Richard Clarke was no Ordinary Villian, The Capital, December 26, 1974, p. 30.
A Pirate Scheme to Burn Annapolis
By Hal Burdett
The mere mention of piracy conjures up romantic legends of adventure on the high seas- Robert Louis Stevenson's immortal Treasure Island, the exploits of Captain Kidd, ... Jean Lafitte or Errol Flynn swashbuckling through his dashing roles of the 1930s and 40s. But no one ever mentions Richard Clarke of Annapolis.
Richard Clarke is probably forgotten because he never made it in the big leagues of buccaneering along with the more illustrious Kidd, Lafitte, Edward Teach and Henry Morgan. And because recorded history is somewhat foggy on what finally became of Clarke, it is well within the realm of possibility that he never even got to raise the Skull and Crossbones. But none of this was due to a lack of effort on the part of Richard Clarke: he did, after all, manage to cause quite a furor within the General Assembly of Maryland in the early years of the 18th Century.
He is portrayed as a maniacal villain whose insatiable appetite for treasure was rivaled only by his unquenchable thirst for alcohol. But Richard Clarke was no common criminal. To class him as such would be to ignore the magnitude of his plotting and the enormity of his talent for enlisting support for his questionable cause.
To burn Annapolis
We also know that his alleged scheme to burn Annapolis, then the most important town in the Province of Maryland, and simultaneously plunder the local arsenal, thoroughly and understandably enraged the colony's proprietary government back in 1707.
Clarke is described as "having a flat nose, peaked chinn and underjaw outselling the upper." Thus, it is safe to assume that he did not rely upon a charismatic physical presence to attract his following. Chroniclers of the testimony in the case against Richard Clarke reported that greed motivated his co-conspirators, and that Clarke filled their pockets with counterfeit money that he coined himself.
Addressing the House of Delegates in Annapolis on March 27, 1707, the Royal Governor, John Seymour, charged that august body with the investigation of allegations against Clarke in tones that had all the fine subtlety of an executioner sharpening a new ax. Governor Seymour's request to the legislators, in fact, sounded more like an indictment. He emphasized that the crimes of Richard Clarke were "so notoriously aggravated, they cry aloud for justice."
Four days later, a five- member committee was selected to conduct the probe. And, on April 4, the House of Delegates issued a formal response to the Governor that clearly demonstrated its understanding of the full impact of his message.
The House reply asserted that its membership was well aware of
Great and dangerous designs which have been carrying on by wicked people, enemys to Her Majesty Government, to destroy the records, arms and ammunition of this town, and all that was necessary to render this Government safe and secure...
After profusely thanking the Governor for
the great care and prudence you have showed in the preservation of all those things, and the preventing (of) the effect to soe dangerous a conspiracy...
the House advised him to order the attorney general to prosecute everyone found to be connected with the crimes.
The investigatory committee, headed by Col. John Contee began tracing the intricate web of conspiracy and reporting findings to the House
The committee concluded "that Richard Clarke, Daniel Wells and a certaine person who term'd himself a saylor" had plotted
to take some vessell, and get what assistance they could...to disturb her Majesty's peace and government, here, to make an attempt upon the towne of Annapolis, and burn some houses here, and whilst that consternation continued, to seize the magazine and powder house to furnish themselves with arms and ammunition to goe a privateering...
According to the committee, Clarke and his cohorts got
several housekeepers of desperate fortunes and other disaffected persons...(and) several servants belonging to persons in and near the Towne of Annapolis and elsewhere to joine with them in their cursed and wicked designs and intent...
The report goes on to tell of secret strategy meetings held in Annapolis and plans to steal either "Mr. Tufts, boat" or "Mr. Evans Jones' Gallup" or "any other vessel or their turn, as soon as they had done their mischief here to go to Carolina."
Via South River
With the assistance of Daniel Wells "and the saylor" Clarke left Annapolis via the South River. Wells returned to town to prepare the other conspirators; but having spent some of the counterfeit money and fearing apprehension, he decided to follow Clarke after a meeting with William Simpson "at the House of Smithers in Annapolis."
Wells and "the saylor" made their way down the Chesapeake Bay. But five of the conspirators including Simpton whom the committee felt was a leading figure in the scheme, were caught and sent to prison.
The report of the committee said that Wells and the seaman, following Clarke, came to Long Island in the Bay where Clarke had been the day before. Armed with powder and shot and sailing a small boat, the two conspirators claimed they were under orders of the Sheriff of Anne Arundel County to pursue Clarke. Meanwhile the committee concluded Clarke had settled in News (sic) River in Carolina pretending to be a merchant and attempting to persuade the inhabitats to join him.
The House concurred in the committee's report and both Houses passed a bill for the attainder of Clarke on April 9. But this did not end the investigation ...which, if carried out, could have dealt a damaging blow to the entire province as well as Annapolis.
Captain Sylvester Welch was called before the Governor's Council to answer a charge of selling "the country's powder;" to Clarke's accomplices. He insisted he sold them only powder that belonged to him contending that what remained of three pounds of the country's power left in his charge could be found at his house but that he had fired the rest away. Governor Seyour said he did not belive Welch and promptly discharged the captain from his command.
Meanwhile, Major Josiah Wilson, high sheriff of Anne Arundel County, arrested John Spry, skipper of the sloop...Thomas Brereton and brought both before the council- They had recently arrived at South River from Virginia.
While neither was willing to confess to any role in a conspiracy, it was subsequently learned by the Council "that Clarke haunts...the Rosey crown, in Norfolk Towne."
Spry and Brereton eventually confessed that Clarke had sent them after his wife, children, and household goods and with a letter to Joseph Hill, who, they said, had given them assistance.
Hill, a member of the House of Delegates, was arrested by the Sheriff of Anne Arundel County and on April 10 was brought before the council where the depositions of Spry and Brereton were read to him.
Hill denied having seen Clarke in the past year and said he did not know of his whereabouts. The delegate also denied receiving a letter from Clarke, but Spry and Brereton were brought in and both identified Hill as the one to whom they had taken the letter.
On the following day, Hill was expelled from the House "till he be cleared of what is lay'd to his charge."
The act of attainder against Clarke, which said he "had obstinately refused to surrender himself to justice," was not his first problem with the law. Similar charges had been placed against him two years earlier.
There is no evidence in the court records of Anne Arundel County as to what punishment came to Clarke and his sympathizers. It has been theorized that Clark was never captured, but it is unclear whether or not he got very far with his and dangerous designs.
The uncharacteristic haste of the legislature to uncover the Clarke conspiracy very probably saved some boats from being stolen and some Annapolis homes from being burned. But Clarke, the would- be buccaneer of old Annapolis, remains an intriguing mystery ...