A Sin and A Secret: The Tattooed Servant and Snakebite

Welcome back to another "A Sin and A Secret." Mix yourself a drink based on a colonial recipe and then curl with a completely true, completely salacious story. Enjoy a new #ASinAndASecret post every week.

"Examples of tattoos depicted on Seamen's Protection Certificate Applications. Clerks writing the documents often sketched the tattoos as well as describing them." Dye, Ira, "The Tattoos of Early American Seafarers, 1796-1818," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 133, No. 4 (Dec., 1989)



"A Mermaid tattoo of 1808, from a preserved skin specimen." Dye, Ira, "The Tattoos of Early American Seafarers, 1796-1818," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 133, No. 4 (Dec., 1989)


The Tattooed Servant


In February of 1747, indentured servant John Flack borrowed a horse to visit a nearby house and promptly disappeared.


Richard Mount placed an advertisement in the Maryland Gazette for Flack's capture. Mount was an overseer at Mill Plantation, working for William Cumming, near Annapolis. Cumming was apparently friends with Flack's master, merchant William Thornton. Both men were members of the Tuesday Club in Annapolis (the same group co-founded by the "other" Alexander Hamilton in our Tavern Tales)


Mount repeated placing the ad for several weeks, until March 17th. We don't know if the ads stopped because Flack had been captured or returned on his own.

Only a few months passed before Flack was in trouble again.

New advertisements appeared in the Maryland Gazette by William Thornton. Thornton penned a colorful description of his servant. Flack was scarred with gunpowder and afflicted with sores. His clothing was that of a sailor, matching the profession he claimed. Despite these unsightly marks, John Flack was described as “very artful, sly, smooth tongued Fellow [who] has his Story by Heart, is very much given to Drink, and when in Liquor, is very impudent.” Both of Flack's hands were tattooed, and “under his right Breast he has the Representation of Adam and Eve sitting under a Tree." It is quite possible (given surviving images of the time) that Adam and Eve were doing more than just “sitting.”


Both of Flack's hands were tattooed, and “under his right Breast he has the Representation of Adam and Eve sitting under a Tree." It is quite possible (given surviving images of the time) that Adam and Eve were doing more than just “sitting.”

"A tattoo of 'Adam and Eve and the Tree of Life,' early nineteenth century, from a preserved skin specimen." Dye, Ira, "The Tattoos of Early American Seafarers, 1796-1818," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 133, No. 4 (Dec., 1989)


In under a month, the advertisement disappeared from the Maryland Gazette. Flack had once again been returned to his servitude. For several years after, he is absent from the historical record. We do know that Flack’s servitude was purchased by William Bicknell in Annapolis by August 30, 1753.

William Bicknell was a trained sailmaker. His experience came from training in the service of the Royal Navy. It was a fact that he proudly announced when he first appears in the historical record. In the late summer of 1749, the newly arrived Bicknell took out an advertisement in the Maryland Gazette offering his skills “for Ships or Other Vessels…at reasonable rates.” Initially he was living in Annapolis with a Mr. Williamson.

It was John Flack’s skill as a sailmaker that made him so appealing to Bicknell. Bicknell even mentions Flack when advertising his services.


By November 1753, Bicknell had branched out his services. He received a license to open a tavern out of his “dwelling house,” producing the not inconsiderable sum of £20 current money to cover it. By obtaining his license, he swore to prevent “idle loose or disorderly persons to tippel game or commit other disorders or irregularities.” Not only does this show that he had access to the money to license his tavern, but also that he was no longer living with Mr. Williamson and had acquired his own home.

However, the good times for Bicknell were not to last. At the end of March 1754, John Flack (predictably enough) fled from his master in London Town. Again, an advertisement appears in the Maryland Gazette seeking the runaway servant.


Interestingly, the advertisement uses many phrases word for word from the one placed seven years earlier by Thornton in 1747. For a full month this runaway advertisement was published in the Maryland Gazette. Eventually it was pushed out by other advertisements and news about the start of the French and Indian War. Whether he was captured or escaped, John Flack’s ultimate fate is unknown.

