Ship of Blood: Mutiny and Slaughter Aboard the Harry A. Berwind and the Quest for Justice
by Charles Oldham
Synopsis: North Carolina native and lawyer Charles Oldham brings the incredible and unpredictable tale of the Harry A. Berwind to life for the first time.
In October 1905, North Carolina and much of the nation was captivated by the mass murder found aboard the Harry A. Berwind as it sailed the coast of Cape Fear. All four of the ship’s officers had been shot and tossed overboard, one crewman lay dead on the deck, and another was chained hand and foot. The three survivors, Henry Scott, Arthur Adams, and Robert Sawyer, had different stories. Scott claimed other sailors conspired together and restrained him when he would not cooperate; Adams and Sawyer claimed Scott pulled a gun and acted alone until they tackled and restrained him.
The most inflammatory factor that captured the nation: all the murdered officers were white, and the survivors Black.
Just seven years earlier, Wilmington, North Carolina witnessed a brutal white supremacist insurrection that killed dozens of Black citizens in the streets, and by 1905, Jim Crow laws were firmly in place. Predictably, all three survivors were found guilty and sentenced to hang. Yet the legal drama went on, defying all other predictions. Lasting seven years, the case reached the Supreme Court and even presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Adams and Sawyer were eventually found innocent and freed.
My thoughts: I enjoyed this book about a mutiny that happened back in 1905. It’s well researched where information still exists after all this time. There is a lot of history provided on the racial tensions of the time. Much was made of the officers and captain being white that were killed by the black crew. One of the black crew members was also killed. Those murdered were Captain Edwin B. Rumill 45, about whom the most is known. Also killed was John T. Hall, the mate and second in command; John Falbe, the cook/steward; and C.L. Smith, the engineer aka the donkeyman. From the crew members the least known, John Coakley was killed and his was the only body remaining on the ship The officer’s bodies were thrown into the sea.
The remaining 3 crewmembers were Robert Sawyer, about 30, Arthur Adams 23, and Henry Scott, 31 who was found bound and chained after being tackled by the other crew. Suffice it to say, the three crew members had different stories about what happened, with two blaming Henry Scott. Scott blamed the others. The journey through the justice system on federal charges really makes the story. I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.
Publisher: Beach Glass Books – 272 pages
Publication: Feb 22nd, 2022
My rating: 4/5 STARS
About the author: Charles Oldham is a native of Sanford, North Carolina, and has grown up with a love of everything about Tar Heel history. A graduate of Davidson College and the University of Georgia School of Law, he has been an attorney since 2000 and practiced criminal defense law for more than ten years. Charles now resides in Charlotte.