Last week, the FBI announced they captured Eric Conn, the aptly-named Social Security lawyer-turned-fraudster who scammed thousands of Kentuckians and the federal government before cutting off his ankle monitor and disappearing into the great unknown.
Turns out, the great unknown was a Pizza Hut in Honduras. His capture is the culmination of a six-month saga that captivated Kentucky – and me. Conn’s escape was the first story I covered after moving to Kentucky, and it matched pretty closely with the image of Kentucky I had in my head.
You’d expect that the state that made a cottage industry out of family feuds and was home to leaders of both sides of the Civil War would have a few spots reserved on the FBI’s Most Wanted List.
Which is why I was also not that surprised to learn that Kentucky used to be a hotbed of piracy. Not mid-2000s music piracy. Mid-1700s river piracy.
The Ohio River pirates were no joke: historians estimate that between 1785 and 1805, Ohio River pirates killed more than 2,000 people. Which is a lot, considering there just weren’t a whole lot of people back then, either!
Many of Kentucky’s pirates operated out of Cave-In-Rock, which is – shocker – a cave dwelling hidden among some rocks along the Illinois border. They would lure travelers into Cave-In-Rock with the promise of food or shelter or assistance, and then murder them and steal the goods on their barges.
Then they’d just the let the barge, denuded of people or goods, float down the river to Tennessee. Which apparently didn’t raise any concerns in Tennessee.
River barges were easy targets. They were usually powered only by the river current and a guy with a stick, and were prone to getting stuck for long periods of time, so no one might notice them missing or delayed. Essentially, river barges of the 1700s were floating shopping malls for the criminal set.
Samuel Mason was arguably the most famous Ohio River pirate. After he fought for freedom in the Revolutionary War, he moved to the territory that would become Kentucky and started the Mason Gang of pirates. They robbed and murdered and pillaged and generally terrorized the Ohio river.
Among the Mason Gang pirates were the Harpe brothers, who hold the distinction of being America’s first serial killers. They claimed at least 40 murders between them. When Mason was killed in a skirmish with law enforcement, the Harpe brothers tried to collect the reward on his head by literally showing up with his head in hand.
That backfired and they were arrested, though one of the brothers escaped and remained on the run for the rest of his life.
After the Mason Gang vacated Cave-In-Rock, the Ford Ferry Gang took over. James Ford was a local businessman and civic leader, best known for running the ferry that crossed the Ohio River. He was also responsible for robbing and sometimes murdering his patrons. Didn’t see that on the Oregon Trail game, now did you?
As if all that wasn’t bad enough, Ford also participated in the “reverse underground railroad.” Free black people were kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south. Ford helped transport them there.
He got his, though. Ford was murdered by vigilantes in 1833.
While I’m sure all the murdering and robbing and pillaging was fun while it lasted, the long-range prospects for Ohio River pirates weren’t great — they tended to end up dead, betrayed by their subordinates, or living on the run.
Kentucky has come a long way since the days of the river pirates — now, Tennessee tells us when they notice empty barges floating ominously down the river. And when a con artist steals $550 million in Social Security benefits, cuts off his tracking device and taunts the FBI from a distance, they don’t just put a price on his head.
They stake out every Pizza Hut on the planet. And they wait to get their man.