John Desfarges and Robert Johnston

John (Jean) Desfarges was captain of the schooner Bravo (Le Brave), part of famed Jean Lafitte’s fleet of pirate ships plying the Gulf of Mexico in the early 1800s. Robert Johnston served as his first mate. Sixteen other sailors – Peter Morel, Charles Dickinson, Louis Pierre, Gervin Conchal, John McGee, Louis Phillip, John Frickhart, John Cousins, Ephraim Tompkins, Isaac Tillet, Thomas Thompson, Laurence Pagas, Joseph Walker, Juan Rayner, Julian Seddoner, and William McClure – were also aboard.

Opposing the piracy and smuggling that were so active across the Gulf were U.S. Revenue Cutters, whose powers had been expanded by federal legislation – the Piracy Act of 1819 – enacted on March 3, 1819.

The Louisiana and Alabama were sleek, newly-commissioned Revenue Cutters designed to interdict smugglers. Among the first encounters of the Louisiana, in September 1819, was with Bravo near the Dry Tortugas in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

After a gun battle, officers from Louisiana boarded Bravo and captured its crew. The Alabama assisted in the capture.

The crew of the Bravo were tried in the U.S. District Court for the District of Louisiana in New Orleans in November 1819. Desfarges was convicted of piracy on November 19. The other defendants were convicted of the same charges on November 22. All of the men were sentenced to death on December 30.

On April 3, 1820, President James Monroe issued death warrants for fifteen of the defendants. Death warrants for Desfarges and Johnston were issued later. One of the defendants – a fifteen-year old – was subsequently pardoned.

Amidst local sympathy for the defendants, there were several armed attempts to free them. Troop reinforcements were ordered to guard the jail.

John Desfarges and Robert Johnston were hanged aboard the Revenue Cutter Louisiana in the Mississippi River at New Orleans on May 25, 1820.

York (Pa.) Gazette, June 27, 1820

The other executions were first respited and then, on July 5, 1820, all of those sentenced to death were granted an open-ended reprieve. Between October 1820 and January 1822, the remaining defendants were pardoned.

Lafitte soon relocated his base of operations to Mexico, apparently in response to more aggressive American enforcement operations.

“Hanging Le Brave: U.S. Revenue Cutter Antipiratical Operations in the Gulf of Mexico, 1819” by William R. Wells provided valuable information about this case.

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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