Sunday, October 31, 2010

James B. Chester

James B. Chester, February 28, 1855.

Sometimes erroneously referred to as the James Cheston. (Group, pp. 22.)

On February 28, 1855, in the general vicinity of the Azores, the crew of the merchantman Marathon sighted the bark James B. Chester. The bark was sailing erratically, as if no one was at the helm, and did not answer hails.

Mate Thomas boarded her and found her deserted, as if in a great hurry. The cabins had evidently been ransacked: Tables and chairs were overturned and clothes and books lying around. The ship's papers and compass were missing, but the wool cargo and provisions were still there.

The captain of the Marathon had a prize crew take the Chester to the Albert Docks in Liverpool. There the Chester became a spooky tourist attraction.

There was a lot of speculation as to what had happened to the crew of the Chester on the lonely expanse of the Atlantic, but every theory met with objections. Pirates or mutiny might explain the chaos on board, but what about the lack of blood? The crew might have looted the ship, but what was missing was not really worth abandoning a ship for an open boat in the middle of the ocean. Some said a giant octopus might have gotten the crew and ransacked the cabins in the process, which usually serves as the springboard for the mystics to suggest that then the Atlanteans might have gotten them just as well. (Snow, Mysteries and Adventures Along the Atlantic Coast, pp. 308.)

Some claim that none of the boats were missing. (Chaplin, p. 32.)

Group specifies that the three-masted bark James B. Chester was found some 1,100 kilometers southwest of the Azores.

Could the crew have so misjudged the condition of the ship as to take to the lifeboats in a storm? Or had some unknown terror driven the crew overboard?

Group found the answer in the archives of The New York Times. It had in vain been waiting there to be found by any sensationalist writer who cared to do a thorough search.

April 3: The news that the Marathon found the Chester reaches New York. The cargo is valued at $150,000. Someone tried to bore holes into the hull. Two out of three boats were missing. It is believed that the crew murdered the captain and fled. Another article on the same page reports that the crew of the James Cheston [sic] was picked up by the Two Friends on March 15.

April 6: The owners are notified that the captain arrived in Wilmington, Delaware.

April 10: Eight crewmembers of the Chester disembarked the Dutch ship Two Friends in Savannah on April 7 and were arrested for murder.

April 11: Two crewmembers testify that the captain was sick, bored holes into the hull with the mates, and offered hush money to other crewmembers. One sailor states there was only one foot of water in the hold, not seven as the log claims. Captain White of the Chester arrives in Boston and denies any knowledge of the holes in the hull and asserts the crew abandoned the ship because she was in danger of sinking.

April 12: Captain White and the Mates Chason and Packwood are arrested for barratry. Six crewmembers testify that there was only one foot of water in the hold and that nothing else was wrong with the ship. The article hints that rum may be to blame for the whole affair.

April 13: The two mates accuse the captain of unnecessarily abandoning the ship, as there was only one foot of water in the hold and she was seaworthy. A crewman calls the voyage a "Bacchanalian frolic."

1 comment:

Edward Papenfuse said...

You have the wrong ship. It was the James Cheston. A friend and I are writing a book about the case. The crew and the captain was picked up and the captain was placed on trial before Justice Taney in Baltimore.

Ed Papenfuse
Maryland State Archivist, emeritus