Public Lecture Review: Janet Philp’s The Anatomy of Pirates

Written by Carissa Chew

Image: Sketch of Jacque Alexander Tardy’s skull, front view

Coinciding with ‘International Talk-Like-A-Pirate Day’, on 19 September 2018, Janet Philp delivered a compelling lecture that inquired into the University of Edinburgh Anatomical Museum’s collection of pirate skull casts. Philp set out to answer the two key questions on her audience’s mind: who were these so-called ‘pirates’ and how did casts of their skulls find their way to Edinburgh? At the front of the lecture hall, there were five skulls on display, four of which represented a single group of pirates who had met their collective demise in 1827. This group, comprised of Jose Murando (‘Courro’), Jose Hilario Casares (‘Pepe’) and Felix Barbeito, was headed by the infamous Jacque Alexander Tardy – and it was Tardy’s story that was the central focus of Philp’s lecture.

    In introducing Tardy, Philp pointed to the first row of the Anatomy Lecture Theatre, where a life-size model of Tardy was seated, holding a pen in its hand as if ready to take notes. Philp explained that this mannequin had been carefully produced by Amy Thorton at the University of Dundee. The process of facial reconstruction involved the laser scanning of his skull cast, followed by the digital rendering of his mandible (which is missing from the cast), and the 3D printing of the life-size, complete skull. Thorton then added facial ‘muscles’ according to the average facial muscle thickness of men of Tardy’s ethnic background, before placing a silicon ‘skin’ over the top. Whilst some features, such as nose shape, can be accurately reconstructed from the skull, other features, such as ears, cannot. This model, therefore, reflects Thorton’s own artistic interpretation to some degree, but Philp remarked that its appearance closely matches court descriptions of Tardy’s exterior. After describing this interesting instance of interdisciplinary collaboration between forensic art, science, and the humanities, Philp began the peculiar story of Tardy’s life and his unusual – and perhaps underwhelming – pirate activities.

Jacque Alexander Tardy

Jacque Alexander Tardy (1767-1827) was born into a wealthy household in France in 1767. At the age of 19, his family fled from the French Revolution and relocated to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), which was under French colonial rule at the time. There, his family settled as plantation owners, before fleeing from the anti-colonial and anti-slavery Haitian Revolution that broke out in 1791. After the family moved to Philadelphia, Tardy went on to travel around America, working as a tin smith.

    Tardy’s criminal or ‘pirate’ behaviour did not emerge until late in his life, beginning in 1812 when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of 45. Whilst serving, it was discovered that he had been stealing his Captain’s belongings and selling them to other officers, and he was flogged on board the ship as punishment. Tardy served his full term, however, and was officially dismissed on 8 March 1814. Back onshore, Tardy’s shifty behaviour continued. He impersonated a Frenchman in an attempt to retrieve property; his incessant interest in poison whilst training as a dentist aroused suspicion, and he was caught red-handed with a notebook that he had stolen from Captain George Washington Balch. For this latter crime, in which the sensitive contents of the notebook are not known, he was sentenced to three days in solitary confinement, followed by three years of hard labour at Charleston State Prison. Tardy had descended into a life of crime, and from this point onward he would be in and out of prison on multiple occasions.

    Following his release from Charleston in December 1816, Tardy boarded the Maria. Tardy poisoned eight people aboard the ship, having laced their breakfasts with arsenic. He then claimed to be a medical doctor, prescribing his victims castor oil and warning them to refrain from drinking water. One of the passengers, a man from North Carolina, however, died before they could reach the shore. Tardy framed the ship’s cook, a black man named John Gibson, who was subsequently tried and hanged for the crime, despite protesting his innocence.

