Life on a ship in the 1850s was neither democratic nor easy. The captain made the rules and punishments were fierce. In the same 12-month span, fantastic murders occurred on two Maine ships – the Albion Cooper and the Theresa – but the outcomes were very different.
The Albion Cooper Mutiny
The Albion Cooper case involved the seven-man crew of the brig Albion Cooper. The vessel’s home port was in Maine, but the trouble on the ship occurred in Cuba. There, two members of the crew – Abraham Cox and Peter Williams – mutinied.
Williams had been held in irons for fighting with the first mate, and he persuaded Cox, the ship’s cook, to participate in his revenge scheme. The captain and four crewmen were hacked to death with an ax and tossed overboard. A fifth member of the crew, Thomas Fahey, had agreed to join the mutineers rather than face the same fate as the rest of the crew.
It soon became clear that the ship was too much for the three men to handle, so they plundered it, set it afire and hopped in a life boat in September of 1857. After harrowing nights at sea, during which Williams was plagued by visions of the men he had killed, the men were rescued. Fahey quickly explained what had happened, and Cox and Williams soon confessed.
Cox, from Kennebunkport, had been driven to plot the mutiny by the torments of the crew. Standing on the gallows in Auburn, Maine in front of a crowd of thousands who had come to witness his execution, Cox declared: “If this jail and that courthouse were a lump of gold, and were mine, I would give it, could it deliver me from having done what I did.”
Williams, who was executed on the same scaffold moments later, shouted that he had been forgiven for his murders by an angel who visited him. “I have killed them. I killed all four of them myself,” he said, and he was hanged.
Murder on the Theresa
The story of the Theresa, of Richmond, Maine, was almost the exact opposite, but gruesome nonetheless. Captain John Holmes of Newcastle, Maine ran a tight ship. He had served as master on more than one vessel. The voyage of the Theresa took him to Brazil. On the return trip, a sailor – George Chadwick – defied Holmes’ order to stand watch.
Holmes was not a man to be defied, especially when he was drunk – which he frequently was. He had Chadwick stripped and tied in the main rigging. “The law says I shall not flog this man, but I say I will. He has refused duty at the wheel.”
Holmes beat Chadwick with a cord and then a belaying pin – a club-like device designed to secure the rigging on a ship. Chadwick begged the captain not to kill him, and Holmes replied he would “kill him on the spot if didn’t stop his damned noise.” When Chadwick was lowered from the rigging he was dead.
When the ship pulled in to New York, Holmes was arrested. There was little doubt about what happened, and he was shipped to Wiscasset, Maine. But he wasn’t sent to rot in a jail, as Cox and Williams had been. He was taken to the insane asylum at Augusta and began planning a defense.
Holmes had for his lawyer George Evans, a former U.S. Senator and an able defense lawyer. Given the totality of the evidence against his client, Evans chose his only option. He would claim that Holmes was not merely drunk when he killed Chadwick, he was insane.
The prosecution was unrelenting in painting Holmes as a sadistic drunk: "That criminal sitting there," the prosecutor said at trial, “from the time that the ship left Pernambuco until she arrived at New York, made that ship's deck a hell."
The court did not buy the insanity defense and sentenced Holmes to hang.
The newspaper Bath Times published an editorial: The affair furnishes a terrible lesson to shipowners, calling upon them to be more careful in the selection of masters to hold in their hands to so great an extent the lives and well-being of the crew under their charge.”
Only the president of the United States could halt the execution, and the newspaper noted that seemed unlikely, given recent events:
Had not the terrible sentence been executed upon the two common sailors at Auburn for an offense—all things considered—less flagrant than that which has involved Capt. Holmes in ruin, perhaps he might hope for pardon; but in view of that tragedy; in view of the severity meted out to those two outcasts, it would seem like a partiality to allow the greater offense, emanating from the quarter-deck, to go unpunished. We look upon the execution of Capt. Holmes as one of the most certain events of the future.
But Captain Holmes had hired the right lawyer. Evans’ first act was to try to gather some show of public support for Holmes. He turned to a Portland barber, John Todd, for assistance. Todd had given haircuts to Holmes in preparation for his trial and grew to like him. Todd also opposed the death penalty. So he undertook the task of getting signatures on a petition for mercy. He described the story in his memoir, A sketch of the life of John M. Todd : sixty-two years in a barber shop, and reminiscences of his customers.
I received much abuse from those I called upon, while carrying around a petition to be signed, to have his sentence commuted to imprisonment for life instead of being hung. My friends would say "get out of here," when I asked them to sign it. "Don't you ask me to sign that, I will sign one to hang him."
One old deacon of a Congregational church chided me and said, “No, for it may be for his soul's salvation to hang him." I could not see just how hanging a man could save his soul. However, I got three hundred signers to the petition, but I never knew of such hard feeling against a prisoner as on that occasion… No prisoner was ever held up to the scorn and contempt of men as was this man on that occasion.
Armed with the petition, Evans traveled to Washington to visit his old friend, President James Buchanan.
In a short time Mr. Evans went to Washington to try and save the criminal’s life by commutation. He told me that the president and himself, when he was in the senate, were great friends, and he knew he would do anything for him consistent with his sworn duty; he thought he could so present the case to the president that he would commute his sentence.
Evans’ best hope, he felt, was if Buchanan was not familiar with the particulars of the murder. If that were the case, he could provide a sanitized story about the evidence and pass the matter off as a simple favor. Unfortunately for Evans, Buchanan knew all about it. Todd relates his conversation with Evans:
On Mr. Evans' return from Washington he told me that he stooped lower than he ever thought it possible for him to do, and nothing but the saving of the life of a fellow-being would have prompted him to have done so.
When I stepped into the room of the president he told me to sit down. He arose, took me by the hand most cordially, and said, I am glad to see you, Mr. Evans, still I am sorry to meet you, for I have read that trial with great interest, partly because you were his counsel, partly because of its atrocity.'
I never was more embarrassed in my life. My right bower of defense was gone, for I had felt sure that he had overlooked the trial because of the great burdens of state he was laboring under. He was not ignorant of the facts in the case.
I said, ‘Mr. President, I know Captain Holmes was insane at that time.'
'Yes, I am aware of that, an insanity induced by liquor.'
He looked me in the face and said, with great emphasis, ' George, I will sign that petition if you can accept it on one condition, that is knowing I break my official oath.'
I stood looking him squarely in the face, and said, ‘Mr. President, I shall accept it under any condition, for I feel that he was irresponsible at the time.'
Mr. Evans told me the president turned red as fire, took the paper, signed it, and passed it to him without a word. 'I took the paper,’ he said, ‘and left the room, and I suppose we parted never to meet again upon earth.’
Holmes did go free, Todd recalled, and corresponded often with his old barber friend from his new home in Cardiff, Wales where he established a chandlery.
Mystery on the Isles of Shoals: Closing the Case on the Smuttynose Ax Murders of 1873 by J. Dennis Robinson
Legal Executions in New England: A Comprehensive Reference, 1623-1960 By Daniel Allen Hearn