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Peter Alston

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Subject: Piracy, Cave-In-Rock, Illinois, List of pirates, Counterfeit money, List of highwaymen, Stack Island (Mississippi River)
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Peter Alston

Peter Alston
— Pirate —
Other names James May
Born aft 1765
Died Feb. 8, 1804

Peter Alston (c1765-Feb. 8, 1804) was the late 18th Century and early 19th Century counterfeiter and river pirate, who is believed to be Little Harpe's associate and partner in the murder of notorious outlaw leader Samuel Mason in 1803. He was the son of the colonial-era counterfeiter Philip Alston associated with Cave-in-Rock and Natchez, Mississippi.[1]

James May (alias)

T. Marshall Smith, in his Legends of the War of Independence published in 1855, gives the earliest account so far that lists Alston as the second killer of Mason in 1803, as opposed to the name James May which the killer used at the time. Alexander Finley, in his History of Russellville and Logan County Kentucky published two decades later, which included a more detailed account of the father's criminal activities, also named Peter as the second killer. If this is correct, then the younger Alston was simply using the alias "James May" just as Little Harpe was using the name John Setton at the time. Alston/May also used the names Samuel May and Isaac May.[2]

The earliest recorded use of the alias dates to around 1797 or 1798 in Red Banks, Kentucky, now Henderson, Kentucky, where he appeared along with a woman who claimed she was his lame sister. There he stole some horses, but was caught at Vincennes, Indiana, and brought back for trial. He was never tried as he broke out of the jail the first night incarcerated.[3]

Alston later shifted operations down to Stack Island in the lower Mississippi River along with Mason after regulators cleaned the outlaws out of western Kentucky and Cave-in-Rock in the summer of 1799. There he reunited with his father and counterfeited coins and paper money, as well as took part in Mason's river piracy operations.[4]

Alston and Harpe killed Mason in 1803 in an effort to secure the reward for the outlaw's head. A day after turning in the head, Harpe's real identity was discovered and the two men were arrested. They escaped, but were captured again and tried for their crimes. Convicted and sentenced to death on February 4, 1804, the two were hanged four days later on February 8. Once dead, their heads were removed and placed on poles as a warning to future pirates.[5]


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