A Psychopath Pirate?

On the 26th of August 1735, Richard Coyle of London led 3 of his fellow mariners in a piratical revolt against the Captain Benjamin Hartley. The ship they crewed, the St. John Pink of Yarmouth, had sailed 20 leagues out of Padras in Turkey with a cargo of corn for Leghorn, Italy. The crew conspired to kill the Captain and seize his possessions. The root jealousy behind this was common to a world where poor labouring sailors, with uncertain work prospects were regularly thrown into isolated situations with wealthy merchant captains and apprentices. Coyle also had a personal quarrel with the captain that he drew the other sailors into.

When they attacked Hartley, he fled up the rigging. Coyle shot at him with a blunderbuss, that had ironically been loaded to deal with Turkish pirates, but it misfired. Eventually they coaxed him down, and threw him over the side of the ship. Hartley clung on to the side still so Coyle hit him over the head with a chicken feed trough to try and dislodge him. This failing, John Richardson struck him on the head with an axe. The Captain fell into the sea and immediately drowned.

Coyle took command of the ship and they sailed to the Spanish island of Foviniano for supplies and liquor. On the way there, they raided the Captain’s cabin. Coyle took to dressing in Hartley’s clothes, and playing the part of Captain. At Foviniano the ship apprentices, who had played no part in the revolt, snuck away in the night and informed the authorities of what had occurred. While the apprentices had not been harmed, they had been threatened with starvation. The mutinous crew realised what had happened and fled in a longboat to Tunis in North Africa. Here Coyle was caught, Richardson had the wits to flee instead of getting drunk, but would be caught and tried in good course too.

‘the life of Richardson was such a continued scene of irregularity, deception, and fraud, as is almost unequalled. His treachery to the many unhappy women of whom he pretended to be enamoured was, alone, deserving of the fate which finally fell to his lot.’

Despite not leading the mutiny, John Richardson is the most fascinating of the pirates, Coyle merely seems to have been a disgruntled drunk by comparison. A lengthy account of Richardson’s life appears in the Newgate Calendar, a book compiling the lives of criminals. It was found in many English homes of the day and was read to children to keep them on the straight and narrow. Though fictional figures such as Sawney Bean eventually found their way into the book, the book agrees with the trial on details of Richardson’s life. Furthermore, none of Richardson’s previous offences relate to piracy or murder, the most obvious inventions given the crime he was tried for. Richardson lived an extremely full life, travelling in America, Europe and parts of Africa. But his life is especially interesting because he strongly fits the profile of a psychopath.

Psychopaths are people without conscience. They are often charming in person but it masks an inability to feel most meaningful emotions including remorse or empathy. Finding no satisfaction in relationships or work, they are prone to boredom and impulsive actions. In fact, they are poor at planning things all together and often act headless of consequences. This can make them very dangerous, most people are prevented from committing crimes by empathy and fear of punishment, not so with the psychopath.

Psychopaths may con, steal, manipulate, lie, and turn to violence simply because they see no reason not to. Only a tiny number of psychopaths are serial killers, though most serial killers are psychopaths. And they can easily be dangerous in other ways, they make up an abnormally high percentage of the prison population. Psychopathic behaviours have been observed in individuals throughout history even though the diagnosis is relatively new. New research strongly suggests abnormal activity in the emotional centre of the brain causes psychopathy, further suggesting it is not limited to our modern society.

Psychopathic traits are assessed on Hare’s Psychopath Checklist. It lists 20 traits which are rated between 0 and 2. A score of 0 means the trait is not present, 1 means it is present in some areas of their life, 2 means it is present in many areas of their life. Most people will have some psychopathic traits without scoring high enough to be considered a psychopath. To be considered a psychopath you must score 30 or more, meaning at least 10 of the traits apply to all areas of your life. There is simply not enough information on Richardson’s emotional life to effectively score him on the checklist. However, many of his behaviours match those expected of a psychopath so I will still make reference to psychopathic traits throughout his life story.

