"Walk the plank", 1763

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Sat Oct 8 15:55:06 UTC 2011

At 10/8/2011 07:05 AM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
>Pirate scholars maintain that there is no evidence that "walking the
>plank" was a popular diversion, and far less that it was a well-known

How popular it was surely depended on which end of the plank you were at.

As for the phrase, in 1763 it must have been well-known in Charleston
(where the news report originated), and in Newport, Boston (2
newspapers) and London (to where the report was carried).  P.S. --
I'm beginning to wonder whether this is the ur-use -- might its "walk
upon a plank" have led to "walk the plank"?

I now also find, in EAN, additional articles, some early (the
earliest ED quotation is 1789).  One presumes these are factual, not
the imaginings of Scott, Stevenson, Barrie, or Eliot (who comprise 4
of the OED's 7 Third ed., June 2006, quotations).
      1779 May 7, Massachusetts Spy, p. 4.
      1784 Oct. 6, Massachusetts Centinel, p. 3.  Repeated in Norwich
Packet (CN), Pennsylvania Packet (Phil.), American Mercury
(Hartford), South-Carolina Gazette and General Advertiser
(Charleston), Virginia Journal (Alexandria).
      1796 March 29, Political Gazette (Newburyport, MA). p. 1 -- An
extract from a murder trial "before the British Court of Admiralty,
Jan. 23".  A witness says "before you shall take my life I will take
a plank and walk overboard."  Repeated in Walpole (NH).
      1822 Sept. 25, Boston Semi-Weekly Advertiser, p. 2 -- "Inhuman
Piracy and Murder.--The Kingston (Jam.) Chronicle of Aug. 3, contains
the affadavit of Hugh Hamilton, mate of the sloop Blessing, Wm.
Smith, master, giving the following particulars of a piracy and
murder committed by the crew of a piratical schooner with which they
fell in about the beginning of July last ... [testimony quoted] '[The
captain] not producing any  money, a plank was run out in the
starboard side of the schooner, upon which he made capt. S. walk, and
that as he approached to the end, they tilted the plank, when he
dropt into the sea, and there, when in the effort of swimming, the
captain called for his musket, and fired at him therewith, when he
sunk, and was seen no more!'"  Repeated in 7 other Northeast papers.
      1835 June 9, Salem (MA) Gazette, p. 2 -- The confession of a
dying pirate that in 1812 he had murdered "the daughter of Aaron
Burr, who was the wife of Gov. Alston, of S. Carolina".  "he ... put
the lady to death, by laying a plank along the edge of the ship, half
on it and half off, or over the edge, and made Mrs Alston walk on
that plank till it tilted over into the water with her.  (A dying
confession -- admissible evidence in a court of law!  Here,
third-hand.)  Repeated in 3 other New England papers.

Perhaps the pirate scholars assert the phrase was not well-known
because by 1867 it was "an obsolete method of destroying people in
mutiny and piracy" -- see OED quotation.


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