University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Somers Mutiny

Volume XX · Autumn 1964 · Number 1
The Somers Mutiny

From a collection of contemporary pamphlets and manuscripts in the University of Rochester Library, it is possible to reconstruct the story of the mutiny aboard the U. S. Brig, Somers, which occurred in 1842. The mutiny was of particular interest to residents of New York State because Philip Spencer, a native of Canandaigua, New York, was charged with leading it and was executed. When, in December of 1842, news of the tragedy spread throughout the country, letters were exchanged between families and friends conveying a variety of comments on the incident. Fourteen such letters were found in the collections of historical manuscripts in Rush Rhees Library. In addition, the Rare Book Collection yielded James Fennimore Cooper's Cruise of the Somers (1844) and the Official Proceedings of the Court of Inquiry (1844). Contemporary newspapers, copies of which are also in the Library, gave the mutiny generous coverage. Their accounts of the trials and their editorial comments add much to the story.

When the U. S. Brig-of-War Somers sailed on September 13, 1842, people never suspected that when it returned the following December it would carry with it the story of the only mutiny in United States naval history. Such a terrible story was made even more horrendous by the fact that the leader of the mutineers was Midshipman Philip Spencer, eighteen-year-old son of the then Secretary of War, John Canfield Spencer.

When the brig first returned to New York Harbor, an effort was made to keep the news from the press and public but such concealment proved impossible. Gradually, as the days passed, the events on board the Somers between November 25 and December 1 became somewhat clearer, although the full story probably will never be known.

On November 25, Midshipman James W. Wales, the purser's steward, was approached by Philip Spencer and asked if he were afraid of death or afraid to kill a man. When Wales replied in the negative to both queries, Spencer swore him to secrecy and then revealed his plan to lead a mutiny and convert the brig to a pirate. The plans, he said, were concealed in his neckerchief. Wales revealed the conversation to the purser who relayed it to Lieutenant Gansevoort, the second-in-command, who in turn conveyed it to Commander Mackenzie. At first it was regarded as a joke but on reflection the Commander decided to take the precaution of directing Gansevoort to observe Spencer's actions. It was noted that Spencer had been in the wardroom examining a chart of the West Indies and making inquiries concerning the Isle of Pines, a notorious haunt for pirates. He had been heard to say that the ship could easily be taken and, although respectful to the captain in his presence, had made profane remarks about his morals and intelligence behind his back. All these observations led to the conclusion that the plot could indeed be a reality.

Soon after Mackenzie learned of the plans for mutiny, he ordered all officers to the quarter-deck and confronted Spencer with his knowledge. Spencer asserted that the conversation with Wales was only a joke, whereupon Mackenzie searched Spencer's neckerchief for the plans, supposedly hidden there, but found nothing. Despite this he arrested Spencer and had him placed in irons with the warning that if he attempted to communicate with the crew he would be killed. A subsequent search of Spencer's locker yielded a paper listing the names of the crew in Greek. Some names were marked, "certain," others, "doubtful," and still others, "to be destroyed." The duties of the men at the time of the mutiny were also indicated.

Sunday morning, when all the crew members were on deck for inspection, part of the topgallant mast fell after Small, a seaman, gave a sudden jerk to the brace. An apprentice, who had been aloft, quickly jumped into the shrouds thus narrowly escaping death. In the ensuing disturbance, Mackenzie reported, all the conspirators gathered at the mainmast. Order was quickly restored but the Commander, looking back on the incident, decided the whole thing had been planned by the men as an opportunity to effect the mutiny.

Mackenzie ordered Cromwell, the acting boatswain, placed in irons because it was felt that he could not be trusted at liberty throughout the night. Cromwell was not mentioned in Wales' story or on the list of conspirators but was imprisoned nonetheless. Small was also implicated and joined Spencer and Cromwell. Spencer protested Cromwell's innocence to Lieutenant Gansevoort but the second mate, afraid that Spencer had some sinister motive for wanting Cromwell released, decided he truly deserved to remain in irons.

On Monday morning Mackenzie explained the entire plot to the crew without implicating any but the three men then in irons. The Commander later testified at the Court of Inquiry that by Tuesday morning the crew seemed very unhappy and began collecting in small groups on deck, thus giving him the impression that the vessel was still far from safe. Some observers pointed out that it would have been quite remarkable had the crew not gathered in small groups to discuss the situation when they saw that an officer, a boatswain's mate, and a seaman were all in irons on the deck and other officers were keeping watch over them. However, the Commander feared that there would be an attempt to rescue the prisoners and decided that further measures would have to be taken to ensure the security of the brig. He asked the officers for their opinion as to the course to be pursued. They had earlier stated that the three should be executed but now determined to find evidence to support the position. After taking testimony and examining thirteen witnesses, but not the men on trial, they recommended that Spencer, Cromwell, and Small be executed. This singular trial gave no opportunity for the accused to defend themselves or even to hear the charges which had been levelled against them. Mackenzie believed it would be sufficient to execute only the three, since they were the only ones capable of navigating and sailing the Somers, and that their deaths would destroy in the remainder of the crew all motivation to capture the brig. While the officers were still debating, Mackenzie was already making arrangements for the hanging. During this time he left the running of the Somers, supposedly overrun with mutineers, in the hands of three of the young apprentices.

