Thursday, April 19, 2012

The William Brown

Though we know a great deal about sailing ships of the 1840s, we know little about the William Brown. No pictures of it survive, nor are there any descriptions of its rigging. Was it a brig, a barqe or a brigantine? Likewise, we have no images of the survivors or the drowned, no portraits of the captain or his crew. Unfortunately, when she sank, illustrated newspapers were still a decade away. 

The captain, second mate, 7 sailors and one lucky passenger appropriated for themselves the better of the only two lifeboats. This was known as a jolly boat, having a sail and a fairly deep draft. The other craft, a long boat, which could be propelled only by oars, was left for the remainder of the crew and as many of the passengers as could fit into her; this number came to some 9 of the former and 33 of the latter.

These figures indicate that about half of the passengers were left behind, and they stood on the deck, "shrieking and calling on the captain to take them off his boat." First mate Francis Rhodes's benediction for them was realistic: "Poor souls! you're only going down just before us." At about 11:20 p.m., less than two hours after the William Brown encountered the ice, an "eerie silence" fell, and the ship sank.
"In 1841 a ship sailed at maximum speed into waters where danger of icebergs was known to exist. It did this because speed meant profit and profit was the goal of the maritime trade, even when it endangered lives. As a result of its course and speed, the William Brown struck an iceberg and sank. Because it did not carry sufficient auxiliary craft, half of its passengers went down with the ship. At least 14, some say 16, persons saved to the ship's longboat were thrown overboard 24 hours later by sailors acting upon their superior's orders. One of those seamen was convicted a year later. The irony is that the man convicted, Alexander William Holmes, was the one hero of the whole sorry affair, the only crewman or passenger to risk his life in a selfless attempt to save another's." ~ The Wreck of the William Brown by Tom Koch

Seventy-one years after the William Brown tragedy, the Titanic sank in the same waters in a similar fashion. Both went down in April after striking an iceberg at maximum speed on the edge of the Gulf Stream. The captains of both vessels were experienced; they knew the waters they sailed and the potential dangers those waters held. Both vessels carried emigrants and neither carried sufficient lifeboats to permit the survival of more than half the passengers on board. As a direct result, at least half the passengers ... most poor emigrants ... drowned.

From the William Brown to the Titanic and into present time, the questions have been the same: who dies and who survives at what cost? When difficult choices must be made, would we do the same? Could we? Would be be so callous or bold? That ships sank with passengers aboard was a fact of 19th century life ... an accepted risk of the North Atlantic crossing. But to be saved from a sinking ship only to be killed by its crewmen was exceptional.

In the end, only one sailor, Alexander Holmes, was charged with one count of manslaughter on the high seas. (See United States vs. Holmes.) His conviction was a foregone conclusion, a necessity of politics and commerce but not of justice before the law. His trial was not just an act of conscious justice or pioneering law but carefully constructed morality play staged to reassure the thousands of emigrants then streaming from Europe to the Americas.

People On the William Brown

88 persons were on board, including 18 officers and crewmen and 65 male and female passengers, most of whom were Irish immigrants bound for the William Brown's home port of Philadelphia.

As on other ships sailing westward across the Atlantic in the 1840s, most of the passengers were Irish folks who were traveling to America where family members, earlier emigrants, had already established themselves.
  • 19-year-old Bridget McGee was on her way to Philadelphia where her father had a stable. With her was an uncle who was to work for her father.
  • 17-year-old Biddy Nugent's was on her way to Philadelphia to join her mother who ran a lodging house. She was traveling with her Uncle John.
  • Mrs. Anderson and her three daughters were on their way to join her husband, a physician who had prospered in Cincinnati.
  • There were 12 in the Luden family, all heading for Philadelphia from Colonel Stewart's County Tyrone estate in Ireland.
  • The Carrs, also from County Tyrone, included 5 children, both parents and an assortment of nieces and nephews. 
 The records are inexact and varied. Some sailors are named in the dispositions but are not on any official list. Some passengers may be listed twice under slightly different names, or incorrectly, or not at all.

