The murder of Captain Geoge Glas - the original inspiration for Treasure Island?

20 August 2018
11240930466_4e140a43e1_o-51379.jpg The murder of Captain John Glas - the original inspiration for Treasure Island?
History Scotland talks to David Kelly about a murder at sea, widely covered in mid 18th-century newspapers, which may have provided Robert Louis Stevenson with the inspiration for Treasure Island.

History Scotland talks to David Kelly about a murder at sea, widely covered in mid 18th-century newspapers, which may have provided Robert Louis Stevenson with the inspiration for Treasure Island.

The murder victim, Captain George Glas, was the son of Reverend John Glas, founder of the Glasite Church. The perpretrators of the crime were hung on an island off the coast of David's home town of Dublin.

David takes up the story...

How did you first come upon the story of the murder?

One of the truly great pleasures in my life was to walk down the pier in the seaside town of Dun Laoghaire, just south of Dublin with my father on a hot summer’s day. In the heat, he would be wearing a heavy tweed three-piece suit, a pressed shirt and a perfectly tied, silk bow-tie. “It’s exactly a mile down and back...” he would say with the pride of a man who smoked innumerable cigarettes every day. About half way down, the pier veers to the left as you pass a plaque erected to the memory of the writer Samuel Beckett, who was born and lived nearby.

The inscription from Krapp’s Last Tape reads: “ ... great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighthouse and the wind-gauge spinning like a propeller, clear to me at last...”

Having saluted the plaque, Dad would point out to the island that had now come into view from behind the headland. “Ah, that’s where they used to hang the pirates...” he would say mimicking his own father, before continuing his purposeful walk.

‘That’s where they used to hang the pirates’ was well known to people in the area but that was the extent of the story.

The quest begins

When my lovely dad passed away in 2012, I decided, for some unearthly reason to find out if they really did hang pirates out there and if so why? And so the journey began...

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With literally nothing to go on, I went to the local maritime museum where I found a simple reference to pirates who were hung there for a murder on the Earl of Sandwich. At last I had a clue, the ship’s name. In the National Library the vessel’s name gave me a date...1765. This key piece of information opened up the world of contemporary newspapers to me.  Scanning through the rolls of microfilm, I found article after article which slowly revealed the detail of the sad story.

The lighthouse at Dun LoaghaireFour men were to be executed in Dublin for the murder of a Captain George Glas (a well known man who had led quite an extraordinarily adventurous but short life) his family and various other persons on board a richly laden ship from Tenerife that was bound for London. The attack had happened off the south coast of Ireland where the pirates had killed everyone on board, scuttled the ship and rowed in a tender to a nearby beach where they had buried the vast treasure they had just stolen.

The notion was to return later with a larger boat to retrieve it before eventually dividing it up and going their own separate ways. Their journey overland to Dublin, where they expected to catch a safe passage to England was pure caper. They were eventually caught in the city where they “...did revel and riot in every excess congenial to their brutal manners.”

The execution

They were executed in early March 1766 after which their bodies were ‘hung in chains’ at various points around the city. Following complaints from the good citizens regarding the appalling smell produced by these ghoulish displays, they were removed. Two of them were buried at the low tide mark of the port, “...lying face down, for all eternity dwelling on their damnable contrivances.” The other two were ‘hung’ on the island, suspended from a gibbet that had been specially built to receive them. They remained there as a warning to passing seamen until time and tide erased all trace of them.

Trawling through libraries here, in England and in Scotland, every document I uncovered produced another fascinating lead. I can never thank all the librarians enough for the help they gave me, remaining always friendly and helpful even my requests proved fruitless. It took me about 5 years (there were a few false starts along the way) but I finally got to a place where I had the story written down. I was delighted with myself, I had finally solved the mystery of the pirates on the island, the pirates of the ‘carraigín’... ‘little rock’ in Irish.

When I had finished, I remember writing ‘THE END’ but I followed it with a question mark. What I had meant by this was that I hoped that somebody might find a piece of the treasure that is still unaccounted for, or something like that. Little did I know...

An extraordinary sorrow

Shortly after, I drove down to visit Booley in Wexford to walk to beach where the ‘pirates’ had first landed and where most of the treasure was later recovered. As I was walking the strand down there, I picked up a pebble and put it in my pocket. Thinking about the story that had unfolded in this beautiful, peaceful spot, it struck me that it might be a good thing to bring the pebble to the Howff in Dundee and place it on the grave of Reverend John Glas, the father of the murdered Captain.

I felt that I owed it to him as I had been ‘living’ with him for some time now and had really warmed to a man who had suffered and dealt with such extraordinary sorrow in his life. He outlived his wife and all of his 16 children. After the murders, the Caledonian Mercury reported that  “... the death of his son, daughter-in-law and grand-daughter was the most remarkable trial that befell Mr Glas.” He received the tragic news in the church on King Street as he was preparing for the Christmas celebrations in late December, 1765.

The newspaper went on, “...he was seen to stumble a little on receiving the report... but with a great show of devotion, he returned to the church that evening where the congregation were astounded to see him”. One can only imagine the sorrow he felt when the ‘sampler’ belonging to Catherine, his beloved grand-daughter was returned to him later having been recovered from the wreck site. It showed that she had been busy working on it on the occasion of her tenth birthday. Although Reverend John Glas is a small part of the story, he seemed to represent the very soul of the piece.

Glasite Church, Dundee, copyright Richard WhitelawI contacted the church in Dundee and they were very obliging, giving me a tour and allowing me to see (and touch!) some personal items belonging to the man while I was there. He was a minister who loved a good sermon, some of his could run for 3 or 4 hours. Hot soup would be served during an ‘interval’ in the winter months.

