The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation

The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation

by Rich Cohen
The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation

The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation

by Rich Cohen


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Was he New York City’s last pirate . . . or its first gangster? This is the true story of the bloodthirsty underworld legend who conquered Manhattan, dock by dock—for fans of Gangs of New York and Boardwalk Empire.

“History at its best . . . I highly recommend this remarkable book.”—Douglas Preston, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Lost City of the Monkey God

Handsome and charismatic, Albert Hicks had long been known in the dive bars and gin joints of the Five Points, the most dangerous neighborhood in maritime Manhattan. For years, he operated out of the public eye, rambling from crime to crime, working on the water in ships, sleeping in the nickel-a-night flops, drinking in barrooms where rat-baiting and bear-baiting were great entertainments.

His criminal career reached its peak in 1860, when he was hired, under an alias, as a hand on an oyster sloop. His plan was to rob the ship and flee, disappearing into the teeming streets of lower Manhattan, as he’d done numerous times before, eventually finding his way back to his nearsighted Irish immigrant wife (who, like him, had been disowned by her family) and their infant son. But the plan went awry—the ship was found listing and unmanned in the foggy straits of Coney Island—and the voyage that was to enrich him instead led to his last desperate flight.

Long fascinated by gangster legends, Rich Cohen tells the story of this notorious underworld figure, from his humble origins to the wild, globe-crossing, bacchanalian crime spree that forged his ruthlessness and his reputation, to his ultimate incarnation as a demon who terrorized lower Manhattan, at a time when pirates anchored off 14th Street.

Advance praise for The Last Pirate of New York

“A remarkable work of scholarship about old New York, combined with a skillfully told, edge-of-your-seat adventure story—I could not put it down.”—Ian Frazier, author of Travels in Siberia

“With its wise and erudite storytelling, Rich Cohen’s The Last Pirate of New York takes the reader on an exciting nonfiction narrative journey that transforms a grisly nineteenth-century murder into a shrewd portent of modern life. Totally unique, totally compelling, I enjoyed every page.”—Howard Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Gangland and American Lightning

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399589928
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/04/2019
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 416,087
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Rich Cohen is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Tough Jews; Monsters; Sweet and Low; When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead (with Jerry Weintraub); The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones; and The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse. He is a co-creator of the HBO series Vinyl and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. He has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harper’s Magazine, among other publications. Cohen has won the Great Lakes Book Award, the Chicago Public Library’s 21st Century Award, and the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for outstanding coverage of music. His stories have been included in The Best American Essays and The Best American Travel Writing. Despite frequent predictions, he still lives in Connecticut.


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

July 30, 1968

Place of Birth:

Lake Forest, Illinois


B.A., Tulane University, 1990

Read an Excerpt

The Ghost Ship

The ship was spotted March 21, 1860—Wednesday, four hours before dawn—by the crew of the J. R. Mather, a schooner hauling molasses to Philadelphia. The captain of the Mather, Ben Nickerson, discovered the ship by running into it. Bang! The crew was sent reeling. Nickerson rushed to the bridge. That’s when he saw the strange sloop, a dark shape on dark water, listing as if wounded. The bowsprit—the spar that extends from the prow over the sea—had snapped off. The fore-topmast staysail, inner jib, outer jib, and flying jib had come down in a heap. Wood and rigging landed on the deck of the Mather, where Nickerson stood over it, muttering. He went to work untangling the mess. His first reaction was anger. Why had this ghost been drifting without lights in the center of the Lower Bay? But when he turned his attention to the sloop, anger gave way to dread. There was something unreal about the ship. No sound came from it, no sign of life. No glow came from the pilothouse, no sailors stood at the rail. The decks were deserted.

Nickerson called out—shouted, helloed—but nothing came back. Speaking to police a few days later, he recalled the unsettling silence. He would have investigated further had his own boat not been badly damaged. He returned for repairs to the South Street docks on the East River in Lower Manhattan instead, bringing with him the first news of the mysterious ship. That report, as well as the rigging Nickerson had carried away from the collision, fired up the rumor mill. Within hours, the story was being told in every harborside tavern.

New York was a maritime city. It was all about the waterfront, oyster sloops and ferries, steamships and cutters, channels, tidal washes, and bays. Nearly everyone below Houston Street was connected to the ocean. Terms like bowsprit did not have to be defined; nor did forecastle, rigging, or captain’s daughter. Everyone knew the bowsprit was the spar that extended over the sea, that the forecastle was the ship’s upper deck before the mast, that the rigging was the system of ropes that controlled the sails, that a captain’s daughter was the whip that officers used to discipline unruly sailors, as in, “All right, boys, give him the captain’s daughter.” In that New York, an abandoned sloop, without crew or direction, a phantom nearly within sight of the downtown docks yet lost in a watery delirium, stood for breakdown and chaos.