Ship’s Officers and Crew
George Harris, captain
Francis Rhodes, first mate+
Walter Parker, second mate
Isaac Freeman, sailor+
Alexander William Holmes, sailor+
Joseph Marshall, steward+
John “Jack” Messer, sailor+
William Miller, sailor
Henry Murray, cook+
James Norton, sailor+
Charles Smith, sailor+
1 unnamed sailor+
5-7 unnamed sailors

+= in longboat
All others in jolly boat

Passengers Drowned with the William Brown
Mrs. Anderson & 3 children
Jane Anderson
Mary Bradley
Nicholas Carr, wife & 5 children
Martin Morris, wife & child
John Davelin
Mary Connelly
Mary Jane Weil

Jolly Boat Passenger Saved
Eliza Lafferty

Longboat Passengers Saved
James and Ellen Black
Ann Bradley
Owen Carr
Sarah Carr
Mary Carr
Isabella Edgar
Jane Johnston Edgar
Jean Edgar
Margaret Edgar
Mrs. Margaret Edgar
Sarah Edgar
Susannah Edgar
Julie McCadden
Bridget McGee
Bridget “Biddy” Nugent
James & Matilda Patrick & child

Longboat Passengers Drowned
Ellen Asken
Francis “Frank” Askin
Mary Askin
Charles Conlin
George Duffy
James Goeld
Robert Hunter
Hugh Keigham
James MacAvoy
Martin MacAvoy
George Nugent
John Nugent
Owen Riley
James Smith
James Todd
John Welsh
John Wilson

Sunday, April 15, 2012

"Men, you must go to work, or we shall all perish."

The William Brown was an American ship that sank in 1841, taking with her 31 passengers. A further 16 passengers were forced out of an overloaded lifeboat before the survivors were rescued. In the case of United States v. Holmes, crewman Alexander Holmes was charged with murder and convicted of manslaughter for his actions.

Under the command of Captain George Harris, the ship departed from Liverpool on March 18, 1841 for Philadelphia with 17 seamen and 65 passengers, mostly poor Scottish and Irish emigrants. At about 10:00 p.m. on the night of April 19, the William Brown struck an iceberg 250 miles (400 km) southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland and sank.

The captain, second mate, 7 sailors and one lucky passenger appropriated for themselves the better of the only two lifeboats. (This was known as a jolly boat, having a sail and a fairly deep draft.) They were picked up 6 days later by a French fishing vessel. Although everyone in the jolly boat had suffered from frostbite, they had all survived.

The other craft, a long boat, which could be propelled only by oars, was left for the remainder of the crew and as many of the passengers as could fit into her; this number came to 9 crew and 32 passengers.

These figures indicate that about 31 passengers, many of them children, were left behind. As they stood on deck, "shrieking and calling on the captain to take them off his boat", first mate Francis Rhodes's benediction for them was realistic: "Poor souls! You’re only going down just before us." At about 11:20 p.m., less than two hours after the William Brown encountered the ice, an "eerie silence" fell, and the ship sank.

