Being that the sun finds its first stretch of land in the US along the coast of Maine, it is truly fitting that we are a state of many firsts. I came across this article that had been published in a British magazine called The Mercury, way back in 1843. Prior to that, it had been published in the Knickerbocker in 1839, and had made the rounds of other periodicals of the day as well. The story itself took place in 1790. In its day, The Mercury was a periodical equivalent to today’s Time and Newsweek magazines. The following article concerns just one of Maine’s many firsts of the new nation, and regarded the very first Capitol conviction under the laws concerning trials of persons committing crimes on the high seas. It is a long article, but I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have. It’s important that we keep these little tid-bits of Maine history alive, lest we forget who we are. Enjoy the read!
SAIL O !” cried young Walter Jordan, from the masthead of the fishing schooner Betsy, as she was ploughing her way, before a strong east wind, across Casco Bay, in the then province of Maine, and heading for Falmouth, now Portland, harbor. ” Where away ?” called out skipper Jordon, who was standing at the helm, and watching the boys, as they were preparing to take a reef in the main-sail.” Three points on our weather quarter,” said Walter. ” I see her,” said the skipper ; “come down and hand me the spy-glass.” Walter hastened down, and brought the spy-glass to his father. ” Steady the helm ! said the skipper, as he took the glass, and elevated it toward the distant vessel.”
She ‘s a stranger,” he added, after taking a brief look through the glass, ” and by them colors she’s got flying there, I guess she wants somebody to pilot her in. Come, bear a hand ; get a double reef in that main-sail, before the wind tears it all to pieces. And we must try to hold on a little, too, and let that vessel come up.” The boys soon had the main-sail under close reef, and the little Betsy was yawing off, and coming to, and tilting over the waves, like a lone duck that waits for its companions to come up. The strange vessel was nearing them quite fast.
She proved to be a schooner of about thirty tons’ burden; and coming down under as much sail as she could possibly bear, she was soon alongside the Betsy. When she had come up within speaking distance, skipper Jordan hailed her. “What schooner is that?” shouted the captain of the fisherman. “The schooner Rover, Captain Bird,” was the hoarse, loud reply. ” Where you from ?” ” From the coast of Africa.” ” Where you bound ?” ” To the nearest American port,” said captain Bird, who had now approached near enough for easy conversation. “Any port in a storm, you know,” continued the commander of the Rover ; ” and I think we have a storm pretty close at hand. What port are you bound to, captain ?” “I’m bound into Falmouth,” said captain Jordan, “which is the nearest port there is ; and it isn’t more than ten miles into the harbor. If you ain’t acquainted with our coast, you jest follow in my wake, and I’ll pilot you in.”
The captain of the Rover thanked skipper Jordan for his politeness, and kept his vessel in the wake of the Betsy, till they entered the beautiful harbor of Falmouth. The town of Falmouth formed one side of the harbor, and Cape Elizabeth the other ; and as captain Jordan belonged to the latter place, after making a graceful curve through the channel, he brought his vessel to anchor near the Cape Elizabeth shore. The Rover came up, and anchored but a few rods distant.
It was now near night ; the strong east wind that was driving into the harbor, began to be accompanied by a thick, beating rain ; and as soon as his sails were snugly furled, and the little Betsy prepared to tide out the storm, Captain Jordan and his boys hastened on shore, to join the family circle, from whom they had been absent on a four weeks’ cruise.
The storm continued through the next day, with- heavy wind, and copious rain. Numerous vessels had come into the harbor during the night, to escape from the perils of an easterly storm, on the rough and dangerous coast of Maine ; and in the morning their naked masts were seen rocking to and fro, like leafless trees in the autumn winds.
The inhabitants of Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth were but little abroad on that day; but many a spy-glass was pointed from the window, on both sides of the harbor, to scan the different vessels that Were there at anchor. None attracted more attention, or elicited more remark, than the little Rover. She seemed to be a strange bird among the flock. All said she was not a coaster, and it was obvious she was not a fisherman. She had a strange kind of foreign look about her, that induced the inhabitants, pretty unanimously, to decide, that “she didn’t belong anywhere about in these parts.” The storm passed over.
The next day was clear and pleasant, and a gentle wind was blowing from the north-west. The transient vessels in the harbor, one after another, shook out their sails to the breeze, glided smoothly through the channel, and put to sea. Before nine o’clock, all were cone except the strange little schooner, and the vessels that belonged to the port, or such as were there waiting cargo. But day after day passed away, and the little Rover still remained at anchor.
It could not be discovered that she had any special object in her visit to Falmouth. She had brought no cargo to the town, and did not seem to be looking for one. Her whole crew consisted of but three men, who were on shore every day, at Falmouth,. or Cape Elizabeth, and entering into various little barter-trades with the inhabitants. Public curiosity began to be considerably excited, in regard to the strange vessel; and whenever the crew were on shore, their movements were observed with increasing attention. Day after day, and even week after week,, had now elapsed, since the Rover came into port, and there she still remained at anchor, and her crew were spending most of their time in idleness ; and no one could discover that they had any definite object ahead.