    In June that same year, Tardy gained entry on board another ship, the Regulator, which was heading from Boston to Philadelphia. He entertained himself once again by poisoning the passengers and crew, this time spiking the sugar with arsenic. After drinking the poison in their morning coffee, the victims were prescribed another oil by Tardy, who was continuing to pose as a trained doctor. This time, Tardy’s mischief resulted in the death of a German citizen named Godfrey Daniel Lehman. Tardy again attempted to frame the black cook on board the ship, but aroused suspicion when he insisted that Lehman had left him his possessions. The Captain, who trusted the cook whom he had worked with for many years, refused to hand over the dead man’s possessions to Tardy. Once they reached the shore Tardy was taken to court, but due to lack of testimony, he was only convicted on the grounds of conspiracy to poison the crew of a vessel. He was sentenced to seven years of hard labour at Walnut Street Prison.

    Undeterred, Tardy attempted to board yet another ship following his release in November 1825. His identity was recognised, however, and he was refused entry. He then briefly settled in Charleston, where he advertised himself as a dentist, but by November he was back to his old tricks and was caught trying to steal a boat docked in Charleston, the Cora. Tardy had conspired with two of the ship’s crew members, but he was caught red-handed when Cora’s owners ambushed him. Tardy found himself back in prison, where he served two years at Old Charleston Jail.

Tardy and the 1827 pirate ambush of the Crawford

After serving yet more jail time, Tardy travelled to Cuba where he met his co-conspirators, ‘Courro’, ‘Pepe’, and Barbieto. Together, they plotted to steal a ship and flee to Africa, where they could get rich from the Atlantic slave trade.

    Posing as a doctor yet again, Tardy prescribed Captain Henry Brightman some asthma medicine. The medicine was effective, and so Tardy, having gained the Captain’s trust, was invited along with his men on board the Crawford. After postponing their plan to take over the ship for a short time due to seasickness, Tardy began his attempts to poison the breakfast. Each morning, he would put his ‘spices’ on the eggs, but the cook refused to serve the food that Tardy had contaminated. When the Captain suddenly fell ill, however, Tardy decided to purposefully spill the hot chocolate, and poisoned the drink when he went to refill it. Within a few hours, everyone on board the ship fell ill, with one of the worst suffering victims being the ship’s First Mate, Edmond Dobson. Tardy’s activities aroused the suspicion of one of the men on board the ship, however, and this man, Norman Robson, warned Dobson not to take the medicine that Tardy had prescribed him.

    In the early hours of the morning on 1 June 1827, the pirates put into action their violent plan to take over the ship. Joseph Doliver, who was at the helm at the time, was approached by Tardy who pretended to ask about the ship’s course before ambushing him and slitting his throat. Doliver survived these injuries and managed to escape to the highest mast. Tardy, however, gave a clapping signal to his co-conspirators to awaken the other passengers below deck, and chaos ensued. Upon hearing the screams of the pirates, the passengers and crew members who were below deck ran up the stairs to see what the commotion was, only to be attacked by Courro, Pepe, and Barbieto, who were armed with axes. The pirates killed most of their targets in this brawl; amidst the chaos, however, Robson and one other passenger had jumped overboard, whilst Dobson, Doliver, and one other man, Oliver Potter, had escaped to the highest mast.

    Tardy persuaded the First Mate Dobson to come down and join them, promising that they would not harm him. The pirates then talked Doliver into descending from the mast, but Courro stabbed him at the first opportunity. Witnessing this, Potter then refused to come down, but he soon died from his severe stomach wounds and fell into the sea. The only survivors in addition to the four pirates were Dobson, who was needed to steer the ship; a French passenger, whom Tardy did not want to kill out of fear of being outnumbered by the Spaniards; and the black cook, who they relied on for food. Realising that they did not have a sufficient crew nor necessary resources to enter the Atlantic slave trade yet, the pirates decided to head towards shore at Norfolk, where they hoped Tardy would not be recognised.

