Artist's conception of walking the plank (illustration by Howard Pyle for Harper's Magazine, 1887)
Artist's conception of walking the plank (illustration by Howard Pyle for Harper's Magazine, 1887)

Walking the plank was a method of execution practiced on special occasion by pirates, mutineers, and other rogue seafarers. For the amusement of the perpetrators and the psychological torture of the victims, captives were bound so they could not swim or tread water and forced to walk off a wooden plank or beam extended over the side of a ship.

Although forcing captives to walk the plank has been a motif of pirates in popular culture since the 19th century, few instances are documented.[1]

Earliest documented record of the phrase

The phrase is recorded in the second edition of English lexicographer Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, which was published in 1788.[2] Grose wrote:

Walking the plank. A mode of destroying devoted persons or officers in a mutiny on ship-board, by blind-folding them, and obliging them to walk on a plank laid over the ship's side; by this means, as the mutineers suppose, avoiding the penalty of murder.[2]

Historical instances of plank walking

In 1769, a mutineer, George Wood, confessed to his chaplain at London's Newgate Prison that he and his fellow mutineers had sent their officers to walk the plank.[3] Author Douglas Botting, in describing the account, characterized it as an "alleged confession" and an "obscure account [...] which may or may not be true, and in any case had nothing to do with pirates".[4]

A Mr. Claxton, surgeons-mate aboard the Garland in 1788, testified to a committee at the House of Commons about the use of the plank by slavers:[5]

The food, notwithstanding the mortality, was so little, that if ten more days at sea, they should, as the captain and others said, have made the slaves walk the plank, that is, throw themselves overboard, or have eaten those slaves that died.

Pirate John Derdrake, active in the Baltic in the late 1700s, was said to have drowned all his victims by forcing them to walk the plank.[6]

In July 1822, William Smith, captain of the British sloop Blessing, was forced to walk the plank by the Spanish pirate crew of the schooner Emanuel in the West Indies.[7]

The Times of London reported on 14 February 1829 that the packet Redpole (Bullock, master) was captured by the pirate schooner President and sunk. The commander was shot and the crew were made to walk the plank.[8]

In 1829, pirates intercepted the Dutch brig Vhan Fredericka in the Leeward Passage between the Virgin Islands, and murdered most of the crew by making them walk the plank with cannonballs tied to their feet.[9][10]

In literature

Despite the likely rarity of the practice in actual history, walking the plank entered popular myth and folklore via depictions in popular literature.

Captain Charles Johnson, in his 1724 book A General History of the Pyrates, described a similar practice (using a ladder rather than a plank) in the Mediterranean of classical antiquityRoman captives were offered the ladder and given their freedom, provided they were willing to swim for it.[11]

The title page of Charles Ellms's sensationalist 1837 work The Pirates Own Book, apparently drawing on Charles Johnson's description, contains an illustration titled "A Piratical Scene – 'Walking the Death Plank'".[11][12]

In Charles Gayarré's 1872 novel Fernando de Lemos: Truth and Fiction, the pirate Dominique Youx confessed to capturing the schooner Patriot, killing its crew and making its passenger Theodosia Burr Alston (June 21, 1783 – approximately January 2 or 3, 1813) walk the plank. "She stepped on it and descended into the sea with graceful composure, as if she had been alighting from a carriage," Gayarré wrote in Youx's voice. "She sank, and rising again, she, with an indescribable smile of angelic sweetness, waved her hand to me as if she meant to say: 'Farewell, and thanks again'; and then sank forever." Because Gayarré mixed fact with fiction, it unknown whether Youx's confession was real or not. [13]

Robert Louis Stevenson's 1884 classic Treasure Island contains at least three mentions of walking the plank, including at the beginning where Billy Bones tells bone-chilling stories of the practice to Jim Hawkins. (Treasure Island also popularized other now-common pirate motifs such as parrots, peglegs, and buried treasure.)

The concept also appears in J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, where Captain Hook's pirates helped define the archetype.[14]

See also


  1. ^ Karen Abbott (August 9, 2011). "If There's a Man Among Ye: The Tale of Pirate Queens Anne Bonny and Mary Read". Retrieved March 20, 2017. The notion of 'walking the plank' is a myth...
  2. ^ a b Grose, Francis (1788). Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. S. Hooper. p. 258. Retrieved March 20, 2017.
  3. ^ Botting, Douglas (1978). The Pirates. Time–Life Books. p. 58. ISBN 978-0809426508.
  4. ^ Botting, Douglas (1978). The Pirates. Time–Life Books. ISBN 978-0809426508. Cited at Gary Martin. "Walk The Plank". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved March 20, 2017.
  5. ^ Abridgement of the minutes of the evidence, taken before a Committee of the Whole House, to whom it was referred to consider of the slave-trade, [1789-1791]. 1790. p. 37.
  6. ^ Gosse, Philip (1924). The Pirates' Who's Who by Philip Gosse. New York: Burt Franklin. Retrieved 23 June 2017.
  7. ^ Earle, Peter (2006). The Pirate Wars. St. Martin's Griffin. p. 222. ISBN 978-0312335809.
  8. ^ "[title unknown]". The Times. London. February 14, 1829. p. 3.
  9. ^ "Atrocious Piracy". Carmarthen Journal and South Wales Weekly Advertiser. Carmarthen, Wales. July 24, 1829. Retrieved March 20, 2017.
  10. ^ Cordingly, David (1995). Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates. Random House. pp. 130–31. ISBN 978-0316911481.
  11. ^ a b Evan Andrews (October 2, 2013). "Did pirates really make people walk the plank?". Retrieved March 20, 2017.
  12. ^ Illustration: Charles Ellms (2004). "The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Pirates Own Book, by Charles Ellms". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved March 20, 2017. Illustration title: Charles Ellms (April 29, 2004). "The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Pirates Own Book, by Charles Ellms". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved March 20, 2017.
  13. ^ Côté, Richard N. (2002). Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy. Corinthian Books. ASIN B005E1JOFW. ISBN 9781929175444.
  14. ^ Bonanos, Christopher (5 June 2007). "Did pirates really say "arrrr"? – By Christopher Bonanos – Slate Magazine". Retrieved 23 July 2017.

Further reading