Before the two boats parted ways to increase their chances of being found, Captain Harris placed the first mate, Francis Rhodes, in charge of the crowded, leaking longboat. At about 10:00 p.m., 24 hours after the sinking, the wind picked up, sending water over the longboat's gunwales, and it began to rain heavily. The first mate shouted, "This . . . won't do. Help me, God. Men, go to work.” When the crewmen did nothing, he stated, "Men, you must go to work, or we shall all perish.” This time, his henchmen stirred and the killing began. All of the male passengers, except for two married men and a young boy had been sacrificed, while all of the crewmen remained aboard:
  • The first death was that of James Riley. When he was told to stand up, he called out, asking several of the women to intercede for him. They tried, one of them moaning, "Good God, are they going to drown the man?"
  • The second fellow to follow him may have been George Duffy, who entreated them to let him live for the sake of his wife and three children who were on shore.
  • James MacAvoy asked for five minutes to say his prayers and prepare himself for death. This was granted him and, when his time was up he rose, buttoned his coat, intoned, "Lord be merciful to me, a sinner," and jumped into the ocean.
  • Frank Askins refused to accept his fate with similar resignation. He resisted with such determination that his attacker, Alexander Holmes, had his shirt torn in the struggle and had to shout for assistance. Realizing he could not win against so many, he tried to appeal to reason, sweetened with a bribe: "I'll not go out," he told Holmes. "You know I wrought well all the time. I'll work like a man till morning, and do what I can to keep the boat clear of water; I have five sovereigns, and I'll give it for my life till morning, and when morning comes if God does not help us we will cast lots, and I'll go out like a man if it is my turn." "I don't want your money, Frank, " Holmes replied, and threw him into the sea.
  • While Askins was still in the boat, his two sisters begged for his life. The younger of them offered to die in his stead. What is more, she declared that if he was thrown into the ocean, she wished to share his fate. Thus it was that both sisters were drowned also. The younger one, Mary, seems to have jumped in voluntarily, but the other did not. Her name was Ellen and she did not want to go over the side. She pleaded that she not be thrown into the cold sea because she had no cloak. She was promptly given one, which would not have kept her warm long ... rather it would have weighed her down, pulling her under sooner.
  • The deaths of the Askins siblings seem to have touched Holmes, who tried to put an end to the killing. The other murderers ignored him. James Black was seized and his wife insisted she would die with him. Black asked that she be allowed to do this. They were given a reprieve when Francis Rhodes ordered they be left alone.
  • Another man was also permitted to live because his wife was with him. This clemency was not extended to men with families to support at home, to uncles whose nieces were in the boat, to the sole guardian of an orphaned girl or to the last surviving member of a family of 15. After pleading their cases, they all went in. Some struggled and some did not; at least one more jumped in unassisted, but they all went in.
  • After dawn, two men who had been hidden by the women were discovered. The murderers cursed this duplicity and went back to work.
The last head had hardly disappeared beneath the sea when the Crescent, an American ship, appeared. Holmes, the only one among the "passengers and crew ... whose energies and whose hopes did not sink into prostration," was alone in descrying the vessel's mainmast. While everyone else lay in the bottom of the boat, "exhausted and despairing," he raised a distress signal; thus saving them all.

For a time, the Crescent was trapped in the ice, but eventually, on May 12, she arrived at Le Havre, France. Both British and American consuls investigated the matter and took statements. Some of the passengers, including the men who had been allowed to live, actually spoke favorably of Holmes and the others and affirmed the necessity of what they had done. Despite the furor in England and the U.S over the incident, the authorities in both countries decided no prosecution was warranted.

But some other of the passengers were less charitable. When they reached Philadelphia in mid-July, they told stories that excited emotions in the Irish community there, its members believing that Irish Catholics had been left behind on the William Brown or sacrificed at sea, while Scottish Protestants had lived unmolested until rescued.

Holmes was the only crewman to be found in the city, so he was the only one charged. He was accused of murdering Frank Askin. The trial lasted more than a week, beginning on April 13, 1842 and concluding on April 23. A grand jury refused to indict him on that charge, so it was reduced to manslaughter. In the case of United States v. Holmes, the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to six months in jail and a $20 fine. None of the other crewmen were ever brought to trial including Captain George L. Harris who, after all, had done nothing that violated the law.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Jolly Boats

Types of boat shown in an 1808
engraving, including top left, 'a Jolly
boat for oars or sail'
The jolly boat was a type of ship's boat in use during the 18th and 19th centuries. The origins of the name is the subject of debate, but it was by the 18th century one of a number of ship's boats, and was used mainly to ferry personnel to and from the ship, or for other small scale activities. The design continued to evolve throughout its period in service.

