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Samuel Mason

Samuel Mason

American judge
Samuel Mason
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American judge
Is Judge
From United States of America
Type Law
Gender male
Birth Norfolk
Samuel Mason
The details


Samuel Ross Mason also, spelled Meason (1739–1803) was a Virginia militia captain, on the American western frontier, during the Revolutionary War, who following the war became the leader of a gang of river pirates and highwaymen on the lower Ohio River and the Mississippi River in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He was associated with outlaws around Red Banks, Cave-in-Rock, Stack Island, and the Natchez Trace.

Early life

Mason was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised in what is now Charles Town, West Virginia, formerly a part of Virginia.

Horse thievery

Samuel Mason was thought to have been "born bad." According to Lyman Draper, in the 1750s Mason got his earliest start in crime as a teenager, by stealing the horses of Colonel John L. Hite, in Frederick County, Virginia, being wounded and caught by his pursuers. He moved from Charles Town to what is now Ohio County, West Virginia, also at that time a part of Virginia, in 1773.

Revolutionary War service in Virginia and Pennsylvania

During the American Revolution, Samuel Mason was a captain, of the Ohio County Militia, Virginia State Forces. According to Ohio County court minutes, dated 7 January 1777, Mason was recommended to the governor of Virginia to serve as captain of the militia. On 28 January, he was present and cited as a captain from Ohio county at a "council of war" held at Catfish Camp. Catfish Camp was located at or near present-day Washington, Pennsylvania. On 8 June 1777, Mason wrote a letter from Fort Henry, now present-day Wheeling, West Virginia, to brigadier general Edward Hand, at Fort Pitt, now present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The letter he wrote was signed Samuel Meason. On September 1, 1777, Captain Mason was wounded but survived an ambush by Native Americans, near Fort Henry. Most of the men in his Virginia Militia company perished during the attack.

Honest pursuits

Samuel Mason moved again, in 1779, to a part of Virginia that is now present-day Washington County, Pennsylvania, where he was elected justice of the peace and later selected as an associate judge, leaving for an area that was then a part of Virginia and now the present-day State of Kentucky, in 1784. Mason's surname was spelled interchangeably as Meason in many of the early frontier records. This is explained in two family histories of the Mason/Meason family, Pioneer Period and Pioneer People of Fairfield County, Ohio by C. M. L. Wiseman, dated 1901, and Torrence and Allied Families by Robert M. Torrence, dated 1938.

Criminal gang leader in Red Banks, Kentucky and at Cave-In-Rock, Northwest Territory

In the early 1790s, Samuel Mason moved his family to the Red Banks on the Ohio River, now present-day Henderson, Kentucky, where he began his full-time criminal activities. He later settled downriver on Diamond Island and engaged in river piracy. By 1797, Mason moved the base of his operations further downriver to Cave-in-Rock on the Illinois side of the river in the Northwest Territory. The Mason Gang of river pirates openly based themselves at the prominent Ohio River landmark known as Cave-in-Rock, a huge shelter cave. Samuel Mason had a brief association with the first known serial killers in America, Micajah and Wiley Harpe, as well as Peter Alston, and possibly John Duff, the counterfeiter. Mason and his gang stayed at Cave-In-Rock until the summer of 1799, when they were expelled by the "Exterminators", a group of regulators under the leadership of Captain Young of Mercer County, Kentucky. Samuel Mason moved his operations down the Mississippi River and settled his family in Spanish Louisiana Territory, how the present-day state of Missouri, and became a highwayman along the Natchez Trace in Mississippi Territory, now the present-day state of Mississippi. It was on the Natchez Trace that Mason received his most infamous nickname. He would leave a message after each crime (often in the blood of his murdered victims) proudly stating, "Done by Mason of the Woods". In April 1802, Mississippi Territorial Governor William C. C. Claiborne was informed that Mason and Wiley Harpe had attempted to board the boat of a Colonel Joshua Baker between Yazoo, now present-day Yazoo, Mississippi, and Walnut Hills, now present-day Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Arrest, escape, and death

According to Spanish colonial court records, Spanish government officials arrested Samuel Mason and his men, early in 1803, at the Little Prairie settlement, now present-day Caruthersville, in southeastern Missouri. Mason and his gang, including his family members, were taken to the Spanish colonial government in New Madrid, Spanish Upper Louisiana Territory, along the Mississippi River, where a three-day hearing was held to determine whether Mason was truly involved in river piracy, as he had been formally accused of this crime. Although he claimed he was simply a farmer, who had been maligned by his enemies, the peculiar presence of $7,000 in currency and twenty human scalps found in his baggage was the damming evidence that convinced the Spanish he indeed was a river pirate. Mason and his family were taken, under armed guard, to New Orleans, the capital of Spanish Lower Louisiana Territory, where the Spanish colonial governor ordered them handed over to the American authorities in the Mississippi Territory, as all crimes they had been convicted of appeared to have taken place in American territory or against American river boats.

While being transported up the Mississippi River, Samuel Mason and gang members John Sutton or Setton, one of the many aliases used by Wiley Harpe, and James May, alias of Peter Alston, overpowered their guards and escaped, with Mason being shot in the head during the escape. Although one of the 1803 accounts {Rothert .p. 247} claimed Captain Robert McCoy, the commandant of New Madrid, who in their escape was killed by Mason, but actually died in 1840, was neither crippled or killed, by Mason. American territorial governor Claibourne, immediately issued a reward for their recapture, prompting Wiley Harpe and another man, James May, the alias used by Peter Alston, to bring Mason's head, in an attempt to claim the reward money, whether they killed Mason or whether he died from his wound suffered in the escape attempt has never been established. Setton and May were recognized and identified as wanted criminals, Wiley Harpe and Peter Alston were arrested, tried in U.S. federal court, found guilty of piracy, and hanged in Old Greenville, Jefferson County, Mississippi Territory in early 1804.

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