Anchored Port Townsend, WA.
Photo courtesy of the UW Collections.
"Despite the frequency of brutal treatment, short rations, and starvation pay aboard the sailing ships of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mutiny was rare indeed among the shanghaied crews of the West Coast windjammers.
Ships' officers had firearms; while the weapons of the foremast hands were limited to belaying pins and sailor's knives, hard-case mates took the initiative in keeping potential trouble-makers properly intimidated. Finally, it was well understood by seamen that mutiny was punishable by hanging.
It was the direct action of the officers rather than legal proceedings that kept crews in line; old-time ship masters were hostile toward 'sea lawyers' in their crews--seamen who knew their rights--and were vocal about them. H. W. McCurdy tells of Captain A. M. Sewall of Port Townsend, who found himself confronted by such a seaman while on a Cape Horn voyage. This individual was a pioneer member of the Sailor's Union of the Pacific, and he insisted that, according to union rules, he should be paid overtime for being called on deck during his time off-watch. To prove his point, he made the error of waving his union rulebook under the captain's nose.
Captain Sewall forthwith forced the protesting seaman to eat the book's front cover. Thereafter he was required to come on the poop every day and consume a page in the captain's presence until he had eaten the entire book.
Such relatively painless and protracted punishments were not favored by most masters and mates, who preferred to settle matters quickly by means of fists or belaying pins. Such were the methods employed by Second Mate Fitzgerald of the two skysail-yard bark, HESPER, to enforce the tight ship standards of her skipper, Captain A. Sodergren.
The HESPER, built at the Hall Brothers shipyard at Port Blakeley in 1882, was a rakish 695-t vessel designed for the 'triangle trade', carrying Puget Sound lumber to Australia, Australia coal to Honolulu, and Hawaiian sugar back to the mainland. The Halls operated her on this route in partnership with Capt. Cygnus Ryder. Unlike most of the utilitarian ships built on the Pacific coast, the HESPER was distinguished by a handsomely carved figurehead. She also proved faster than most of her sisters, her 1886 passage from Honolulu to Cape Flattery in nine and a half days, still standing in the record books.
After 7 voyages Capt. Ryder sold his interest in the bark to the Halls, who placed Capt. Sodergren in command. Although younger than most ship masters, he was noted for his ability to get the most out of both ship and crew. Both he and his first mate, Lucas, were big and tough enough to take care of themselves, but it was the ham-handed Irish second mate, Fitzgerald, who delighted in bullying and beating the foremast hands.
The HESPER, engaged in her usual trade, was loading a cargo of coal at Newcastle, NSW, in 1893, when the plot was hatched which was to end the career of Mate Fitzgerald and give the bark the sinister name of hell-ship for the rest of her days.
Among the HESPER's seamen that voyage, was a muscular and violent character named St Clair. On watch, St. Clair and the rest of the crew were bullied by Fitzgerald. Off watch, St. Clair bolstered his ego by pushing his shipmates around more brutally than did the second mate. Soon they feared him as much or more than Fitzgerald.
Capt. Sodergren had recently married, and his bride was making this voyage with him, as a honeymoon trip. It was also whispered in the foc'sle that $20,000 was being carried in the captain's strongbox. St. Clair, a troublemaker by nature, and smarting under the rigid discipline aboard the HESPER, came to the conclusion that it would be pleasant and profitable to rob the captain of both girl and gold.
St. Clair found two supporters of his plan, a dark-haired, olive-skinned seaman named Sparff and a big Dane named Hansen. These three so dominated the rest of the crew that none dared warn the ship's officers of the plot.
The wily St. Clair patiently coached his not too bright lieutenants on his plans, making them repeat his orders over and over until they knew them by heart. He proposed to murder the captain and mates to begin a career of piracy with the fast-sailing HESPER.
The 3 mutineers went into action when the vessel was far out in the Pacific, during Fitzgerald's eight to midnight watch. St. Clair bore a special grudge against the big Irishman; he had been marked as first to die.
The HESPER was gliding across a moonlit sea under full sail when St. Clair went aft to where Fitzgerald stood beside the helmsman, reporting some trouble with the rigging forward. Muttering angrily, the second mate accompanied him toward the bow. The frightened helmsman knew that murder was brewing, but he remained silent.
Hiding in the shadows below the foc'sle head were Sparff and Hansen, the former armed with a heavy cleaver from the galley. Fitzgerald never knew what hit him. With blow after blow, Sparff battered the mate's head into bloody ruin. Then St. Clair dragged the corpse to the bulwarks and threw it into the sea.
Normally the second mate would have called the first mate, Lucas, when it was time to take over the watch. A seaman was instructed to imitate Fitzgerald's voice as best he could, but Lucas wasn't fooled. Instead of going on deck, he awakened Captain Sodergren and told him of his suspicions. Their conversation awakened the captain's wife, who begged them to take no chances, for she had a premonition 'that something terrible would happen this night.'
Heeding her advice, the captain armed himself with a revolver; he and the mate crept silently out onto the deck. Working their way cautiously forward, they saw the dim shadows of the three mutineers and the blood of the murdered Fitzgerald glistening darkly in the moonlight.
As Capt. Sodergren drew his gun, the burly figure of St. Clair crouched against the foremast fife rail, ready to spring, his two companions backing him up. The sight of the captain's leveled revolver took the fight out of all three, and soon they were in irons, consigned to the scant comfort of the chain locker, and a monotonous diet of hardtack and water. The captain assembled the rest of the crew, read them the riot act, and set them to holy stoning the bloodstains from the HESPER's spotless decks.
Course was changed for Papeete, where the three ringleaders of the mutiny were lodged in jail to await the first San Francisco-bound steamer. The HESPER then continued her interrupted voyage to Honolulu, discharged her coal, loaded sugar, and in due time arrived at San Francisco, where the mutineers were waiting in another jail. The ensuing trial commanded national attention, for mutiny was rare in the US Merchant Marine.
All three men were found guilty, St. Clair, as the instigator--suffered the traditional fate of pirates and mutineers--he was hung by the neck until dead. Sparff and Hansen were sentenced to long prison terms.
As for the HESPER, her fame as a smart, fast-sailing ship was overshadowed by her notoriety as the stage for mutiny and murder. Dark tales were told along the waterfronts and were embroidered in the telling until the HESPER gained the reputation of a haunted hell-ship. It was almost impossible for even the most determined crimps to ship crews aboard her, or the toughest mates to keep them from jumping ship.
In disgrace, the HESPER was transferred to British registry, but bad luck trailed her; her new owners went bankrupt. After lying flag less and neglected on Puget Sound for 3 years, she was sold for a voyage to Chile with lumber and a subsequent treasure hunt to Cocos Island. Her owners' dreams of quick wealth proved as fruitless as those of the mutineer, St. Clair.
Soon afterward the mutiny ship put into the harbor of Antofagasta in distress, sank, drifted onto the beach, and was broken up.
Had it not been for the premonition of her captain's wife and the alertness of First Mate Lucas, the HESPER might well have ended her days as the last pirate ship to fly the Jolly Roger instead of an abandoned hulk on a Chilean beach."
Sea Rogue's Gallery
Gordon Newell; Superior, Seattle, 1971.