Rhode Island Pirates for Life

by by Malcolm Burnley

illustration by by Emily Fishman

Ten years ago, Casey Dorman left the world of high fashion to pursue life on the high seas, giving the heave-ho to an international modeling career. In place of designer suits and leather jackets, he turned to tricorn hats and breeches; he now accessorizes with rapiers and blunderbusses. “There are friends of mine who I’ve known for years who have never seen me outside of pirate gear. And I try to keep it that way,” he says.

From February through November, pirate re-enacting season, Dorman lives the life of a non-profit pillager. For 250 consecutive days he dresses as John Atwood, Captain of the Rhode Island Pirate Players (RIPP). As president of the group, he heads Providence’s only re-enacting community dedicated to 17th and 18th-century New England piracy, commanding north of twenty crew members, although the captain lacks a ship.

The Pirate Players dress in traditional garb and brandish replica weaponry in mid-18th century style, making paid appearances at public schools, local libraries, and parades, “walking, waving at people, firing guns, and laughing maniacally,” in the words of the captain.

Dorman, 34, hoards his extensive pirate inventory down in the hull – his basement. There are ship’s lanterns, homemade grenados—“a hollowed out piece of wood with some twine and a bunch of gunpowder”—and a personal armory that includes one carbine (a bulky style of rifle) one blunderbuss (a wide-barreled handgun), five pistols, two hangar swords, six rapiers, two broadswords, and numerous axes.

His alter ego, John Atwood, is a historically-based creation taken from his mother’s maiden name. Atwood is a native Rhode Islander (Dorman was born in Connecticut, but moved to Rhode Island in 1986 at age ten), merchant, and pirate during the era of King Philip’s War. The captain says he was “raised to attack people and take their stuff,” cackling at his adopted life story.

In truth, Dorman distances himself from the modern-day pirates who violently patrol the East African and East Asian coastlines, but understands the motive behind their livelihood—“get rich or die trying,” he says. “I like to think of myself as an educator more than someone who is going to beat people up and take their stuff,” he says, “although on occasion I’ve been tempted.”

Instead, Dorman keeps things legal, moonlighting as a part-time constable for the District Court of Rhode Island, “just serving writs for the court,” he says. “I try to keep it as part-time as possible.” The worst part of the job is the button-up uniform, which feels more suffocating than the chic wardrobe Dorman wore on European runways. “My pirate garb is my second skin.”

The Ship’s Cabin
The captain’s corridors are at 927 Smith Street, a two-bedroom apartment in the LaSalle neighborhood of Providence. From the entryway, only hints of piracy are visible: an un-cocked replica carbine rests on the kitchen table and a neck-high pirate flag leans against the mantle. Dorman spreads out the black flag, which bears the group’s tri-part symbol: an hourglass, three drops of blood, and the “deathman’s head” (skull and crossbones) all in a line—a bit of “pirate brand recognition,” he says.

Dorman sits down at the kitchen table with a Ziploc bag of loose tobacco and begins to pack a foot-long wooden pipe, which is sitting alongside the carbine and a 16 oz. Narragansett beer. He resembles a young Benjamin Franklin with his thick black–rimmed glasses and long brown hair curled over his ears. He looks the colonial era, puffing his pipe, except for three tattoos: an anchor on his right forearm, a ship’s wheel on his left, and RIPP’s symbol on his upper right arm. Besides piracy, Dorman can only think of one other hobby: “I like coffee,” he admits.

Dorman moved into his current place in November, but says that “the décor is mainly my roommate’s.” Ten military certificates are framed on the wall, along with a Providence Journal front page article from September 12, 2001, showing an image of the burning Twin Towers and the headline: “US Attacked.” The decorations belong to his roommate, Dan Auxier, who served four tours in Iraq, and now stands beside a seated Dorman, sharing a Narragansett.

Auxier was stationed in the Middle East when Dorman dreamed up RIPP. “We all thought he was kind of crazy, but he eats, drinks, and sleeps it… there is something respectable about that,” Auxier says. A pirate’s diet, which Dorman follows during some encampments, consists of salt beef, salt pork, and hardtack. Drinking like a pirate is never a problem for the captain. Besides brewing his own beer, he enjoys Thomas Tew rum, a brand named after an infamous Rhode Island pirate.

Though Auxier is not an official member of the crew, he functions as the captain’s chief critic and cheerleader. Leaning against the kitchen wall underneath his Army certificates, he fires light-hearted jabs at Dorman: “You’re not really a pirate, are you?” he asks mockingly, before trying to get Dorman to confess a secret love for Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, a fictional character whom Dorman despises. He also describes Dorman as a swashbuckling savant with tireless enthusiasm for RIPP.

