In 1808, making a living from the sea was a dangerous business, and seafaring men like Marblehead’s Skipper Ireson were supposed to stick together if they ran into trouble out on the water.
So on October 30, 1808 it came as a shock to Marblehead, Mass., a town with a long seafaring tradition, when the schooner Betsy returned to port from a fishing trip and her crew began spreading the word that they had encountered the schooner Active, from Portland, struggling in a storm off Cape Cod.
Rather than help the crew of the vessel, which had overturned, the Betsy‘s Captain, Benjamin Ireson, had ordered the men to sail on. The town dispatched two ships to see if they could find the Active, but the vessel had sunk.
The news hit the town like a thunder clap and its citizens decided to hand out justice to Skipper Ireson, whose nickname was Flood. They captured the man, tarred and feathered him and bound his hands. Then they proceeded to drag him through the town in a dory. When the dory disintegrated, they transferred him to a cart. The procession only ended when he parade reached neighboring Salem, which refused to let it continue.
When finally freed, Ireson had little to say, according to Samuel Roads’ The History and Traditions of Marblehead, telling the assembled crowd: “I thank you for my ride, gentlemen, but you will live to regret it.”
The poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, forever popularized the story in his poem, Skipper Ireson ‘s Ride. In it he tells the story of Ireson, and in his version it is the women of Marblehead who truss up Ireson and give him his ride, only relenting when they decide to let God punish him.
However, as Roads explained, the story was not as presented. Much to the chagrin of Ireson’s accusers, rescuers from Provincetown were able to save some of the men from the Active, and they told a far different story.
As they related it, Ireson ordered his crew to assist the stricken vessel, but they refused, afraid to risk their lives in the dark, stormy ocean. Powerless to enforce his order, Ireson then instructed the crew to heave to and let the Betsy stay in place.In the morning they would assist the Active.
When Skipper Ireson went below to sleep, however, the crew disobeyed him and sailed away toward home. Even after learning the truth, the citizens of Marblehead never apologized to Ireson. He would take one more fishing voyage, and then limited his fishing to a dory that he could work in the harbor, selling his catch daily until he retired.
Whittier, however, did acknowledge Ireson’s innocence. In a letter to the historian Roads, he said, “I have now no doubt that thy version of Skipper Ireson is the correct one. My verse is solely founded on a fragment of rhyme, which I heard from one of my early schoolmates, a native of Marblehead.”