When the time for the execution arrived Spencer declared that Cromwell was innocent, but since his guilt was thought to be evident no attention was paid. Spencer then attested that he, himself, did deserve death but expressed his sincere repentance. Mackenzie told him that had it been possible to return the vessel to port, he was positive that the Spencer family's wealth and influence would have secured Philip's freedom; thus it would injure his father much less if he were killed now than if he were freed to perpetrate another such crime. Both Cromwell and Small died with protestations of innocence on their lips.

When the execution had been accomplished, Commander Mackenzie spoke to the crew members and asked them to cheer the ship ; they responded with three hearty cheers. From that moment, Mackenzie later testified, he felt he was once again master of his brig. Thus ended the six days of the Somers mutiny.

When the Somers first returned to New York Harbor and the story of the mutiny and triple hanging leaked out to the press, the newspapers were almost unanimous in their praise of Mackenzie's actions and in their excoriation of Spencer's. James Fennimore Cooper, however, was one of the few people who refused to be drawn into this web of praise. He denounced the Commander immediately and later assailed him in print in a pamphlet entitled "The Cruise of the Somers: Illustrative of the Despotism of the Quarter Deck; and of the Unmanly Conduct of Commander Mackenzie."

On December 21, 1842, a letter carrying the signature, "S," was published in the New York Tribune. It made clear, rational inquiries as to the true nature of the events on board the Somers and started people wondering if the view of the newspapers were the only one. They were willing then to listen to another side of the story.

The reaction of Mrs. Frances Seward, wife of the Governor of New York State and friend of the Spencer family, is recorded in a letter written to her sister, Mrs. Lazette Worden, on December 23, 1842.

My dear sister,

You may expect a very disagreeable ill-looking letter from me taking it for granted that the letter will bear a striking resemblance to its writer. I have been sick all the week partly in consequence of a hurt and partly on account of the horrible fate of Philip Spencer. I cannot conceive anything more awful. If it does not nearly kill his mother she has more philosophy or less feeling (rather synonymous) than other women. Though I might hope under a similar dispensation by the grace of God to attain resignation I should never expect entirely to recover from such a soul subduing affliction. I felt precisely as you did in regard to the sudden infliction of punishment for a crime let it be of what nature it might but further accounts seem to palliate what at first appeared so aggravated. The official account may afford still further information. The men all seem to think it just right to hang a boy of 19 without an hour for preparation, and some of the women too. Dear Clara came near having a nervous fever-we neither of us slept the night the news came-she had chills and fever all night-thinking of course that Augustus although he is one of the best boys in the whole world would one day be caught and hanged without judge or jury. No mother with 3 boys can know what trials are in store for her but I trust God will preserve mine from such fearful crimes.

Mr. Henry Raynor, a prominent citizen of Syracuse, wrote to Wilham Henry Seward on December 27, 1 842, commenting:

I disapprove of the act of Mackenzie-it was too hasty-it was a youth too who was slain-I do not like such exhibitions of military power in any case. It shows too plainly what men of the sword will do if they suppose they have the power.

A Court of Inquiry convened on December 28, 1842, to hear testimony and form an opinion to be sent to the Secretary of the Navy. The New York Tribune reported the proceedings and later reprinted them in a pamphlet with the title, "Proceedings of the Court of Inquiry appointed to inquire into the intended mutiny on board the United States brig of war Somers on the high seas; held on board the United States ship North Carolina lying at the Navy yard, New York; with a full account of the execution of Spencer, Cromwell, and Small, on board said vessel."

Commander Mackenzie submitted a lengthy report to the Court of the events of the six days and also a detailed justification of his actions. He stated that he was thoroughly convinced of the reality of the plot. Since the Somers was operating as a training ship, many of the crew were young boys who could easily succumb to the allure of piracy. He saw the execution as an immediate necessity because of the increased insubordination of the crew; the exhaustion of the officers who could not much longer sustain their fatigue; the uncertainty as to the extent of the mutiny; the small size of the vessel, which made it impossible to confine any more prisoners and prevent communication between the crew and those already in irons; and lastly, the fact that by executing the three ringleaders the mutineers would no longer be able to navigate the vessel.

James Fennimore Cooper questioned Commander Mackenzie's assertion that it would have been impossible to confine the prisoners for any length of time. He stated that the Captain's cabin could easily have been converted into prison quarters sufficiently strong to secure seven men until a port could be reached. The captain would have had to move his quarters to another area but this inconvenience would have been justified by the fact that he was doing his utmost to see that the men were granted a fair trial.

