John F. Ferguson and Israel Denny

On March 24, 1819, John Ferguson and James Black, sailors in a time and place where sovereign boundaries and the associated statuses of sailing ships were often unclear, led a mutiny aboard the Creola, a ship aligned with the government of Buenos Aires, off the coast of Venezuela.

They then raided the Irresistible, a well-equipped warship aligned with the opposing forces of the United Provinces of River Plate, where they incited another mutiny.

Having captured the Irresistible, Ferguson, as captain, Black, as first lieutenant, and second lieutenant Israel Denny, used it to plunder numerous other vessels. No violence is reported to have occurred during any of these assaults.

Whether the sailors understood themselves as pirates seeking private gain or as privateers acting in service to a government became a matter of great dispute and consequence in subsequent legal proceedings.

Approximately three months later, the Irresistible sailed up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore, home to some of the sailors. Whether the men believed they had reason to fear the law is unclear. However, they were quickly arrested.

John Ferguson was tried in U.S. District Court in Baltimore in November 1819. He was convicted and sentenced to death for piracy. Israel Denny’s prosecution the next month produced the same result.

Nineteen other sailors were tried on piracy charges in federal court in Richmond, Virginia.

Efforts to obtain a pardon for Ferguson and Denny from President Monroe were unsuccessful, though public and political sentiment seemed to be moving against the death penalty for piracy.

While John Ferguson and Israel Denny went to their deaths, hanging together on April 13, 1820, the other sailors were spared in a landmark Supreme Court decision.

New York Evening Post, April 15, 1820

At issue in the Virginia case were three questions: had the sailors plundered other vessels?; had they done so without legal authority?; and did those actions constitute piracy? The jury found in the affirmative on the first two questions but arrived at a special verdict on the third question: that whether or not the plunder constituted piracy depended on the interpretation of the 1819 piracy statute.

This finding directed the case to the United States Supreme Court. In February 1820, the Supreme Court found that, under the 1819 statute, the conduct at issue clearly constituted piracy (U.S. v. Smith, 18 US 153).

At sentencing on May 29, 1820, all sixteen defendants were sentenced to be hanged on June 19, 1820. By that time, opposition to executions for piracy (not involving murder) had grown stronger. The executions were reprieved.

  • See “The Full Story of United States v. Smith, America’s Most Important Piracy Case” by Joel H. Samuels. Penn State Journal of Law & International Affairs, 1, 2 (November 2012).

Author: Bill Lofquist

I am a sociologist and death penalty scholar at the State University of New York at Geneseo. I am also a Pittsburgh native. My present research focuses on the history of the death penalty in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pa. This website is dedicated to collecting, analyzing, and sharing information about all Allegheny County cases in which a death sentence was imposed. Please share any questions or comments, errors or omissions, or other matters of interest related to these cases or to the broader history of the death penalty in Allegheny County.

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