The term 'jolly boat' has several potential origins. It may originate in the Dutch or Swedish jolle, a term meaning a small bark or boat. Other possibilities include the English term yawl, or the 'gelle-watte', the latter being a term in use in the 16th century to refer to the boat used by the captain for trips to and from shore. The term appears in Chamber's Encyclopedia between 1727 and 1741, and as 'jolly' in the works of Frederick Marryat, though it may have been in use considerably earlier, as the record of the voyages of Francis Drake and John Hawkins has 'That day the Pegasus jolly was going on shore for water, carying no guarde. The Spaniards perceiving it came downe upon them.’

Jolly boats were usually the smallest type of boat carried on ships, and were generally between 16 and 18 feet long. They were clinker-built and propelled by four or six oars. When not in use the jolly boat normally hung from davits at the stern of a ship, and could be hoisted into and out of the water. Jolly boats were used for transporting people and goods to and from shore, for carrying out inspections of the ship, or other small tasks and duties that required only a small number of people, and did not need the use of the larger boats, such as the launch or cutter. Jolly boats were carried on practically all types of warships of the Royal Navy during the age of sail, from ships of the line down to sloops and brigs. Ships of the line would carry a barge, launch, pinnace, two cutters, all of various sizes, and a jolly boat, while the brigs might just carry a jolly boat and a cutter.

The application of the jolly boat was developed further during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, particularly by the frigate commander Sir George Collier. Collier, who was active in the close blockade of the Spanish coast during the Peninsular War, combined the features of a jolly boat with those of a whaleboat and found the result extremely seaworthy and particularly effective in carrying out shore landings. The design was particularly buoyant and was often described as a type of lifeboat. Several captains ordered these boats for their own ships, while the Admiralty considered the possibility of ordering a general replacement of old-style jolly boats with the new 'lifeboat' design on several occasions, but were deterred by the cost. By 1815 however the Stores Committee had authorized the replacement of the old-style jolly boats with the improved versions as and when it proved practical for a ship's commander to carry this out.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

United States v. Holmes, U.S. Circuit Court, 1842

The William Brown left Liverpool on March 13, 1841 for Philadelphia. She had 17 crew and 65 passengers, mostly Scotch and Irish emigrants on board. At about 10:00 p.m. on the night of the 19th of April, some 250 miles southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland, the ship struck an iceberg and began to fill so rapidly that it was evident that she must go down soon. Both the long boat and the jolly boat were swung clear and lowered into the water. The captain, second-mate and seven other members of the crew plus one passenger clambered into the jolly boat and 41 persons rushed willy-nilly into the long boat (32 passengers and all 9 of the remaining crew). Within an hour and half of being struck, the ship went down. Thirty passengers in all, many of them children, were on board when the ship sank.
On the following morning the captain ordered the mate to take charge of the long boat before the two life boats parted company. The long boat was in fairly good condition but she had not been in the water since Liverpool and as soon as she was launched she began to leak. And she continued to leak throughout that first night and was now leaking still. The passengers, with the help of various buckets and tins, were able by bailing to reduce the water and keep the long boat afloat. The plug which was about an inch and half in diameter came out more than once. Add to this the fact that the long boat was very crowded and the weight of passengers and crew brought the gunwale to 5-1/2 inches of the water. Also to make matters worse it began to rain and continued to rain throughout the day and night of that first full day at sea. When the sun went down, the wind picked up and waves splashed over the long boats bow. Water was coming down from above, from over the side and from below and at about ten oclock at night the situation became desperate. The boat was quite full of water and the mate, who himself was bailing frantically, cried out, "This . . . won't do. Help me, God. Men, go to work. The crew, as if understanding what the mate was ordering them to do, did not respond. Several passengers cried out, The boat is sinking. The plugs out. God have mercy on our souls. And the mate exclaimed again: Men, you must go to work, or we shall all perish."
The crew then went to work. The mate ordered the crew not to part man and wife, and not to throw any women overboard. No lots were cast, nor had there been any discussion among all of those on board about what to do in such an emergency. There was no vote taken or consultation. The first to go was Riley whom Holmes, a mere sailor, but a man well respected by the passengers and crew, asked to "Stand up." He was then thrown overboard. When they came to Charles Conlin, he cried out, "Holmes, dear, sure you wont put me out?" "Yes, Charley," said Holmes, "you must go, too." One man asked for five minutes to say his prayers and was allowed, at the interposition of the cook, to say them before he, too, was thrown overboard. Frank Askin offered Holmes five sovereigns to spare his life until the next morning, when "if God don't send us some help, we'll draw lots, and if the lot falls on me, I'll go over like a man." But Holmes only said, "I don't want your money, Frank," and put him overboard. Askin struggled violently while he was being put out, but the boat did not capsize. When the crew had done their work, 16 passengers (14 men and two women) were thrown out, although the sacrifice of the two women may have been an act of devotion and affection for their brother, Frank Askin. When Holmes seized Askin, the two sisters pleaded for his life and said if he were thrown out, they wished to die, too and after he was gone, one of the sisters said "and I care not now to live longer."
The boat had provisions for six or seven days for those remaining on board: 75 pounds of bread, 6 gallons of water, 8 or 10 pounds of meat, and a small bag of oatmeal. The mate had a chart, compass and quadrant. On Wednesday morning, the morning that followed that fateful night, Holmes was the first to spot a vessel. He told the passengers to lie down and be very still. If they make out so many of us on board, they will steer off another way and pretend they have not seen us. He fastened a woman's shawl to a boathook and began waving it wildly. They were spotted and the Crescent picked up everyone in the long boat who had survived the night.
The Crescent was bound for Le Havre and when the ship arrived, public sentiment had already hardened against the crew and they were arrested but almost immediately released when the British and American consulates assured the authorities that the crew had done nothing wrong. Eventually many of the surviving passengers and crew made it back to Philadelphia, their home port (the William Brown was out of Philadelphia, its original destination, remember, when it set sail from Liverpool).