Lieutenant Gansevoort testified at the Court of Inquiry that he did not believe the ship could have been brought into port had the execution not taken place. George Warner, on the contrary, testified that although he had no doubt of Spencer's intention to take over the ship, he did believe the Somers could have been taken safely into St. Thomas without the execution.

This difference of opinion was commented on by Mrs. Frances Seward in a letter to her husband, William H. Seward. On January 15, 1843, she wrote:

I see two of the last witnesses say they think the vessel might have gone to St. Thomas without the execution a question which they seem to have avoided in the previous examinations. I shall never think the execution justifiable whatever that cowardly Captain may prove. His fears undoubtedly influenced the opinion of all the others.

James Fennimore Cooper also had an opinion as to the ability of the Commander to take the Somers into port. Mr. Cooper brought out the point that no man relinquishes his rights as a citizen when he joins the Navy. The men on board the Somers should not have been deprived of their right to a trial by jury unless it had been proved beyond a doubt that it would be impossible to grant them such a trial. At the time of the execution the Somers was but two hundred and fifty miles from the island of Antigua, a distance which might have been covered in thirty-six hours since the brig was in the path of the trade wind and the weather was excellent. Commander Mackenzie insisted that such a departure from the known route of the brig would have been a tacit admission of inability to cope with the situation and an encouragement to the mutineers to free the prisoners and take the ship. However, since the officers did have sufficient control to enable them to put the supposed leaders of the insurrection in irons and later to execute them, it seems that they would also have had sufficient control to keep matters in hand while the brig made the short journey to a nearby island.

The Court of Inquiry adjourned on January 19 and on January 21 found Commander Mackenzie innocent and declared that it saw no cause for further action against him. At the time of the adjournment many questions were still left unanswered. The actions of Philip Spencer and Alexander Slidell Mackenzie had been examined but neither was completely condemned nor completely exonerated. The question of the justification of Mackenzie's position still remained open. Had rational judgment controlled and guided his actions or were they the result of a gradually dominating sense of terror? Was Philip Spencer merely a youngster susceptible to dreams of a life of glamor and intrigue or was he truly the cunning instigator of a mutiny? Did the entire mutiny consist of nothing more than circumstantial evidence magnified by the fears of captain and officers? Were the events of the days prior to the execution seen as portents of mutiny only when Mackenzie looked back on them to write his official report for the Secretary of the Navy?

Because these questions did remain, the Court of Inquiry was not to be the end of the Somers case. John Canfield Spencer refused to let the case rest until it had been tried in a civil court where Mackenzie could not be protected by fellow officers and friends. Spencer was dissuaded from this purpose by Secretary of the Navy Abel Upshur who somehow convinced him to settle for a Naval General Court-Martial, which subsequently convened on February 1, 1843. Spencer must have regretted his decision later as he saw that his desire for justice was not to be satisfied. Mackenzie was tried by thirteen fellow officers. At a naval court-martial the defendant may testify or not as he chooses and Mackenzie chose not to. Instead, he submitted his version of the story in writing and, therefore, could not be cross-examined. The officers of the Somers were vehement in their defense of the Commander as well they should have been since, if he were found guilty, they would have shared in his guilt by reason of their collaboration in the execution. Nine of the officers had already been recommended for promotion by Mackenzie but it was doubtful they would have been advanced had he been found guilty. The prosecutor was a very unaggressive man who was appointed so short a time before the court-martial convened that he did not even have time to prepare his case. The length of the proceedings also worked in Mackenzie's favor. The court-martial convened on February 1 and droned on until April 1, by which time the fury of public indignation had abated to the point where people were merely bored with the press accounts of the daily proceedings.

The final session of the court-martial was held on April 1 and on April 19 the verdict was published. Mackenzie was declared innocent of the charges of willful murder, oppression, and inflicting punishment illegally. Earlier charges accusing him of unnecessary cruelty and conduct unbecoming an officer had been abandoned during the trial. When the judges were called upon to vote on whether Mackenzie should be acquitted honorably or merely acquitted, they voted three for honorable and nine for less creditable acquittal. Thus John Canfield Spencer lost all hope of vengeance for the death of his son. Commander Mackenzie retired to his country home to spend his life among friends.

Thurlow Weed, New York State politician and newspaperman, pronounced this judgment of Mackenzie in his autobiography:

I never coincided in the opinion which attributed the execution to cowardice on the part of Captain Mackenzie. I could not then and cannot now resist the belief that he was influenced by the √©clat which would follow the hanging of a son of the Secretary of War as a pirate. *

Conflicting opinions as to events and motives have been expressed from the time of the mutiny to the present. For some people the case was settled by the judges of the court-martial; for others it still remains a question open to debate. In either case the Somers mutiny remains to this day a terrible blot on the record of the United States Navy.

*Thurlow Weed, Autobiography of Thurlow Weed. Edited by Harriet Weed. Boston: 1883, p. 519.