April really isn’t a good month for cruises, is it?
Most people are familiar with the 1912, sinking of the RMS Titanic, a ship that was said to be unsinkable.
But fewer people know that 71 years before, almost to the day, another ship endured a similar fate, and its passengers weren’t treated very kindly by the ship’s crew.
Cruising Toward Disaster
The William Brown set sail from Liverpool to Philadelphia on March 13, 1841. According to court documents, the massive cargo ship also housed 17 crewmen and 65 passengers, mainly immigrants from Scotland and Ireland in search of a new life in the States.1
After nearly a month at sea, at around 10 p.m. near Newfoundland, the ship hit an iceberg and began to take on water. As the ship sank, the ship’s jolly boat (a small lifeboat with a sail attached to the ship) and longboat (in case you couldn’t tell by the name, a longer spare boat, that is propelled through the water by oars)2 were lowered into the sea to hold shipwrecked passengers.
But that’s about where proper sinking ship protocol ends.
So you know that whole “women and children are saved, captain sinks with his ship” trope that you see in ship disaster movies (like Titanic)?
The captain and crew of the William Brown apparently didn’t get that memo. The ship’s captain, George Harris, second mate, crew and one passenger piled into the jolly boat, while 33 of the ship’s 64 remaining passengers crammed themselves into the long boat.
The 31 passengers that were left stranded on the boat pleaded for help. The ship’s first mate, Francis Rhodes, replied, ever-so-optimistically, “Poor souls, you’re only going down a short time before we do.”
EXACTLY what you’d want to hear as a breach in your cruise ship fills with volleys of water.
Rhodes was half right: within an hour, the William Brown had met a watery end at the bottom of the ocean.
The Monsters are Due on the Longboat and Jolly Boat of the William Brown
In case you thought that the surviving passengers, captain, and crew of the William Brown were safe after escaping the sinking ship, prepare to be intensely disappointed.
The captain took his jolly boat and went home, er… to another part of the ocean… the next morning. Prior to his departure, the captain instructed all of the crew and passengers in the other boat to obey First Mate Rhodes’ commands.
But Murphy’s Law wasn’t quite finished with the passengers and crew of the William Brown. Just before the captain rode his jolly boat into the sunset, the long boat, which had been in direct contact with the ocean for an extended period of time, began to leak.
To make matters worse, it started to rain. As the passengers bailed water out of the boat and begged the First Mate to only consider throwing occupants overboard as a last resort, the panicked Rhodes exclaimed, “This work won’t do. Help me, God. Men, go to work.” Rhodes decided that they would need to throw passengers overboard to save the long boat.
Fourteen male passengers were ultimately tossed overboard, with the exception of two married male passengers and a 14-year-old boy. Also cast off the boat were the sisters of one of the sacrificed male passengers, Francis “Frank” Askin. Askin’s sisters begged the crew to spare their brother’s life as he reportedly thrashed and struggled to remain on the boat. There is some speculation that the Askin sisters may have thrown themselves overboard out of grief for their brother’s murder.3
After Frank Askin met his oceanic grave, a sailor, by the name of Alexander Holmes, attempted to put his foot down saying, “No, no more shall be thrown over. If any more are lost, we will all be lost together.”
So Much for Never Letting Go
The William Brown’s long boat was eventually found by a ship named the Crescent which brought the victims of the sinking to their original destination, Philadelphia. As for the cowardly captain, he and his fellow frostbitten crew members were finally rescued by a French fishing boat after braving the frigid North Atlantic.
Unfortunately, for our brave sailor friend Alexander Holmes, the story doesn’t quite end there.
After reaching the city of Brotherly Love, several of the William Brown’s surviving passengers filed a complaint with the District Attorney. Since Holmes was the only sailor from the William Brown to be found in Philadelphia, he was indicted under an April 1790 act, which stated that “if any seaman, shall commit manslaughter upon the high seas, on conviction, he shall be imprisoned not exceeding three years, and fined not exceeding one thousand dollars.” Holmes was brought to trial almost a year to the day of the ship’s tragic sinking, accused of unlawful, but not “malicious”, homicide.
While Holmes did admit to casting Askin overboard, he maintained that his actions were out of necessity. His captain and second mate vouched for his character, noting that he was “faithful to his duty and efficient in the performance of it” and citing examples of Holmes’ bravery and benevolence. One such anecdote claimed that Holmes gave the majority of his clothing to the women and children aboard the longboat so that they could stay warm.
Prosecutors argued that the danger in the boat wasn’t immediate since the longboat failed to capsize, even as men struggled against being thrown overboard. The case’s prosecutor also noted that sailors should have prioritized the passengers’ safety over their own, saying, “The seaman, we hold, is bound, beyond the passenger, to encounter the perils of the sea. To-the last extremity, to death itself, must he protect the passenger.”
Holmes’ trial lasted a week and, after 16 hours of deliberation, the jury found Holmes guilty of homicide but encouraged the presiding judge to show leniency. Holmes was sentenced to six months incarceration and a $20 fine. Though he served his full sentence, Holmes was relieved of his fine and ultimately pardoned by President John Tyler. Holmes would eventually return to life at sea and remains the only sailor prosecuted in connection with the William Brown’s sinking.
So what have we learned, class?
- If your first mate is panicking, it’s going to be a rough trip.
- Human bodies are surprisingly resilient in freezing temperatures.
- If someone invited you to go on a cruise in April during the 19th or 20th century… DON’T DO IT!