Infamous Pirates > John Gow

John Gow

Chapter Decoration

Background

John Gow was a pirate born in 1698 on the northern coast of Scotland in the town of Wick. As with most people who became privateers, Gow grew up in Stromness, a renowned international port at the time. Also as with most pirates, little is known about his early life before he turned to piracy. While Gow was not necessarily a pirate of the Caribbean as he pirated mostly around Europe, he is noted in this for his one of three surviving copies of an authentic pirate code.

John Gow - John Gow

John Gow - A History of Pyrates (1725)

However Gow's story begins in August of 1724 in Amsterdam. It was there he joined a the trading ship Caroline as its second mate and gunner. After a month of traveling the ship arrived in Santa Cruz to unload a cargo of leather, wool cloth and beeswax that was headed for the Republic of Genoa. During the voyage there was a lot of discontent among the crew. Captain Oliver Ferneau was getting that suspicion as well as he prepared weapons in case the crew decided to act.

However the captains preparations were not enough and on November 3rd, 1724 Gow and the crew mutinied against the captain. Starting with the surgeon and first mate, the mutineers silently cut their throats in the middle of the night. However the surgeon survived and was able to stumble onto the deck and warn the captain. As captain Ferneau was assaulted by three crewmen he held them off until John Gow came up and shot him in the neck and threw him overboard.

John Gow - John Gow Killing the Captain

John Gow Killing the Captain - The Pirates Own Book (1837)

With the ship now under command of the pirates, Gow was elected captains and they retrofitted the ship for piracy. Gow remained the ship the Revenge and began their career as pirates around the Iberian Peninsula containing Spain and Portugal along with France.

However at this point the crew and ship were running low on supplies. Therefore Gow decided to head back to Orkney in order to restock. Calling himself an alias 'Mr. Smith', Gow pretended to be an honest merchant who was returning to his childhood home. He told everyone his ship had blown off course from Stockholm to Cadiz. Since his actions right at the end of the Golden Age of Piracy people were not to keen to interrogate people where their wealth came from.

Gow even renamed the Revenge into the George and remained in the town of Stromness for several weeks along with his crew. However before long rumors began to circulate about Gow and his crew. They were confirmed when the captain of a merchant ship recognized the ship and one of Gow's men as a pirate. Gow never even got a chance to raid the islands, as soon ten of his crew stole Gow's ship and fled into the mainland of Scotland. One of the pirates fled to Kirkwall before he gave himself up and turned Kings evidence against Gow.

John Gow - John Gow (1888 Pirates of the Spanish Main Trading Card)

John Gow - Pirates of the Spanish Main (1888)

While Gow did not get himself caught yet, the authorities were on to him and it was only a matter of time. On February 10th, 1725 Gow and his remaining crew launched an assault on the Hall of Clestrain in Orphir. This was on the opposite side of the lake from Stromness. According to statements taken on August 11th, 1729 from the Execution Dock in London:

“Nine of the gang went into the house to search for treasure, while the tenth was left to guard the door. The sight of men thus armed occasioned much terror to Mrs Honeyman and her daughter, who shrieked with dreadful apprehensions for their personal safety; but the pirates, employed in the search for plunder, had no idea of molesting the ladies. They seized the linen, plate and other valuable articles, and then walked in triumph to their boat, compelling one of the servants to play before them on the bagpipes.”

Next Gow targeted the Carrick House, owned by his old friend from school named James Fea. However en-route dangerous currents pulled the ship onto a reef near the house and forced the ship aground. On February 17th, 1725 Gow was forced to surrender to Fea and the British.

Gow will always be most famous for his pirate code that he set forth. It is one of only three remaining copies from the 18th century as most pirates burned or destroyed theirs rather than having it risked getting used in trial against them. This is the following pirate code for Jon Gow and his crew:

I. That every man shall obey his commander in all respects, as if the ship was his own, and as if he received monthly wages.

II. That no man shall give, or dispose of, the ship's provisions; but every one shall have an equal share.

III. That no man shall open, or declare to any person or persons, who they are, or what designs they are upon; and any persons so offending shall be punished with immediate death.

IV. That no man shall go on shore till the ship is off the ground, and in readiness to put to sea.

V. That every man shall keep his watch night and day; and at the hour of eight in the evening every one shall retire from gaming and drinking, in order to attend his respective station.

VI. Every person who shall offend against any of these articles shall be punished with death, or in such other manner as the ship's company shall think proper.

Trial & Execution

John Gow was taken to Marshalsea prison in England after his capture. There he refused to plead either way at his trial so he was tortured and transferred to Newgate Prison. Even despite the worse conditions Gow refused to plead either way and sentenced to be pressed. To put it in exact words this meant:

"Be put into a mean house stopped from any light and he be laid upon his back, with his body bare; that his arms be stretched forth with cord, the one to one side, the other to the other side of the prison, and in like manner his legs be used, and upon his body be laid as much iron and stone as he can bear and more. The first day he shall have three morsels of barley bread, and the next he shall drink thrice of the water in the next channel to the prison door but of no spring and fountain water; and this shall be his punishment till he die".

John Gow - Pressing a Pirate to Plead

Pressing a Pirate to Plead - The Pirates Who's Who's (1968)

Instead of enduring such cruel and inhumane torture Gow plead not guilty. He was charged with murder and piracy at the Old Bailey in London and quickly convicted and sentenced to death along with most of his crew.

John Gow - Execution Dock London

Execution Dock Engraving (18th Century)

Gow and seven of his crew members were hung together at Execution Dock in the city of London on June 11th 1725. As Gow asked for a speedy death the executioner pulled him so hard that the rope around his neck broke. As Gow was still alive enough to climb back up the ladder they made him go up to be hung a second time. The British government left their bodies in the Thames as a warning to all potential pirates of the consequences of their actions.

John Gow - Execution Dock: John Rocque (1746)

Execution Dock Map - John Rocque (1746)

Sources

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

Johnson, C., & Fraser, C. L. (1922). Pirates..the Lives and Adventures of Sundry Notorious Pirates. New York: R.M. McBride and Company.