Dying for Survival on the SS William Brown, Atlantic Ocean, 1841Home | Short Feature Story | Dying for Survival on the SS William Brown, Atlantic Ocean, 1841
This story was the inspiration for several movies, and there is a book about this tragedy called The Wreck of the William Brown. There are links to further reading at the end of the story.
Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
“Celebrated Criminal Cases of America”
Part III: Cases East of The Pacific Coast
On March 13, 1841, the American ship William Brown left Liverpool for Philadelphia. In addition to a large cargo, the vessel carried sixty-five passengers and a crew of seventeen men.
At 10 p. m. on Monday, April 19, when two hundred and fifty miles from Cape Race, Newfoundland, the vessel struck an iceberg and began to fill so rapidly that it was evident she would soon go down.
The “long boat” and “jolly boat” were then cleared away and lowered. The captain, second mate, seven of the crew and one passenger entered the jolly boat, and the first mate, thirty-two passengers and the remainder of the crew entered the long boat.
Thirty-one passengers were left on the ship, and they all begged the captain and mate to take them into the lifeboats, but the first mate replied: “Poor souls, you’re only going down a short time before we do.”
One hour later the ship went to the bottom and the thirty-one passengers perished.
The two lifeboats remained together during the night, but at daybreak the captain decided to take his boat in another direction, but before leaving the long boat he instructed all on board to obey the first mate’s orders.
The first mate then informed the captain that his boat was leaking badly, and that it would soon be necessary to cast lots to determine who should be thrown overboard.
The captain replied: “Let that be the last resort.”
During Tuesday [April 20, 1841] the rain came down in torrents. The long boat was in constant danger of being struck by floating ice. The sea grew heavier and the passengers, many of whom were attired in their nightclothes, suffered intensely from the cold weather.
The men took turns at rowing and baling out the boat, while the terror-stricken women huddled together in an effort to keep warm.
At 10 o’clock Tuesday night the men were completely exhausted from exposure, exertion and lack of nourishment. Finally the mate, who observed that the boat was slowly filling with water, cried out in despair: “This work won’t do. Help me, God! Men, go to work, the boat is sinking.”
The women passengers became hysterical and many were down on their knees offering up prayers.
The first mate then said: “Men, you must go to work or we shall all perish.”
They “went to work” and threw fourteen passengers overboard, but the crew was not molested.
The first four men to be thrown overboard were named Riley, Duffy, Charles Conlin and Frank Askin. The latter’s two sisters were in the boat, and they pleaded for their brother’s life, but all in vain.
The next two to go overboard were Askin’s sisters, but the evidence is conflicting as to whether they were thrown overboard or whether their sacrifice was an act of self-devotion to their brother. It was admitted that when Sailor Holmes seized their brother, the sisters expressed a wish to follow him.
Askin struggled violently, and the fact that the boat was not upset in the struggle was used against Holmes afterward to prove the improbability of its capsizing.
The “work” continued until fourteen men were forced into a watery grave. Many asked for and were granted time to offer up a prayer before being cast into the sea.
On Wednesday morning the weather cleared up and the ship Crescent was sighted by the occupants of the long boat. The shipwrecked people were rescued and brought to Philadelphia.
After six days of indescribable suffering, the captain and his party were picked up by a French fishing boat.
When some of the passengers finally reached their destination of Philadelphia, they filed a complaint with the District Attorney. Sailor Alexander Holmes was the only crewman to be found in the city, so he was the only one charged. He was accused of murdering Frank Askin. A grand jury refused to indict him on that charge, so it was reduced to manslaughter. Holmes was prosecuted under an act of April 30, 1790, which provided:
“Any seaman who shall commit manslaughter upon the high seas, on conviction shall be imprisoned not exceeding three years and a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars.” Holmes was charged with the unlawful, but not malicious, killing of Askin.
During the trial, it was proven that he was the last man to leave the wrecked ship, and, when he entered the long boat, he found a widowed mother crying for her sick daughter, Isabelle, who had been inadvertently left on the doomed ship. Holmes immediately climbed up the ship’s side and, at great peril to his life, ran astern, located the sick girl, and placing her over his shoulder climbed down the ship’s side and restored her to her mother.
With the exception of a shirt and trousers, he gave all of his clothing to the women in the boat and uttered words of encouragement to the remainder of the passengers and crew.
It was proven that the first mate lost courage and turned the command of the boat over to Holmes, who immediately changed the course, thus enabling him to sight the ship Crescent.
Holmes’ defense was that the homicide was necessary for self-protection and for the protection of the lives that were spared.
The prosecution claimed that the circumstances did not justify the action taken; that many of the persons thrown overboard struggled violently and, as the boat did not capsize then, there was little chance of it occurring under any of the other conditions then existing.
The court ruled that: “Extreme peril is not enough to justify a sacrifice such as this was, nor would even the certainty of death be enough, if death were yet prospective. It must be instant.
“The sailor is bound to undergo whatever hazard is necessary to preserve the boat and passengers, even to the extent of sacrificing his life.
“While it is admitted that sailor and sailor may lawfully struggle with each other for the plank which can save but one, we think that, if the passenger is on the plank, even ‘the law of necessity’ justifies not the sailor who takes it from him.”
The jury deliberated sixteen hours and then returned a verdict of guilty with a recommendation for mercy.
The defendant was sentenced to six months in the Eastern Pennsylvania Penitentiary and a fine of $20, but the penalty was subsequently remitted.
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