AUBURN — Shortly after 11 a.m. on a Friday at the end of August in 1858, a federal marshal and two ministers led a pair of men up the wooden stairs of a newly constructed double gallows at the Auburn city jail.

The inmates — a 68-year-old former slave from the Caribbean and a 28-year-old sailor with a mean streak — had run out of options following their conviction in a Portland federal courtroom for mutiny.

“I deserve the place,” the younger of the pair, Peter Williams, told the 7,000 people who began gathering at daylight to gawk at the spectacle.

The other, gray-haired Abraham Cox, said moments before his death that “if this jail and that courthouse were a lump of gold, and were mine, I would give it, could it deliver me from having done what I did.”

With ankles and wrists bound, the men were covered by black robes before the hangman put nooses around their necks as they stood on the scaffold’s swinging door.

“I have killed them. I killed all four of them myself,” Williams shouted.

Moments before he plunged into eternity in one of the last executions to occur in the state of Maine, Williams insisted that an angel had just forgiven him.

This story, a unique piece of Auburn history, is an account of their almost forgotten fate, taken from contemporary news accounts and a court decision that cleared the way for their execution.

A DEADLY JOURNEY TO HAVANA

On July 7, 1857, a brig named the Albion Cooper, constructed in Bath, set out from Portland with a load of parts for making barrels.

Under the command of Capt. Daniel Humphrey of Yarmouth, the leaky ship had seven men aboard for the delivery to Cardenas, Cuba.

Cox, born on St. Martin’s in about 1790, was the ship’s cook. Williams, born in Belgium but an old hand at sea, served as an ordinary crew member.

During the voyage, Williams later said, the ship’s second mate, his immediate overseer, treated him so cruelly that, in a fit of anger, he stabbed the man — though the wound was not fatal.

The injured mate then drove a nail into a beam below decks and hung Williams from it so that his toes just touched the deck. In great pain, he eventually fainted.

Slapped in irons, Williams faced the likelihood of severe legal penalty when the ship arrived in a port where authorities could take action.

It didn’t end that way.

Instead, Williams somehow talked the cook, who fed him regularly, into joining him in a mutiny that would require taking over the vessel. They agreed to leave only one other person alive, a young Irish sailor named Thomas Fahey whom Williams apparently knew from prior service.

Fahey could read and had at least a little sense of how to navigate a ship.

In the mid-1800s, brigs were a common sight in ports around the world. This is a drawing of the Brig Amelia in 1850, a ship that likely looked similar to the Albion Cooper. (Mystic Seaport)

Late one night, as waves lapped against the hull, the mutineers’ plot unfolded.

Freed by Cox, Williams used a hatchet to bash in the captain’s skull while he slept on the main deck at about midnight on Aug. 29. Then he killed the “barbaric” and already injured second mate, the terrified first mate and another sailor they didn’t trust.

The four bodies were lashed together in old sails and dumped overboard somewhere off the Bahamas.

The two mutineers and Fahey remained aboard for a couple more days, trying to figure out a reasonable plan of action to save themselves.

Fahey did not trust the older men. He wrote an account of what had transpired and sewed it into his jacket in case Williams and Cox decided to kill him when they approached land rather than risk him spilling the beans.

Ultimately deciding they’d be better off without the ship, the pair set it on fire and escaped with Fahey on a small boat, determined to find an island where they could be safe.

RESCUED AT SEA

Before long, however, another brig came along, the Black Watch out of Philadelphia.

They told the captain their own vessel had caught fire and they were the only survivors, a plausible tale.

But Fahey quietly informed his rescuers of what had really transpired. The captain kept his secret, and continued to treat Williams and Cox with “the utmost kindness.”

When the Black Watch reached Havana’s harbor, though, he slapped the pair in irons and soon handed them over to the U.S. consulate in the Spanish colony. The two confessed to Thomas Savage, the vice consul, after Williams went a bit mad and believed he was seeing ghosts of the victims.

Not long after, the three survivors were put aboard the R.H. Wright for the trip back to Portland.

Fahey never made it. Like many traveling in less than ideal circumstances in those days, he died of yellow fever at sea several days before the vessel reached Maine.

