The thrilling race that unfolded in a bayside cove on Virginia’s Eastern Shore of Virginia on the last day of February day in 1883 was a cops-and-robbers affair. The steamboat that barreled into that cove was under the personal command of Virginia’s governor. His target was a sailing sloop suspected of nefarious criminal activity.
It should have been easy. The sloop’s crew had gone ashore looking for supplies, leaving only the pirate captain’s wife and two daughters aboard. What were the chances that a steam-powered boat full of cops would be outsmarted and out-sailed by a trio of “plucky petticoated pirates” aboard a middling little sloop?
The triumph of those three women aboard the Dancing Molly was celebrated far and wide in the newspapers of the day—as well as in verse and song and on stage. The chase was “a sight to thrill the blood,” one poet marveled, proving beyond a doubt that “when a woman wills / she’s certain to succeed.”
Setting the Stage: The Chesapeake at War
This happened during the infamous “Oyster Wars” of the Chesapeake. That run of tumult and violence began with the arrival of a newfangled technology called dredging. Introduced in the early 1800s, it involved dragging metal cages along the underwater surface to scoop up oysters. Dredge boats caught lots more oysters and made lots more money than the old-school oyster tongers who used a hand-powered traditional tool—basically, an elongated pair of scissors equipped with oyster-scooping spoons at the bottom.
Dredging became a big deal in the Boston area before it made a splash on the Chesapeake Bay. Up there, the technology led oystermen into a terrible, greedy blunder. They over-harvested New England bivalves to the point of putting themselves out of work.
Some of the businessmen who’d made lots of money by depleting that fishery started looking around for new waters to plunder. The Chesapeake Bay was an irresistible target. The resulting growth of dredging—by New Englanders and locals alike—raised fears that the new technology would devastate the oyster beds in the Bay, too.
As early as 1811, Virginia passed a law outlawing “any drag, scoop or rake, or other instrument, except tongs.” The dredgers responded by moving into Maryland, which soon responded by enacting a law that not only outlawed dredging but went a step further, banning non-Marylanders from harvesting in the state’s waters.
The problem was that neither state invested much in the boats and policing resources needed to enforce the laws. Meanwhile, demand for oysters was skyrocketing, thanks to a rapidly expanding network of railroad and steamboat routes which put more and more hungry big-city markets within reach for Chesapeake oystermen. This set off a run of dominoes:
• More and more illegal dredge boats started scraping the bottom of the Bay and its rivers. Those metal cages often damaged beds where oyster populations once grew anew with the passing seasons in sustainable fashion.
• Tongers hated dredgers. The traditionalists thought they were “stealing” their catches. With no help in sight from law enforcement, some tongers started protecting their livelihoods by brandishing shotguns to discourage dredgers from working their turf.
• The dredgers hated the tongers, too, and not just because of those shotguns. They blamed the old-schoolers for pushing the states to adopt regulations and criminal penalties designed to put them out of business.
• As fears grew over the future of Chesapeake oysters, everyone had choices to make. If the bivalves disappeared, that would ruin things not only for watermen but for shuckers and packers and shippers and restaurants, too. But on the other hand—working with the dredgers was a highly profitable affair.
• The situation got worse as time went on. By the 1870s, oystermen were running a bureaucratic gauntlet that included permitting requirements, licensing rules, administrative fees, and harvesting limits. Different jurisdictions had different rules, and rules could change from year to year and place to place.
• Many oystermen simply ignored the laws, knowing that there was little risk of getting caught. The lawbreakers loved to work near the border between the two states, so that they could make a run across a state line in the unlikely event of police activity.
This was the situation in the Dancing Molly year of 1883. A federal government report from around that time summed things up this way:
Very strict protective laws have been enacted by both Maryland and Virginia, but the ignorance and temper of the oystermen is such that the enforcement of these laws is almost impossible.
That same report went on to quote “a most competent observer” named R.H. Edwards:
Dredging … is simply a general scramble, carried on in [hundreds of] boats, manned by fifty-six hundred daring and unscrupulous men, who regard neither the laws of God nor man. … These men, taken as a class, form perhaps one of the most depraved bodies of workmen to be found in the country.