Bicknell does not appear to have been hurt too much by the loss of labor. In November he again paid the £20 required to renew his tavern license. Perhaps he could have shouldered the extra burden of work and moved on, but 1755 was not a kind year to William Bicknell.


Numerous court cases appear in 1755 with Bicknell as both plaintiff and defendant. The most prominent of these cases was brought against him by the London Town merchant Stephen West in June. West claimed an unpaid debt of £20 and eighteen shillings. Not only did West win the case, but Bicknell was ordered to pay damages as well as his debt.


A second case from West was brought against Bicknell in November of 1755. This perhaps indicating that Bicknell had not paid the damages and debt, but the record is unclear on that point. The last record of Bicknell in the area is a 1757 court case brought against him by Thomas Gibbs, but his story does not end with litigation.

What happened to William Bicknell? He reappears in 1764 aboard the Royal Navy warship Richmond. The Richmond was a 32-gun frigate that spent much of its time in American waters. While the Richmond anchored in London, Bicknell wrote his will. In it, he left two thirds of his property to his wife Ann in Annapolis. (This is the first time his wife is mentioned in the historical record.) Given that there were no children mentioned in the will, it may be safely assumed that the couple was childless. The remaining third of his estate was left to the executor of his will, a brother by the name of Andrew who was a weaver by trade residing in Yeovil in County Somerset, England. Any of Bicknell’s remaining possessions aboard the Richmond were bequeathed to the ship’s cook.


Snake Bite

Modern Cocktail: The Snakebite

The Snakebite is perhaps one of the easiest drinks. The Snakebite originates in Britain. It shares a category with cocktails such as: The Black Velvet, The Boilermaker, and The Bee Sting.

• 1 bottle of larger or stout • 1 bottle of hard cider 1. Fill glass halfway with chilled larger or stout. 2. Fill glass rest of the way with hard cider. 3. Enjoy!



The Tattooed Servant Sources

  • Maryland Gazette February 24, 1747, March 10 1747, August 18, 1747, June 14 1753; August 30, 1753; April 11 1754 page 3;

  • Anne Arundel County Court Judgement Record, C91-21, November Court 1753, Folio 718; November Court 1754, Folio 44; C91-22, June Court 1755, Folio 174 & Folio 317; January Court 1755, Folio 173; June Court 1755, Folio 174; August Court 1755, Folios 267, 317; November Court 1755, Folio 356; Maryland State Archives

  • “Will of William Bicknell, Master Sailmaker of His Majesty’s Ship Richmond,” UK National Archives, 22 June 1764, PRO 11/899/393.

  • Dye, Ira, "The Tattoos of Early American Seafarers, 1796-1818," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 133, No. 4 (Dec., 1989), pp. 520-554, American Philosophical Society Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/986875

  • Somerville, Wilson, The Tuesday Club of Annapolis (1745-1756) as Cultural Performance, University of Georgia Press: 1996, page 161.


Select Drink Recipe Sources for the Series:

  • Alderman, Clifford Lindsey, "Of Drinks & Drinkers," Early American Life, December 1975, pgs 87-88, 91 - 93

  • Bullock, Helen, The Williamsburg Art of Cookery or Accomplished Gentlewoman's Companion: Being a Collection of Upwards of Five Hundred of the Most Ancient and Approv'd Recipes in Virginia Cookery, Colonial Williamsburg and Dietz Press: Richmond, VA, 1938

  • Carr, Eve, "Home-Grown Treats," Mid-Atlantic Country, December, 1986 pgs. 34 - 35, 58

  • Gaspee Days Committee, www.gaspee.org/colonialrecipes.html

  • Mackin, Jeanne, "Flowing Bowl," Americana, pgs. 39 - 41

  • Stief, Frederick Philip, Eat, Drink, & Be Merry in Maryland, Johns Hopkins Press: Baltimore, MD, 1932

  • Tilp, Frederick, "Tips on Tippling from Tidewater Maryland," Maryland Magazine, 1978, pgs. 14 - 17