I hasten to point out that the men who sought shelter at the Inn were not a harmonious quartet of criminal masterminds. It turns out they were not master criminals, either. But then, how many people are masters in any line of work? The lead voice in this particular choir was Charles Gibbs, a diminutive thirty-six year old fire plug - and the last pirate in New York City who did not work on Wall Street. His Achilles in crime was the baritone Thomas Wansely, a tall and powerfully built black man too curious by half. The bass was voiced by Robert Dawes, cook and nonentity, a plump man with no criminal record, as of yet. But tenor and ringer and lead singer was John Brownrigg, who possessed a fatal combination of a conscious and stupidity, which caused him to first commit a crime and then to confess it unbidden to a complete stranger.
Perhaps it was the warm food, or the hot rum or perhaps it was the flames of purgatory in his imagination which drove John Brownrigg to draw innkeeper Samuel Leonard aside and spill his tale on that stormy afternoon of November 24, 1830. The four men, explained John, had all been crewmen of the small brig Vineland, docked at Vera Cruz, Mexico, loaded with a cargo of cotton bales, and casks of molasses and rum. Have you noticed how often piracy begins with rum?
Late in the day Thomas Wansely had been ordered by Captain William Thornby to stack a half dozen heavy barrels in the Captain’s quarters. The strain and curiosity drove Wansely to pry open one of the leaden barrels for a peek. Inside he found newly minted silver coins – Mexican pieces of eight. And as the tide pulled the Vineland into the Gulf of Mexico, Wansely shared his discovery with first mate Charles Gibbs.
By Gibb’s figuring the barrels together held today’s equivalent of over one million dollars in untraceable cash. It was untraceable because, without a standardized national currency of their own in 1830, Spanish and Mexican coins circulated so commonly in America, that prices were figured as the equivalent in Spanish (and Mexican) currency, to the point that today’s ubiquitous American “$” sign was borrowed from its Spanish inventors.
In the morning, Gibbs and Wansely opened one of the barrels of rum and shared it with Dawes, Brownrigg and the other crewmen. And once they were all well intoxicated, Gibbs first told them of the cargo of silver, and then confessed that the previous night he had thrown Captain Thornby overboard. With that much money at stake, explained Gibbs, they were now all under suspicion of murder. So, Gibbs suggested, why not share the crime and the silver between them. One crewman balked and joined the captain in the briny deep. The others quickly agreed to become pirates. As the Vineland crossed the Gulf, bound for New York, a second man sobered up and expressed regret. He joined the other two in the sea.
The crew's doubts thus drowned, on November 23, 1830 the Vineland reached the westernmost barrier island off New York. Its name derives from the Dutch ‘Conyne Eylandt’, meaning Rabbit Island, known today as Coney Island. The freshly minted pirates anchored in an isolated corner of Jamaica Bay. And it was there, with a nor’easter brewing in the gathering darkness, the four men struggled to lower a skiff and fill it with their heavy burdensome barrels of silver. They then scuttled the Vineland and set her afire. As she sank into the muddy waters of the bay the four men in the low riding skiff set off for shore, at what is today Rockaway Beach.
It was not beach weather. The surf was pounding. A gale was approaching. The landing was a disaster. In the crashing waves the four seamen lost most of their booty, and were able to save just 10% of the coins. Wet and cold and exhausted, soaked by a pounding downpour, the gang of four came to the realization they had not thought things through as well as they thought they had. While Wanesly and Brownrigg stood a shivering guard over what was left of their loot, Gibbs and Dawes walked to a tavern Gibbs recalled in the isolated village of Carnarsie.
The tavern was run by the Johnson brothers, John and William. The youngest, William, who answered the door that night, recognized Gibbs and was willing to loan him a horse and wagon for an hour or so. Gibbs explained he had a heavy load to transfer from a boat.
Having thus obtained the tools required, Gibbs and Dawes returned to the beach, and, according to Brownrigg, the four men buried the remaining $56,000 in Mexican silver, marking the spot with a strand of ribbon tied to a blade of saw grass. They then returned to Johnson’s house and Gibbs paid for the rental with a generous bag of brand new Mexican coins.
