“rebels, Turn Out Your Dead!—


With food so scarce, the prisoners naturally took a very stern view of anyone among them who cheated in the distribution system. As Christopher Hawkins reported: A prisoner had pilfered food from a mess, who complained of him to the chief british officer on board. This officer decided that the delinquent should be punished by all the members of the mess who had suffered by his pillage. The accused was tied across a water butt [cask] on the upper deck—his posteriors were laid bare, and a wooden instrument six feet long, one end expanded and shaped much in the form of an oar [was brought out]… The mess-mates who had suffered by his pilfering, and six in number were arranged around him … Next, one of the mess took the instrument in hand (it was very heavy, and as much so as one man could conveniently wield)—and inflicted six strokes with the ponderous weapon, apparently with all his might—the sufferer groaning at every stroke—blood appeared before the first six were administered—a second man took the instrument and with no less mercy than the first inflicted six more strokes—the blood and flesh flying ten feet at ev’ry stroke—during this period the defaulter fainted, but was resuscitated by administering water to him—a third man took the instrument in hand and inflicted six more strokes though not as severe as the first—The officer before mentioned then interposed and observed to the enraged mess-mates that they were too severe with their fellow. He had again fainted. No more blows were given and the horrible looking man was untied and fell down on the deck. He was again resuscitated but still lay prostrated on the deck, not being able to rise. Beef brine was thrown upon his wounds but he appeared to be senseless. … The sufferer died in two or three days after his punishment. …

The code of the prisoners was obviously tough and uncompromising but, when weighed against their common plight, not unjust. Nor was it, at a time when the cat-o’-nine-tails was often applied for very simple shipboard offences, exceptionally harsh or sadistic. The men who took to the sea were hard men, whose conduct was based on simplistic copybook maxims; if they were relentless in their application of these, they were also consistent and knew what to expect of one another. In the primitive conditions aboard a prison ship such elemental standards of honor were important. Escape, for example, was—next to death—the most common method of a prisoner’s leaving Jersey . Yet the realities of confinement made it virtually impossible for a man to plot or execute an escape without his shipmates knowing about it. Moreover, once ashore, he had to get through the British-held stretches of Long Island—all of it Tory country, where the American hatred of rebels equalled the British —and thence across the Sound to the mainland well beyond the British outposts of New York City.

To reduce risks and to furnish mutual help, most escapes from Jersey were group ventures. For this reason informers were treated with thorough contempt and deadly retaliation. As Thomas Andros, who was interned on Jersey in 1781, recalled: A secret, prejudicial to a prisoner, revealed to the guard, was death. Captain Young of Boston, concealed himself in a large chest belonging to a sailor going to be exchanged, and was carried on board the cartel [a ship sailing under safe conduct for such purposes as to convey messages between belligerents or to exchange prisoners], and we considered his escape as certain; but the secret leaked out and he was brought back, and one Spicer of Providence, being suspected as the traitor, the enraged prisoners were about to take his life. His head was drawn back, and the knife raised to cut his throat, but having obtained a hint of what was going on below, the guard at this instant, rushed down and rescued the man.

If Christopher Hawkins is to be believed, Spicer, a sailing master’s mate, was incorrigible. Hawkins reported that a cabin boy was smuggled onto an exchange ship in a sea chest and “the treacherous Spicer communicated the affair to the commanding officer of the prison ship. The cartel was immediately boarded, as she had not yet left the port, although ready to leave, and the boy found and brought back. Spicer paid for his treachery with the forfeit of his life—When evening was coming on, and the prisoners were going below for the night, he was knocked down the hatchway to the bottom of the steps below among those who had been awaiting his fall, and who fell upon him, cut off his ears and mangled his body in the most shocking manner, and to such a degree that he died of his wounds in a day or two after.”