#170 James McMahon

Alias James McMann (Abt. 1855-????), aka James McMahon — River Pirate

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-six years old in 1886. Born in New York. Single. No trade. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 6 inches. Weight, 163 pounds. Light hair, blue eyes, light complexion, big nose, thick lips.

RECORD. McMahon is a well known New York burglar and river thief. He has served a term on Blackwell’s Island, and is a desperate man. He is also well known in Philadelphia and other cities. He was arrested in New York City on May 16, 1880, charged with robbing the schooner Victor, of Prince Edward’s Island, while lying at one of the wharves. McMahon was detected in the act of robbing the vessel by the mate, John Williams, who, while in an attempt to arrest McMahon, was terribly beaten by him. McMahon was committed for trial in default of $3,000 bail, by Justice Morgan, on May 15, 1880, indicted on May 18, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to ten years in State prison on May 18, by Recorder Smyth, in the Court of General Sessions, New York City. His sentence expires on September 18, 1886. His picture is a good one, taken in May, 1880.

In terms of identifying James McMahon, Inspector Byrnes offers more obscurity than clarity. Of the five river pirates that boarded the schooner Victor, each of the four others used an alias, and most newspaper accounts assumed that McMahon/McMann was an alias [some newspapers used the spelling McMahon, but the Sing Sing register and the most detailed newspaper account (by the New York Times) used the spelling McMann]. In the Sing Sing register, McMann offered the name of a contact, a cousin: William Meehan.

The Sing Sing register also gave this prisoner’s age as 25, not 36 as Byrnes asserts. The other four men involved were under twenty-five.

While identifying McMahon/McMann is futile, the crime for which he was arrested is fairly interesting: river piracy.

New York City was one of America’s major ports, with docks sprouting from the shores of Hudson County, New Jersey; Manhattan; the Bronx, and Brooklyn. The surrounding waterways, then and now, present a fractal landscape of bays, coves, islands, rivers, harbors, points, inlets, channels, etc.–in other words, a pirate’s paradise of areas where a vessel could quickly be hidden.

River pirates operated from small vessels: a yawl, sloop, or ketch; and consisted of gangs of 4-12 men. Their main targets were anchored shipping vessels that were lightly-manned, with most of the crew ashore or not yet hired. The booty they sought was anything portable: nautical instruments, small chests, items in containers, etc. They boarded these larger vessels silently, under cover of night, and with guns drawn. The expectation was that they would catch whatever skeleton crew was onboard asleep, and overpower them. Alternatively, sometimes these gangs targeted dockside warehouses.

In 1879–the year before McMann/McMahon’s arrest–a large gang of river pirates led by Big Mike Shanahan had been broken up by the authorities, with nearly all the major members caught and imprisoned. This one gang was said to be responsible for losses totaling a half-million dollars.

McMann/McMahon’s gang of young men attempted to fill in the vacuum left by the downfall of Shanahan’s gang. There were eyewitness accounts of their attack on the Victor:


The second man that tried to cling to the swamped yawl was Thomas Holland, alias James Rourke/O’Rourke. His body was found about ten days later floating in Long Island Sound. Each of the four surviving pirates was sentenced to Sing Sing for ten years.

There was absolutely no sympathy on the part of the public for the river pirates. The Brooklyn Eagle wrote:

“That they meant murder is obvious, and that they should be punished to the full extent of the law is manifest. The New York docks teem with such rats. The surface of the East River and the Sound is fretted with them. They know that boats must anchor at certain places for tide or towage, and presuming on their ability and inclination to murder if interfered with, they are in readiness for any opportunity to plunder. They need an example. The authorities have four of them in their hands. There should be no delay in the trial, and, if they are found guilty, Bedloe’s Island should again be decorated as one Mr. Johnson decorated it years ago.”

The last reference is to Albert Hicks, alias William Johnson, who was arrested for murder in 1860. He claimed that he had been shanghaied to help crew a small ship as it left port, and when he found a chance he murdered the entire crew and left the ship adrift while he escaped in a yawl. He was captured and publicly hanged from gallows erected on the shore of Bedloe’s Island–the last man hanged for piracy in New York. Thousands of people watched the hanging from hundreds of ships and boats hugging the island’s shore–it was a blood-lust spectacle worthy of Rome’s Colosseum.

Bedloe’s Island is now Liberty Island, home to the Statue of Liberty.



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