A woman makes her way down the sand at Willard Beach in South Portland on Thursday, June 30, 2022. A group of pirates landed at the beach in 1788. One was later hanged in Portland in the first United States federal execution.

PORTLAND, Maine — The strangers landed their sloop at what’s now known as Willard Beach in South Portland in 1788. They came ashore with fine cloth, brass kettles and African ivory to trade for food.

Soon, they were sitting around a merry fire with the locals, swapping tall tales of adventure in far-off lands, beyond the sea. People liked the newcomers. They were interesting.

But the strangers had a secret.

They were pirates who’d killed their tyrannical captain, dumped him overboard, then made off with his ship and its booty.

One of the pirates, Thomas Bird, was later hanged at Portland in 1790, in the first federal execution carried out under the new court system created by the U.S. Constitution.

In the 232 years since then, the federal government has put 1,531 more people to death.

Bird was the 13th person executed by authorities in Maine.

His life, before his death at age 40, was eventful, reading like a Robert Louis Stevenson novel.

Bird was born in 1749 just outside the English port city of Bristol, on the banks of the river Avon. Bird’s parents sent him to school at age 8, but he soon ran off to sea with his uncle. He apprenticed with a Capt. John Smith — not the one you’re thinking of — for the next seven years before setting off on his own at 17.

For the next 10 years, Bird served on board a slew of ships, all sailing between West Africa and the West Indies, in the the slave trade.

When the American Revolution broke out, his British-flagged vessel was captured by an American privateer, and he was sent to Boston and then New York. After a prisoner exchange, Bird found himself back in Bristol, looking for work.

There, he was pressed into service by the Royal Navy but deserted 10 months later. Then, working on another merchant vessel, he was again captured by Americans.

Bird switched sides, sailing on rebel navy ships for nearly four years.

His American warship was eventually captured by the British near the end of the conflict. Bird served in the King’s navy two more times, deserting once.

He also sailed on several more slave-trading ships, survived a wreck in Tenrerife before finally signing on board the sloop Mary, in September 1787. It was the ship that would eventually lead Bird to his doom.

The Mary was not a large ship, at 50 or 60 feet long and about 30 feet wide at the waterline. Her master, Capt. John Connor, loaded his vessel with pots, kettles, calico fabric and knives to trade on the African coast for gold, ivory and slaves.

Connor had a reputation as a hard-driving captain with a ferocious temper. He showed it after his ship reached Cape Lahou, where modern-day Ivory Coast now stands, about nine weeks later, near Christmas 1787.

The captain sailed the Mary 50 miles or more inland, up several rivers but found no slaves for sale. Then, half his crew became incapacitated by tropical sicknesses. Connor was then forced to anchor his ship and wait for them to recover, losing money every day.

He spent much of his idle time drinking with other merchant vessel captains in similar situations. One night, he returned to his ship, drunk, finding nobody standing watch, he picked up a metal pump handle and beat his first mate to death.

Connor then ordered Bird to sew the dead man into his hammock and throw the body overboard.

Throughout the rest of 1788 and into January 1789, Connor sailed the Mary up and down the coast, making frustrating small deals for ivory and human slaves. But he never made the big score he was looking for.

Stymied, Connor was often drunk, terrorizing his crew, striking them with the pump handle and threatening to kill them.

That stopped on Jan. 23, 1789, when someone shot him in the night, then consigned his body to Davy Jones’ locker.

The remaining five crew members turned the ship around in the next morning, heading west. Their first landfall, six months later, was Matinicus Island. From there, they sailed to Thomaston, then came to anchor just off Willard Beach.

For three days, the famished sailors traded gun powder, knives, pans and ivory for food and drink from local Mainers. Prices were good and word soon spread of the fineries on sale at the beach.

The taxman was their downfall.

Someone reported their dealings to the authorities in Portland who came to investigate and collect what we’d now know as sales taxes.

But when the tax men arrived, they found that locals had helped the popular pirates escape. However, a few weeks later they were all apprehended after pulling the same shenanigans at Cape Porpoise, 25 miles south of their original position.

Authorities immediately assessed there was something fishy going on. The ragtag band of sailors trading such expensive items for food surely must have stolen it.

They were right and, after interviewing the men, discovered Connor’s murder.

Crewmen Josiah Jackson and Hans Hanson claimed Bird and another crew member named Huddy — who fell overboard on the Atlantic crossing — both shot the captain at the same time.

Bird admitted to the killing but claimed Huddy and Hanson shot Connor, as well.

The only other person on board the Mary at the time was a young African boy named Cuffee. He is not mentioned in any surviving documents and nobody knows what became of him after arriving in Maine.

Jackson was soon released.

Bird was indicted for murder, with Hanson as an accomplice, in the new federal court system, signed into law that September by President George Washington.

But it took months for the courts to swear in judges and establish themselves. Bird and Hanson didn’t go on trial until June 4, 1790.

The proceedings were moved from Portland’s courthouse to the First Parish Church on Congress Street to accommodate the crowds. It lasted less than a day, and the jury returned their verdicts before sundown.

Bird was guilty and Hanson was not.

The next morning, Bird was sentenced to die by hanging on June 25. His defense lawyers immediately sent a letter to the country’s first president, begging for clemency. Washington’s refusal came several days after Bird was already dead.

During his yearlong incarceration, Bird became friends with the family of Thomas Motley, the man in charge of the jail where he was kept. There, he carved wooden boats for the jailer’s seven children, to pass the time.

On the day of the execution, Mrs. Motley led her children far away from the crowds gathered to watch the spectacle, taking them to Back Cove, perhaps to play with the boats.

Bird was marched in a procession led by a local singer, belting out hymns, through what’s now Monument Square, to the nearby gallows. Though Portland’s population was only around 2,200 residents at the time, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people witnessed Bird’s death.

After he was hanged, Bird’s body was deposited in an unmarked grave in the Eastern Cemetery, where it still lies today.

Bird’s final statement, taken down by a local journalist on the morning of his death, was published in the local paper the next day.

The paper’s editor had wanted to sell it as a broadside at an additional cost. But when his subscribers got wind of the plan, they demanded the juicy news as part of the subscription they had already paid.

A testy editor’s note read, “The following account of the life and death of Thomas Bird is published merely to oblige some few of our kind readers who had rather quarrel with the printer than part with four coppers — although the money should be appropriated to the gratification of their own curiosity.”

This account was pieced together from several sources including Bird’s final statement, Jerry Genesio’s 2010 book “Portland Neck” and handwritten federal court records kept in Waltham, Massachusetts.

This story is part of an ongoing series examining Maine’s historic use of the death penalty.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.