The Main Event: Flight of the Dancing Molly
The level of poaching in Virginia waters had gotten so out of hand by the early 1880s that Virginia’s brash young governor, William Evelyn Cameron, decided to take a drastic step. Cameron, who had graduated from a military academy and served as a Confederate officer, decided to personally lead enforcement expeditions against the pirates.
His first outing in 1882 seemed at first to be a rousing success. Cameron seized five vessels and put 46 dredgers in jail. All of the convicts hailed from the Eastern Shore. Confident that he’d succeeded in sending a message of zero tolerance, Cameron then reduced the sentences of ship captains and freed all the rank-and-file sailors outright, except for one dumb guy who’d tried to escape imprisonment by setting a jail on fire.
But the governor’s public relations triumph was short-lived. He started taking hits over allegations of patronage corruption. Then the owners of those five seized vessels won a big court judgment against the state by arguing that the law involved in those seizures did not give them a proper chance to defend themselves with qualified lawyers.
Soon, dredgers returned to Virginia waters in big numbers, including boats captained by some of the very men who Cameron had treated rather mercifully. Cameron set out to command a second mission, this one involving two state-owned steamboats filled with cops from various enforcement agencies. To help spread his message of zero tolerance he invited newspaper reporters along for the ride.
One of Cameron’s targets was a notorious pirate named Jim Scaggs (or Skags, depending on the newspaper). This pirate was such a big deal that the papers almost always awarded him the honorific title of “Admiral Scaggs.” Based out of the western shore’s Piankatank River, Skaggs commanded not just one ship, but a whole fleet of dredge boats.
The governor underestimated the pirate. Skaggs’s fleet operated with a precision worthy of the military, using an elaborate system of informers, lookouts, danger signals, and preplanned getaway routes. Every lead the governor chased turned into a dead end.
But Cameron’s luck finally turned when his boat, the Pamlico, steamed into that cove on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Alas, that’s all the geographical detail I have come across in the historical record, so I can’t be more specific about the location.
Spying a pirate vessel at anchor, he ordered a full-speed assault. Scaggs’s pirates had gone ashore to stock up on wood. Only the pirate captain’s wife and his two daughters were aboard. The women cried out after their menfolk, but the men were out of earshot. I will let the Norfolk Virginian newspaper describe what happened next:
As the small craft was lying close in one of the inlets on the Eastern Shore and as the steady splash of the wheels of the Virginia steamer were distinctly heard, the plucky women determined to attempt to run the blockage and reach neutral waters.
Despite the frowning cannon which were already visible, the mother took the helm and two daughters unfurled the sails and the Dancing Molly, which was forced to do much tacking in order to reach the mouth of the inlet, moved off.
The breeze was not exactly in favor of the fleeing craft and the Pamlico succeeded in gaining rapidly on her. For a short while the race was nip and tuck between the Virginia gunboat and the piratical sloop, the first trying to reach the mouth of the inlet and blockade it, while the latter was straining every sail to get out.
The pirate’s wife and daughters were equal to the emergency. All were skilled in handling the sails and were determined not to be taken.
The Pamlico began to send solid [cannon] shot over the water as a warning to surrender, but the Dancing Molly and her crew did not take in their sails but got safely out of the inlet, and then, with the stiff breeze in her favor, left the big steamer far in her wake and easily joined the balance of Admiral Skaggs’ fleet in neutral waters.
To make matters worse for the governor, a big crowd had gathered on shore to watch three women try to outsail the governor and his little army.
[A]lthough the people on the Virginia side are sworn enemies of the oyster pirates, they really wished [on this occasion] for the escape of the tiny craft when they saw [that] it was simply manned by three women, and when the Dancing Molly got safely out, the group of Virginians chivalrously gave three cheers for the pirate’s wife and daughters.
Aftermath: The Governor as Laughingstock
The newspapermen that Gov. Cameron had invited aboard were merciless—and the stories they wrote about the triumphant flight of the “petticoated pirates” was soon reprinted in newspapers around the country. Editorial cartoonists had great fun with the governor’s humiliation. Follow-up articles spread rumors that alcohol had been flowing a little too freely aboard the governor’s two steamboats.
In a matter of weeks, the Norfolk Academy of Music launched a new comic opera lampooning the operation. Titled Driven from the Seas; or, The Pirate Dredger’s Doom, it renamed the governor Artaximinous Kameron, King of Utopia, and portrayed him as a drunken lush.
