Back to Previous Page

History Lives Here Text

On the Trail ofPirates in 1858

MemberDexter Gauntlets discovered the following intriguing story while doing someresearch on Pier Cove. If it doesn't seem locally relevant just keep reading.This version was authored by Michele Pettit.

 

Sny Magill [acreek in Clayton County, Iowa] is known today as a unit of Effigy MoundsMonument and as a place of serene and natural beauty. In 1 858 Sny Magill wasnot so serene. It was a hideout for Dr. Bell and a band of river pirates whopreyed on cargo boats and travelers along the Mississippi River near McGregor,Iowa.

 

The firstindication of river pirates in McGregor was made in the April 28, issue of the NorthIowa Times:

 

For thefirst time since we have been residents of McGregor we are obliged to chroniclethe existence of thieves around us. Some boats have also been stolen whichleads to the conclusion that the villains have their rendezvous on the bank ofthe River. Good lacks and loaded guns are fine tonic for the disease with whichsuch gentry are afflicted.

 

The piratesstole from boats at McGregor and Prairie du Chien, but the stealing had notbeen connected to any organized gang until the thieves began quarreling amongthemselves. A carpenter named Ralph had been building boats for the pirates forseveral months. One day a quarrel ensured between Ralph and the pirates whichresulted in his exposure of the villains.

 

At Prairiedu Chien some of the pirates were roughly handled and made to confess theworkings of the gang. It was found there were scores of river pirates connectedwith this outfit; that they operated both on the Mississippi and on the Ohio;that they had agents at New Orleans, and that regular boats took the plunder tothe Texas coast for disposal.

 

SandfordPeck headed a posse which captured three thieves who were camping on BigIsland, opposite the mouth of Sny Magill creek. The three who were capturedwere George Scivilie, an English butcher of McGregor, a partially blind mannamed Howell, and a 9-year-old boy. The McGregor constables Kee and Brownlearned that the leader of the gang was known as Dr. Bell, and that he had aboat, "loaded with stolen goads."

 

Dr. Bell hadoriginally been a veterinary doctor in McGregor. He was described in the arrestwarrant as "a well-made man, about 35, weight 160, sandy complexionwith large red whiskers." He was known for having a head for organizationand a knack for hiding.

 

The piratehunters searched for Dr. Bell's boat early the next morning. With the captiveboy as their guide, Bell's boat was readily discovered, but there seemed to beno one on board.

 

Suddenly a dog on Bell's skiff barked.Dr. Bell walked out on deck looking as though he just woke up. He squintedacross the water and waved to the boy. Dr. Bell evidently assumed that menaccompanying the boy were fellow pirates. He asked them to "hold on"as Mrs. Bell was asleep and he didn't want to disturb her.

His request was ignored and the lawmenpromptly made an arrest. Bell seized his rifle and fired at them, but missed.Sandford Peck returned the fire and Bell fell wounded to the deck.

Mrs. Bellhad been watching from a porthole. She was a tiny woman, and ably hid on deck,behind a huge coil of rope. She ducked down out of sight and blazed away with ashotgun at the men. Mrs. Bell was described in the North Iowa Times as"a practiced gunner." The McGregor men considered it advisable toretreat rather than to remain sitting targets for the woman. The lawmenhightailed out of range, and moments later watched helplessly as the pirateboat slipped silently downstream and out of sight in the dense morning fog.

 

Theyreturned to McGregor to assemble a larger force of men. Over 50 men rushed tothe battle scene. When they arrived at the island, Dr. Bell and his crew haddisappeared. They found only Mrs. Bell and her young child on board. A guardwas placed in charge of these two while the rest of the party searched BigIsland. They discovered two more boats loaded with plunder.

 

The ClaytonCounty sheriff took custody of the pirate boats and estimated that the lootthey carried was worth about $5,000. The pirate crafts were towed to Clayton byCaptains DeHaven and Goodrich of the Junction Ferry Line. On Sunday theAlexander McGregor Steamboat with 300 citizens on board left the wharf andproceeded to Clayton to bring up the plunder and the victorious band who hadbrought the pirates to justice. The Times reports, "Such a time ofcheering was never heard before on the Mississippi."

 

But althoughthe crafts, the stolen goods, and most of the pirates had been recovered, thelawmen were still searching for Dr. Bell. The search circular contained hisformer description of red hair and beard, medium height and build, but now hisidentifiable description of having "a bullet mark from his forehead roundto the top of his left ear." (From the shot fired by Sandford Peck.)

 

On the trailof Dr. Bell the officers found he had visited a physician in Prairie du Chien,where he had the ball of lead taken from his head. Officers traced him to townsin Illinois, back to Iowa, to Davenport, and to Chicago. All the while the lawwas just a little behind Dr. Bell. Officers followed a clue and arrested Dr.Bell at Pier Cove, Michigan, where he had taken refuge with a gang ofcounterfeiters.

 

Bell and theother pirates were tried and the gang was broken up, but the light sentencesthey received were unsatisfactory to many McGregor residents. "TheVigilance Committee already arrested 14 pirates. We believe a rope applied tothe necks of some as a persuader will get them to tell all they know with greatliberality."