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Dead Men Tell No Tales (Book Review)

Dead Men Tell No Tales (University of South Carolina Press: 2007) by Joseph Gibbs tells the story of the life and legend of the pirate Charles Gibbs. Even before his execution on New York’s Ellis Island in 1831 for piracy on the Vineyard, Charles Gibbs ensured the longevity of his legacy by spinning a web of tales that remain the basis of his legend today.

In this book, Joseph Gibbs (no relation) follows a growing tradition in the study of piracy by attempting to unpick, decipher, and debunk the myths the pirate wove about himself. This is no easy task. He begins at the beginning: establishing the pirate’s real name. Charles Gibbs himself openly acknowledged he used a pseudonym and towards the end of his life, allegedly told a few people his ‘real’ name. Joseph Gibbs provides evidence to support Gibb’s claim that his real name was James D. Jeffers. Yet in what is the source of many a frustration for historians, not just pirate-related ones, the details do not all add up. The Jeffers family were a prominent Rhode Islanders in the early 1800s and they did have a son called James, born in 1798. By the time of his death, this James Jeffers would have been around thirty, fitting the age of ‘Charles Gibbs’. Yet, if Jeffers’ piratical exploit stories held even a grain of truth – and Gibbs shows that there is something there - James Jeffers managed to ascend to the top of the strict hierarchy of early 19th century crews at an unlikely and unprecedented rate: captaining his first privateering ship in his early twenties.

Today, Charles Gibbs’ pirate legend carried the tag of the ‘good guy turned bad’. One aspect that survives is how he fought valiantly for the Americans war in their war with the British in 1812. Joseph Gibbs’ shows that here the name conundrum strikes again. There was a ‘Jeffries’ but not a ‘Jeffers’. Was this just semantics or poor spelling on the part of the American Navy or a completely different person? If Joseph Gibbs doesn’t know, we never will.

This is just one example of how Gibbs weaves together an interesting narrative out of the scant facts available to him. To fill out the narrative holes, Gibbs provides an appreciated and little known context to Jeffers exploits as a pirate in the Caribbean sea one hundred years after the Golden Age. These pirates, according to Gibbs, were far more vicious and murderous than their predecessors. Gibbs deftly explains the extent of Atlantic piracy in the 1820s and Jeffers participation in it. Not much is written about this era, so it’s worth checking the book out for this alone.

According to Gibbs, the romantic elements of the Gibbs/Jeffers story seem to hold some weight. In the story of the mysterious Dutch woman taken captive by Jeffers, Gibbs is unable to shed light on her identity. However, it appears that regret over her demise was one of only two regrets Jeffers took to his execution. The other was the more relatable lifelong feeling we all have of disappointing our parents. Gibbs also shows that Jeffers also had a doomed love affair with a Liverpool-based woman who betrayed him yet somehow inexplicably wound up in the same American prison as him. There may also have been an illegitimate child in the mix too. As always with these stories, the details that can’t be proven are the most intriguing.

My only criticism of this book is its title. It’s very fitting but unfortunately once a Pirates of the Caribbean movie commanders your book title, you are relegated to the depths of Google searches.

Overall this is a trim book, enjoyable to read and accessible for the general piracy enthusiast.

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