Here is one couplet:
With rifled guns and jugs of rum,
The seas we’d come to scour
Here is a bit about the Dancing Molly herself:
But tho’ we licked the Pirates bold
Their pretty wives and daughters
Cannot be beat by all the troops
That sail Utopia’s water.
With fearless hand they guide the prow
That cleaves the rushing tide.
With both our boats we failed to catch
One single Pirate’s bride!
There was much more along those lines in both local and regional publications. A Philadelphia-based magazine called The Continent turned the governor’s ill-fated expedition into a three-page poem. Here is a bit from that about Dancing Molly episode:
… the captain caught a gleam,
Within a little bay,
Of one small craft, unmanned, ’tis true–
The Dancing Molly named–
Which, when he saw, he cried: ‘Mon Dieu!
I’ll catch he or be–blamed!’
Then came a sight to thrill the blood
Of man, or maid, or child.
Then came a chase across the flood–
A chase, to draw it mild,
That showed how when a woman wills
She’s certain to succeed–
That when a breeze her canvas fills
She’s bound to take the lead.
Upon the Dancing Molly‘s deck
No man or boy appeared.
As Cameron’s steamer at his beck
Was toward the pirate steered
No man or boy; but at the helm
The oyster pirate’s wife
Stood fast, nor fears could her o’erwhelm.
She thought not of her life;
She only prayed for room to tack–
To get in open water–
And then swore she’d show the foe her back.
So shrill she called each daughter:
‘Loose the main sheet! Let fly the jib!
Stand by! Twas don as quick
As spoken, were her words so glib.
“We’ll show ’em yet a trick!”
Again she cheered. The breeze blew;
The schooner drew ahead,
And, manned by petticoated crew,
Across the waters sped.
William Evelyn Cameron served just one term as governor. While the Dancing Molly debacle damaged his reputation, he did manage to make some contributions to the protection of the oyster fishery in the years that followed. One reason Cameron felt a need to launch his special enforcement cruises is that Virginia did not have a police force dedicated to catching pirates and patrolling seas. That changed late in Cameron’s term when he successfully lobbied the legislature to create and fund such an operation.
I wish that I could provide details on what happened to the trio of “petticoated pirates,” but as far as I can tell their names have never been discovered.
–Posted by Jim Duffy for Whimbrel Creations/Secrets of the Eastern Shore on Feb. 21, 2022. All rights reserved.
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• NOTE #2 Gov. William Evelyn Cameron was the sort of character I run into frequently while jumping down days-gone-by rabbit holes. If you’re like me, you head off into reading about the past carrying certain assumptions about people based on the broad outline of their lives. But time and again I run into people from days gone by whose deeds and words hint at complexities that don’t fit any simplistic preconceptions. Cameron is a good example of how this works in the post-Civil War years.
His parents died when he was very young, but he managed to make it through college with help and lodging from relatives. He succeeded well enough to get accepted into West Point, but the Civil War began before he could enroll. He joined the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia instead. He was wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run. He got promoted to captain and served General Robert E. Lee straight through to the surrender at Appomattox.
After the war Cameron moved back to his hometown of Petersburg on the Western Shore. He became a newspaperman and lawyer. A staunch conservative Democrat in those years, he once fought in a duel with a Lincoln Republican. Both men survived.
But after winning election as mayor of Petersburg, Cameron started showing quite a bit of flexibility on issues of race for a Confederate veteran and self-proclaimed conservative Democrat. Yes, he despised the allegedly corrupt “carpetbaggers” who showed up from the north during Reconstruction times. But he also supported African American voting rights. He supported the establishment of public schools, too.
His statewide political star rose only after he formed an alliance with the Lincoln Republicans. He won election as governor thanks to what one historian describes as an “outpouring of support from whites in western counties and from blacks in the Tidewater and Southside.”
As governor, he supported and signed the legislation that created the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, which we now know as the historically black Virginia State University. While not the first school of its kind, it does rank as the first-ever black college to be fully supported by state funds as a public institution. He also pushed for and signed legislation that resulted in the construction of the Central Lunatic Asylum (now known as Central State Hospital). In its original incarnation, this was the first facility in the whole country created to treat mental illness among “colored persons of unsound mind.” Other highlights of Cameron’s single term included the abolition (albeit a temporary one) of the poll tax and outlawing the whipping post as a public punishment.