Cleveland Comhrá: Love and Betrayal

Cleveland Comhrá: Love and Betrayal
By Bob Carney

A woman left Ireland for America with her mother, father, brother and sisters on the ship “Issac Wright” in the year 1853. The family hoped to leave the hardships of Ireland behind them.

During the voyage, she became acquainted with a member of the crew named William, a handsome, charming American who was working as a carpenter aboard the ship. One day he visited the family, bringing an offering of bread. More visits and more gifts followed. When the family arrived in Manhattan, they found an apartment in the city and the sailor continued his visits, to her parents chagrin; there was just something about the man they found unsettling.

They soon moved north to Albany to escape the atmosphere of the Five Points area. The sailor followed, showing up every few weeks with gifts for the girl and her family. The two would walk or sit in the shade and talk for hours.

Sometimes, he would show up wealthy, other times broke; sometimes in good spirits, sometimes not. Her parents begged her to break it off, but she was already twenty-three and he loved her. They wed later that same year.

They settled in Connecticut, where he found work in a shop. He quickly grew tired of it and he persuaded her to move back to New York City, where he set her up in a small apartment and he returned to sea. A couple of voyages and they briefly returned to Connecticut before moving back to Manhattan and back to the sea.

When he returned from that last trip out, he brought back more money than she had ever seen, his share of the profits from a salvage job. Finally, they had the beginning of a new life together. She was overjoyed, they had just become parents and he was a wonderful father to their infant son.

Captain Burr was half-owner of the oyster sloop, “The E.A. Johnson. He sailed out of New York up the coast and purchase oysters to be resold back in the city, but he was in need of a fourth crew member, someone with experience.

When he interviewed William Johnson, he found the perfect man. William was strong and fit, polite, with years of experience. He had his own tools and could fix almost anything.

William was clean-cut and charismatic. Captain Burr hired him immediately. He would be a great addition to the crew, and Johnson moved aboard, preparing the ship to sail.

Four hours before dawn on March 21, 1860, a schooner, “The J.R. Mather, collided with something in the dark waters of the bay, shaking the crew. The captain rushed to the bridge and saw he had just run into a small sloop listing in the water with damage to it’s masts and sails.

At first he was full of anger, but then dread. There was no sign of life on board and no one answered when he called out. He was unable to investigate further, his own ship was badly damaged and he returned to the docks in Lower Manhattan for repairs.

An hour later, the crew of another schooner, “The Telegraph,” got a close up view of the sloop and identified it as “The E.A. Johnson”. A tugboat was called and the sloop was towed to port.

Ghost Ship
A crowd had gathered to see the ghost ship and the police investigation was done in plain view. The first thing police found was blood, a lot of blood. There appeared to be ax marks on the ceiling of the cabin.

From the evidence and blood trails, detectives believed the crew had been murdered and tossed overboard, the discovery of the fingers and thumb from the hand of one of the victims confirmed this. They were found where the victim had tried to hang on to the side of the ship until the murderer took his ax and sent him to his death.

Authorities soon determined that a man by the name of Albert Hicks was on board and observed with Captain Burr prior to the ship’s departure. A fantastic display of detective work and an incredible manhunt tracked Albert Hicks down in Rhode Island, where he was apprehended and returned to New York.

Prosecutors were certain they had their killer. Aside from the money he couldn’t explain, he was also in possesion of personal items that belonged to the crew. But, a murder conviction is highly unlikely with out bodies and no witnesses.

Theft charges would have him out of jail in a rather short amount of time. Since the crime occurred at sea, the charge of piracy was brought against Albert Hicks, a hanging offense if convicted.

The crime, the investigation and the trial preparation were big news, with the entire city talking about it. The trial went quickly and as expected, Albert Hicks was found guilty and senteced to death by hanging. Hicks realized there was no way out and looked for a way to make some money that he could leave for his wife and son.

A deal was made with P.T. Barnum, who paid $350 for a mask of his face that would be displayed in his wax museum, starting on the day of Hicks’ execution. Another deal was struck with reporters for his story. Somewhere in the three weeks leading up to his sentence being carried out, Hicks began talking to a priest,who urged him to make a full confession.

Mass Murder
When he decided to talk, he shocked everyone. He confessed to killing over a hundred people; he wasn’t sure of the exact number. Usually he used similar methods, hire on, become trusted, start a mutiny and steal the ship or it’s cargo; leave no witnesses. In his own words, “Dead men tell no tales.”

His life of crime lasted over twenty years. In 1860, at the age of forty, he knew he could not keep up that life;one more score, then he and his wife and child could start anew. Three weeks after his conviction, Albert Hicks was taken to Bedloe Island. Tens of thousands of people gathered in boats anchored in the harbor to watch the hanging.

With so many drinking, it had a carnival type atmospere. Hicks was wearing a custom made electric blue suit with anchors embroidered in gold on the sleeves. At 11:15, he was hoisted twenty feet into the air with a noose around his neck and dropped.

The body was removed and placed in a coffin; a tugboat delivered it to the customhouse dock where Mrs. Hicks  or Mrs. Johnson (we don’t know if she had any knowledge of Hicks’ life of crime before his arrest) was supposed to meet the body. But there was a mix up, and by the time it was figured out, Hicks was buried at Calvary Cemetary, a potters field.

No one knows what happened to his wife and child after that. Did she return to her family, or receive any of the money?  All written accounts that mentioned her at all, only refered to her as Mrs. Hicks; she was able to vanish and leave Albert Hicks/Willie Johnson behind.

Albert Hicks was the last person to be publicly hanged in New York and is considered it’s first gangster. His dress, mannerisms and attitude have been copied by many, and it is very easy to see the resemblance in those that have followed, especially in organized crime.

For more information, two books are a great start: Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury and The Last Pirate of New York by Rich Cohen

*Bob Carney is a student of Irish history and language and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday@ PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Morrighán and Rían and terrier Doolin  keep the house jumping. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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