Not much is known about Richardson’s early life which immediately poses problems. Two of the criteria on the Hare Checklist are Early Behavioural Problems and Juvenile Delinquency. Court Records and the Newgate Calendar both agree that he was born in colonial New York, probably sometime after 1700. He was schooled until he was 14 when he apprenticed as a cooper under his brother. He didn’t like this work so he boarded a merchant vessel out of there. Throughout his life he seems to have travelled to different countries by ship at little notice, implying the Impulsivity often seen in psychopaths.

He spent his late teens at an unknown location in America or the Caribbean training as a carpenter. After 5 years, he got his master’s daughter pregnant and fled to Jamaica. This was the beginning of a pattern of Promiscuous Sexual Behaviour and Irresponsibility, characteristic of a psychopath, that he repeated again and again without change.

At this time Jamaica, especially Port Royal, was a haven for pirates and privateers. Richardson may well have fallen in with them if he had been there longer. As it was he was caught by a press gang, but he probably had a chance to rub shoulders with a few pirates first. Press gangs roamed port towns in both England and the Caribbean, forcibly recruiting men to the navy. This could mean men were spirited across the Atlantic Ocean with no notice or choice, Richardson was brought to Chatham, England on a man of war. There he found lodgings at Horsleydown, London and quickly exhausted his wages.  Now being used to life at sea he found work as a boatswain on a ship headed to the Baltic sea.

It’s common for psychopaths to grow bored easily, and this seems to have happened to Richardson on this voyage. Somewhere on the west coast of Europe he found out that the ship’s captain had a rich merchant friend in the city. He took this opportunity to commit his first known crime. He forged a letter from the captain asking for money and delivered it to the merchant himself. In this way, he conned the merchant out of 100 silver pieces. A penchant for Conning and Manipulation is another common trait of psychopaths. He then quickly changed ships to a Dutch vessel headed to Amsterdam.

In Amsterdam, Richardson seduced and lived with the wife of a sailor for 8 months. At the end of this period her husband was close to returning and she told him he had to leave. By way of a farewell he took her to a play then got her drunk at a tavern, once he’d made sure she was passed out in bed he stole her husband’s keys. Her husband worked for the Dutch East India Company, and Richardson used his keys to steal £200 of goods from a warehouse of theirs. Returning to the house he also stole £60 worth of goods from her drawers. By switching between different kinds of crimes Richardson displayed the psychopathic trait known as Criminal Versatility, psychopaths have no regard for the law or commonly held morality so they are likely to commit a wider variety of crimes than regular criminals. Years later Richardson would run into the woman he’d stolen from in Amsterdam, but she couldn’t accuse him for fear of revealing their affair.

Having amassed a small fortune in stolen goods, Richardson first travelled to Rotterdam, but soon returned to America with ambitions of finding a rich, landed wife. He arrived at Boston and found lodgings with a farmer. Between his charm and new-found wealth, he managed to secure many invitations to Christmas dinner that year. He chose the offer of a Mr Brown due to his 3 pretty daughters and 4 maidservants. He presented them with stolen Indian handkerchiefs. The story of what follows is probably a partial lie, it seems Richardson later claimed that he got all 3 of the girls pregnant which seems more like an exaggeration than reality. Pathological Lying is another psychopathic trait. While Richardson often lied to con or manipulate this is the only evidence of him lying to no real end, which is what Pathological Lying tends to entail. However this trait is only implied by the sources, not stated, so its presence is uncertain.

In New England Richardson was to marry the daughter of a local Justice of the Peace. The wedding was scuppered when he was confronted by the Brown sisters, one of whom was pregnant by him. Strangely the JP still wanted his daughter married to him. Perhaps she was pregnant also? Since the wedding had already been delayed, Richardson hesitated so as to secure a small dowry. They were married in a church 40 miles away from the one they had tried last time. Psychopaths have a habit of entering into many Short-Term Marital Relationships. Perhaps they do not see marriage as special because they don’t understand love. If you ask a psychopath if they’ve ever been in love they will talk about sex instead. Predictably Richardson quickly bailed on his first marriage after he was confronted by friends of the Brown sisters demanding money. He told his wife and her family he would spend 3 months in New York building a ship. Instead he went to Boston and never came back.

