John Gow was born in 1698, or thereabout, in Wick, Caithness, in the far north of Scotland and raised in Stromness, Orkney Mainland, Scotland. Growing up in a port town, it is not surprising Gow was lured to a seaman’s life. Some local traditional stories claim he ran away to the sea. Others suggest he started his mariner career on trading ships. No one is really sure. There is not much about Gow before he officially became labeled a pirate in 1724.
In August of 1724, he joined the crew of Captain Freneau’s Caroline bound for Santa Cruz. He must have impressed the captain as Gow was quickly appointed second mate and gunner. By the time they reached the island, there was already growing unrest among the men. The food rations and living conditions were bad and reportedly there was maltreatment by the ship’s officers. After several weeks in Santa Cruz, the Caroline, loaded with beeswax, leather, and woolens, set a course to Genoa, Italy. Captain Freneau was well aware of the crew’s discontent. Despite that the captain had said complaints would be redressed, there were crewmen openly disobeying his orders. Freneau, recognizing the danger, took proactive measures and had small arms placed in the cabin for defense and enforcing discipline. But this was to no avail. Gow and other conspirators caught wind and decided on immediate action. That night after the evening prayer when half of the crew retired, mutineers cut the throats of the surgeon, first mate, and supercargo. The surgeon managed to make it topside where, by some accounts, he was shot. The commotion alerted Freneau on deck. The captain was stabbed in the neck by one of the mutineers, shot in the stomach twice (or more, emptying an entire brace) by Gow, and tossed overboard. The ship was now under the control of the mutineers. Gow, fancying being a pirate, found his opportunity and his co-conspirators agreed to commence in the trade. Gow was elected captain and he renamed the ship Revenge.
The January of 1725, the Revenge, now called George, reached Orkney. Gow passed himself off as a wealthy trader named Mr. Smith. No points for originality. It wasn’t long before Gow and some of his men were recognized by another merchant and everything began to unravel. As word got around of Gow’s true identity and purpose, several of his men deserted him and fled to the Scottish mainland. One bought a horse and fled to Kirkwall, claiming he was forced to be listed in the service of the devil, and warned the authorities of Gow’s plans.
Regardless of being ousted, Gow would not surrender and instead launched his attacks.
Gow stormed the Hall of Clestrain. Depending on which account is read, the raid either was successful in their plunder or the valuables had been hidden and the thieves made off with nothing but a handful of silver spoons. Upon the pirates’ exit, they kidnapped two girls. Stories conflict on the fate of the girls. Some say they were released the next day laden with gifts. Others claim the girls were horrifically abused, one dying from her injuries.
Gow wasn’t done. He set his sights on the Carrick House on Eday. Winds and tide carried the Revenge too close to shore and the ship was grounded. James Fea, the resident of the manor and not-so-coincidentally an old schoolmate of Gow’s, managed to perpetuate any negotiations and, with the aid of only a few men, captured the pirate and his twenty-seven crewmen.
|Never taunt the man with nothing to lose.|
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But the story doesn’t end there. Gow’s rope didn’t break his neck when he fell and he was slow to die, nearly four minutes according to one report. Friends (or the executioner) had pulled upon his legs to speed up his death causing the rope to break. Gow, of his own accord, climbed the gallows again to be hung a second and final time.
The Orkney Pirate and his men were tarred and hung in chains over the bank of the Thames River.
Who really knows the incidental details of John Gow. No matter the tale, whether he was gentlemanly and charitable or not in his dealings, there is no doubt he was a murderer, a thief, a pirate.