“This guy’s got his shtick down pat. He is going to libraries, he’s pushing it in every angle he can push it. The light will be on at two or three in the morning…making his game plan work… there is something remarkably admirable about that.” Auxier makes sure Dorman notes his nautical pun. “You are such a dork,” Dorman retorts.

Hoisting The Group
RIPP, established by Dorman in 2006, evolved from his life-long interests in history and sword fighting. Throughout childhood, he was infatuated with Hollywood chivalry and knights in shining armor; he remembers running through the woods at a young age with a baseball bat, pretending it was a sword. When he was sixteen, he picked up amateur sword fighting as a hobby, practicing with rudimentary equipment—“sword and board,” he calls it.

Dorman attended Hope High School in Providence, where he first met Auxier, then navigated his way to Rhode Island College. In 1998, he graduated with a degree in Medieval History and Anthropology, then remained in Providence until he received an unexpected offer from a friend who owned a photography studio on Thayer Street. Bob Calderon, of B.C. photography, asked Casey if he would like to do some publicity work. “I said yes, and boom, boom, boom, I was signed to Ford.”

From 1998 through 2001, Dorman shuttled among London, Paris, and Manhattan, working for modeling agencies like Ford NY, Top Models London, and Ford Milan. He did print work for Dolce & Gabbana and Calvin Klein, and walked runways for Yves Saint Laurent. While it made for a handsome living, the nonstop, cross-continental travel was not his life’s calling.

“These were pre-pirate days, and I was irked I had to forego any tattoos or body modifications for the work,” Dorman says. He eventually retired from modeling to help his ex-girlfriend raise her son in the States, returning to Rhode Island after three years abroad.

In 2001, he and some friends started a Rapier Dueling Academy—“more or less a social drinking club with swords,” he says. They fenced in public space on Doyle Avenue behind Hope High School, with the police nervously watching them, unable to interfere: the law categorizes sword fighting no differently than Tai-Chi or a martial art, Dorman explains.

For three years, they performed at Waterfire before Dorman had a revelation for a larger act: “It was this eureka moment. At the time I didn’t know there was any pirate history of Rhode Island. I uncovered so much, and thought this is an untold story of my adopted state’s past. There is so much history here and very few people know about.”

Rhode Island Piracy
Captain Atwood comes from a deep-rooted pirate tradition in the Ocean State. According to RIPP’s website, Atwood’s résumé includes capturing thirteen French vessels off the coast of Africa in 1707. His brief biography resembles the stories of Golden Age pirates such as Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts—“a badass,” Dorman says—who captured 400 ships in three years; Charles Vane—“a badass and definitely a rebel”—who was sent adrift and eventually hanged by the British Navy; and Thomas Tew— “a local boy who did really well for himself”—and a personal hero of Dorman’s, whose notorious career was emblematic of “that nice skirting of legal and illegal that Rhode Islanders are very good at.”

Atwood has been known to display some cunning piracy from time to time himself. Several times a year, RIPP joins other re-enactment groups from various historical eras for overnight encampment events. “Usually, we are just excited to see each other’s toys,” Dorman says, but sometimes conflicts occur. At the 2010 Colonial Harvest Festival at Wickford Harbor, Dorman’s pirates clashed with the Pawtuxet Rangers, a Revolutionary War militia that Dorman lists as a “friendly rival.”

It began like any other fall afternoon, with the pirates mocking the redcoats behind their backs, but quickly escalated into armed conflict, as tourists gathered to watch the spectacle of a firefight. Dug in on one side of the harbor, RIPP blasted bullet-less gunfire from carbines and dragoon pistols, shouting insults at the Rangers the whole time. “They harass us about being pirates and we mock them about being lapdogs for the king.”

Once the gunpowder cleared from the phony firefight, Dorman found Major Ken Gilbert of the Rangers—“Mr. Fancy Britches”—all alone. “We took him as hostage, ransomed him off, and donated the ransom to RI Food Bank.”
When asked about the capture, Major Gilbert says he does “not recall the incident,” but insists he is still in search of the elusive Atwood: “I am out to pursue him and arrest him, but he is always just out of my grasp.” In a phone conversation, Gilbert breaks character for a moment to speak glowingly of Dorman’s professionalism in their showmen’s hobby. “It is refreshing to see younger people coming into the hobby. They are the future of re-enacting.”

The “Authentic” Pirate
No matter how factual the library lectures get, no matter how much historically-accurate garb he flaunts, there is still one thing Dorman truly dislikes about being Captain John Atwood: “You really start hating how many people say ‘ARRrrr!’ at you,’” he says, before taking a serious tone: “We don’t want to be another cheesy Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off.”
In 1950, Disney released a film of Treasure Island, adapted from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel. Robert Newton, a British actor from Cornwall, starred as Long John Silver, and his gruff accent became immortalized as the stereotypical pirate dialect—loaded with the now-infamous “ARRRR” grunts. “In America, we romanticize this as the ‘true pirate,’” Dorman says, blaming Disney for perpetrating an inauthentic, corrupted portrayal of piracy: “Pirates are from all over the world, and not just from Cornwall. Why would I as a Rhode Islander speak like a Cornish sailor?”