Mysterious whispers, and vague rumors, began to be afloat among the community, of a character so grave and awful, as to excite the attention of the public authorities. The time of which we are now speaking, was the month of July, in the year 1?89. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts was then holding a session at Falmouth, in the district of Maine, and the session was near its close. When these mysterious rumors respecting the schooner Rover reached the ears of the court, the judges deemed it their duty, before the court should adjourn, to inquire into the matter.
They accordingly sent for Robert Jordan and William Dyer, two young men of Cape Elizabeth, from whom many of the reports in circulation were said to have emanated. Robert and William bting brought before the court, were questioned ns to what they knew concerning the schooner Rover and her crew. Robert said, “he didn’t know nothin’ about ’em; only he knew when they was piloting of her in, with the little Betsey, he heard the captain tell father they come from the coast of Africa.
But what they come clear from Africa here for, without any cargo, and were staying here so long, without trying to get anything to do, was more than he could tell.” “Well, have you never said,” inquired the judge, that you didn’t believe but that there had been murder committed on board of that vessel? And if so, please
Sometimes they said they had come right from England, and hadn’t been out but twenty days when they arrived here ; and sometimes they said they’d been cruising on the coast of Africa three months, to get a load of niggers, but couldn’t catch ’em. And then one of ’em says, “How many times d ‘ye think old Hodges has looked over the ship news, to try to find out our latitude and longitude?”— and then he looked at the others and winked, and then they all laughed.”
And one time, it was a pretty dark evening, they had drinked up all the liquor there was in the cabin, and Captain Bird told Hanson to go into the hold and bring up a bottle of wine. Hanson kind o’ hesitated a little, and looked as if he didn’t want to go ; and said he didn’t believe but they’d had wine enough, and he didn’t want to go pokin’ down in the hold in the night. At that Captain Bird called him a pretty baby, and asked him what he was afraid of; and wanted to know if he was afraid he should see Connor there. And then Captain Bird ripped out a terrible oath, and swore he’d have some wine, if the devil was in the hold ! And he went and got a bottle, and give us all another drink. When he came back again, Hanson asked him if he see anything of Connor there. And Captain Bird swore he’d throw the bottle of wine at his head, if he didn’t shut up.
“Another time I was aboard in the day time, and I see a parcel of red spots on the cabin floor, and up along the gang-way, that looked as if there ‘d been blood there ; and I asked them what that was, and they said it wasn’t nothin”, only where they butchered a whale. And then they all laughed again, and looked at each other, and winked. And that’s pretty much all I know about the matter, may it please your honor,’ said Robert, bowing to the judge. William Dyer, being examined and questioned, his testimony agreed with that of Robert Jordan, in every particular, with the addition of one other fact.
He said, “ when he was on board the Rover one day, he noticed a little round hole in a board, in the after part of the cabin, that looked as if it might have been made by a bullet from a gun; and there was a parcel of smaller holes spattered round it, that looked like shot- holes ; and he took his pen-knife and dug out a shot from one of them. “And when I asked ’em,” said William, ” what they’d been shooting there, Hanson said, that was where Captain Bird shot a porpoise, when they was on the coast of Africa. And then they looked at each other and laughed.” These circumstances, related so distinctly and minutely, by two witnesses, were adjudged by the court to be of sufficient importance to warrant the apprehension and examination of the crew of the Rover.
Accordingly, measures were Immediately taken to have them brought before the court. An officer was dispatched, with proper authority, to arrest them ; and taking with him eight assistants, well armed with muskets, he put off in a yawl-boat, to board the schooner. The officer stood at the helm, and had command of the boat, hastily to the capstan, and ordered the men to help get the anchor on board. They flew to their hand-spikes and gave two or three rapid heaves at the capstan ; but a moment’s thought told them there would not be time to get the anchor on board, before the boat would be alongside.
Captain Bird then caught an axe, and cutting the cable at a single blow, ordered the men to run up the foresail. The foresail and jib were Immediately set, and the schooner began to move, before a light breeze, down the harbor. Her speed, however, was slow, compared with that of the pursuing boat ; for as soon as the officer perceived the schooner was making sail, he directed two more of his men to lay down their guns, and put out a couple of extra oars.
The four oarsmen now buckled down to their work, and the boat was leaping over the water at a rate that struck terror into the heart of Bird and his companions. “H’ist that main-sail!” cried Bird to his men, as soon as the schooner was fairly heading on her course ; ” spring for your lives ! Get on all sail, as fast as possible! If we can get round that point, so as to take the wind, before they overhaul us, we may show ’em that we can make longitude faster than they can!”
The men redoubled their exertions ; every sail was made to draw to the utmost of its power; but it was all in vain ; the boat was rapidly gaining upon the schooner, and before she had reached the narrows between Cape Elizabeth and House Island, the boat was alongside, and the officer commanded Captain Bird to heave to. The order was not obeyed, and the schooner kept on her course. The officer repeated his command, and told Bird if he didn’t heave to immediately, he’d shoot him down as he stood at the helm.