News travels fast and the story of the crew's exploits preceded them. The Public Ledger of Philadelphia demanded that the mate and sailors of the William Brown who threw the passengers overboard to save themselves, should be put upon trial for murder. And the editorials in other papers were no less vehement. The New York Advertiser complained that "we have emigrant ships sailing every week, and if it is held as law that might is right and that the crew are justified under extremities in throwing overboard whom and as many as they think right, without casting lots, or making other choice than their will, it had better be declared so."
Several passengers who survived that fateful Tuesday night filed a complaint against the crew with Philadephia's District Attorney. Holmes, who was the only crew member then in the city, was arrested and charged with the murder of Frank Askin, the man who had offered Holmes five sovereigns to spare his life. Before trial the charge was reduced to voluntary manslaughter, after the grand jury refused to indict Holmes for murder. Holmes was indicted under the Act of 1790 which ordained that "if any seaman, etc . . . shall commit manslaughter upon the high seas, on conviction, shall be imprisoned not exceeding three years and fined not exceeding one thousand dollars." Holmes was taken under the wing of the Female Seamens' Friend Society and the Society helped him secure David Paul Brown, the best criminal lawyer in Philadelphia at the time.

At trial the prosecution argued that full and distinct notice of the danger should have been given to all on board and that lots should have been cast, before the sacrifice of any for the safety of the rest would become justifiable. Brown, in defense of Holmes, argued that in situations of necessity, conventional law ceases to operate and gives way instead to natural law, i. e. the law of self-preservation and Brown argued the law of self-preservation is no different and is just as compelling as the law of self-defense. Brown appealed directly to the jury: "You sit here, the sworn twelve, . . . reposing amidst the comfort and delights of sacred homes . . . to decide upon the impulses and motives of the prisoner at bar, launched upon the bosom of the perilous oceansurrounded by a thousand deaths in their most hideous forms, with but one plank between him and destruction."

Holmes was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail and given a $20 fine. A Presidential pardon relieved him of the fine but he served his entire sentence. Upon his release, he returned to the sea, as had the rest of the crew, none of whom were ever tried for their part in the whole affair.