In Boston, he spent his money ‘amongst the worst kind of company’ which probably means drinking, gambling and/or whoring. Once he ran out of money he convinced an elderly Quaker shipbuilder to take him on in good faith. He quickly got into trouble when the Quaker suspected him of trying to seduce his young wife. Richardson started demanding his wages from the Quaker and threatened to sue him until he got them. When the Quaker went on a trip his wife faked illness to stay at home. Richardson slept with her right until the Quaker was due to return, then as in Amsterdam, stole £70 from a chest in the house and fled by ship. This time to Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia, he lodged with an elderly widow and her two daughters who he took on the appearance of a fatherly role towards. However, 4 months later he was caught trying to seduce one of them. Richardson lied and said he just had a special affection for her, but it soon became clear the other daughter was pregnant by him. He offered to marry one of the daughters if the other was married off first, once this was done he demanded money to marry her. Upon receiving £100 he fled to South Carolina.

In South Carolina, he befriended a Captain Roberts, and sailed with him to Jamaica and back as his mate and a carpenter. After the voyage, Richardson was hired by him to guard the ship and this is how he came to be invited to a birthday for the ship owner’s daughter. The Newgate Calendar has him attracting the birthday girl’s attention by dancing and singing, but he was probably also very charming. Throughout his life, Richardson easily earned the trust of women and employers without having any qualms about stealing from them abandoning them. This suggests a Glibness or a Superficial Charm considered indicative of psychopathy. After a brief courtship, she agreed to visit him at the ship while her family slept, this went on for a fortnight. As per usual she got pregnant and her father made him marry her. He would probably have fled the marriage eventually but when his new father-in-law sent him on a trading mission to Barbados, fate intervened. The ship was lost in a storm.

The crew drifted in a lifeboat for days before a ship picked them up and took them to the island of St Kitts. Here Richardson’s learned from a Captain Jones that one of his wives had died ‘of a broken heart’. This gives us a rare insight into his emotional life, apparently combined with the loss of the ship the death of his wife ‘drove him distracted’, and he spent 4 months in bed. This suggests he didn’t have the Shallow Affect, or muted emotions common to psychopaths. However, such grief for his wife doesn’t fit with the picture of a man who regularly abandoned wives, used them for money, and showed no interest in his children. I’m inclined to regard his grief with scepticism, but I will give it some credence so as not to force my psychopath theory too strongly.

Richardson served for 5 months as mate to the Captain who had saved his lifeboat. After that, he quit and sailed to Antigua where he befriended and conned a young gentleman. Pretending he had lost his purse he convinced the young man he was the son of Governor Richardson of Meovis. In this way, he conned the man’s father out of 200 pistoles. At Port Royale in Jamaica he bought and borrowed goods from a Jewish merchant, then shipped them to Carthagena without ever paying him back. Next, he sailed to Vera Cruz before crossing the Atlantic back to England

Here he found lodgings with Thomas Ballard, a publican. Richardson had an uncanny resemblance to Ballard’s brother who’d been abroad for many years. Ballard became convinced Richardson was his brother something Richardson exploited to live well. Throughout his life, Richardson exploited the work of others through cons, theft and manipulation. But, his life with the Ballard’s is the clearest example of Richardson living what Hare called a Parasitic Lifestyle. Thomas convinced his sisters that Richardson was their brother. Richardson lived with the sisters awhile in Sittingbourne, happily ‘inheriting’ £20 and a horse from their mother.

While in Sittingbourne Richardson became friendly with an Anne Knolding, who was likely ill because he charmed her into entrusted him with some of her estates and finances. He mortgaged her estate in Chatham then went to Gravesend and caught a ship to Venice. In Venice he hired a house and didn’t work until his money was running low. When he was forced to work he sold his property and went to Acona. Here he became a carpenter on a ship that was then trading pilchards. The Captain was Benjamin Hartley, the man he was soon to kill.

