Civil War. However, in 1865, a huge fire, burnt down the court house in Richmond, destroying all records that were being kept there. Therefore, I am unable to locate a birth certificate, or any other records that could lead me to his family members. It’s frustrating because it once again places me at a dead end. With no records to speak of, there is no way for me to piece together his family history or the beginning of his life. I guess I am going to look for some other way to do it.

Although I struck out with the courthouse, I did find a pretty good map of the area I’m working on from around that time:

Just Shoot Me

October 31st, 2008

Another lovely aspect of this all encompassing, nightmare of a project is to make a visual. So I decided to interview a professor whose expertise is in local Virginia history. I got the opportunity to meet with Dr. McCord of George Mason University on the subject of this pirate. I asked him what he thought about it, and if he thought the story was plausible and he completely shot me down. And to top that off it was on camera. He just said, straight out, it was not possible. I was speechless, it took me a few minutes to recover from the blow before I could continue on with the interview. I was pretty bummed the rest of the day…the research I had so far was not enough to prove anything. And Dr. McCord made some very important and intelligent points that he probably would have gotten caught. I think by the end I had him doubting himself a little bit, but I am pretty sure he is convinced that it’s complete bullshit for lack of a better way to say it. Perhaps I’ll prove him wrong…and maybe I won’t, but I am still going to try.

I also decided to videotape our interview just in case he had given me something that I could really use to help me with my research so here is the interview.

Insurance Documents

October 30th, 2008

Since Owens was small-time, only robbing small, non-commercial boats, there might have been other documentation that could supplement what I already have, such as insurance documents. Perhaps he robbed recreational boats, or other fisherman. I figured it was worth checking out see if he happened to have taken jewelry, or expensive heirlooms, that the owner might have filed an insurance claim. Many people insure expensive items that they own. I might be able to cross reference them to the newspaper articles that I was able to locate. However, as it turns out most of the companies that were around in the 1870s no longer exist today. Moreover, after talking to my Uncle who deals with insurance policies, I was informed that there might not be anything on file because after the policyholders’ deaths, the papers were usually destroyed to prevent any kind of fraud. To confirm this I made some other phone calls to other places that may know something about that, including an insurance firm that had been around at least as long as Owens’ piracy, and all sources point to there being a total lack of documentation.

The Lovely Irene (A Grandma in Shining Armor…her apple pie is good too)

October 27th, 2008

I was extremely nervous to go visit Irene, I had briefly laid eyes on her the day before, but then again I don’t think my eyes will ever function properly again after a full day of looking at the microfilm. I got to her house around 10 am. It was a small, old, but well kept house set back in the woods. I was afraid she might be at church, but fortunately she answered the door right away. She was a small woman around 60 years old, with soft, short white hair and a warm smile, the kind that instantly puts you at ease. She reminded me of my own grandmother. I introduced myself, but before I finished she interrupted me with a smooth southern accent, and told me she knew exactly who I was. She remembered me from pouring over the microfilms the day before. Also, the girl who had given me her address, had called to warn her I might stop by in the morning.”I’ve been expecting you,” she said with a knowing smile.

Irene invited me in and asked me to sit down. She asked me if I wanted anything to eat, I politely  declined. She just said, “That’s nonsense,” and proceeded to being me a huge piece of apple pie and a glass of milk. “My grankids love my apple pie.” As I soon learned she had  5 of them, and they all lived in Gloucester. In fact, I learned a lot about her, an hour’s worth of information, about how she met her husband (childhood sweethearts), about her children and grandchildren, all while I shoveled pie down my throat, which I’ll have you know was delicious.

It was almost noon by the time she asked me what I came to speak to her about, even though I was convinced at this point that she already knew what I was going to ask. When I told her she just chuckled. “Yes, yes, I know all about that.” The story of the pirate was well-known to the older generations in the town, it used to be extremely popular, it was a joke among the parents to warn their kids if they did not behave then the pirate was going to come and steal their allowance. But it had gotten lost in the folds of passing generations, as people moved away from the town and new ones moved in. Over time it became less fact and more fiction as people added their own twists to the tale. Now no one is sure if it’s real or made up. And no one thought much about it to actually investigate it. Though she is still convinced it was more than just a folk tale.  She could not remember the name of the pirate off the top of her head …”That’s the problem with growing old.” She looked deep in thought as I got up to leave. I thanked her for all her hospitality. I gave her all my information and a few copies of the fliers to pass off to her friends. She said she knew “Just the people to give it too.”