With Fahey out of the picture, the two men retracted their confession, not that it helped them.

News of the mutiny arrived faster than the R.H. Wright. There was an effort by some to organize a lynching of the mutineers as soon as they arrived at the pier.

But they were scooted off to jail before anyone could get their hands on the two.

TRIED AND CONVICTED

In those days, justice may have been denied, but it wasn’t usually delayed.

By mid-March, the two had already been convicted of federal charges for “piratically, feloniously, willfully and of their malice aforethought” murdering at least one of the crew, Quinton D. Smith, on the high seas.

Before sentencing, the convicted men’s lawyers appealed the decision, arguing the court had no jurisdiction because the crime occurred beyond the borders of the United States.

An appeals judge, Nathan Clifford, ruled against them. He also rejected their claim that no murder could be proved because no victim’s body could be found.

It must be possible to convict a killer without a body, the judge wrote, or else homicide laws would be “insufficient to reach the secret offender, provided he has the opportunity and employs the means to destroy the body.”

Clifford said there was plenty of evidence they had killed the missing men.

For example, he said, the small boat on which they were found, taken back to Portland, was identified in court as belonging to the Albion Cooper.

The jury heard that it had been “tarred inside in a manner to indicate they had not left the vessel without preparation,” including a good supply of both water and provisions, the judge said.

In short, prosecutors showed, the pair hadn’t fled in a hurry from a burning vessel.

They also had in their possession, the ship’s compass, the captain’s watch, the ship’s register and clothing belonging to the other men.

Clifford said it was the kind of evidence that bolstered the case against the pair even if they had never confessed.

It wasn’t long before the two were sentenced to hang.

Because the jail in Cumberland County was under construction, the two were sent off to Auburn after their convictions.

They didn’t bother to maintain their innocence any longer.

While in Auburn, nine days before the hangings, the wife of the murdered first mate visited their cell.

One reporter said the scene “was sad indeed” and that “the deep penitence of Williams would have melted a man of steel itself.”

“On his knees he begged the forgiveness of the murdered man’s wife,” the account said, “while Cox, a colored man, maintained a stoical indifference, unmoved.”

As the execution day approached, The Boston Journal reported that “the citizens of Auburn and Lewiston greatly regretted the occurrence of the scene within their precincts, and some citizens are said to have closed their houses and left the town to avoid the disgusting spectacle of an execution” and the crowd that would gather to watch.

When the time came, though, the paper said, the hanging was conducted with the dignity of a solemn occasion by Auburn Marshal I.B. Kimball, a grocer.

Both men went to the gallows calmly, reporters noted, with two Lewiston ministers at their side, the Revs. H.B. Abbott of the Park Street Methodist Church and U. Balkman of the Pine Street Congregational Church, who read Cox’s confession to the crowd.

By 11:35 a.m. on Aug. 27, each of the killers was himself dead, not quite a year after they murdered their crew mates at sea.

CONFESSIONS RENDERED INTO POETRY

One thing that hasn’t changed about high-profile criminal cases is that they often become grist for public entertainment.

The mutineers’ final words as published by A.W. Harmon of Portland. (Library of Congress)

Since both of the killers admitted their crimes in front of 7,000 people — a quarter of them women, newspapers noted — their last-minute confessions beside the gallows received wide publicity.

Though Williams’ words were less than clear, the fact that both men came clean brought them some measure of respect at the time.

It also made it possible for A.W. Harmon, “an annoyingly prolific bad poet and printer in Portland,” as the Ten Pound Island Book Co. in Gloucester, Mass. described him in 2016, to render their words into poetry.

Harmon printed the “Last Words of Peter Williams and Abraham Cox” as a broadsheet that found its way into the Library of Congress and a number of private collections.

Those who want to read it can find it online in the Library of Congress’ digital offerings.

Here are the last verses of Williams’ confession:

My days I numbered by the year.
Now months and weeks pass by
And now appears that fatal day,
That I’m led out to die.

While I stand upon that fatal trap,
A warning take by me:
For ’tis not gold that always shines,
Shun thou bad company.

Farewell, vain world, I bid adieu!
Farewell those friends so kind;
Be cautious how you’re led astray
Into folly, vice and crime.

Auburn, 1858


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