’HEADERS HISTORY: The tale of Johnny Quelch

In the year 1704, the brigantine Charles commandeered by a piratical crew took refuge in Marblehead Harbor.

The year before, the Charles had left Boston on a privateering expedition against the French. The crew, taking advantage of the illness of their captain, Daniel Ploughman, locked him in his cabin until he died of illness and/or starvation and later threw his body overboard and elected Lt. John Quelch captain in his place.

Several weeks later, the Charles was off the coast of Brazil, and during the next three months Quelch made nine captures of Portuguese vessels.

This proclamation, issued by Lt. Gov. Povey, informed the public of the crime of piracy committed by John Quelch and his men. COURTESY PHOTO

These vessels were the property of the king of Portugal, an ally of the queen of England. From them, Quelch secured rich booty, including gold dust and silver coins taken from vessels leaving Brazil. 

When Quelch planned his descent on Portuguese shipping, he may not have known of the treaty of Methuen and alliance between Great Britain and Portugal that was signed in May of 1703.  

Upon their return to Marblehead, the men exhibited such an unusual amount of treasure that the people of Marblehead became suspicious of Capt. Quelch, his crew and the voyage that they had just completed. 

The silver coins that Quelch’s men spent in local shops and taverns were later confiscated by the authorities.

The owners of the vessel also became suspicious.

The owners of the vessel contacted the secretary of the province and the attorney-general. This was in May of 1704 following the publication of the news of the arrival of the Charles, and the attorney-general at once set out to capture Quelch and his crew. 

Lt. Gov. Povey issued a proclamation informing the public of the crime of piracy committed by John Quelch and his men, which called for their arrest and seizure of the gold and silver they stole from the Portuguese.

Within two days, the attorney-general had John Quelch and several of his crew in custody.

The rest of the men were later arrested after they had fled by boat to the Isles of Shoals.

The governor’s announced intention of a prompt trial resulted in the holding of a court of admiralty in Boston within days of the arrests.

‘Court of Admiralty for the Trial of Pirates’

On June 13, 1704, Joseph Dudley, Esq., “captain-general and governor in chief of the provinces of the Massachusetts Bay in New Hampshire and New England in America,” sat as president of the court. With him were Lt. Gov. Thomas Povey; the lieutenant governor of the province of New Hampshire, John Usher; Daniel Byfield, judge of the vice admiralty; Samuel Sewall, first judge of the province of the Massachusetts Bay; Jahleel Brenton, Esq., collector of her majesty’s customs in New England; her majesty’s council in the province of the Massachusetts Bay, 12 in number; and Isaac Addington, Esq., the secretary of the province.

Fifteen of Quelch’s men pleaded not guilty, and three pleaded guilty.  

John Quelch pleaded not guilty. 

In the end, seven men were found guilty of the charges of piracy and murder, including John Quelch. They were sentenced to death. 

On June 30, 1704, Quelch and his men were taken to the gallows for execution. 

Final words of John Quelch

Quelch’s final words were, “I am not afraid of death, I am not afraid of the gallows, but I am afraid of what follows; I am afraid of a great God and a judgment to come.”

He then pulled off his hat and bowed to the crowd before being hung.

Pirate booty and Isaac Newton 

All the confiscated gold and silver was weighed and turned over to the province treasurer for safekeeping. It was later sent to England as property of the British Crown. 

In March of 1705 or 1706, Sir Isaac Newton watched as his assistants lugged a large, securely nailed and corded wooden chest into his office at the Royal Mint.

Newton, having made his fame as a mathematician and astronomer, had become master of the Royal Mint in 1699. 

The father of modern physics who shaped our notions of light and motion, time and space, also dabbled in alchemy. It was from alchemy’s spurring that he developed a keenness for metallurgy. This in turn made him particularly well suited for the job of mint master. 


John Quelch and his men had stolen nearly 800 ounces (50 pounds) of gold dust and silver coins from Portuguese ships. In today’s money, it would have been worth close to $1 million!


Wallace Dana Weed of Marblehead wrote a poem about Capt. John Quelch.

“Johnny Quelch Marblehead, 1704

Off the coast of old Brazil, Johnny Quelch.

The sharks have had their fill, Johnny Quelch.

And it’s you they’ve got to thank, that the rope bound bodies sank, that have walked you are cursed plank, Johnny Quelch.

The foul deeds you’ve done, Johnny Quelch.

Lie putrid to the sun! Johnny Quelch!

For you starved your captain bold, like a rat, down in the hold, and the Black Flag did unfold! Johnny Quelch.

And you sailed for southern seas, Johnny Quelch.

Helpless merchantmen to seek, with the Black Flag at your peak and your hands with the blood a-reek, Johnny Quelch.

Do you think all honors dead, Johnny Quelch?

That you’ve dared all Marblehead, Johnny Quelch?

Do you think us all so meek?, Johnny Quelch?

Do you think us all women weak?

Now we’ve got you by the wool! Johnny Quelch!

That our streets you boldly seek? Johnny Quelch? Now we’ve got you by the wool! Johnny Quelch!

Oh, your sailing log is full! Johnny Quelch! Now we’re going to see that you and your blood, murdering crew, get your well-earned devil’s due, Johnny Quelch!

To the pirate still at sea, Johnny Quelch, a warning you shall be, Johnny Quelch.

you shall hang until you’re dead.

that your breed may feel a dread 

of a berth in Marblehead!”

Mark Hurwitz is a Marblehead resident.

Mark Hurwitz
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