Welcome to Toms River Seaport Society’s (Mari)Time-Warp, taking our supporters back through the nautical history of the Barnegat Bay and Toms River watershed areas!
Today we share the second part of the account of an enterprising reporter who interviewed old-time residents of our shore area, including one retired “pirate,” to get details on the activity of famed “Barnegat Pirates,” published by the Philadelphia Times on July 24th, 1882 and rediscovered thanks to Newspapers.com.
COMPELLED TO DISGORGE
Two days later, when a wrecking vessel and lighter came down from Sandy Hook to save the cargo, the greater part of it had disappeared and the wreckers had become peaceable fishermen in Barnegat Inlet. Two boat loads of wine and brandy that were taken from the cargo of the Liberty by the pirates were secreted in the fastnesses of Big Swamp, which was several miles nearer the wreck than Cedar Swamp, where the silks were hidden. Such a hue and cry was made over this job that the pirates, fearing that the State authorities would send troops here to extirpate them, gave up nearly all the goods. Eleven wreckers were arrested, but they gave bail and were never tried.
Two log cabins were built in Big Swamp, where the liquor was stored, and for weeks after the wreck of the Liberty the pirates spent the greater part of their time in drunken revelry. These cabins were used afterwards as the rendezvous of the band when night came on and they were not within easy sailing distance of Forked river and the Red Water swamp. Captain Ben's father was once met by Odell and the elder Paxon, who ordered him to follow them. They entered Odell's boat, crossed into Big Swamp and spent the night in the cabins. Peters was allowed to go home in the morning, but before leaving the pirates he was told that if he talked too freely about their retreat he would be shot on sight.
On one occasion Paxon became jealous of the popularity of Captain Bill Holladay and a free fight occurred on the beach. Paxon and his friends withdrew to the Forked River region, while Holladay and his supporters retired to Big Swamp. A week or so later the factions met on the bay and as the majority were armed with heavy ducking guns a regular naval engagement ensued. Half a dozen of the men were wounded and Paxon had one of his eyes destroyed and his rival lost two fingers. The injuries being about equal the captains buried the hatchet and the band was reunited.
The brigs Fairweather and Dolphin were wrecked and their crews badly abused by the pirates, who wanted to set them adrift again in their small boats, created a small sensation and got to the ears of the authorities in the upper end of the county, but it was not until the Twin Brothers was lured ashore and rifled that the respectable people took the matter in hand.
CAPTURED BY THE VIGILANTES.
When wrecks were scarce the pirates, emboldened by success, preyed upon their honest neighbors in Ocean, Burlington and adjoining counties. Paxon became such an outlaw that he did not visit any of the towns in the county for fear of being shot, as several men who had suffered from his raids vowed they would kill him on sight.
In February, 1847, a posse of resolute men, with horns and dogs, rode into Big Swamp for the purpose of capturing Paxon and Odell. The wreckers were warned and fled, but before doing so they fired the cabins, which were but a heap of smouldering ruins when the vigilantes, who had been guided to the place by the smoke, came up. The hunt was continued, however, and a few hours later Paxon was captured in a tree. He is said to have shown the white feather at once by begging his captors not to lynch him. Four of his band were captured on the following day near Forked river and the others either fled from the state or gave up their evil practices.
Big Mag Holliday, young Paxon's wife, is said to have been nearly six feet high and a perfect Amazon in strength and courage. She married Paxon when she was sixteen years of age, but a few months later they quarreled and she came very near ending his piratical career by chopping him with a boat axe. One night while Paxon and his confederates were looking for prey on the beach his house on the mainland was invaded and searched by a party of officers. Suspecting that he was across the bay and would return before morning they made themselves comfortable in the house, leaving one of their number to watch the point at which Paxon and his friends would land. "Big Mag" made an excuse to leave the house, ran half a mile, swam two creeks and reached the home of her father; but the men were all away with her husband. Nothing daunted, she jumped into a skiff, rowed across the bay, found and notified her husband and his companions of their danger. They immediately entered their boats and stood away down the bay. The officers waited until daylight and then went away. Abe Paxon disappeared after his father, and the others were captured and never reappeared in Ocean county.
FATE OF THE CREW.
"Big Mag," after waiting several years for her husband to return, mated with the captain of a charcoal schooner and was last heard of as the owner of a sailors' boarding house in New York. The elder Paxon and those of his confederates who were arrested were tried and sent to prison for short terms, and common report has it that Paxon died before he had been locked up a month. In many of the houses along the coast relics that once belonged to the pirates are kept as curiosities. Captain Ben Peters exhibits with no small amount of pride a dagger with a buckhorn handle and a twelve-inch blade which he declares once stuck in the belt of the redoubtable Captain Holliday. Captain Ben said: "I reckon when Captain Holliday had that knife he socked it into many a man." The present owner uses it to scale and disembowel fish. One or more curiosities like Freebooter Holliday's dirk can be found in many of the old fishermen's houses.
