By the time he began working on the New York City-based oyster sloop, A.E. Johnson, Albert Hicks had amassed a long and colorful history of robbery and murder on land and at sea. His biographer suggests he may have killed hundreds of people before his own execution.
The A.E. Johnson transported oysters from Virginia to New York City, a trade that involved large amounts of cash. Hicks was able to secure work as one of four men on the ship.
En route to Virginia in March 1860, Hicks and Smith Watts were on deck while Captain George H. Burr and Watts’ brother, Oliver, were sleeping, Hicks attacked Watts with an axe. When Oliver came to his aid, Hicks killed him. He then attacked Burr and, after a long struggle, killed him. Finding Smith Watts still alive, Hicks attacked him again and threw him overboard.
In the midst of the killing, the unattended ship struck another ship, the J.R. Mather. To avoid detection, Hicks quickly scuttled the A.E. Johnson and rowed a small boat to Staten Island.
When the Coast Guard found the A.E. Johnson, the murdered sailers were discovered and police were able to trace Hicks to Providence, Rhode Island, where he was arrested.
At trial in May 1860, the evidence against Hicks was overwhelming and he was quickly convicted and sentenced to death. He subsequently provided a full confession.
Alfred H. Hicks was hanged on July 13, 1860, on Bedloe’s Island, the present-day location of the Statue of Liberty. His was the last public execution in New York City. Ten thousand people are estimated to have watched the event. The New York Times devoted more than half of its front page to coverage of the execution.