The Capture and Execution of the Pirate Stede Bonnet
In Charleston, Bonnet was separated from the bulk of his crew and held for three weeks in the provost marshal’s house along with his boatswain, Ignatius Pell, and his sailing master, David Herriott. On 24 October, Bonnet and Herriott escaped, probably by colluding with local merchant Richard Tookerman. Governor Johnson at once placed a £700 bounty on Bonnet’s head and dispatched search teams to track him down. Bonnet and Herriott, accompanied by a slave and an Indian, obtained a boat and made for the north shore of Charleston Harbor, but foul winds and lack of supplies forced the four of them onto Sullivan’s Island. Governor Johnson sent a posse under Rhett to Sullivan’s Island to hunt for Bonnet. The posse discovered Bonnet after an extensive search, and opened fire, killing Herriott and wounding the two slaves. Bonnet surrendered and was returned to Charleston. While awaiting trial, some sort of civil uprising in his support took place within the city, an event authorities would later describe as having nearly resulted in the burning of the town and the overthrow of the government.
On 10 November 1718, Bonnet was brought to trial before Sir Nicholas Trott, sitting in his capacity as Vice-Admiralty judge. Trott had already sat in judgment on Bonnet’s crew and sentenced most of them to hang. Bonnet was formally charged with only two acts of piracy, against the Francis and the Fortune, whose commanders were on hand to testify against Bonnet in person. Ignatius Pell had turned King’s evidence in the trial of Bonnet’s crew and now testified, somewhat reluctantly, against Bonnet himself. Bonnet pleaded not guilty and conducted his own defence without assistance of counsel, cross-examining the witnesses to little avail, and calling a character witness in his favor. Trott rendered a damning summation of the evidence, and the jury delivered a guilty verdict. Two days later, after treating the convicted man to a stern lecture on his violation of Christian duties, Trott sentenced Bonnet to death.
While awaiting his execution, Bonnet wrote to Governor Johnson, begging abjectly for clemency and promising to have his own arms and legs cut off as assurance that he would never again commit piracy. Charles Johnson wrote that Bonnet’s visibly disintegrating mind moved many Carolinians to pity, particularly the female population, and London papers later reported that the governor delayed his execution seven times. Bonnet was eventually hanged at White Point Garden, in Charleston, on 10 December 1718.