The Robert Louis Stevenson connection

Leaving Dundee the next morning, I had some hours to kill in Edinburgh before catching my flight back to Dublin so I decided to walk up to see the Glasite meeting house in Barony St. On my way there I was stopped in my tracks by a plaque that I spotted on a house nearby... “The Home of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1857-1800” ... it hit me like a hammer. Could it be?

The last piece of evidence I had found in the library of the Royal Irish Academy was the actual ‘murder pamphlet’ concerning the execution of the men in Dublin. The content was still very fresh in my mind, being primarily the confession of Richard St Quinten, the youngest of the ‘pirates’. Noted as being “slow of apprehension”, he was probably not yet out of his teens. In it he talks about his life as a boy growing up at an inn on the North east coast of England. His fascination with the sailors that would frequent the place and their stories of adventure on the high sea had led him to take up his life at sea.

I couldn’t believe it. I never made it to the Glasite hall, instead I found a cafe where I ordered a strong coffee and downloading Treasure Island, I began to read... about young Jim Hawkins growing up at an inn in Bristol, frequented by seafaring men.

The story of the sea cook

As I continued, so many comparisons showed themselves that it seemed, to me at least that the story had to be the basis for what would become the greatest pirate story ever written. Long John Silver, the villain who led ‘Jim lad’ astray was the ‘Sea Cook’ around whom the story is framed. George Gidley was the ‘Sea cook’ in the original story. He had fallen out with St Quinten and the others (as Long John Silver did with his crew) during their failed escape after the crime. St.Quinten hated him and in his statement blames Gidley for the murders in an attempt to lessen his own involvement. His account differs from others.

Apart from all the conspiracy, murder and buried gold, Treasure island is a very moral tale.  “If you would only lay your course a point to the westward, you’d ride in carriages, you would. But not you. I know you. You’ll have your mouthful of rum tomorrow, and go hang.” ...advice that would have surely saved the real pirates, drunkenness having severely effected their ‘good judgement’.

At every turn during their escape, the men managed to get drunk, one of them McKinlie spectacularly so, which constantly delayed them. Their ‘open-handed’ spending in taverns along the route placed them under suspicion and led to their eventual apprehension.

Although the men did bury their treasure in the sands of a hidden beach, they never drew a map, fearing that it would be discovered if one of them were caught. Treasure Island is set in a far more exotic location than the wintery seas off the south coast of Ireland but the crew of the ship Sandwich had come from the exotic island of Tenerife and some from a port on the western coast of Senegal. The treasure too, was common to both, gold dust and gold coins but mostly of course, Spanish silver 8 reales coins... ‘pieces of eight’.

We all know Treasure Island, the story but I’m guessing few of us have read the book. I know that I had a copy as a child, given to me by my grand-father but on ‘re-reading’ it, I’m sure that I actually never managed to finish it. It’s not an easy read. When I finished the book and started to make the links, I decided to research Robert Louis Stevenson. I had no idea that he came from such a devout Presbyterian family and as such a Glasite church opening so close to his home cannot have escaped him. The family may even have been members of the congregation, but that I don’t know.

Not for a second am I suggesting that Robert Louis Stevenson merely dressed up the original story, he certainly did not but it is impossible to believe that he was not aware of the tale and based on the evidence, I believe that he did at least pay homage to the passengers and crew of the ill-fated Sandwich, burying clues in the text, if you will.

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Do you think that people in Scotland, as well as in Ireland, would have been aware of the murder case and its outcome?

Undoubtedly, based on the contemporary newspapers from Scotland, England, Ireland and even the Americas, this was a huge news story which makes it all the more surprising that it disappeared so fully from memory. The loss of such vast amounts of money must have been ruinous to some in London.

My favorite contemporary quote is from a man sending on a report from the scene: “I send you a copy of a letter from Ross; You may be assured that the writer is a man of veracity. You cannot conceive of the noise this affair makes here...”

The story was followed by the press of the time from the discovery of the crime through to the search for and apprehension of the men, the trial and executions some 3 months later. The ‘murder pamphlet’ was reprinted many times and was certainly for sale in print shops in Edinburgh in the weeks after the executions.

Whereabouts was the Reverend's son buried?

Sadly the Reverend’s son, like all of the victims was just dumped overboard and was never recovered. At least he was dead, his wife and daughter were alive when they went into the sea. The murderers would not have the blood of a woman spilt on the ship, it was considered bad luck!

How well known do you think The Ship's Cook would have been to the people of Stevenson's day?

The Ship’s Cook or the Sea Cook? I’ve seen it written as both. As it was only serialised in the children’s magazine Young Folks, I’m guessing it was not well known at all, certainly not on this side of the water. The later publication of it as Treasure Island would suggest that?

What is next for your research, will you pursue the Robert Louis Stevenson connections further?

The plan all along has been to produce a screen adaptation of the story in whatever form and we are currently in discussions about that... a long process. Research will continue wherever it takes us. A trip to Senegal, where Captain Glas was operating would be good but a visit to Tenerife where he was jailed is in the pipeline. It has been suggested that we should recreate the journey by ship from Tenerife but that is not as easy as it sounds. It would also be great to discover any living descendants of the Glas family. That question mark remains doggedly attached to the ‘end’ of this story.

And what have you learnt from this project?

Don’t be afraid to ask a librarian a ‘stupid’ question and above all, go for a walk with your father while you still can.

If you have any information which might help David with the project, you can contact him by email.

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(images: Dun Loaghaire copyright Benjamin Nagel; Glasite church copyright Richard Whitelaw)