Once again I had just enough information to keep me  going, but not enough to actually prove anything. When I was almost halfway back home, I got a call on my cellphone. “Edward Owens,” Irene gleefully shouted into the phone. “That’s it!” I thought I was going to die. I actually had to stop my car, because I thought I was going to crash. (A bit dramatic, but this is a month of hard work, with one dead end after another). Irene has saved my project. All is not lost!! I can finally try and find some kind of a birth certificate or a deed to a house. The other plan is to look for some kind of insurance documents, but I am not sure I’ll be able to find anything on that end.

Day Two

October 25th, 2008

Well on a positive note I made it through the night alive and I made a major breakthrough on my research. But, I have no idea how I am functioning right now…I can barely look at the screen without wanting to throw up, my eyes are in so much pain.

I woke up pretty early this morning (in fact I don’t think I slept at all, I spent most of the night reading my textbooks in attempt to knock myself out) so I was able to get to the historical society right when they opened up. (I went straight for the microfilm since I knew it would probably take hours. I don’t know if you’ve ever used one of these horrendous machines before, it’s the one with the knobs that you have to use to move the images along and after awhile your fingers start to hurt. I’ve successfully avoided it for most of my academic career, because digital copies have been available. But since I am getting to the point where I need to do some of my own fieldwork I cannot avoid it any longer.)

Though I did not mention this in great detail in my previous blog posts, from what I learned from the hostess of the restaurant I made a guess that the pirate was operating somewhere around what is now known as Gloucester, Virginia. I started looking for blurbs in either local newspapers or those of neighboring cities (Norfolk and Richmond were the two that came to mind first) reporting boat robberies on the York River and the Chesapeake Bay. I was unable to find newspapers from that area and the newspapers from Richmond yielded no results…therefore I decided to make a trip to the local historical society to see if they had any local newspapers from that time.

It took me eight, long, dreadful hours with a small break for lunch to locate these two short  articles. Unfortunately they don’t appear in any particular order at all so you have to go through all of the slides so you do not miss anything. On top of that once I found the articles, there was no way to get a copy of them, apparently the machine is broken, so I had to transcribe them by hand.

Here is what I found:

July 15th, 1876:

Earlier this morning the press received a report from the sheriff in Gloucester, Virginia that a local man had been robbed the previous night while sailing back home from Maryland. The victim, a fisherman named John Preston, was aboard his small craft on the evening of July 14th when a vessel approached from the left side of his boat. According to the sheriff’s report, Preston asked the sailors aboard the unidentified vessel if they were lost or in distress when one anonymous man threatened Preston with a large gun mounted on the deck of the other vessel.

When asked if he was hurt, Preston only replied that he was in fine condition and without injury. According to his account of the incident, it was too dark to identify the man who threatened him. Preston was instructed to stay put while two other men boarded his boat and removed all the valuables. Missing are seven dollars, Preston’s monthly earnings, a gold watch and a photo frame. The elusive men responsible for this incident have not been apprehended.

August 1, 1876

Two men were robbed last night in an attack on their ship. The two men, who have chosen not to give their names, were aboard their ship when an unidentified vessel sailed up to them, seeming to ask for help. When the innocents’ boat moved in closer, a man on the deck pointed to a large gun mounted on his deck and manned by a member of his crew. He then demanded that the two men remain on deck, while a third man was able to board the boat and rob the Innocents of all that was valuable. The robbers have not been identified or caught.

I hope that I’m on the right track here! Unfortunately I was so consumed by the microfilm that I forgot to talk to the local historian, and by the time I had finished she had already left for the day. I got her contact information, her name is Irene. I might stop by her house tomorrow before I leave for home. At first I thought that might be a little weird, but the girl at the desk actually encouraged it. (Must be a small town thing.)

And before my eyes start bleeding, I am going to go get some sleep. I am pretty sure I am not going to have trouble tonight.

My sources were: Landmark (1873), Portsmouth Star (1894).

Second Time Around

October 24th, 2008

So I finally made it back to the town, again I got caught up in a whirlwind of work. I also had to do some serious research into other aspects of my paper. This trip is sort of a last resort, and if I don’t come up with anything to help me along then I might just give up.

