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Panic Rides The High Seas
A hysterical captain thought he detected mutiny. After a hasty court-martial, three men were hanged—one the son of the Secretary of War. Then the uproar began
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
Spencer alternately bought and clowned his way to popularity with the crew. He bribed Waltham, the Negro wardroom steward, to steal brandy for him and the bibulous Seaman Small, and went into hock for ten pounds of tobacco and over seven hundred cigars, largely for Cromwell (these despite Mackenzie’s sharp disapproval of tobacco and his conviction that “the drinking of brandy is even more dreadful than malaria”).
Spencer could be seen at odd hours, joking with the men, cutting capers for the boys, throwing coins on the deck like an emperor, and watching the rabble scramble for them. He had a trick of dislocating his jaw and by “contact of the bones” producing tunes “with accuracy and elegance,” which threw his audience into raptures. Spencer’s scarcely concealed contempt for Mackenzie behind his back (although he was careful to be civil face to face) further endeared him to the crew.
Small and Cromwell, his chief cronies, were hardly desirable companions for an unstable boy. Small had lost most of his berths through drink. Cromwell at various times had been both a slaver and a pirate. It is not clear why these two seafaring hobos should have been chosen to train young, inexperienced recruits. (Mackenzie, in a peculiarly macabre gesture, was to delay burial of the three mutineers for an hour to have Cromwell’s head shaved. The scars of violence revealed thereon somehow reassured the Captain of the wisdom of his course.)
No doubt in payment for liquor and cigars, these two men regaled Spencer with tales of a lurid past, real or fancied. Always addicted to blood-and-thunder thrillers, he evidently began to brood on the delicious possibilities of a life of piracy—with its rich treasure, daring forays, beautiful women—and himself, a well-beloved but awe-inspiring hero, in full command. Whether two such seasoned hands as Small and Cromwell ever took him seriously, or whether they simply played up to him for handouts, is not known. There is nothing on the record, in fact, to indicate that Cromwell had even heard of the plot.
The purser’s steward, James Wales, was the first to report that a mutiny was in the making. Yet later inquiry revealed that the plump, sly “Whales” was in bad odor with Mackenzie at that time because of some unspecified shady transaction in Puerto Rico. It took little intelligence to see that Philip Spencer was Mackenzie’s bête noire , and any derogatory information about him might well boost the sagging stock of an informant. Mackenzie did in fact advance Wales to the rank of acting midshipman after Spencer’s death and recommended that the rank be made permanent. No one knows how true Wales’s report of a mutiny was, and no one made the slightest attempt to find out.
From that moment on, the conduct of Mackenzie and his officers seems at best indefensible; despicable is a more accurate term. Instead of making sober inquiry into the facts, they succumbed to unconcealed hysteria. The first and obvious step was to examine Spencer. Yet Spencer was only twice questioned, once casually on the twenty-sixth before his arrest, and again just an hour before his death, at which time the miserable boy admitted that plotting mutinies “had become a mania with him,” a childish sort of game. The noose was strong punishment for this troubled adolescent.
Spencer, having originally been told that he would be taken to New York for trial, bore himself well in confinement. But the sight of him and his fellows lying in fetters apparently did nothing to allay the mounting fears of the officers. A topgallant mast snapped. Mackenzie read dark meaning into this common accident. Seamen swarmed to repair the damage, and he later noted, “All those who were most conspicuously named in the program of Mr. Spencer … mustered at the main topmast head.” Withal, he reports no suspicious act, no hostile word.
Only his fears led Mackenzie to arrest Cromwell. When the new prisoner was brought to where Spencer sat hunched in his double irons, it was Spencer who volunteered the information (as he was to do twice more before the end) that Cromwell was innocent. “I doubt if Cromwell could have been enlisted in any such enterprise, unless there was money aboard,” he said a little bitterly. Guilt by association was the only charge leveled against Cromwell. He was condemned solely on Wales’s surmise that he might have been involved because he was often seen in Spencer’s company, and because Lieutenant Gansevoort later confided, “I don’t like Cromwell’s looks.”
And so it went for five terrible days. Each tiny incident of normal shipboard life was blown up to the bursting point. A midshipman herded a clean-up crew out of the twilight toward the officers’ quarters, ostensibly to man the mast rope in raising a new spar. The overwrought Gansevoort cried, “Halt, I say! I’ll blow out the brains of the first man who steps on the quarter-deck.” The midshipman had to rush to the front of his quivering group and explain himself.
At any point those interested in mutiny might have rushed the officers and freed their comrades, yet no one made the slightest move to help the prisoners. The chances are that no one cared to; even Small was heard to mutter that Spencer was a little crazy.