History of the Mutiny on the U.S. Somers Part 1

About the history of the mutiny aboard the U.S. Somers in 1842 captained by Alexander Mackenzie.



Background. On Aug. 20, 1842, U.S. Navy Cadet Philip Spencer walked up the gangway to the deck of the U.S. Somers, a small sailing brig used as a training ship for naval officers. A little over four months later, having been convicted of conspiring to mutiny, Spencer would walk off the same gangway into midair with a noose around his neck. That day in August, Spencer reported for duty to the Somers's captain, Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, a strict disciplinarian who immediately disliked the 19-year-old Spencer because he had been dismissed from his previous post for drunkenness.

In early September, the Somers sailed for Africa. Spencer was his usual self, a gregarious, arrogant, mischievous prankster, whose father, John C. Spencer, secretary of war in President Tyler's cabinet, invariably got his son out of troublesome situations. Commander Mackenzie warned the officers and other officer cadets not to associate with the disreputable Spencer, who therefore made friends with the crewmen.

During the voyage to Africa, Mackenzie inflicted on the crew an unwarranted amount of flogging and authoritarian sermons. The floggings and speeches, coupled with prevailing naval conditions of inadequate food and living quarters, caused low morale and a lack of discipline among the crew. Feeling more like a crewman than an officer cadet, Spencer joined the crew in their grumbling about Commander Mackenzie. Passing out cigars and stolen liquor, Spencer became increasingly popular with the sailors as Mackenzie became more hated. The Somers reached Africa and on Nov. 11, 1842, turned around and sailed for home.

The Mutiny. On Saturday, Nov. 26, the purser's steward, James Wales, reported to Mackenzie that the night before, Spencer had tried to enlist him in a conspiracy to mutiny, kill the ship's officers, and turn to piracy. At first Mackenzie thought Wales was insane, but he had Lieutenant Gansevoort watch Spencer and interrogate the crew concerning his activities. That evening, Gansevoort informed Mackenzie that Spencer had been seen examining charts of the West Indies (a major area of pirate activity), that he had lent sums of money to and become friends with two sailors named Samuel Cromwell and Elisha Small, that he had drawn a picture of a brig flying a pirate flag, and that he had read an officer's palm and predicted for him a quick and violent death. With this circumstantial evidence and Wales's report, Mackenzie had Spencer arrested and put in chains.

When Spencer was asked about the validity of Wales's statement, he lightheartedly replied that it was true, but that he had only been joking and trying to make a fool of Wales. The humorless Mackenzie was now convinced that there did exist a plot to mutiny and that Spencer was its ringleader. Mackenzie searched Spencer's possessions and in his razor case found a list of 13 names, with four marked "certain" and the rest "doubtful." In the "certain" category were Spencer, Wales, a sailor named McKinley, and a nonexistent person. Mackenzie assumed that this was a list of the alleged mutineers; however, that was never proved.

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