My Cousin the Pirate

History Lifestyle Impacts

Yes, you’re reading that right. My cousin, Captain Richard Worley, was an honest-to-goodness pirate. Well, technically in genealogical parlance, he was my first cousin – eight times removed. But my cousin still.

His name was Richard Worley. He was born to Daniel Worley and Mary Penington in England in 1686 or 1687. (Daniel Worley’s older brother, Henry, was my eighth great-grandfather. I discussed Henry and his death in London in a previous post.)

Worley’s Pirate Beginnings

Captain Richard Worley, my pirate cousin
A contemporary woodcut of Captain Richard Worley

Nothing is known of Richard’s history until he arrived in New York in 1718. In September of that year, he began the life of a pirate with a leaky, open boat and a crew of eight men. Because of the condition of their boat, they sailed along the shore until they reached the mouth of the Delaware River. They then sailed upriver as far as Newcastle looking for a prize.

They found one in the form of a shallop,  a light sailboat used for coastal trading. The buccaneers seized the small boat, which was loaded with household goods. After taking a portion of the cargo, they allowed the boat to continue on its way. Interestingly, this action was not considered piracy but rather burglary, since it did not take place on the open sea.

The next prize, a sloop out of Philadelphia, was more of a true prize. They seized the ship and its cargo. Four of the sloop’s crew decided to join the pirates. Two days later, they took another sloop which Worley felt was more to his liking and transferred to it.

The Hunter Becomes the Hunted

About this time, the royal governor issued a  proclamation for the apprehension of all pirates. The Phoenix, a 20 gun ship, was ordered out to enforce this provision. However, Captain Worley had learned of the proclamation and headed out to sea. By doing so, he avoided the Phoenix, which was searching for him in coastal waters.

They fled to the Bahamas where, in a period of six weeks, the pirates sank a sloop from New York and looted a brigantine, which they then released.  Worley’s crew now numbered 25 and he had mounted six guns on his ship.

The Flag

While in the Bahamas, Worley had seen a flag used by a local group of raiders. He was impressed with the design and modified it for his own use. The flag that he designed, a black banner with a smiling skull and crossed bones on it, became the standard ensign of pirates by 1724.

Captain Worley's pirate flag
Captain Worley’s original ‘Jolly Roger’ flag

Back in Action

After leaving the Bahamas, Worley and his crew began working their way back towards Virginia. Soon, they captured a ship called the Eagle which was inbound to the colonies from London. With the Eagle in convoy, Worley headed for Charleston. At that moment, the Royal Governor of Charleston, Robert Johnston, was assembling a convoy to capture him and other pirates.

While Johnston was assembling his war flotilla, Worley arrived outside Charleston. He sent a signal to request a pilot to assist in guiding his ship and the Eagle into the harbor. However, officials in Charleston, believing the ships to be another pirate of the era, Christopher Moody, refused to acknowledge the signal. Worley’s ships laid off the harbor but several times approached Sullivan’s Island for water. Each time, the patrol warned them off.

A Magnificent Deception

Governor Johnston finally succeeded in enlisting three hundred volunteers to man three ships, the Philadelphia, the Revenge, and the King William. At daybreak, the ships weighed anchor and by 8:00 AM, were outside the harbor.

Johnston had ordered the ships’ gun ports to be closed and that no show of force be made. Believing the ships to be a flotilla of merchants, Worley slipped his moorings. He chose the Philadelphia as his first victim and hoisted his black flag.

As Worley approached within half a gunshot distance, Johnston ordered all gun-ports thrown open. All his volunteers manned the decks. The Revenge also joined the fight.

The two heavily armed ships made short work of Worley’s smaller vessel, while Charleston residents gathered on their rooftops to watch. All of the pirate crew except Captain Worley and one sailor were killed. Both of them were seriously injured.

A Speedy Trial

But Governor Johnston was not finished. He did not want the notorious pirate to ‘escape justice.’ So he ordered that Worley be immediately taken ashore in a small boat. There, a court was hastily convened. The next morning, February 17, 1719, Captain Richard Worley was tried on the docks of Charleston harbor and convicted of piracy. He was immediately hanged on the dock before he could succumb to his battle injuries.

Despite his short tenure — Richard Worley was only a pirate for five months — he is now listed as the 12th most successful pirate of the Golden Age of Piracy, the late 1600s to early 1700s. Most of his loot — probably secreted somewhere in the Bahamas — was never recovered.

But my cousin’s enduring legacy is that he was the originator of the ‘Jolly Roger.’

Mike Worley

Mike is retired and lives in Louisville, KY USA. He writes about lifestyle issues. He also enjoys photography and works part-time as a college volleyball official.