Last year, Dorman endured forty “ARRrrr”’s a day, seven days a week while giving walking tours for Newport’s Deadman’s Tales. For three straight months he hauled 20 pounds of gear through the hot summer sun, narrating Rhode Island’s record of piracy to tourists, telling them “just how unique and interesting our state is.”

“It’s really breathtaking. They were able to circumnavigate the globe on leaky wooden ships with what we now think of as really basic forms of navigational equipment,” Dorman says of early pirates’ sailing expertise. He tells the story of the largest mass execution in state history, a pirate matter: in 1723, Captain Charles Harris and his crew of 25 pirates were hanged in Newport and buried on Goat Island.

He also tells of the Rhode Island merchant, John Brown, who committed the state’s last great piratical act in 1772 with the burning of the Gaspee, an English tax ship. When the boat harbored on Rhode Island’s shore, Brown ordered his men to shoot the English captain, loot the inventory, and set the boat ablaze. Each year, Pawtuxet commemorates the event with its Gaspee Days Celebration, in which RIPP plays a part.

Hands on Deck
Douglas Frongillo is Captain Atwood’s 45-year old first mate, ranking ahead of the bombadier, diplomat, and carpenter. A short, bald man employed by the UPS Store, he is fiercely loyal to Casey, whom he considers his best friend in the world. “He acts like the commander of a small military, the way many captains of the time did to be successful. His enthusiasm spreads to everyone, including me,” Frongillo says.

Frongillo met his captain in 2007, when Dorman worked at a deli across the street from Frongillo’s job, and the two would talk during breakfast hours. It wasn’t long before Frongillo joined the crew and bought his first set of garb—swaps, a shirt, and a hat—for $300. He remembers his first impressions of Captain Atwood: “Here is a very honorable man, born 300 years too late.”
Since joining the group, Frongillo treats RIPP like a job, updating the group’s Facebook page, notifying members of upcoming dues ($5 a month), and serving as Dorman’s lead enforcer, responsible for sniffing out mutiny attempts.

“People who don’t want to be part of the organization aren’t going to be part of the organization. We have very specific guidelines for how we expect our members to carry themselves, and if that’s violated, they’ll be asked to leave. A mutiny, per se? I don’t think so.”

“Every so often I wish there’d be a mutiny though,” Dorman says laughing. “But nobody wants this job.” He never planned on being captain permanently, but in five years, he has only missed one meeting. That meeting, Frongillo called for a vote to make Dorman “Captain for Life.” The vote was unanimous.

On the Horizon
In the kitchen, Auxier looks toward Dorman as he imagines what the captain might have in store for RIPP in the future: “I think the end-game for you is like a boat museum, right?” Dorman takes a second to respond, his mouth full of beer, but then shakes his head. “It is to avoid work at all costs,” he says.

The group has grown from a hobby to a calling: “This is what I want to be doing full-time, year-round,” Dorman says. When RIPP began, as little more than “a self-proclaimed drinking group with a pirate problem,” meetings were held at the Wild Colonial.

For each of the past five years, RIPP has expanded its membership: Atwood’s crew now totals some twenty-five men and women, ranging in age from 16 to 60, but “we are always looking for new members,” he says. RIPP’s show-and-tell lectures typically cost between $250 and $500, but all fees and expenses are re-invested into the group.

Dorman dreams of partnering with a museum, and has held preliminary discussions with both the RI Economic Development Corporation and Urban Ventures, but has found grants difficult to come by in this economy. But there is one item he is missing before he can be considered a true captain—a ship. “I’d like to see us with several historically accurate vessels. At least as historically accurate as the Coast Guard will allow us to be.” Dorman has little experience on tall ships, but figures it will be easy to train his crew how to operate one.

He is also working with the Rhode Island Department of Education to launch a “Keep History Alive Program” to bring re-enactors to Providence public schools. “History is no longer a focus in public education, and as one of my favorite historians said, ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat the tenth grade.’”

Back in the 1670s, Rhode Island’s Deputy Governor, John Cranston, regularly hired pirates as government privateers, giving them permission to rob and pillage as long as half their spoils went to the state. Dorman hopes for a similar, less-criminal bond with the state, and has approached Governor Chafee’s office to ask for an honorary mark of distinction as Rhode Island’s official pirate group.

Although Dorman says the state was “intrigued by the idea,” there has been no official verdict on the ceremonial commission. While he waits, Casey settles for validation from his family: “As I’ve become more successful with it, it was really gratifying for my grandmother to say ‘So, how is piracy going?’”

MALCOLM BURNLEY B’12 is tired of swabbing the poop deck.