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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Scandal Sheet


I believe that the term “governor” and “corruption” have been synonymous since at least 70 B.C. when Cicero made the legal case against Caius Verres, the Roman governor of Sicily. Amongst a host of other allegations, Cicero charged that Verres had famously stripped the interior of that contented island of everything of value, and then forced the city of Syracuse to build and crew a new ship each year to transport Verres’ plunder back to Rome, where he kept the plunder and sold the ship - and kept the money. Before Cicero had even finished presenting his case, on the advice of his own lawyer, Verres fled Italy with a fair part of his wealth still intact. We know this because years later Mark Anthony had Verres executed, in order to steal what Verres had stolen from Sicily. The murder of corrupt Roman officials by other corrupt Roman officials had, by then, become part of the circle of life.

Fifteen hundred years later the image of the corrupt governor had changed very little, except in nationality. The new prime example was William Crosby, who was English governor of Minorca (the name means “the lesser island”). The strategic little spot of dry land was 200 miles off the coast from Barcelona, Spain and 300 miles west of Sardinia. The British Navy had seized the place from the Spanish in 1708, but the Treaty of Utrecht had not officially awarded it to England until 1713, leaving the Spanish population far from resigned to British rule. So in 1718 the British government could not afford to just look the other way when the first English Governor of the island, William Crosby, seized a shipload of snuff, valued at nine thousand pounds sterling, for non-payment of import duties.

The problem was that Crosby had just mugged a local power broker. His name was Bonaventura Capedvilla, a Portuguese merchant, and it had been his snuff that had been filched by Crosby. Capedvilla contended that he had paid the import duties on the snuff, and when the local authorities began to ask questions, Governor Crosby simply refused to allow them access to government documents. But Capedvilla was wealthy enough and powerful enough to fight back. Besides, Portugal was an English ally in their war against Spain, and the British government really could not afford to offend one of Portugal's richest citizens. So SeƱor Capedvilla appealed directly to the Privy Counsel in London, and eventually, in 1722, the Council requested a look at the documents.

When Crosby eventually responded, (in 1724) it was immediately clear that the importation papers he offered up had been “tampered” with. In other words they had been forged by Crosby. The Privy Council eventually (in 1728) ordered Crosby to pay Capedvilla ten thousand pounds sterling. He did, but it did great damage to his personal bank account. The Coouncil also decided that perhaps it would be better if Crosby were governor of some other island not quite so vital to the security of Great Britain. And that could end up hurting Crosby's bank account even more.

In 1730, as Governor Crosby was packing his bags in preperation to take up his new posting as Governor to the Leeward Islands (off the north coast of Venezuela), he received word that John Montgomerie, the royal Governor of New York and New Jersey in America, had just dropped dead of a stroke. Immediately William Crosby made his way to London, to pay a visit to Thomas Pelham-Holles, the duke of Newcastle.

Newcastle had been the secretary of state for the Southern Department, which included everything in America south of Canada. He was also a first cousin to Grace Montague, who was Cosby’s wife. And Newcastle was ever happy to see another relative doing well in government service. He secured Crosby's appointment to America.

And that was why, in 1731, William Crosby arrived in New York armed with the royal seal of approval and carrying his own particular brand of insensitive and clumsy avariciousness. To quote one of Crosby’s staunchest critics, "The Government of New York... came seasonably in (Crosby’s) way to repair his broken fortune."

When a New Yorker later pointed out that one of Crosby’s actions was illegal, he answered directly. “How, gentlemen, do you think I mind that: alas! I have great interests in England, of the Dukes of New Castle, Montague and Lord Halifax." Now that is arrogance with its mask off. And Crosby quickly showed his bare face to the citizens of New York.

When Montgomerie had died, 71 year old Rip Van Dam had been asked by the colonial council to step in to manage the colony until the new governor arrived. Shortly after his arrival in New York, William Crosby asked Van Dam to turn over half of the salary he had collected since Montgomerie’s death. Now, that was actually a fairly common practice in the British Empire. But Van Dam was a survivor of the Dutch power structure. The Dutch had founded the colony, and Van Dam did not take kindly to the rude manners and uneducated brashness of the new English royal governor. He told Crosby, that by his calculations, Crosby actually owed him four thousand pounds.

