Mooncussers – The Unique Land Pirates of New England
Updated: Jan 8
While reading a novel recently, I discovered a reference to "mooncussers." Not knowing what that word meant, I looked it up and was fascinated by what I discovered. The term refers to the tradition that a band of unsavory marine salvagers along the coasts of New England were dubbed "mooncussers" because of their peculiar means of finding salvaged goods.
Local scavengers preyed on the wrecks of vessels driven by storms too close to the rocky coast line or reef. But some would go even farther, attempting to lure ships in to their doom, careless of how many people died in the process as long as they collected their spoils. These were the mooncussers.
How Mooncussers Were Different From Other Pirates
Historically there are many different types of pirates: corsairs, buccaneers, privateers and others reported throughout history. Each name had a slightly different meaning, but the results and methods were all about the same. Many were just criminals, murderers and thieves, though some fought for a cause they believed in. Most just liked to fight. Others chose the pirate life because they had no other options. One thing most pirates had in common, though, was that they mostly operated on the sea, boarding ships and stealing what they wanted.
The mooncussers were a unique kind of pirate. Instead of raiding ships or firing on merchants at sea, mooncussers operated on horseback from the shore. Their idea was simple: why wait for a natural ship wreck when you could deliberately wreck passing ships and plunder them before anyone else discovered them?
Centuries ago, a ship or 2 per week was wrecked along the shores of Cape Cod. Lighthouses were few and spaced far apart, and their light was often obscured by fog or bad weather. Even so, the lighthouses were the only reliable guides for sailors navigating off those dangerous shores.
Mooncussers would choose a stretch of coastline known to be treacherous to passing ships, then wait for a dark, moonless night – and they especially loved stormy nights. On such an evening they would demolish any lighthouses or beacons meant to guide boats safely. Then they rode their horses up and down the shore, planting large lanterns in the sand as they went. When they spotted a ship, the pirates grabbed the nearest lantern and began waving it, drawing the doomed ship closer to the treacherous rocks near shore.
The unsuspecting boats would venture into the shallows, run aground, and wreck. Then, the mooncussers would take advantage of this disaster, paddle out to the ship, and claim anything of value aboard. All this before legitimate salvagers were aware of the wreck the mooncussers had caused. If any unfortunate crew members remained alive, the mooncussers would usually either take them prisoner or kill them in the boarding process.
How They Got Their Name
Because their income depended on having a dark night to make the scam work, mooncussers were not happy to see a big full moon in the night sky. A shining moon hitting highly reflective water would provide passing ships with a warning if they ventured too close to land or rocks. Legend says that when the moon was full, or even mostly full, these pirates would often shout, "Cuss the moon!" Hence, these pirates were given the unusual name, "mooncussers."
Mooncussers on Cape Cod
Tradition has it that, during the 18th and 19th centuries, mooncussers were especially active in the Cape Cod area. Lighthouses were rare in this area and, even when they weren’t destroyed by mooncussers, the New England weather often obscured their light. Since the shores and waters around Cape Cod are especially dangerous, this combination of nature and inadequate warning systems often created perfect conditions for them to cause shipwrecks.
Why Mooncussers Were Feared and Hated
Historically, mooncussers were not nice people. Beyond their evil means of making a living, they were often bloodthirsty and down right mean. For example, they weren't above carving up people's organs once they learned that passengers on decks of sinking ships sometimes swallowed jewelry and other valuables.
Mooncussers were rarely arrested and brought to justice. It was hard to catch these pirates of the night because they acted swiftly to plunder ships, under cover of darkness, before anyone realized they were there.
The End of the Mooncussers
As time passed, ship captains heard about the mooncussers’ deadly traps and began avoiding areas that might prove especially dangerous on dark nights. As their profits began to decline, mooncussers slowly turned to other schemes. The land pirates were finally completely foiled as ocean-going vessels gradually became equipped with sophisticated devices for determining depth and location.
Still, there is some romance attached to the mooncussers, even as there is with all pirates. There are still places in New England, like the Mooncussers Tavern in Harwich Port, Massachusetts, where you can learn more about these strange criminals and the unusual lives they led.