Pirates were larger than life characters known for their clothing, the way they talk, their treasure, and their flags. Their adventures have been immortalized in folktales that recount debauchery and adventure on the high seas. But a pirate’s life wasn’t all gold and rum, these marauders lived lives punctuated by malnutrition, violence, and disease. When pirates encountered government forces great battles often ensued because they faced execution if they were captured. Because of this the details of a pirate’s death become legendary and overshadow their lives. The most well-known and colorful pirate execution legends are about Captain Kidd, Captain Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, and Captain Klaus Störtebeker.
Captain William Kidd was hanged on May 23, 1701 at the infamous Execution Dock in London. The executioner needed two takes to hang Captain Kidd because the rope broke on the 1st attempt. Kidd’s remains were displayed in a gibbet along the Thames for three years.1 On November 22, 1718, Captain Edward “Blackbeard” Teach was killed during a battle with British naval ships commanded by Lieutenant Robert Maynard. During the battle Blackbeard supposedly received 20 sword and 5 musket-ball wounds. Maynard decapitated Blackbeard’s body and dangled his head over the bow of his ship as a warning to other pirates. Probably the most bizarre execution legend belongs to Pirate Klaus Störtebeker.2
Klaus Störtebeker is a German folk hero whose life is cloaked in myth and mystery. It’s estimated that he was born around 1360 in the Baltic Port of Wismar, in Northern Germany. 3 Some accounts say that Klaus Störtebeker was his real name, others say that he was born Nikolaus Storzenbeker and that Störtebeker was a nickname he earned because of all the beer he could chug. Störtebeker is German for “tip the mug” or “down the beakerful” and he was well known for drinking an entire beaker without taking a breath.4 Put into modern terms, today he would’ve been known as Captain Beer Bong.
Störtebeker was not only renowned for his hard partying, he was also known for helping the poor. He developed a Robin Hood-like reputation in Germany because some stories recount how he shared some of his loot with the poor. He was also a leader of the Victual Brothers, an organization of privateers that roamed the North and Baltic Seas in the 14th century that divided their plunder equally among each other. For this the Victual Brothers became known as the Likedeelers or “those who share equally.” 3,
Störtebeker and his men were hired by a noble family in Northern Germany in 1392 in their efforts to pursue the throne of Sweden. Albert (1338 –1412), King of Sweden from 1364 to 1389 and Duke of Mecklenburg from 1384 to 1412, was at war with Queen Margaret I of Denmark for control of Sweden. Albert hired Störtebeker and his comrades to attack Danish trade ships and supply the city of Stockholm with provisions during a siege. For this these privateers became known as the Victual Brothers because the Latin word victualia means foodstuffs or provisions. 3
Queen Margaret was ultimately victorious and she united Denmark, Norway, and Sweden in the Kalmar Union in 1397. When the services of the Victual Brothers were no longer needed, Störtebeker and the rest of the Vitalian Brotherhood turned to outright privacy. They became wanted men because they attacked ships and disrupted trading routes that belonged to the Hanseatic League, a confederation of northern German towns and merchant communities that protected their mutual trading interests and had a trading partnership with Denmark.3
After a sea battle in 1401, a fleet of Hamburg ships captained by Simon of Utrecht captured Störtebeker and his crew. They were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by decapitation. On October 20, 1401 Störtebeker stood on a scaffold on the island of Grasbrook in the Elbe River outside the city of Hamburg. This is where storytellers took artistic license with history. When Störtebeker stood in front of the executioner and looked out over a line of his doomed crew (some stories say there were more than 70 men other stories say it was 30) he decided to make a deal with the headsman. 3,5,7 After he was decapitated the executioner was to allow his headless body to walk past his fellow pirates and release every man he was able to walk past. Störtebeker’s body was able to make it by 11 men before the executioner tripped him. Neither the city council of Hamburg nor the executioner honored this deal and all of his men were executed. The heads of Störtebeker and his crew were displayed on spikes in Hamburg as a warning to anyone thinking about following in Störtebeker’s footsteps.5,6,7,8
After Hamburg’s executioner decapitated the entire crew, a member of Hamburg’s city council asked the headsman if he was tired from swinging his axe so many times. The executioner, who thought he was a jester, replied that he still had enough energy to behead the entire council if necessary. In response the council had the headsman put to death as well. 5,6,7,8
In 1878 a cranium with a spike driver through it was discovered during excavations on the Grasbrook when Hamburg needed to expand. Remembering the legend of Störtebeker, many believed at the time that this cranium belonged to the folk hero and it was displayed in the Museum for Hamburg History in 1922. 5,6,7,8
In 2008 a forensics team wanted to conclusively prove that this cranium belonged to pirate Klaus Störtebeker so it was examined by experts and samples were taken for DNA tests. The team found that head belonged to a male about thirty years old who died about 600 years ago. Thinking it possible that Störtebeker was his real surname and not a nickname, the DNA samples were compared to potential descendants with the same last name but those results were inconclusive. Nevertheless, the cranium was still displayed in the Museum for Hamburg History as the head of pirate Klaus Störtebeker next to a reconstruction of the face. 5,6,7,8
The cranium at the museum could belong to Störtebeker (if he existed), a member of his crew, or any number of criminals who were executed on the Grasbrook in the 1400’s.
In 2010 the cranium was stolen from the museum but it was returned in 2011.7
- “Captain Kidd walks the plank.” History.com. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/captain-kidd-walks-the-plank
- Kirkpatrick, Jennifer. “Blackbeard Pirate Terror at Sea.” NationalGeographic.com. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/pirates/bbeard.html
- “Klaus Störtebeker.” Wikipedia. Site last updated May 2, 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klaus_Störtebeker
- Kulish, Nicholas. “In German Hearts, a Pirate Spreads the Plunder Again.” The New York Times. November 5, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/06/world/europe/06pirate.html?_r=0.
- “Pirate Klaus Stoertebeker’s Skull Stolen from German Museum.” ArtDaily.com. 2010. http://artdaily.com/news/35763/Pirate-Klaus-Stoertebeker-s-Skull-Stolen-from-German-Museum-#.VVfjZEtP3BE
- “Klaus Störtebeker: The Pirate mystery remains unsolved.” Spiegel Online. July 31, 2008. http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=de&u=http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/mensch/klaus-stoertebeker-das-piratengeheimnis-bleibt-ungeloest-a-569321.html&prev=search
- Black, Annetta. Impaled Skull of Klaus Störtebeker. AtlasObscura.com. http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/impaled-skull-of-klaus-stortebeker-pirate-walking-corpse
- “Pillaged: Hamburg Searching for Plundered Pirate Skull.” Spiegel Online. January 20, 2010. http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/pillaged-hamburg-searching-for-plundered-pirate-skull-a-672940.html