Sea dangers : the affair of the Somers New York : Schocken Books, c 1985 Philip McFarland Somers Mutiny, 1842 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. 308 p.,  p. of plates : ill. ; 24 cm. Bibliography: p. -296. Includes index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG
The Naval Historical center has printed an article by David Howe that gives the facts of this controversial case and contains his legal arguments against the master’s actions in hanging the mutineers. We have used his recitation of the facts of the case without agreeing with his conclusions.
Acting Midshipman Philip Spencer, aged 17, was the ne’er-do-well son of Secretary of War John C. Spencer. He spent three years (1838-1840) as a freshman at Geneva College (now Hobart College) in Geneva, New York. He quit Geneva, attended Union College in Schenectady in the spring of 1841, and quit again. He was appointed an Acting Midshipman in November of 1841, and sailed to Brazil in June 1842 on board John Adams. Charged with drunkenness and dereliction of duty, he resigned his appointment and transferred to Potomac to return to the United States, arriving at Boston on July 31, 1842. His appointment was reinstated, presumably through his father’s influence, and he was ordered to Somers on August 13, 1842.
On the evening of Friday, November 25, Acting Midshipman Spencer tried to enlist 20-year-old Purser’s Steward Josiah Wales into a plot to seize the brig, kill the officers, and go be pirates on the Spanish Main. Seaman Small joined the conversation long enough to confirm in Wales’ mind that he was a party to Spencer’s plans. On Saturday the 26th Wales reported the matter to Purser Heiskell, who reported it to Lieutenant Gansevoort, who reported it to Commander Mackenzie.
Lieutenant Gansevoort was ordered to watch Spencer closely but discreetly. During the day, the lieutenant saw Spencer examine a chart of the West Indies, get tattooed in the foretop, and sit in his corner of the steerage “as was his custom.” He also was told that Spencer had asked about the error rate of the chronometer (information needed for accurate celestial navigation); had asked questions about the Isle of Pines, a notorious haunt of Caribbean pirates; and had drawn a picture of a ship flying a black flag.
On the 26th Commander Mackenzie confronted Spencer, saying “I learn, Mr. Spencer, that you aspire to the command of the Somers.” Spencer denied it. When told that Wales had reported their conversation Spencer said it was “in joke.”
Spencer was arrested and put in irons on the quarterdeck. A search of his locker revealed a list of names in Greek characters. He had listed four people as “certain”: himself, Small, Wales, and one E. Andrews (although no one by that name was on board). He listed ten others as “doubtful” (of whom four were marked as likely to be induced to join the conspiracy), and eighteen more to be kept on board nolens volens (unwilling or willing). His list thus included four “certain” (including Wales, who informed), four possible, six unlikely: a total of 14 out of 120 persons on board.
Before the arrests on the 29th, Commander Mackenzie asked his officers in writing for their advice on “the best course to be pursued” for the ship’s safety. On that day and the next the officers interrogated various members of the brig’s company. On November 30 they recommended that Spencer, Cromwell, and Small be put to death. The council of officers reported as follows to Commander Mackenzie:
Sir: In answer to your letter of yesterday, requesting our counsel as to the best course to be pursued with the prisoners, Acting-Midshipman Philip Spencer, Boatswain’s Mate Samuel Cromwell, and Seaman Elisha Small, we would state that the evidence which has come to our knowledge is of such a nature as, after as dispassionate and deliberate a consideration of the case as the exigencies of the time would admit, we have come to a cool, decided, and unanimous opinion that they have been guilty of a full and determined intention to commit a mutiny on board of this vessel of a most atrocious nature; and that the revelation of circumstances having made it necessary to confine others with them, the uncertainty as to what extent they are leagued with others still at large, the impossibility of guarding against the contingencies which “a day or an hour may bring forth,” we are convinced that it would be impossible to carry them to the United States, and that the safety of the public property, the lives of ourselves, and of those committed to our charge, require that (giving them a sufficient time to prepare) they should be put to death in a manner best calculated as an example to make a beneficial impression upon the disaffected. This opinion we give, bearing in mind our duty to God, our country, and to the service.
At 2:15 on the afternoon of December 1 the three suspects were hanged. Their bodies were lowered at 3:30, and they were buried at sea that evening.
While it has been cause celebre to demand that Spencer be exonerated and Mackenzie be found guilty of murder after the fact the facts of the case speak plainly enough. If Spencer had not been the son of the Secretary of War the incident would have gathered dust rather than interest but authors looking for a public sinecure then – like James Fenimore Cooper – and their spiritual heirs today have kept the case alive. The measures to supress the attempted mutiny may have been harsh but in the context of their times they were not only completely within the means and discretion of the master but could be argued to be necessary and appropriate.