On this date in 1842, three American sailors were hanged at sea for attempted mutiny.
To meet the circumstances of the only Americans put to death for mutiny, we travel a long way back to a time long before the U.S. Navy was (or could claim to be) this:
Here in the antebellum Atlantic, bereft for weeks of any outside communication, every ship is a world — and sometimes a law — unto itself.
Aboard the USS Somers, the law was a disciplinarian captain named Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, who received report that ne’er-do-well brat Philip Spencer — whose dad just happened to be John Tyler’s Secretary of War — was talking mutiny with enlisted sailors chafing under Mackenzie’s liberal use of the flog.
Spencer was a midshipman; the cadets largely untested youth whose purpose in going to sea was to get their feet wet.
Rashomon-like, the viewer can draw dramatically different conclusions from the actions thereupon ensuing. Underneath it all is this: aboard a ship that had no recourse to outside aid or communication, that was its inhabitants’ sole lifeline athwart a vast ocean, and that was held by its officers against the overwhelming numerical superiority of its crew, every misapprehension became magnified and every decision became one of life or death.
The bare facts are that Mackenzie became convinced that the intention was real, and as he held first Spencer, and then two supposed conspirators, Samuel Crowell and Elisha Small, in chains on the deck, his fears hourly grew that the plot was metastasizing and might strike with effect at any moment.
No semblance of due process attended this determination; Mackenzie got the officers he did have to vouchsafe their opinion of the situation in writing:
the evidence which has come to our knowledge is of such a nature, that, after as dispassionate and deliberate a consideration of the case as the exigency of the time would admit, we have come to a cool, decided, and unanimous opinion, that they have been guilty of a full and determined intention to commit a mutiny on board of this vessel of a most atrocious nature, and … we are convinced that it would be impossible to carry them to the United States, and that the safety of the public property, the lives of ourselves, and of those committed to our charge, requires that … they should be put to death.
Spencer, Cromwell and Small were hanged with ten minutes’ notice from the yardarm of the ship, Spencer protesting that the others were innocent.
The USS Somers … with its supposed mutineers hanged from the yardarm, just under the American flag. This and other images of the Somers can be found at a Department of the Navy page.
As one might imagine, there was a bit of an uproar when the vessel finally made port stateside. Oddly (or maybe not so odd) Mackenzie was initially the toast of the town for putting down a mutiny, before that Secretary of War guy and others started picking apart the case.
Though Mackenzie won acquittal at a court martial* — a verdict that could not possibly not have been colored by the competing pressures of Spencer’s influential (and enraged) father on the one hand, and the navy’s institutional need for a whitewash on the other — the cloud of the USS Somers would hover over him for the rest of his life.
And no wonder.
The ominous suggestions of treachery that Mackenzie perceived all around him looked to some others like phantoms; having taken the conviction into his head that a mutiny was afoot, he perceived it everywhere — a doodle of a pirate ship! stealthy glances! men standing about talking! — and panicked. One politician of the day even wrote years later that he believed “the éclat which would follow the hanging of a son of the Secretary of War as a pirate” influenced the captain towards hanging, the opposite of one what might assume.
And even if Spencer really were guilty, Mackenzie had less good cause for suspicion about Small, and practically nothing but his gut on Cromwell. Other sailors Mackenzie considered certainly culpable were returned to dry land, held in chains, and eventually released uncharged because the evidence was so paltry. These three were hanged in part because Mackenzie thought he would have more prisoners than he could control on his small ship.
That these are complaints issued after the fact and from the safety of land does not invalidate them. Mackenzie had command of the ship, and with power to order boys hanged from the yardarm came as much responsibility for steady judgment as for a firm hand. At the same time, others look at the same set of facts and approve Mackenzie’s actions.
Mackenzie may have been a Queeg-like commander, temperamentally ill-suited to his charge of blooding young cadets. And Spencer may have been a dangerously irresponsible character with no business aboard a ship at all. Neither man’s character flaws, however, resolve the inquiry however much they may have contributed to the tragedy.
The Somers incident was the spur towards important reforms in the navy. Three years later, the U.S. Naval Academy opened at Annapolis, Md., institutionalizing cadet instruction away from the haphazard stick-a-boy-on-a-boat routine that was understood to have set the scene for this day’s hangings.
George Bancroft was the father of the professional school at Annapolis, but Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, in association with Philip Spencer, were among the academy’s remoter forebears. (The Captain Called It Mutiny, by Frederic Franklyn Van de Water)
In 1850, flogging was abolished — another issue that permeated the Somers case.**
And Spencer et al may have left a literary legacy as well: this event is often cited as a likely inspiration for Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, through Melville’s cousin Guert Gansevoort, a lieutenant on the Somers and one of the signatories of the officers’ opinion that the prisoners ought to hang.†
Of less literary pretention but more suitable for sending-off as we return young Masters Spencer, Cromwell and Small to the deep: this weirdly wonderful anime mashup to the shanty “Curse of the Somers” falls in the category of “you can find anything on YouTube.”
* The court of inquiry which preceded the court martial produced a report that can be read here.
** Ironically, the USS Somers was returning from a trip to the African coast to deliver dispatches to the USS Vandalia, which in 1838 had become a pioneering vessel in the reduction of corporal punishment under the command of Uriah Levy.
Aptly, the Somers never caught up with the Vandalia to deliver those dispatches.
† Gansevoort retired an admiral; a World War II destroyer was named for him.