Crosby did not find that very funny. In August of 1732 he sued Van Dam for half of his salary. Crosby was of course, not going to allow a jury to tell him what was legal. So he instructed the three judges of the Colonies' Supreme Court to hear the case. Van Dam challenged the legality of that order, and his challenge was argued before…the three judges of the Supreme Court. As was perfectly perdictable, their vote was two-to-one, in Crosby’s favor.

Crosby then ordered the dismissal of Chief Justice Lewis Morris, the only court member with the courage to vote against the governor. Justice Morris laid out his reasons for opposing Crosby’s actions in a letter he paid to have printed up on a "broadsheet", by the “second” printer in the colony, Mr. John Peter Zenger.

Broadsheets were single pages, printed in mass, and posted on public squares throughout the colony, and even read aloud by town criers, for the benefit of the illiterate. The success of Judge Morris' broadsheet in rallying the citizens against Corsby convinced certain wealthy citizens there might be a profit made in starting an opposition newspaper. They called their new weekly venture the “New York Gazette”. And again  they used the printing press owned by Mr. Zenger. Crosby paid little attention, as he was busy stealing land from the Indians, from the original Dutch settlers and from recent English immigrants. But eventually, after certain colonists complained about him to London, Crosby decided to take action.

In November of 1734 he ordered the printer Peter Zenger arrested. And that is how a lowly German immigrant - Peter Zenger - who could barely spell in English, became the center of the first great confrontation between Americans seeking “Liberty and Justice” and the caprice of a Royal prerogative. In the trial on August 5, 1734, an American jury decided that the truth of an allegation was a valid defense against libel, and they found Zenger not guilty.

"Truth" was not an accepted legal argument against libel at the time, and it would be some years before what the New York Colonial court had decided would gain acceptance elsewhere. And long before that happened Governor William Crosby had answered to a higher court.

In early March of 1736 the greedy Crosby died of tuberculosis at the Governor’s house, in New York City. He was buried in St. George’s Chapel. But he did not stay there. In 1788 the post-revolutionary American governor of New York had the last word on the old royal governor, when he ordered Crosby's remains be moved to the graveyard at St. Paul’s Church, and dumped there, in an unmarked grave.

And good riddance, to him.
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Sunday, December 27, 2009