    When Tardy asked Dobson to prepare an oar boat and lower it into the sea, however, Dobson took the opportunity to escape. Reaching land, Dobson convinced the officers at Fort Monroe to go after the pirates and arrest them. To avoid capture, Tardy committed suicide by slitting his own throat in the captain’s quarters of the Crawford. Courro, Pepe, and Barbieto attempted to escape overboard in a rowing boat. They were soon tracked down, however, and arrested by local U.S. soldiers.

    The three pirates faced trial in 1827, and it is from the proceedings of this court case, Philp explained, where we get most of our information regarding the events on board the ship. The French passenger and Edmond Dobson were called to testify as witnesses, and even though they spoke different languages (and thus could not communicate with one another), their testimonies were found to be almost identical. The jury deemed the three men guilty, and they were sentenced to be hanged. Thousands of civilians came to see the pirates paraded around the town of Richmond before being executed, and hundreds gasped with horror as two of the ropes broke and the men had to be re-hanged.

Galvinism, Phrenology, and Pirate Anatomy

The burial of the pirates did not mark the end of their tale, however. Given the popularity of the theory of galvanism at this time, most famously explored in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1918), the U.S. military demanded that the bodies of Tardy, Courro, Pepe, and Barbieto be exhumed and experimented upon. The corpses of the pirates were treated with electricity in an attempt to bring them back to life.

    Following the failure to revive the pirates in this way, the Washington Phrenological Society contacted the U.S. military, requesting the skulls of the four men. Phrenology was another popular pseudo-science in this era, and these pirate skulls seemed to offer phrenologists an opportunity to investigate the relationship between head shape and criminality. The skulls were subsequently prepared and sent to Washington, where three plaster casts were made of each skull. These casts were sent to the phrenological societies in London, Liverpool, and Edinburgh.

    As is well-documented in the Anatomical Museum collections of death masks, life masks, and busts, the Edinburgh Phrenological Society, founded in 1820 by George Combe, was a major force in the development of the field of phrenology in Britain. The ‘science’ of phrenology, however, came under scrutiny, and one of its main opponents in Edinburgh was Thomas Stone, who argued that phrenological readings were inadequate. Using the skull of serial killer William Burke (also on display at the Anatomical Museum), for example, he had pointed out that, according to phrenology, Burke had a large area of benevolence and a small area of destructiveness. This, of course, failed to account for Burke’s murderous activities. In Edinburgh, the pirate skulls came to be used as evidence in the debate over the legitimacy of phrenology as a ‘science’, with Stone and Combe bitterly disagreeing over their readings for the skull of Pepe. However, it eventually came to light that Stone was in fact analysing the skull of a different pirate who was also known as ‘Pepe’.

    Thus, we finally arrive at the fifth skull in the collection. This final skull belonged to a pirate leader who resided in Cuba. He was perceived as the nemesis of Captain Graham from the British Navy, who had been sent to Cuba to rid the island of piracy. Graham had lost many men in this battle with the pirates, and he was relieved to have one day discovered the dead body of their leader, the revered and apparently highly intellectual Pepe. Pepe had supposedly injured himself when his gun backfired, and then died of his injuries when trying to flee. The skull of this allegedly spectacular criminal was sent back to Britain, and was donated to the to the Edinburgh Phrenological Society by Graham’s brother in the 1820s.

    All in all, Philp’s discussion of these five pirate skulls offered a fascinating insight into various different aspects of the early nineteenth-century world – including revolutionary politics, (pseudo)scientific debates, and criminal law. These skulls are emblematic of the beginnings of a transnational world in which families sailed from the metropole to the colonies; in which French, American, German, and Spanish men boarded the same ships; in which slaves were transported across the Atlantic; and in which human remains found their way from Washington and Cuba to Edinburgh. Perhaps the most poignant thing I noticed about these pirate stories, however, is that they reveal that piracy was merely one violent aspect in a broader, violent world of revolution, colonialism, war, slavery, capital punishment, and racism (which was itself legitimised by pseudosciences such as phrenology).


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