Crime and Scandal

Unequal Justice: Murders at Sea on the Albion Cooper and the Theresa

Life on a ship in the 1850s was neither democratic nor easy. The captain made the rules and issued fierce punishments. In the same 12-month span, fantastic murders occurred on two Maine ships – the Albion Cooper and the Theresa. But they had very different outcomes.

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 join him 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. They spent harrowing nights at sea, during which visions of the murdered men plagued Williams. Finally, the men were rescued. Fahey quickly explained what had happened, and Cox and Williams soon confessed.

Cox, the cook, had been driven to mutiny by the torments of the crew. A judge sentenced him to die on the gallows in Auburn, Maine. A  crowd of thousands came to witness his execution. In front of them, 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, executed on the same scaffold moments later, shouted that a visiting angel had forgiven him for his murders. “I have killed them. I killed all four of them myself,” he said.He was then hanged until he was dead.

Murder on the Theresa

The story of the Theresa, of Richmond, Maine, was almost the exact opposite, but gruesome nonetheless. Capt. 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.

albion cooper

The “Ontario” of Newcastle, Maine, John Holmes, Commander, leaving Antwerp, 1846. Artist: Petrus Cornelis Weyts

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,” Holmes said. “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.

George Evans

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.

George Evans

The prosecution relentlessly painted 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.

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.

John Todd

Todd received much abuse from people he asked to sign the petition, he wrote.

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.

But he got the signatures. Armed with the petition, Evans traveled to Washington to visit his old friend from the Senate, President James Buchanan. Evans told Todd that Buchanan would do anything for him so long as it was consistent with his sworn duty.

 

James Buchanan

Evens thought his best hope was if Buchanan didn’t know the details of the murder. If so, 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. Evans returned from Washington and told Todd he stooped lower than he ever though possible. “Nothing but the saving of the life of a fellow-being would have prompted him to have done so,” Evans told Todd.

Visit with the President

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. He established a chandlery, a much better fate than that reserved for the mutineers of the Albion Cooper.

This story last updated in 2022.

Thanks to:

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

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