The crew of the Telegraph, a schooner out of New London, Connecticut, were the first to get a good look at the ghost ship. The sailors spotted it less than an hour after the collision with the J. R. Mather. The ghost was already a kind of ruin. Bowsprit busted, sails down, adrift—a thing like that is a bad omen, a portent of evil. They saw it at first light. The captain of the Telegraph recorded the location: the Lower Bay, between Brooklyn’s West Bank and Romer Shoals, an outcrop that stands between the harbor and the open sea.

The Telegraph sailed around the ghost ship, the crew calling out, looking for signs of life, then tied to it. Several men went on board to investigate. The ghost was identified by the name on its side: E. A. Johnson. It was a classic oyster sloop, a mast in the middle, a main sail and smaller sails in front and in back. The crew of the Telegraph walked the deck, then went down the ladder to the cabin, bewildered by everything they saw. Ax marks in the ceiling and floor, drawers pulled out, locks smashed, trails of blood and pools of blood that ran in rivulets when the ship pitched. An oyster sloop was typically crewed by four to six, yet no bodies could be found. “Her deck appeared to have been washed in human blood,” the captain of the Telegraph said later.

The yawl, the wood rowboat that served as life raft and dinghy on every sloop, was missing. Here were the braces and here were the chains, but the boat itself was gone.

The Telegraph tried to tow the E. A. Johnson back to the city, but it was too heavy, and the sea was too rough. The captain called for help. Dozens of tugboats worked in the harbor, clearing wrecks, shepherding traffic. The Ceres, commanded by Captain Stevens, sat as low as the tugboat in the children’s story, red and gold, funnel and smokestack, pilothouse topped by a huge American flag—thirty-three stars. Captain Stevens boarded the ghost, walked the decks, and saw the signs of the slaughter, then shook off whatever unease he might be feeling and got to work. After securing the sloop with ropes and chains, he pushed it through the Narrows and Upper Bay, which was among the deepest, most protected natural harbors in the world. The E. A. Johnson drew attention from every onlooker—a battered craft, broken and bleeding, touched by disaster.

Trinity Church was the tallest building in Manhattan. Its spire could be seen before anything else, rising out of the sea. Then the harbor islands, the clanging buoys, and the seagull-covered rocks. Then Manhattan, with its warehouses and exchanges, wooden tenements and narrow streets. 

The Ceres left the E. A. Johnson at a pier beside the Fulton Fish Market, where the morning rush had given way to a sleepy afternoon. The warehouses were built on piers over the East River, brackish, trash-filled water sloshing around the posts. The market had opened in 1822 and would stay in that location—between Fulton and Beekman streets on the East River—until 2005, making it, for many years, the longest continuously operating shopping center in the United States. Sloops and draggers unloaded their catch through the night, and trading began at dawn. The stalls were heaped high with shellfish and finfish, many still alive, gasping through bloodied gills. The sky above the market was awash in seagulls, screaming and turning great circles. 

Crowds soon assembled to look at the ghost ship: cold-faced men in hats, street urchins, sailors, and clerks. They’d heard the rumors via the lightning-fast word-of-mouth network that carries news around all seaports.

The story made the late editions of the newspapers. By the next morning, it was the topic of every conversation.

The police went to work as soon as the sloop was anchored. Captain Hart Weed and an officer named Washbourne walked over to the Fulton Fish Market from the second precinct station house at 49 Beekman. They examined the wreckage on the Telegraph, ropes and rigging—it was docked nearby—then went aboard the E. A. Johnson. Then came the coroner—Schirmer—who wrote everything down in a book. The cops started at the prow of the E. A. Johnson in full sight of the crowd. “The deck was besmeared with blood,” Captain Weed said later. “It appeared as if two persons had been lying on it, and one had been dragged out of the cabin; the appearance of the blood led to the inference that on deck one had lain in front of the mast, and the other amidships. . . . Forward of the mast there was some light-colored hair and blood; the blood had run on both sides of the vessel; when [we] hauled the sail up it was found to have covered up a great quantity of blood. . . . On two places there were blood outside the rail, rubbed on, as if a bleeding body with clothes on had been thrown overboard.”

The cabin was in disarray—everything smashed. The floor, according to Captain Weed, looked as if it had been “scrubbed with water; there was a pail there which looked as if there had been bloody water in it, and the rope by which the pail was dipped into the water was saturated with blood, and had hair on it; the blood and hair were near the end of the rope, which was about six feet long—long enough to dip into the water from over the vessel’s side; there was no water in the pail, but the rope was wet; I found a broom, and it had the appearance of having been used to brush the blood into the forepart of the cabin, behind the stove.”

Captain Weed discovered three holes “bored” into the floor behind the stove. These holes had been made with a hot poker—Weed called it an “augur”—found nearby. The purpose, some believed, was to fill the cabin with water and sink the ship. It seemed evidence of intent—a man meant to hide his crimes by sending the sloop to the bottom of the harbor. But blood had rushed out instead, carrying detritus that stopped up the holes and saved the E. A. Johnson.

Table of Contents

Once Upon a Time 3

The Ghost Ship 11

The Shore Line 38

The Trial 87

The Confession 133

The Execution 190

Burial and Resurrection 213

Acknowledgments 221

A Note on the Photographs 223

A Note on Sources 225

Bibliography 229

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