Attempted Murder at Sea

From The Terrific Record and Chronicle of Remarkable and Interesting Events, 1849.

I was bound for Liverpool, says an American Captain, in a fine stout ship, of about four hundred tons burden, with a valuable cargo on board, and about ninety thousand dollars in specie. When we were about to sail, the mate informed me that he had shipped two foreigners as seamen, one a native of Guernsey, and the other a Frenchman from Brittany. I was pleased, however, with the appearance of the crew generally, and particularly with the foreigners. They were both stout and able-bodied men, and alert and attentive to orders.

The passage commenced auspiciously, and promised to be a speedy one. To my great sorrow and uneasiness, I soon discovered in the foreigners a change of conduct. They became insolent to the mates, appeared to be frequently under the excitement of liquor, and had evidently acquired an influence over the rest of the men, and as it now appeared that they had brought liquor on board with them, I determined upon searching for it. An order to this effect was given to the mates, and they were directed to go about its execution mildly and firmly, taking no arms with them, but to give every chest, berth, and locker in the forecastle a thorough examination; and bring aft to the cabin any spirits they might find.

It was not without much anxiety that I sent them forward upon this duty. I remained upon the quarterdeck myself, ready to go to their aid, should it be necessary. In a few moments, a loud and angry dispute was succeeded by a sharp scuffle around the forecastle companion-way. The steward, at my call, handed my loaded pistols from the cabin, and with them I hastened forward. The Frenchman had grappled the second mate, who was a mere lad, by the throat, thrown him across the heel of the bowsprit, and was apparently determined to strangle him. The chief mate was calling for assistance from below, where he was struggling with the Guernsey man. The rest of crew were indifferent spectators, but rather encouraging the foreigners, than otherwise. I presented a pistol, at the head of the Frenchman, and ordered him to release the second mate, which he instantly did. I then ordered him into the foretop, and the others, who were near, into the main top, none to come down under pain of death, until ordered. The steward had by this time brought another pair of pistols, with which I armed the second mate, directing him to remain on deck; and went myself below into the forecastle. I found that the chief mate was slightly wounded in two places by the knife of his antagonist, who, however, ceased to resist as I made my appearance, and we immediately secured him in irons. The search was now made, and a quantity of liqour found and taken to the cabin. The rest of the men were then put into confinement. I then expostulated at some length with the others upon their improper conduct, and expressed hopes that I should have no reason for further complaint during the rest of the voyage. This remonstrance I thought had effect, as they appeared contrite and promised amendment. They were then dismissed, and order was restored.

The next day the foreigners strongly solicited pardon, with the most solemn promises of future good conduct, and as the rest of the crew joined in their request, I ordered that the irons should be taken off. For several days the duties of the ship were performed to my entire satisfaction; but I could discover in the countenances of the foreigners expressions of deep and rancorous animosity to the chief mate, who was a prompt energetic seaman, requiring at all times, ready and implicit obedience to his orders.

A week perhaps had passed over in this way, when one night, in the mid-watch, all hands were called to shorten sail. Ordinarily upon occasions of this kind, the duty was conducted by the mate, but I now went upon deck myself and gave orders, sending him upon the forecastle. The night was dark and squally, but the sea was not high, and the ship was running off about nine knots, with the wind upon the starboard quarter. The weather being very unpromising, the second reef was taken in the fore and maintopsails, the mizen handed, and the fore and mizen top-gallant yards sent down. This done, one watch was permitted to go below, and I tried to betake myself to my cabin again, directing that the mate, to whom I wished to give some orders, should be sent to me. To my utter astonishment and consternation, word was brought me, after a short time, that he was no where to be found. I hastened upon deck, ordered all hands up again, and questioned every man in the ship upon the subject, but they one and all declared that they had not seen the mate forward. Lanterns were then brought, and every accessible part of the vessel was unavailingly searched. I then, in the hearing of the whole crew, expressed my fear that he had fallen overboard, and repaired to the cabin, in a state of mental agitation impossible to be described. I could not, indeed, but entertain strong suspicions that the unfortunate man had met a violent death.

Feeling a deep sense of forlornness and insecurity, I proceeded to load and deposit in my state-room all the fire-arms on board, amounting to several muskets and four pairs of pistols. The steward was a faithful mulatto man, who had sailed with me several voyages. To him I communicated my suspicions, and directed him to be constantly on the alert: and should any further difficulty with the crew occur, to repair immediately to my state-room and arm himself. His usual berth was in the steerage, but I directed that he should, on the following morning, clear out and occupy one in the cabin near my own. The second mate occupied a small state-room opening into the passage which led from the steerage to the cabin. I called him from the deck, gave him a pair of loaded pistols, with orders to keep them in his berth; and, during his night-watches on deck, never to go forward of the mainmast, but to continue as constantly as possible near the cabin companionway, and call me upon the slightest occasion. After this, I laid down in my bed, ordering that I should be called at fouro'clock, for the morning watch.

A few minutes only had elapsed before I heard three or four gentle knocks under the counter of the ship, which is that part of the stern immediately under the cabin windows. In a minute or two they were distinctly repeated. I arose—opened the the cabin window, and called. The mate answered! I gave him the end of a rope to assist him up, and my delighted soul poured forth a flood of gratitude to that Being who had restored him to me uninjured. His story was soon told. He had gone forward upon being ordered by me, after the calling of all hands, and had barely reached the forecastle, when he was seized by the two foreigners, and before he could utter more than one cry, which was drowned in the roaring of the winds and waves, was thrown over the bow. He was a powerful man, and an excellent swimmer. Tbe topsails of the ship were clewed down to reef, and her way, of course, considerably lessened. In an instant he found the end of a rope, which was accidentally towing overboard, within his grasp, and to this he clung. By a desperate effort, he caught one of the rudderchains, which was very low, and drew himself by it upon the step or jog of the rudder, where he had sufficient presence of mind to remain without calling out, until the light had ceased to shine through the cabin windows, when he concluded that the search for him was over. He then made the signal to me.

No being in the ship besides myself was apprized of his safety; for the gale had increased and completely drowned the sounds of the Knocking, opening the window, &c., before they could reach the quarterdeck, and there was no one in the cabin but ourselves, the steward having retired to his berth in the steerage. It was at once resolved that the second mate only should be informed of his existence. He immediately betook himself to a large vacant state-room, and, for the remainder of the passage, all his wants were attended to by me; even the steward was allowed to enter the cabin as rarely as possible.

Nothing of note occured during the remainder of the voyage, which was prosperous. It seemed that the foreigners had only been actuated by revenge in the violence they had committed; for nothing further was attempted by them. In due season we took a pilot in the Channel, and, in a day or two, entered the port of Liverpool. As soon as the proper arrangements were made, we commenced warping the ship into dock, and while engaged in this operation, the mate appeared on deck, went forward, and attended to his duties as usual! A scene now occurred which is beyond description: every feature of it is as vivid in my recollection as though it occured but yesterday. The warp dropped from the paralyzed hands of the horrorstricken sailors, and had it not been taken up by some boatman on board, I should have been compelled to anchor again and procure assistance from the shore. Not a word was uttered; but the two guilty wretches staggered to the mainmast, where they remained petrified with horror, until the officer, who had been sent for, approached to take them into custody. They then seemed in a measure to be recalled to a sense of their appalling predicament, and uttered the most piercing expressions of lamentation and despair.

They were soon tried, capitally convicted, and executed.