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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
Second, Mackenzie cited “the sullenness, the violent and menacing demeanor and portentous looks of the crew.” Cooper rejoined, “We entertain no doubt that much the greater portion of the ominous conversations, groupings, shakings of the head and strange looks … had their origin in the natural wonder of the crew at seeing an officer in this novel situation. … The Somers had … at least 30 more than she should have had—and it is scarcely possible that with her boats bestowed and one third of her deck reserved for her officers, one hundred men could be on her remaining deck without being in … ‘knots.’ ”
Third, though it had been suggested by some of the officers that the prisoners be landed at St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, Mackenzie had refused because he claimed it would have been virtual admission that the mutiny was beyond the control of the ship’s authority. Cooper pointed out that since men-of-war often sought protection in a friendly port from starvation or disease, why not from mutineers?
Fourth, Mackenzie said his officers were exhausted by the emergency watch-and-watch routine. Cooper ridiculed this assertion. What was there to cause all this exhaustion? Thousands were on watch-and-watch daily. “It is a common thing to be all hands all day and watch-and-watch at night for long voyages.” (At a tender age Cooper himself had been watch-and-watch for weeks on end.) The officers couldn’t sleep, Mackenzie said, because they were uneasy. “We have a better opinion of the physical powers of these gentlemen,” Cooper answered, “than they have of themselves.” But Cooper’s objections, however well-taken, accomplished nothing, and the Somers case was soon forgotten.
The single beneficial result of the whole sorry business was the founding—in 1845—of the Naval Academy at Annapolis. The Somers mutiny convinced George Bancroft, a successor to Abel Upshur as Secretary of the Navy, that it was time to stop recruiting a naval force from the ranks of problem children (or neurotic officers). A new, land-based, properly supervised establishment was needed, only the best candidates to be accepted. This decision has never been regretted.
Otherwise, misfortune seems to have befallen many of those involved. Three days after Mackenzie’s acquittal, Richard Leecock, Passed Surgeon of the Somers , shot himself. He had been the most reluctant of all the officers to pass sentence on the prisoners; subsequent testimony evidently preyed on his conscience.
Gansevoort reputedly took to drink. He is said to have told a cousin years later that when he reported to Mackenzie that the officers had been unable to reach a verdict, the Captain had replied that “it was evident that the young men had wholly misapprehended the nature of the evidence, if they had not also misapprehended the aggravated character of the offense” and that there would be no security for the lives of the officers nor protection to commerce if an example was not made in a case so flagrant as this. “It was my duty,” he urged, “to impress these views on the court. I returned, and did, by impressing these considerations, obtain a reluctant conviction of the accused.” Mackenzie swept all before him. After the gloomy burial of the conspirators, he closed his prayer book with unclouded confidence and later wrote: “I could not but humbly hope that divine sanction would not be wanting to the deed of that day.” His wish appears to have been denied him. He died six years later, in no disgrace, but dogged to the grave by ugly rumors.
What of the Somers ? The bad deed gave her a bad name; those who could, avoided her like the plague. Legend has it that ghosts gibbered nightly in her shrouds. Sleek and fast, but untrustworthy, poorly designed, and dangerously top-heavy, she came to a perhaps well-deserved end. One stormy night in December, 1846—four years and six days after the hangings—she rolled over and sank with nearly half her unlucky crew on board.