The four pirates were headed for lower Manhattan, where they would claim the Vineland had been lost in the storm. But their convenient alibi was by now pounding the coast, and after having crossed Coney Creek, the quartet was forced to seek refuge in John Leonard’s Sheepshead Bay Inn, where John Brownrigg spilled his guts.
The Inn keeper, Mr. Leonard, was nothing if not decisive. Quietly he gathered his staff and they fell upon the three villains. Well, two of the villains. Gibbs and Dawes were quickly tied to their chairs, but Wanesly broke for the woods, followed by the courageous waiter Robert Greenwood who was armed with an unloaded flintlock pistol. An hour later Greenwood returned, with Wanesly in tow.
The local justice of the peace, John Van Dyck, was summoned, and the next morning Brownrigg lead the authorities to the buried treasure. Only the treasure was not there anymore. Under questioning Dawes decided to cooperate as well, and related the tale of the visit to the Johnson brothers tavern. So, Justice Van Dyke and several officers proceeded to the tavern. Under questioning the Johnson brothers confirmed the details of the pirates visit, but, no, they insisted, they knew nothing else. Van Dyck was certain that they did. And he was correct.
In fact the instant Gibbs had crossed William Johnson’s palm with the silver, he had converted William into a mastermind as well. With newly minted silver in his palm, Wiliam knew that something serious was afoot. Perhaps if the payment had been less generous, or if Gibbs had paid in any other currency, his secret might have remained a secret. As it was, 19 year old William Johnson immediately woke up his older brother John, and after examining the weary horse’s hooves, the two brothers searched the beach. They quickly found the cache of stolen silver and re-stole it. They dragged it inland a few hundred yards, divided and re-buried it in two new caches, one of about $40,000 worth and the second of about $16,000 worth. And then they returned home for a hearty breakfast.
Justice Van Dyke suspected all of this, or most of it. But he could prove none of it. And once a beachcomber had discovered Mexican eights rolling in the surf, and was joined by hundreds of others combing the sand, there was no way of proving where the crazy eights had come from, the reburied re-stolen cache or the surf. Van Dyke could only choke the four birds he still had in his hand, held for now in the Flatbush Jail.
And then something curious happened, or perhaps inevitable. William Johnson began to suffer from the same aliment which had plagued John Brownrigg. He approached the insurance company (yes, even in 1830 there were insurance companies), and inquired what they might pay as a reward for the return of some of the missing silver. The insurance company replied that they would be willing to make a generous settlement which might not leave the Johnson brothers filthy rich, but at least they would be free from worry of future legal entanglements. Encouraged, William returned to the Coney Island Beach to confirm the security of the two caches, whereupon he made a most distressing discovery.
The larger cache was gone. Also missing was his older brother John. Had the 21 year old John become a mastermind, twice over? Perhaps; but John was married, so there was his wife’s criminal mastermind-ey-ness to consider as well. Evidently either John or his wife had reached the conclusion that even though John had not actually heard opportunity knock on their tavern's front door that night, he had been awakened to it. Thus he was deserving of the larger share of the stolen silver than the brother who had actually heard opportunity knock. So he took it. Broken hearted, betrayed and abandoned, 17 year old Willaim Johnson returned the $16,000 in pieces of eight left behind in exchange for a very small reward. And a clear conscious.
On April 22, 1831, on the site that would one day support the Statue of Liberty, criminal masterminds Charles Gibbs and Thomas Wansley climbed the thirteen steps of a scaffold, where they were both hanged by the neck until they were dead. Gibbs had been convicted of piracy, and was the last man hanged for that crime in America - so his death was not entirely without meaning. Wansley died for the crime of murder. Dawes and Brownrigg, who had co-operated, served short jail terms, and then disappeared from history. William Johnson the more honest of the two brothers, remained in Brooklyn. He married and raised at least one son and a daughter. He died in 1906.
But of the two remaining masterminds, the elder brother John Johnson and his wife, were not heard from again after escaping with today’s equivalent of $800,000 in cash. And that is curious. That much money does not usually simply disappear. I would very much like to know what became of this pair of masterminds, because if, as I suspect, he or she later turned up dead, then we would know if the percentage of criminal masterminds in this affair was 20% or less - less being the historical average. Greed has a way of making otherwise smart people fatally stupid. Greedy people are no longer masters of their own minds.
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