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They Used to Hang Pirates at Ellis Island*

Updated: Jan 9, 2019

*and few other things you didn’t know!

Gibbet Island

Ellis Island was named for Samuel Ellis, the last private owner. This was many years before it became the station for federal immigration. For most of the early 19th century, New Yorkers called the island “Gibbet Island” after the wooden post of gibbet where the bodies of the deceased pirates and mutineers were displayed after they were hanged in chains.

Below is an excerpt from the book Myths and Legends of our Own Land, by Charles M. Skinner published in 1896.


Ellis Island, in New York harbor, once bore the name of Gibbet Island, because pirates and mutineers were hanged there in chains. During the times when it was devoted to this fell purpose, there stood in Communipaw the Wild Goose tavern, where Dutch burghers resorted, to smoke, drink Hollands, and grow fat, wise, and sleepy in each other’s' company.

The plague of this inn was Yan Yost Vanderscamp, a nephew of the landlord, who frequently alarmed the patrons of the house by putting powder into their pipes and attaching briers beneath their horses' tails, and who naturally turned pirate when he became older, taking with him to sea his boon companion, an ill-disposed, ill-favored blackamoor named Pluto, who had been employed about the tavern.

When the landlord died, Vanderscamp possessed himself of this property, fitted it up with plunder, and at intervals he had his gang ashore,—such a crew of singing, swearing, drinking, gaming devils as Communipaw had never seen the like of; yet the residents could not summon activity enough to stop the goings-on that made the Wild Goose a disgrace to their village. The British authorities, however, caught three of the swashbucklers and strung them up on Gibbet Island, and things that went on badly in Communipaw after that went on with quiet and secrecy.

The pirate and his henchmen were returning to the tavern one night, after a visit to a rakish-looking vessel in the offing, when a squall broke in such force as to give their skiff a leeway to the place of executions. As they rounded that lonely reef a creaking noise overhead caused Vanderscamp to look up, and he could not repress a shudder as he saw the bodies of his three messmates, their rags fluttering and their chains grinding in the wind.

"Don't you want to see your friends?" sneered Pluto. "You, who are never afraid of living men, what do you fear from the dead?"

"Nothing," answered the pirate. Then, lugging forth his bottle, he took a long pull at it, and holding it toward the dead felons, he shouted, "Here's fair weather to you, my lads in the wind, and if you should be walking the rounds to-night, come in to supper."

A clatter of bones and a creak of chains sounded like a laugh. It was midnight when the boat pulled in at Communipaw, and as the storm continued Vanderscamp, drenched to the skin, made quick time to the Wild Goose. As he entered, a sound of revelry overhead smote his ear, and, being no less astonished than in need of cordials, he hastened up-stairs and flung open the door. A table stood there, furnished with jugs and pipes and cans, and by light of candles that burned as blue as brimstone could be seen the three gallows-birds from Gibbet Island, with halters on their necks, clinking their tankards together and trolling forth a drinking-song.

Starting back with affright as the corpses hailed him with lifted arms and turned their fishy eyes on him, Vanderscamp slipped at the door and fell headlong to the bottom of the stairs. Next morning he was found there by the neighbors, dead to a certainty, and was put away in the Dutch churchyard at Bergen on the Sunday following. As the house was rifled and deserted by its occupants, it was hinted that the negro had betrayed his master to his fellow-buccaneers, and that he, Pluto, was no other than the devil in disguise. But he was not, for his skiff was seen floating bottom up in the bay soon after, and his drowned body lodged among the rocks at the foot of the pirates' gallows.

For a long time afterwards the island was regarded as a place that required purging with bell, book, and candle, for shadows were reported there and faint lights that shot into the air, and to this day, with the great immigrant station on it and crowds going and coming all the time, the Battery boatmen prefer not to row around it at night, for they are likely to see the shades of the soldier and his mistress who were drowned off the place one windy night, when the girl was aiding the fellow to escape confinement in the guard-house, to say nothing of Vanderscamp and his felons.

Annie Moore and her Brothers

The first immigrants to arrive at Ellis Island were three unaccompanied minors on New Year’s Day in 1892. Annie Moore, a teenage from Ireland, crossed the Atlantic Ocean with her two brothers on route to reuniting with their family.

A U.S. Treasury Department official and a Catholic chaplain were on hand to welcome Moore, and Ellis Island’s commissioner awarded her a $10 gold piece to mark the occasion. Today, a statue of Moore and her brothers is kept on display at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

Medical Exam at Ellis Island

Upon arrival at Ellis Island, immigrants were ushered into a room called the Great Hall and paraded before a series of medical officers for physical inspection. Most were allowed to pass by in a matter of seconds, but those whom the doctors deemed physically or mentally deficient were marked with chalk and taken away for additional screening.

Questionable candidates were forced to submit to more detailed questioning and medical exams, and any signs of contagious disease, poor physique, feeblemindedness or insanity could see an immigrant denied admittance on the grounds that they were likely to become a ward of the state.

Registering at Ellis Island

American cultural lore is rich with tales of immigrants’ ethnic sounding names being Anglicized or shortened during their passage through Ellis Island, yet there is no evidence that such a practice ever took place. Immigration officials merely checked the person’s identity against the manifests of the ships that brought them to America, and there was no policy advising them to forcibly alter names. Some immigrants voluntarily chose to change their names to help assimilate into American culture, but they did so before they left their home country, or after they had gained admission to the United States.

Fiorello La Guardia

Before he became the first man to win three consecutive terms as mayor of New York, the fiery and reform-minded politician Fiorello LaGuardia spent three years on staff at Ellis Island between 1907 and 1910. The son of Italian immigrants, LaGuardia was fluent in Italian, Croatian and Yiddish, and he served as one of the island’s many translators while attending NYU law school at night. LaGuardia would go on to represent many Ellis Island immigrants in deportation cases during his early years as an attorney.

To read A Cobbler's Tale go to>

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