Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ill-Got Gains

According to Thomas J. Wansley, the black steward and cook of the brig Vineyard, he’d been on board the vessel in New Orleans when its cargo - consisting of 112 bales of cotton, 113 hogsheads of sugar, and 54 casks of molasses - was lowered into the hold. A small number of kegs were also stowed away. In later court testimony he told of hearing at the beginning of the voyage that there was a sum of money aboard. The vessel left port on November 9th, 1830, bound for Philadelphia.

Off North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras Wansley revealed the presence of the money to fellow seamen Charles Gibbs (a nefarious character signed on under the All-American alias Thomas D. Jeffers), Aaron Church, Henry Atwell and young Robert Dawes. A plot was soon hatched.

On the evening of November 23rd, the Vineyard’s captain William Thornby was on the quarter-deck observing Dawes as the teenager manned the wheel. The young sailor called below for someone to trim the wick of the binnacle light, a pre-arranged signal. Wansley arrived and, as he passed behind Thornby, grabbed a pump handle and struck the unsuspecting captain to the deck. A few more blows to the head finished the job and Gibbs came up and helped the others heave the body overboard. First mate William Roberts, having heard suspicious sounds, arrived on deck at about the same time as seaman Church. Attacked by Church and Atwell he spun around and threw himself feet first down the companionway.

Grabbing the binnacle lamp, Church, Atwell and Dawes hurtled into the dark after him. Roberts was caught, struck down by a number of blows, hauled onto deck and thrown overboard. He tried to swim back to the ship, struggling and pleading for rescue, but quickly sank below the surface.

The conspirators gathered up the two remaining crewmen, James Talbot and John Brownrigg, and threatened them with their officers’ fate unless they cooperated. As if any added incentive was necessary, a promised share in the treasure sealed the deal. The kegs were hauled on deck and the money divided, then Gibbs, understanding navigation from his background as a buccaneer in the waters off Cuba, set the Vineyard’s course for New York’s Long Island.

Arriving a dozen or so miles off Southampton, the seven loaded the money aboard a longboat and a jolly-boat, torched the Vineyard, and rowed off in the two small vessels. A strong gale out of the east blew the small flotilla rapidly along the southern shore of Long Island, in the direction of Manhattan’s Lower Bay. As they approached Rockaway Bar, running parallel to the island south of Brooklyn, they tried crossing the half-submerged spit of land. The jolly-boat was suddenly flipped, tossing Church, Talbot and Atwell into the churning waters.

Davy Jones locker gained three new residents. Not to mention $23,000 of Philadelphia consignee Stephen Girard’s coins. Gibbs, Wansley, Brownrigg and Dawes leaned into their oars, hoping to avoid a similar fate.

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