Saturday, September 22, 2012

Philip Spencer, Mutineer

     After an investigation by ward room officers and steerage officers concerning a mutiny attempted on board the USS Somers, a decision was made before noon on November 30, 1842, to execute three prisoners implicated in the plot--Midshipman Philip Spencer, Boatswain's Mate Samuel Cromwell and Seaman Elisha Small.
      At noon, Commander Mackensie ordered hanging ropes called whips to be installed on the main mast yardarms. Two 80 foot whips were set on the starboard main yardarm, and one 80 foot whip was set on the larboard.
     The three prisoners were in chains and under guard since their arrest on November 26, as the ship sailed from Africa to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. On December 1, 1842, at 1:30 PM, the crew were called to quarters to witness the executions. There was a moderate breeze and sailing conditions were pleasant. Midshipman Philip Spencer was placed on the starboard outer whip, Seaman Elisha Small on the starboard inner whip, and Boatswain's Mate Samuel Cromwell was placed on the larboard whip. Spencer confessed that he himself was guilty but he had repented, and that Small was innocent. Small and Cromwell shouted that they were innocent and pleaded for their lives.
     At 2:15 PM a signal shot was fired and the prisoners were run up the yard arm. Then the ensign and pendant were hoisted.
     The crew were now called aft and addressed by Commander Mackenzie as to the crimes and punishment of the prisoners, after which "all hands were called to cheer the ship, and three hearty cheers were given to the American flag." At 2:30 PM the crew were called to dinner, and at 3:30 PM the watch was called and the corpses of the deceased were lowered to the gangways to be lain out for burial.
     At 6:30 PM all hands were called to bury the dead. "After the funeral service, the bodies were committed to the deep."
     When the USS Somers returned to its home port in New York, newspapers praised the commander and ridiculed the mutineers. James Fenimore Cooper was less inclined to praise the handling of the mutiny. He wrote a pamphlet condemning Commander Mackenzie's actions at sea. Soon other critics emerged, some with influence and power, including the Secretary of War, who was the father of Philip Spencer.
     On December 28, 1842, a Court of Inquiry convened on board the USS North Carolina at New York to hear testimony and send an opinion of fact to the Secretary of the Navy. The New York Tribune reported the proceedings.
     Commander Mackenzie introduced a detailed report, including the ship's log. He produced a paper which was found in Philip Spencer's cabin. The paper was partially written in Greek characters as code. Translated by another officer, the paper showed a plan of mutiny giving the names of the crew that could be trusted and those not trusted. The three men had planned to take the ship into the Caribbean and rove as a pirate ship. Commander Mackenzie and Lt. Gansevoort (a relative of Herman Melville, author of Billy Budd) testified that the prisoners could not be held as captives and brought to shore because the ship's crew would try to free them and continue the mutiny. At the time of the executions, the ship was about 250 miles from shore.
     Apprentice Seaman George Warner testified that he knew Philip Spencer intended to take over the ship but he thought that Spencer and the other prisoners could have been taken into port safely for court martial.
     On January 21, 1843, the Court of Inquiry found Commander Mackenzie innocent.
     Secretary of War John Canfield Spencer refused to let the case rest, and tried to obtain a civil suit against Commander Mackenzie. Secretary of the Navy Abel Upshur persuaded the Secretary of War to drop the civil suit in favor of a USN court martial, which convened on February 1, 1843. After a long trial with several delays, a verdict of innocence was delivered by 13 Naval officers.
     Philip Spencer was born in Canandaigua, New York, on January 28, 1823. He attended Geneva College--now called Hobart-Smith College--and later he attended Union College. When Philip expressed a strong desire to quit college and go to sea on a merchant marine ship or whaler, his father persuaded him to join the Navy. He was 19 years old when he died.


1) U. S. Naval Historical Center website.
2) The Somers Mutiny by Judith A. Nientimp, University of Rochester. U of R library website.
3) Wikipedia

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