America’s Worst Pirates

At the Point of a Cutlass

The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton

Sailing with America’s Worst Pirates

At the Point of a Cutlass presents the most detailed picture to date of the horrific pirates that captured Ashton. Even as Ashton was marooned on the island of Roatan, those pirates continued to wreak havoc on the Atlantic. The crew was an ever-expanding band of brutal men — initially led by the captain Edward Low, who transformed the deck of a captured ship into a slaughterhouse, and later by several of Low’s quartermasters, Charles Harris and Francis Spriggs, who served as masters of their own vessels. Harris was captured after a celebrated, twelve-hour battle with the British warship Greyhound off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island, but Spriggs abandoned Low and went on to terrorize vessels throughout the Bay of Honduras. Several of Spriggs’ own men soon set out in command of their own vessels, including Philip Lyne, who boasted he killed thirty-seven sea captains before was caught and hanged at the island of Curacao, and Joseph Cooper, who blew up the cabin of his sloop with a barrel of gunpowder as men from a Royal Navy warship were rushing aboard to capture him.


Edward Low

The captain of the pirate crew that captured Philip Ashton was named Edward Low. While Low is nowhere as well-known today as pirates like Blackbeard, he remains one of the worst of the pirates of his era. Low and his crew marked the pinnacle of the Golden Age of Piracy — both in terms of number of ships plundered and the brutal forms of torture they unleashed on the men they captured. Either a natural-born killer or a raving psychopath, Low thought nothing of slicing off a prisoner’s ear or lips and roasting them over a fire while the bloodied victim watched. The captain of one British warship called Low “the most noted pirate in America” and a colonial official said of Low, “a greater monster never infested the seas.” Like most pirates of the early eighteenth century, Low’s crew sailed in small fleets, consisting of just one or two ships, and they would attack any ship, from any country, that they felt they could capture and defeat. See map of Low’s voyage.


Francis Spriggs

In time, Low’s own crew would desert him because of the sick cruelty he unleashed on captives. One of Low’s successors was his quartermaster, Francis Spriggs, who was far from a gentle soul himself. At one point, Spriggs threatened to hang the captive Philip Ashton for plotting to overthrow the pirate crew. Spriggs was best known among captives for a terrifying gauntlet known as the “sweat.” A group of men — both captives and pirates — would stand around the base of one of the ship’s tall masts. A ring of candles was placed around the mast and, a few feet further out, the pirates who were gathered there formed a circle. Captives were made to run in circles around the mast while the pirates each jabbed and poked him with their weapons — an assortment of swords, long knives, pitchforks, and sticks.

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