Captain Ben kindly volunteered to pilot the reporter to the hut of Captain Sam Darden, the ex-pirate and present hermit, who lives in Big Swamp. The invitation was accepted and early on the following morning the journey began.
After crossing the bay and threading the narrow bayous that cut up the flats on the land side Captain Ben pulled his skiff up the bank and then a mile tramp through creeks and bogs, underbrush and timbers, until a small clearing, with a log cabin in the centre, appeared in view. Captain Ben stopped short, saying: "That's the place. Suppose we give a yell, just to let him know we're coming, 'cause he ain't much on visitors." The yell was given and answered by five mongrel dogs, who came dashing out like wolves. Heedless of the yelping curs Ben trudged on toward the house, on the shady side of which sat an old man with white hair. It was Captain Sam. He was barefooted and surly, and sat on the ground examining one of his feet. Captain Ben said, "Hellow, Sam!" to which salute the old wrecker did not reply.
"What ails your foot?" continued Captain Ben, eyeing the extremity in question with unnatural interest.
"Skinned heel," replied Captain Sam, gruffly.
No reasonable person could expect a pirate with a skinned heel to be in an angelic frame of mind, and, appreciating that fact, Captain Ben took steps to cheer up the sufferer. His first step was a flask of whisky and the second a plug of tobacco. Captain Sam began to thaw at once, and in a few minutes was swearing at his skinless heel with that richness and vigor which has from the days of Captain Kidd made pirates famous.
AN OLD PIRATE'S STORY.
After Captain Sam had exhausted his stock of profanity, Captain Ben said, with amazing coolness, "Sam, here is a man that wants you tell him how many men you and Paxon's and Holliday's crew killed."
To say that Captain Sam swore at this question but faintly expresses the broadside of profanity he poured into Captain Ben, who hastened to say that he did not intend to offend him. Captain Ben finally succeeded in propitiating the wicked old freebooter, who at last consented to tell his story, wanting it distinctly understood, however, that he never killed or helped to kill a man.
Captain Sam is sixty-nine years old and a native of Norfolk, Virginia. Darden is the name he assumed when at sixteen years of age he ran away to sea. At twenty he was the second mate of a slaver fitted out in Baltimore. He made four voyages in her before she was pursued by an English man-of-war and the crew escaped by taking to the small boats and landing on the South African coast the night before the vessel was captured.
Tom Paxon was the first mate of the slaver and he and Dardin were warm friends. They reached Cape Town, then Liverpool and finally New York, where they separated, Paxon going to his wife and family in Ocean county, while Dardin remained in New York. A few months later Darden visited Paxon, who was engaged in fishing, and remained in that neighborhood ever since. He admitted that many vessels had been pillaged on Long Beach, but declared most emphatically that the men in the interior of the county, who got the greatest share of the booty, were never heard of by the public.
When the schooner Elferidu came ashore he says four thousand dollars in Spanish gold was found in her cabin. That money was divided among eleven men. He considers wrecking a legitimate business and wished more of it was done. The old reprobate chuckled when Captain Ben asked him about Holliday's cow, but he could not be induced to say that he ever knew of a vessel being lured to the breakers by false lights. He also says the wreckers saved many more lives than they ever got credit for.
Darden has lived in the swamp thirteen years, with no companions but dogs. Until two yeas ago he made some money by fishing and hunting, but lately rheumatism prevents him from hunting much in severe weather. He visits Barnegat once a month and purchases ammunition, tobacco and coffee and corn meal. He sells his game and fish without going into the town.
"I have no friends," he said, "and I am too old to begin to make acquaintances. I get along very well alone, and I won't have people coming here to bother me."
The hut is rudely but by no means uncomfortably furnished, and it is passably clean. When his visitor said good-bye and started out of the clearing he simply nodded his head and limped back into the house.
"I haven't been here for two years and it will be two more before I come sloshing through this mud again," said Captain Ben, "but he treated us a good deal better than I expected."
"It's a wonder he didn't try to make the dogs chaw us," continued the Captain. When the boat was reached, Captain Ben, who had been strangely silent for half an hour, remarked: "Say, he never said he never saw a man killed, didn't he?"
"Well, I'll just bet my boots that he's killed more'n a dozen himself."
Having relieved his mind by that strong expression of opinion Captain Ben pulled the skiff up close to the mud and a few moments later the swamp that harbors the last of the Barnegat pirates was fast fading into the horizon.
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