In 1773 Ansell Nickerson, a sailor, had a bleak outlook on life. Accused of murdering four men, he had fallen into the hands of the British Court of Admiralty. Languishing in jail, he awaited the gallows.
Then John Adams took an interest.
Nickerson’s case was a case of piracy. He had been fishing the Atlantic with his cousins and two other crewmen aboard the Abigail. and was returning to Chatham on Cape Cod when something happened aboard the vessel. To this day, no one is sure what.
Another ship had approached the Abigail, flying a flag of distress. On board they found only Nickerson alive. Four men, including the ship’s captain Thomas Nickerson, were dead.
“The Conversation of the Town and Country has been about the strange Occurrence of last Week, a Piracy said to have been committed on a Vessel bound to Cape Cod, 3 Men killed, a Boy missing, and only one Man escaped to tell the News—a mysterious, inexplicable Affair!” John Adams wrote in his diary in November of 1772.
Ansell Nickerson told the story that Englishmen boarded his vessel. They had arrived on the scene in an armed schooner from which they dispatched a smaller boat. He didn’t know them, but allowed they might be pirates. The men had ransacked the Abigail, stolen everything aboard and departed. They had only spared a young boy named Kent who they took with them and pressed into naval service.
How had Ansell Nickerson survived? He had crawled over the ship’s transom at the sight of the approaching vessel. Initially he feared impressment. As he clung to the side of the ship, supported by molding, he overheard the murder of his fellow crew. The attackers discussed burning the ship, but instead they decided that would draw attention. Instead they let it just drift to sea. They took most of the vessel’s stores and left.
Ansell Nickerson was not a wholly reliable witness. He had served aboard several pirate vessels himself. His story raised questions, but the justice of the peace accepted his version of events and set him free.
Ruthless on Pirates
Colonial Gov. Thomas Hutchinson was outraged. He had Ansell Nickerson arrested, and put him in the hands of the Court of Admiralty. Nickerson was interrogated for hours. With the Court of Admiralty governing his fate, Nickerson had little hope of survival. The court dealt ruthlessly with pirates.
The charge against Nickerson was that the ship had sold its catch and was returning to Chatham with the crew’s money and payment for the fish. Nickerson killed his fellow crew members and had sent the money ashore, either by himself or with aid of another, and concocted the story of the attack. Among the holes in Nickerson’s story, there was some fresh meat found on board the Abigail. It seemed unlikely that actual pirates would have left something so precious behind.
But in jail, Ansell Nickerson began receiving visits from the Sons of Liberty, the gang that was building support for the American Revolution. The Sons took an interest in this poor sailor’s cause because it involved impressment – the practice of seizing sailors and forcing them into service against their will—which the British Navy employed, as well as pirates.
Suddenly Nickerson found himself with two prominent lawyers at his aid – Josiah Quincy Jr. and John Adams. Adams studied the admiralty laws exhaustively and prepared for a June trial. But the Court of Admiralty had a sudden postponement, probably because it was investigating the burning of the Gaspee.
When the court took up the matter in August, Adams and Quincy threw up all sorts of dust. They harped on the fact that Nickerson should have received a jury trial, since the case involved murder. The court, as the British were fond of doing, was acting unfairly in the matter.
The trial was a propaganda success for the Sons of Liberty, even if Nickerson had been convicted and hanged. But the arguments apparently worked. Though the details are lost, historians suspect the court deadlocked. They think four judges sided with Adams: the Court of Admiralty did not have jurisdiction over a case involving murder.
Ansell Nickerson finally got his freedom. Some accounts say Nickerson confessed his guilt on his deathbed in Martinique some 15 or 20 years later. Adams noted in his papers that Nickerson went on to live a peaceful life. In his diary, however, he says he never got paid the £6 and change Nickerson owed him for his services. He also had no certainty about Nickerson’s guilt or innocence.
“This was and remains still a misterious Transaction. I know not to this day what Judgment to form of his Guilt or Innocence. And this doubt I presume was the Principle of Acquittal. He requested my Assistance and it was given. He had nothing to give me, but his promissory Note, for a very moderate Fee. But I have heard nothing of him, nor received any Thing for his note, which has been lost with many other Notes and Accounts to a large Amount, in the distraction of the times and my Absence from my Business.”
As for Governor Hutchinson, he had no doubt of Ansell Nickerson’s guilt. He later wrote of the trial as an event that showed the growing success of the Sons of Liberty in raising New England’s revolutionary fervor.
This story last updated in 2022.
Of historical note, three years earlier John Adams had defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre
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