Author Rich Cohen’s father told him unusual bedtime stories: gangster tales. He opens his account of a murderous New York pirate by explaining his fascination with this subject, then allowing the story to take over in this concise account of a specific man, event, and moment in time. He wanted to “track down and name and chronicle the very first New York gangster, the man behind all the other legends.”
He traced threads of legendary gangsters, discovering how they related to the city’s layers of history, and what pinpointing “the bedrock beneath the underworld” could reveal. “You might come to understand the alchemical process that turns psychopaths into folk heroes. You might even unlock something fundamental about New York.” That becomes a theme: what incredible incidents took place on these same– but very different– streets and waterways, buried beneath intervening time. Cohen illustrates what downtown Manhattan, the gritty Five Points, and coastal Brooklyn looked and felt like in the mid-19th century: “On Water Street, you walked beneath the bowsprits of dozens of foreign ships, an artificial forest so thick it made a kind of canopy.”
After setting the scene of Manhattan’s bustling maritime business in 1860, the oyster sloop E.A. Johnson comes into view. The captain of the Telegraph, whose crew first boarded the drifting ghost ship, describes its deck as appear[ing] to have been washed in human blood.” Cohen narrates the gruesome murders of the ship’s three crew members, the captain and two sailors, then steps back to examine why this story captivated.
They stood out from the bulk of the city’s crime victims (the homicide rate was four times today’s!) not only for the horrific scene and haunting imagery of an eerie, unmanned ship, but because they were too relatable for the public not to be terrified. Crime was mostly centered around the Five Points slums, immigrant grievances and “gangsters killing gangsters” that police easily ignored. But these were sailors from Islip, important figures in a maritime city. “It could have been anyone. When it could have been anyone, it is everyone,” Cohen observes. In that sense, little changes.
Merchants, bartenders, and stage performers, bankers, cops, and criminals—especially criminals: everyone lived off the sailors who pumped through the city like blood.
As a history and as a narrative, it’s masterful. Cohen manages to incorporate context and atmosphere without distracting tangents. Every element or side story has its purpose. His writing is phenomenal — instead of allowing lazy, easy observations or cliches to underscore points, he employs often-poetic, image-laden language. Like when describing the near-demonic charisma of Albert Hicks, the titular killer and antihero: “He put his arm around the town and pulled its people close.”
Hicks kept reappearing in research, depicted as either pure evil or Robin Hood-figure, fighting being “shanghaied”: when men were drugged, carried onboard ships and upon awakening, forced to “work or swim.” The truth had to be in there somewhere, waiting to be pieced together.
Cohen manages well with the unknown, identifying where assumptions are made and which ones hold water. It’s conscientious history writing, carefully interpreting what’s been mislaid with time. He describes the “Sloop Murders” as being as big a crime story as Al Capone or O.J. Simpson in its day. The fledgling New York Times, less than a decade old when the crime occurred, was the paper that latched on and was first to get the story right.
And he reminds how difficult crime-solving was if an offender wasn’t caught red-handed. Forensics was next to nonexistent, never mind DNA or evidence collection. So tracking Hicks down reads like an old-fashioned detective yarn, leading to his eventual confession and explanation. Even the trial, often the dullest part in true crime, is rendered fascinating by the spectacle and significance.
When you think it’s over, the floodgates open instead: Hicks launched into a litany of other crimes he’d committed. He had a “devil made me do it” story for the Sloop Murders, but the rest of his story is more fantastical. Destined for execution, perhaps concerned for his conscience and definitely concerned about money for the wife and child he’d leave behind, he sold his lengthy confession to a publisher. I was suspicious of how much we could readily accept as truth, especially since Cohen simply laid it out as it was told, but in his thoroughness he follows up on what can be believed and why. Even if it’s exaggerated, it’s a telling statement from the era that created it:
More than the story of a single ruined man, it was the story of the underworld and the waterfront, oceans and tides, frontier towns and seaports, the Old West and the modern metropolis, the South Pacific and the Horn of Africa, gun smoke and gold strikes, the wildest parts of the hemisphere. It was Yankee enterprise deformed by rage, blood-soaked and shot full of holes. It was America as seen in a funhouse mirror.
Photos– old-world shots of streets and buildings– flow with the text, always my favorite. Cohen notes that they don’t illustrate this story specifically, but rather “the world as it existed in the age of Hicks. They are meant to conjure the mood of an older America… which is preserved, when it is preserved at all, in silver prints, daguerreotypes, and dreams.” He highlights where history is overlaid on the present, driving home how astonishing bits of it can be. Like that executions, including Hicks’s, the last public one in New York, took place on what’s now Liberty Island. That is, where the Statue of Liberty now stands. It’ll be hard to look at New York again without having this story in mind.
A brilliantly written tale woven from the depths of a dark, chilling underworld, revealing the complex history of a bygone era that utterly captures the imagination. 4.5/5
The Last Pirate of New York:
A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation
by Rich Cohen
published June 4, 2019 by Spiegel & Grau