Late last December, I decided to go ahead and do the “12 Challenge” that was going around Twitter: 12 months to read 12 books recommended by 12 friends. I specifically requested true crime and thrillers, looking for good books I haven’t read yet. I’ve finished my first selection from that list: Dark River: The Bloody Reign Of The Ohio River Pirates, by Robert Walsh and Wayne Clingman, recommended to me by Robert himself.
It’s a subject I knew nothing about. I read a lot of true crime, sure, from various centuries, but river pirates were new to me. I even looked through the indices of some of the surveys of murder in America that I’ve read to check for some of the names Walsh and Clingman mention, and nothing popped up. So at least I didn’t already read about these people and then forget them.
They cover multiple groups that worked along the Ohio River prior to 1850, and they all seem to be groups. River piracy wasn’t for loners, and it died out with the paddle steamers. Pirates depended on outnumbering their victims and being able to make a quick getaway.
There are different chapters for different groups, and some highlights include:
The Harpes, brothers – or maybe they were cousins – who get presented as “often been called America’s first serial killers.” This is where I first went to my other books, because … who? I’d never heard of them. But apparently river piracy wasn’t just for men who wanted to rob the rich. It was a good profession for men who just wanted to kill people.
James Ford, who was either “Lucky Luciano or Fagin with a Southern accent.” A lot of these pirates have a very mobster feel to them, and I don’t usually read books about the mob. The way to get around the law – aside from crossing the river and moving to land under control of another country entirely – was being the law, or at least paying those who had high positions.
The Potts Hill Gang, who may or may not have been fictional, but who had a very interesting story. Possible spoilers here: a son who had been kicked out of the gang decided to return years later, in disguise, to surprise his family. A “spotter,” sent out to gage the apparent wealth of travelers so the gang would take an unnecessary risk killing a poor man, decided the son looked like a good target. When the “stranger” came along, the father killed him. Which seemed fine, until rumors started that the son was supposed to have come back. In order to keep his wife from wailing that he’d committed filicide, the father dug up his latest victim so she could have a look … and positively identify her son. (Moral of the story: don’t try to trick pirates.)
There’s also some interesting information about forgery, a crime I also don’t usually read about. It’s very much situated in the time and place, between different countries and with changing/emerging laws to contend with, along with Regulators and lawmen and the rest.
It was an interesting read, although I think it’s pretty niche – these stories aren’t usually covered even in lengthy surveys of the history of crime in America. If that’s a crevice you’re interested in exploring, pick up a copy and dive in.
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