It took little effort on Richard Coyle’s behalf to draw Richardson into his murderous plot at short notice, yet more evidence of his Impulsivity. None of the other plotters were as violent as Richardson. John Davison was busy steering the ship and Caleb Larson was tempted to spare the Captain. Richard Coyle was more aggressive, firing a blunderbuss to scare or wound the Captain, then trying to knock him off the side of the ship with a chicken feed trough. But if he had knocked him off with this Hartley would probably have survived. It was Richardson who struck the Captain repeatedly with an axe, which according to one account spilled his brains out. It was Richardson who ultimately knocked the Captain into the sea with a wound so bad he instantly sunk and drowned.

Richardson also showed aggressive behaviours towards his fellow mutineers. When Larson almost forgave the Captain, Richardson threatened to cut Larson’s hand off or cleave his head open. After the Captain had been killed, Richardson started shouting at Davison for steering the ship instead of helping. Every account of Richardson’s behaviour on the ship is full of shouting and threats, even Coyle who lead the plot considered him ‘an ill man’. His temper and propensity for violence speaks to Poor Behavioural Controls, at least around the time of the attack.

After the killers fled Foviniano, Richardson quickly resumed his former life. At Tunis he conned money out of the British consul and fled to Tripoli, then he conned a further £20 from a merchant at Leghorn. He was finally caught in Messina, but wrote an audacious letter to the King of Naples that got him freed. In it he claimed he had been a servant of the King’s father. Around this time, Richardson claimed he converted to Catholicism, and he decided to travel to the Vatican City in Rome. He thought he could get a job on the Pope’s barges despite being a wanted criminal. This speaks to two psychopathic traits. Firstly, it indicates a Lack of Realistic, Long-Term Goals. Secondly, his desire to associate himself with Kings and Popes seems to suggest a Grandiose Sense of Self-Worth, as perhaps does his early attempts to marry into land in America.

Richardson was caught again at Lisbon, on his way to Rome. This time he was shipped back to London to face trial and then execution. Psychopaths generally don’t worry about anything, they are completely without anxiety. Like many psychopaths on death row Richardson was utterly indifferent to his impending execution. Along with Coyle he was hanged at Execution Dock on the 25th of January, 1738

I score Richardson between 18 and 21 on the psychopath checklist from the events in his life. The range in scores depends on whether you believe he lied about impregnating all of the Brown girls, and whether you think he felt grief over the death of his wife. His score is not in the psychopathic range but is significantly above the average score. Most importantly though, we are lacking almost any insight into his youth or emotional life, meaning it is impossible to assess 5 of the traits. If information on his emotional life was available other traits might receive higher scores too. In summary with have an account of a man’s life that deals with actions but not emotions. There is little evidence he thought like a psychopath but there is abundant evidence that he acted like one. Is it not telling that the only areas he significantly lacks in psychopathic traits, are those that are not recorded? We can’t prove the thinking behind his actions, but the pattern of behaviour speaks pretty strongly for itself.

Modern psychopaths tend to be drifters, moving from place to place impulsively. It’s reasonable to assume many psychopaths in the 1700s would have boarded ships at little notice with vague notions of getting rich quick. While psychopaths often struggle to hold a steady job, the isolated strictures of a ship would have given them little alternative for months at a time. With a sizeable pay check, they would then be released into a new city with authorities and victims that had never heard of them before. It seems likely that many psychopaths of the time would be drawn to the life of seafarers. Hundreds or even thousands of men with no moral or legal objections to violence could have been sailing the Mediterranean and Caribbean, ready to go along with any pirate mutiny that might occur.



  • Kiehl, The Psychopath Whisperer: Inside the Minds of Those Without a Conscience (London: Oneworld Publications, 2015)

Online Sources:

  • JOHN RICHARDSON AND RICHARD COYLE. Available online: http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng422.htm [Accessed: 23/04/2017].
  • Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 23 April 2017), February 1737 (f17370224-1).
  • Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 23 April 2017), February 1737 (s17370224-1).
  • Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 23 April 2017), February 1737, trial of Richard Coyle (t17370224-1).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s