How Albert Hicks became the last person publicly hanged in New York City and its first gangster

A new book about New York City‘s most infamous murderer, Albert Hicks, reveals the true story of how the charismatic criminal became known as the city’s last pirate and first gangster while operating in pre-Civil War, maritime Manhattan.  

In The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation, author Rich Cohen reveals the shocking, true story of Hicks, who was convicted of piracy and became the last person to be publicly hanged in New York in July 1860 at about age 40 on what was then called Bedloe’s Island and what is now home to the Statue of Liberty. 

In an excerpt of the book, reprinted in Tablet, Cohen called Hicks, a married father of one, ‘the most feared man in the infamous New York slums,’ who ‘operated so long ago he was not even called a gangster — he was called a pirate.’ 

A new book by author Rich Cohen reveals the shocking and true story of New York City's most infamous murderer and pirate, Albert Hicks (pictured), who confessed to killing 100 people

A new book by author Rich Cohen reveals the shocking and true story of New York City's most infamous murderer and pirate, Albert Hicks (pictured), who confessed to killing 100 people

A new book by author Rich Cohen reveals the shocking and true story of New York City’s most infamous murderer and pirate, Albert Hicks (pictured), who confessed to killing 100 people

Back in the pre-Civil War days, Cohen wrote that police considered a pirate to be ‘any criminal who made his living on the water, attacking and robbing ships beyond the jurisdiction of the landlocked coppers.’

In 1850, police reported that there were an estimated 400 to 500 pirates in New York City. Among them was Hicks, who was said to be a fixture in Manhattan’s gritty Five Points neighborhood. 

Up until early 1860, Hicks’ successful criminal activities were said to have been out of the public eye. But, things went pear-shaped for him, when using an alias, he got himself hired on an oyster sloop called the A.E. Johnson and then murdered the three men aboard the ship with him, before stealing the ship’s purse, one night in March 1860.      

‘Hunter, scavenger, and waterfront dweller, he’d signed on to the crew of that ship specifically to commit those murders, as he’d done many times before,’ Cohen wrote in his book, according to an excerpt featured in Vanity Fair

But, unlike the previous times he’d done his killing and stealing routine, he’d wind up getting caught, tried and hanged for the triple murder.  

Part of the sensationalism of this particular instance of piracy appears to have been the shocking nature of the crime scene. 

A crew member from another boat that went aboard the A.E. Johnson, looking for its crew after coming up on the seemingly abandoned boat, recalled there being ‘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,’ Cohen wrote in an except featured in Gothamist

Later, the captain of the crew would recall that the A.E. Johnson’s ‘deck appeared to have been washed in human blood.’   

‘One day people wake up and there is this ghost ship—a ship with no crew just drifting around New York Harbor which was a terrifying sight for sailors,’ Cohen said in an interview with Gothamist. 

The book reveals how the pre-Civil War underworld fixture was eventually caught, put on trial and then publicly hanged in 1860, before a crowd of 12,000 onlookers

The book reveals how the pre-Civil War underworld fixture was eventually caught, put on trial and then publicly hanged in 1860, before a crowd of 12,000 onlookers

The book reveals how the pre-Civil War underworld fixture was eventually caught, put on trial and then publicly hanged in 1860, before a crowd of 12,000 onlookers

Hicks was the last person to be publicly hanged when he died on Bedloe's Island in July 1860

Hicks was the last person to be publicly hanged when he died on Bedloe's Island in July 1860

Hicks was the last person to be publicly hanged when he died on Bedloe’s Island in July 1860

‘The Shore Patrol, which was a New York Police waterfront brigade, goes out to investigate and the ship is completely empty but they find blood everywhere they look, and they bring the ship in to South Street Seaport. They anchor it next to Fulton Fish Market and a group of detectives come aboard and they examine the ship, and they find four severed fingers and a thumb.’ 

The bodies, it was decided based on the trail of blood on the ship, were tossed overboard. One of Hicks’ victims, it was thought, had tried to hang on to the side of the boat, but Hicks had apparently taken care of that problem with an ax. Which explained the fingers and thumb that police found.  

Eventually, authorities discovered that Hicks was aboard the ship using a fake name, leading them on ‘an incredible manhunt,’ in which Hicks is ultimately found hiding in Rhode Island. 

Hicks was then tried for piracy in a Manhattan federal court, later confessing to a string of ‘crimes committed all over the world, and his confession is used to solve all these unsolved crimes,’ Cohen said, adding that Hicks ‘essentially admits to killing 100 people. He couldn’t remember the number’ while traveling around the world, making stop in at the Sandwich Islands, Tahiti and Mexico, among other places.  

‘The whole thing from his crime spree to the manhunt to being brought back to New York with huge crowds watching the train, to the trial, to his execution, is three months between March and July of 1860, the summer before the Civil War,’ Cohen said.

While the state of New York had banned holding public executions, the federal government still allowed them, which meant that Hicks could be publicly hanged, Cohen noted in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.   

Author Rich Cohen (pictured) called Hicks an 'underworld touchstone'

Author Rich Cohen (pictured) called Hicks an 'underworld touchstone'

Author Rich Cohen (pictured) called Hicks an ‘underworld touchstone’

‘Many New Yorkers wanted to see Hicks hang,’ Cohen wrote. ‘Three weeks after his conviction, the prisoner was taken to Bedloe’s Island to be executed.’

Cohen wrote that the day of Hicks’ hanging to be ‘one of the wildest in New York City history.’

‘When he got to the island, tens of thousands of spectators on boats anchored in the harbor watched as he dropped to his knees on the beach, prayed for a minute, stood and spoke his last words. ‘Hang me quick – make haste.'”

Hicks — wearing a custom-made electric blue suit with anchors sewn on the sleeve — had the noose slipped around his neck and, at 11.15am, was hoisted 20 feet into the air, at which point ‘His body danced at the end of the rope for three minutes, then was still.’ 

But, at 11.20am, his body was said to have ‘jerked once more – wildly’ before going still and then turning purple. 

According to Cohen, Hicks went on to become an ‘underworld touchstone, credited with creating the gangster code and the civilization that grew out of that code.’ 

He was memorably depicted as a ‘demon’ — ‘dark-eyed and handsome, collar raised to hide his face,’ Cohen writes — in Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York.     

To this day, Cohen wrote in the Vanity Fair excerpt, ‘Hicks continues to hold sway over the people of New York, though few have heard of him. He was the minter of a certain style, which was picked up by admirers, copied and copied again until it became a kind of hoodlum signature, as evocative of this city as the Chrysler Building or the Cyclone roller coaster.’

Cohen points out Hicks’ ‘manner, a stoicism displayed in the face of disaster’ and ‘black humor, laughing in the presence of the jury during your own murder trial.’ 

He also points out Hicks’ sartorial preference for flop-brim hat and monkey jacket as being a ‘subterranean dandyism’ that’s evident in the way that both real-life and celluloid gangsters, Mafia men and others indulge in. 

‘Over time, a certain type of New York City businessman began to emulate the mannerisms that define the New York underworld,’ Cohen, the author, noted. ‘When Michael Cohen—or Donald Trump, for that matter—acts like a tough guy, he’s paying unconscious homage to Hicks and his ilk.’ 

The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation is in stores now. 

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