At the same moment, he directed two of his assistants to point their guns, and take good aim. Bird, perceiving the muskets leveled at his head, darted from the helm, and leaped down the companion-way, landing, at a single bound, on the cabin floor. His companions followed with equal precipitation, and left the Rover to steer her own course, and fight her own battles. The vessel, no longer checked by the helm, soon rounded to, and the officer and his men jumped on board On looking down into the cabin, they perceived the three men were armed, Bird with a musket, and the others with a cutlass and hand-spike, and bidding defiance to their assailants.
The officer quietly closed the companion-way, and having some men with him who understood working a vessel, they soon beat up the harbor again, and made fast to one of the wharves, on the Falmouth side. The wharf was lined with people, who had been eagerly watching the result of the chase, and who now jumped on board in crowds, and thronged the vessel. The companion-way was again opened, and Bird and his men were ordered up. Perceiving there were altogether too many guns for them on board, they came quietly up, and surrendered themselves to the officer.
On being taken to the court-house, they were placed in separate rooms, and examined severally. The first, who claimed to be commander of the vessel, said he was an Englishman by birth, and that his name was Thomas Bird. The second said he was a Swede, and his name was Hans Hanson. The third, whose name was Jackson, said he was an American, and belonged to Newtown, in the state of Massachusetts. They seemed to possess little confidence in each other; and each feeling apprehensive that the others would betray him, and supposing the one who made the earliest and fullest confession would be likely to receive the lightest punishment, they all confessed, without hesitation, that the captain of the Rover had been killed on the voyage.
But all endeavored to urge strong palliating stood in the cabin, loaded with ball, and shot Connor dead on the spot. They were then exceedingly frightened at what had been done, and tried to dress his wounds, and bring him to. But there were no signs of returning life, and they took him on deck, and threw him into the sea. They were then afraid to return to England with the vessel ; and after many long consultations, they concluded to come to the United States, dispose of such articles as they had on board, sell the vessel the first opportunity they should meet with, and separate and go to their respective countries.
Upon this examination and confession, the court committed them to jail in Falmouth, to await their trial for the piratical murder of Connor, on the high seas. At this period, the supreme judicial court of the several states, with the maritime or admiralty judge, were, by an ordinance of the old congress, authorized to try piracy and felony committed on the high seas. But before the next session of the supreme judicial court in Falmouth, or Cumberland county, the new congress, under the Federal Constitution, had passed a judiciary act, establishing the” United States’ courts.
By this act, piracies and felonies on the high seas were committed to the jurisdiction of the circuit court of the United States. Although the officers of this court were inducted into office in December, 1789, the court held no session at Falmouth, for iiinl •, till June, 1?90. At this term of the court, the case of Bird and his companions was taken up. Jackson was permitted to become state’s evidence, and was used as a witness. The grand jury, of whom Deacon Titcomb was foreman, found a bill against Bird, as principal, for the murder of Connor on the high seas, and against Hanson, for being present, and aiding and abetting him therein.
The prisoners were arraigned at the bar of the court, and pleading not guilty, the court assigned them counsel and prepared for the trial, which commenced on Friday morning. So strong was the public excitement on the occasion, and so great was the crowd assembled at the trial, that the court adjourned to the meeting-house of the first parish, the desk of which was at that time occupied by the Rev. Thomas Smith, the first minister settled in Falmouth. Deacon Chase, of Pepperell, now Saco, was foreman of the jury.
The cause was heard and argued on both sides, in due form. The jury retired, and in the evening of the same day, came in with their verdict. Bird was placed at the bar, and the names of the jury were called over. The clerk then put the question : ” What say you, Mr. Foreman ? Is Bird, the prisoner at the bar, guilty, or not guilty ?” “GUILTY !” replied the foreman, in a low and solemn tone. Bird dropped his head, and sallied back upon the seat. Although he had no reason to anticipate a different verdict, yet -he did not seem to realize its awful import, until the sound fell upon his startled ear. His brain reeled for a moment, and darkness was gathering before his eyes ; but tears came to his relief; he hid his face in a handkerchief, and wept like a child.
When the same question was put to the jury in reference to Hanson, the reply was, “Not GUILTY.” On Saturday morning, the court met again, and the prisoner was brought in to receive his sentence. Mr. Syms, one of the prisoner’s counsel, made a motion in arrest of judgment, because the latitude and longitude of the sea, where the crime was committed, was not named in the indictment. The court overruled this motion, and proceeded to pronounce sentence of death. As this was the first capital conviction in a court of this republic, after the Federal Constitution was adopted, the counsel of Bird concluded, on that account, to petition the President of the United States for his pardon, and thus make another and last effort to save his life.
Accordingly, a copy of the indictment and all the proceedings in the case, was forwarded to General WASHINGTON, then residing in New-York. But the President, with that sound wisdom and clear-sightedness for which he was so remarkable, declined interfering with the sentence of the court, cither by pardon or reprieve; and that sentence was executed upon Bird, by Marshal Dearborn and his assistants, on the last Friday of the same month of June, 1790.