The first day here has been largely unsuccessful, not getting of to a great start. I got here pretty late in the afternoon because of traffic, so I cut short on time. Luckily it’s only Friday, so I have the rest of the weekend to devote. The lady that was there was nice, and fairly young, she didn’t grow up in the area, she married some guy who was in the army, who after he got injured decided to come back home to live with his parents while he got himself back on his feet. She was just working at the historical society to make some extra money. Therefore, she knew nothing about the story of the pirate. She did however tell me that the lady who was supposed to be there tomorrow had lived in the town her whole life and would probably know more about it. I left a few fliers there and decided to head back to town to hang a few around. I got some dinner and that lands me here at my laptop in the cheapest hotel I could find with wireless access (perhaps  I should be thanking the tourists for that one)…plugging away. And I am hoping that is not a cockroach I just saw scurrying under my bed…I think I’ve watched way too many horror movies Because I’m entertaining some crazy thoughts right now.

Let’s hope I’m alive tomorrow to finish the rest of my research… :(

A Different Perspective

October 22nd, 2008

After my conversation with Sarah, I decided to take another angle. I decided that maybe I should look for local Sheriffs during that time period, with the hope of locating some sort of records. Judging by the lack of real organization it will probably be difficult to locate these records…but perhaps the National Archives would have copies of them.

Anyway, with the help of librarians I was able to find some records that provided information on the sheriffs in several different Countys. Here is what I found:

-Sheriff of Somerset County, MD in 1875 – Benjamin Lankford

- Sheriff of Somerset County, MD in 1878 – Hance Lawson

- Sheriff of Accomack County, VA in 1870 to 1879 – Richard T. Ames

I am going to take a trip the National Archives to see if I can locate any documents from the Cutter Service, perhaps they responded to any complaints that may have been made.

Cops and Robbers (Virginia’s Law Enforcement in the 1870s…or lack there of)

October 17th, 2008

After having a less than pleasant individual meeting with my Professor on the status of my paper, what little hope I had left has been almost completely decimated. I have to change the focus of my paper because of the lack of substantial evidence. My Professor does not feel comfortable letting me continue in the desperate pursuit of a needle in a haystack. Therefore, I have switched to her original suggestion that I write a paper that focuses on crime in the 1970s and the structure of the legal system, in which I could still place the story of the pirate if I can find something in the next few weeks. I am going to see what I can find out next weekend, since I already planned out the trip…plus I contacted the local historical society to find out the hours and see if they have newspaper records, to which I was pleasantly surprised to find out they do.

My professor gave me the contact information for one of her graduate students from a few years ago who did her dissertation on Local Virginia crime. I sent her an e-mail after our meeting, because I realized the deadline for our first draft was rapidly approaching.

She was luckily quick to respond and was extremely helpful. According to Sarah (I’ve left off her last name for privacy reasons) local law enforcement was extremely limited at this time. In most towns it was limited to just a sheriff there was no real organization to it, mostly because it was just after the Civil War.

Sarah also had some knowledge of the US Navy. Though the US Navy was in existence, they were limited in size and were probably too busy to pay any attention to a small-time pirate operating in the bay. Moreover, if he was attacking small non-commercial ships, that were “Yankee” owned, then there would be little desire by the locals to report such actions. Historically there were many disputes between Maryland and Virginia over the waterways, yet another reason for locals in Virginia to be hesitant to report the unlawful actions of their neighbor. If it was to be reported then the branch that probably would have responded would have been the Cutter Service, which later became the US Coast Guard.

All of this information does help prove why the pirate probably could have escaped under the radar. There was a lack of law enforcement, in addition to a local community pushing for it. The story has become more plausible…if only I could find something more than word of mouth to prove it.

One dead end after another…

October 14th, 2008

After my failed trip to the town, I was really discouraged. I found out enough information to keep me going, but nothing really substantial. I have not gotten any closer to figuring out a name, and my trips to the library that last four hours at a time to look through the microfilm (I’m convinced I’m causing permanent damage to my eyes), have yielded absolutely no results. I was almost giving up all hope, when I suddenly got this idea. It’s a bit of a stretch and is probably a last call operation, but I decided to make a flier to hang around the town and surrounding areas to see if anyone can give me anymore information about this mysterious pirate. I might hand some around in the local shops.

Since I’ve been unable to find any newspaper articles up here, I am going to spend the whole in the local historical society to see if I dig anything up.

If I can’t find any substantial evidence soon, then I might to completely change my topic. I definitely think I am going to change my topic, well not completely, but my paper will be a lot less interesting.

Here’s a copy of the flier I created: