Picture a pirate. You’re probably imagining a black tricorn, eyepatch, cutlass, and a cute little parrot on the shoulder. Their harmless Halloween costume image is almost enough to make you forget that this lot were some of the most cold-blooded killers of all time (dressing up as Blackbeard now is basically like cosplaying Saddam Hussein in a few centuries time).
What you should be really picturing is the mugshot of Joseph Kerwin; one of the very last people to fall foul of the USA’s anti-piracy laws (the murder and robbery ones, not the ones that stopped you copying VHS tapes from Blockbuster). Although nothing like a pirate in the traditional sense, this 20th-century serial killer provides a far more accurate image of the reality of crime on the high seas.
His sordid biography is far from the kind of kid-friendly pirate story you’re used to, but just as interesting in its own right. So without further ado, let’s dive right in to the story of Joseph Kerwin, aka the Michigan Pirate, aka the Erie Strangler.
Robbery on the Western States
The first little twist in our slightly more modern pirate story is that it didn’t even take place at sea. The main events take place on Lake Erie — one of America’s five great lakes, with Buffalo City on its eastern shore, and Detroit on the west.
On the 13th of September 1904, a ferry named the Western States was making the crossing from east to west. In a private cabin on board slept Adelia Sweeting, a wealthy woman from the town of Jackson, MI. Under cover of darkness, someone slipped open the door to her cabin unseen. She awoke moments later with the stranger’s hands around her neck, throttling the life out of her.
A panicked Adelia was only able to make out the silhouette of her attacker as he forced his weight down harder, causing the blood vessels in her eyelids to rupture. Just as she began to blackout, her eyes adjust enough to vaguely make out the features of the man: the last face she’ll ever see…
For like ten minutes or so, which is roughly how long it took her to regain consciousness. Miss Sweeting had survived the attack with only some bruising and a killer headache. However, several of her belongings were missing from her room and person: three pricey gold rings, and $40 in cash (well over a grand in today’s money).
Still dazed and terrified, Adelia was able to make it out of her room and onto the deck. She managed to get the attention of a crew member, who took her to see the captain. Bruise marks around her neck showed the force she had been choked with, and her voice was reduced to a rough croak.
Despite all that, the man in charge initially wrote the whole thing off as a hallucination — clearly this hysteric woman was high on drugs, or just suffering a bout of the vapors. Eventually the goddamn strangle marks on her neck convinced him to take the matter a bit more seriously.
Satisfied that Adelia had in fact been attacked, he prevented anyone from leaving by anchoring the ship far from the port at Detroit; the culprit would have to be one hell of a swimmer to make a getaway from all the way out there.
One of the crew was sent to retrieve a detective from the city, and the rest waited quietly for his arrival, knowing an attempted murderer was in their midst…
Detective Frank Wilkinson arrived on board his own personal Agatha Christie novel in the middle of the night, and gathered what little details he could from Miss Sweeting. Since she only had vague impression of her assailant’s appearance, there was little chance of catching them through a simple ship-wide ID parade. So he then went about interviewing everyone on board one by one.
His makeshift interrogation cell was the engine room, where he metaphorically cranked up the heat on his suspects. The one who sweated the most was a greaser (someone who oils the machinery, that is) named Joseph Kerwin. Like everyone else on board, he denied any knowledge of what happened, but struggled to maintain his composure as he said so — he was fidgety, and terse in his answers.
Without DNA, CCTV, or anything else actually useful to an investigation, all that old-timey detectives had to go on were hunches — and Wilkinson had a pretty good hunch that he’d found his man. He tailed the ship worker to his family home in Detroit, and when he detective and his colleagues raided the abode of the fidgety greaser, they discovered the missing rings hidden away inside. The Erie Strangler was arrested there and then, in front of his wife and kid, and carted off to jail.
You’re probably wondering, what does any of this have to do with pirates? Did he bury the rings in his garden and draft up a treasure map? Did he shoot a flintlock pistol at the cops while shouting “arr matey”?
Stick with me, it’ll all make sense in a moment.
An Accidental Pirate
I told you already that the Erie Strangler was far from the archetypal pirate — really he was only a pirate according to a very peculiar technicality. It’s all to do with the distance from shore that a crime is committed. In this case, it happened 17 miles out in the middle of the lake
Fans of maritime law will know that a country’s territorial waters end 12 nautical miles from their coast, according to modern legislation (that’s about 13.8 normal miles, or 22km). This used to only be 3 nautical miles in the old days — judged because it was roughly the maximum range of cannons back then.
Past that line, wherever it lies, you’re no longer within the country’s territorial waters — that’s where the “high seas” begin. Essentially, different laws apply depending on how far out you are, and which part of the waters you’re in.
So by a similar quirk of the 1904 legal code, the main charge against Joseph Kerwin technically qualified as the fantastically dramatic “robbery on the high seas”. Laws originally intended to punish murderous sea dogs for attacking merchant ships were now suddenly being applied on an inland lake, only connected to the sea by a canal.
For the Erie Strangler, this was very bad news. Until that point, he had only been looking at Michigan State assault and grand larceny charges — five years behind bars was the expectation. Now though, he found himself becoming an accidental pirate, a group of people whom the law treated much, much more harshly.
Life in prison was the maximum possible under Michigan law for piracy, but this was far enough outside the bounds of their regular jurisdiction that the case was thrown up the chain to the federal courts. That proved even worse for poor Kerwin, because the standard federal penalty for piracy was death.
Our strangling scallywag was well and truly screwed…
His Criminal Past
A noose around the neck seems like a pretty disproportionate leg up from five years in prison, so do we think that the Erie Strangler was being treated unfairly? Before you decide for sure, let’s take a bit of time to dive back into his past. As it turns out, he had committed a fair few stranglings before this one.
The first was at the age of fourteen, still just a school-age street urchin in the town of Toledo, Ohio. After a few years spent confined to a reform school, he did the exact same thing in Illinois, serving four years in prison, before being released to start over in Cleveland.
When, in 1903, a prostitute named Maggie Snedegar was found dead in a brothel — strangled to death by an anonymous customer dubbed Joe the Strangler — our future pirate naturally ranked fairly high on the list of suspects. Investigators initially caught his scent because two more women came forward to report being strangled and robbed in the days following the murder.
Both were able to give matching descriptions of the man, and when the police eventually caught up with him, they found the murdered woman’s pocket watch in his jacket. See, this is why proper pirates bury their treasure — twice in his career the Strangler could have avoided implicating himself if he had just hidden his loot.
When the arrest hit the news, the police in his hometown of Toledo linked him to a cold case in which another prostitute named Anna Snyder was robbed and killed in an almost identical fashion. Frustratingly, there wasn’t enough evidence to move forward with either this crime or the Maggie Snedegar murder, so Joe the Strangler ended up walking free to inflict that same violence upon others.
Some have speculated that, based on the nature of his crimes — in which he never really bothered to hide his face from his victims, preferring to look them in the eye as he assaulted or killed them — there was very possibly a sexual motivation behind the crimes. His carelessness had cost him several times already, and that latest brush with the law was an extremely close call.
The Strangler knew that himself, so he decided to ease up on his crimes for a while. He moved on to start a family in Detroit, and took a job on a certain ferry which ran along Lake Erie. But once a strangler, always a strangler. By the time we caught up with him on that fateful night out on the lake, his urges had resurfaced, and Kerwin couldn’t refrain from adding one more crime to his sizable tally…
Life in Prison
Given the fact that his latest crime was identical to those he was suspected of in the past, and he had been caught with the victim’s rings in his possession, the Eerie Strangler decided it would be best to just plead guilty. This didn’t preclude judge Henry Swan from issuing the death penalty — there was still every chance the Strangler would find himself hanging from a rope before the year was out.
However, Swan decided that it was only fair he should be able to choose between the state and federal penalties on the table. If you remember, that meant a choice between life in prison or death. Swan decided on the former, and the Strangler was sent to the Detroit House of Correction — a mixed state and federal institution — to start his penultimate stint behind bars.
The case became a sensation in papers across the region, partly because of the bizarre piracy designation that was anachronistic even for the early 20th century. That’s why the Erie Strangler’s life behind bars is relatively well documented; he remained a popular curiosity for decades.
Kerwin was hardly a model prisoner at first, and gained a reputation among the jailers for violence and unpredictability. Who knew that a convicted pirate with a penchant for strangling prostitutes would have anger issues?
But perhaps it was just his environment that he was acting out against, because seven years into his sentence, he was transferred to medium-security USP Leavenworth in Kansas. Prison psychologists there diagnosed him with “constitutional psychopathic inferiority” and noted “evidence of frank psychosis.”
But despite all that, Long John Strangler blossomed into a model prison citizen. He became the conductor of the prison band, mastered the trombone, starred in musicals, became their number one athlete, ran the prison newspaper, studied engineering, and even went above and beyond to help put out a fire which broke out there a few years into his bid.
What a guy. Probably the most upstanding prostitute murderer I’ve ever had the good fortune of knowing. That’s what some who knew him thought anyway. Believing the Strangler to be well and truly reformed, his associates campaigned to have him pardoned by President Woodrow Wilson, then President Warren G Harding. Both of the appeals were denied.
Kerwin would have to serve a full 22 years behind bars before finally tasting freedom again, when he was paroled in 1926. The papers wrote once again about the refined and reformed pirate, boosting him to minor celebrity status once again. So did our hero go on to become Michigan’s number one band-leading, poem-writing, tech-savvy leading man?
Well, no — actually he was caught in the act during another burglary, and sent back to Leavenworth, where he died in 1943. Yo ho ho ho, a pirate’s life for he…
And that just about wraps up the story of the one and only inland pirate in American history. It’s for sure among more unusual legal cases which the country has ever produced; due to one little legislative quirk, Joseph Kerwin was able to swagger into prison as a modern day Blackbeard, rather than the common killer and thief he was.
His case remains the only piracy conviction on America’s Great Lakes, although that could be a fun summer project for anyone with a kayak and a shotgun. Just remember that, as long as you get really, really good at the trombone, the public will apparently forgive all your sins and campaign to have you pardoned.
Was it perhaps all of the hype and fanfare around the piracy designation which made this possible for Joseph Kerwin? It’s certainly true that it adds a bit of a quirky veneer to distract from an otherwise awful story. Essentially, this accidental pirate was little more than a common crook who got a kick out of strangling women, often to death, and funded his lifestyle by stealing their possessions.
I hope all you Disney executives out there have been taking notes for Pirates of the Caribbean 17: The Curse of the Sexually Deviant Serial Killer. We’ll take our royalties in cheque form, thank you.
1. One thing which hasn’t changed in the hundred-odd years since the days of the Erie Strangler is that Americans sure do love a good lawsuit. While the Strangler’s court date was approaching, Adelia Sweeting sued the ferry company over her treatment, alleging that the captain dismissed her as a drug addict, and a cabin boy ignored her pleas for help. She initially pursued them for $25,000 but ended up winning $12,000 (that equals a pretty impressive $364k today).
2. Despite his bad fortune in committing his crime way out on the waters of the lake, it could have been much worse for Kerwin. Had he strangled his victim closer to the departure port of Buffalo, the judge would have had to choose between the federal penalty and the New York state penalty. That would have meant a coin toss between death, and death.