THE MARY CELESTE

I like to think the rafts washed up on the beach at Playa del Silencio. It seems a fitting place for a mystery to end, swept by the stormy Basque Sea, along the lonely Astrurian northern coast of Spain. According to a report in a Liverpool newspaper, there were two makeshift rafts found by fishermen off that coast. One was flying the American flag. Lashed to that raft were the decomposed remains of a human being. Lashed to the second raft, were five more badly decaying bodies. It was the spring of 1873, and this may have been where the mystery of the Mary Celeste washed ashore.
She was big; a 282 ton sailing brig built for the prosaic business of the North Atlantic,  and launched in Nova Scotia in 1861. But she was always a sad ship. Her first captain died of pneumonia on her maiden voyage. Her second captain struck a fishing boat and was dismissed. In 1867 a storm ran her ashore and her owners sold her for salvage. She was bought for $11,000. Repaired and refitted, she went back to work.
And at anchor at Staten Island, New York City, on November 3rd, 1872, her new Captain, Benjamin Biggs, wrote a letter to his mother in Marion, Massachusetts .“My Dear Mother:…It seems to me to have been a great while since I left home, but it is only over two weeks…For a few days it was tedious, perplexing, and very tiresome but… It seems real homelike since Sarah and Sophia (his wife and 2 yr. old daughter) got here, and we enjoy our little quarters…We seem to have a very good mate and steward and I hope I shall have a pleasant voyage…We finished loading last night and shall leave on Tuesday morning if we don't get off tomorrow night, the Lord willing. Our vessel is in beautiful trim and I hope we shall have a fine passage, but I have never been in her before and can’t say how she'll sail. (You) shall want to write us in about 20 days to Genoa, care of the American Consul… Hoping to be with you in the spring with much love, I am yours, affectionately, Benjamin.”
Captain Biggs sailed on November 5th with a crew of eight, (three Americans, four Germans and one Dane), and two passengers - his wife Sarah and little Sophia. His cargo was 1,701 barrels of commercial alcohol bound for customers in Italy. The ship docked next to the Mary Celeste at Staten Island had been the British merchant brig Dei Gratia, captained by a friend of Briggs, David Morehouse. The Dei Gracia left New York Harbor ten days later, on November 15, bound, like the Mary Celeste before her, for the straits of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean beyond.
The Dei Gratia had a smooth voyage and three weeks later was approaching the coast of Portugal on December 4th, when a lookout reported a ship at five miles distance which was sailing oddly. The sails, two of which were fully rigged, appeared to be slightly torn. As Captain Morehouse moved closer he realized she was the Mary Celeste. There were no distress flags flying and everything otherwise appeared normal except in two hours of observation not a soul appeared on deck. Three men were sent to board the Mary Celeste.
The bording crew reported “…the whole ship was a thoroughly wet mess”, but fully seaworthy. She still carried a six month supply of food and fresh water. The crew’s personal possessions appeared untouched, including their valuables, and their foul weather gear. There were no signs of a struggle, although the Captain’s cabin was in considerable disarray. No flag was found.
The log book, the sextant and chronometer were all missing, as was the 20 foot life boat with sail. A thick line had been tied to the Mary Celeste’s railing. The other end was frayed and dragging in the current. And there was not a single soul on board, not even a cat. The 3 man crew sailed the Mary Celeste to Gibraltar, where an Admiralty’s court was convened and a commission was appointed to investigate the mystery.
The investigation found that nine of the barrels of alcohol aboard the Mary Celeste were empty. But the boarding party had reported smelling no fumes. The last entry in the captain’s log was dated November 24th, 1872 - when the Mary Celeste was 100 miles off Santa Maria, the southern most of the Azore islands. This seemed to imply that the ship had sailed another 370 miles in nine days with no one at the helm.
Frederick Solly-Flood, the Attorney General for Gibraltar, seems to have suspected the captain and crew of the Dei Gratia of some involvement, but all suggestion of evil was shown to be baseless after a suspected blood stain on a knife was proven to be mere rust. A diver found the hull did not “…exhibit any trace of damage or injury or…had any collision or had struck upon any rock or shoal or had met with any accident or casualty.” The commission’s final judgment was that there was no evidence of foul play, piracy, mutiny or violence.
But if that were so why would a healthy crew abandon a seaworthy ship in the middle of the ocean? The British suspicions undoubtedly influenced what the Admiralty’s court did next. The crew of the Dei Gratia was awarded $46,000 in salvage rights for the Mary Celeste (the equivalent of a quarter of a million dollars today). But this was barely 20% of what the ship and cargo had been insured for.
Over the next year the owners and American authorities offered a reward and conducted a search in ports large and small around the Atlantic rim, for anyone matching the description of Captain Briggs, his wife and child, or any of the crew members from the Mary Celeste. Not a trace was found. It was as if they had simply vanished from the face of the earth.
The Mary Celeste was returned to her owners in New York and sold 17 times over the next 13 years. Finally, in 1885, she was driven onto a reef off Haiti and then set afire in an insurance scam. But she refused to sink and the owner was jailed. The sad, unlucky Mary Celeste slowly decomposed on the reef until a storm finally freed her last timbers to slide into the sea.
This leaves me to ponder the fate of the human cargo of the Mary Celeste; a woman and child and eight men - ten souls in a twenty foot single mast-ed yawl life boat. Whatever their reason for abandoning the Mary Celeste, once they did they were fully exposed to the winds of fate.
The weather service on the Azores records that on the morning of November 24th , the date of the Captain's last log entry, a gale blew up with torrential rains, a gale which finally blew itself out only on the morning of December 4th, the morning the lookout on the Dei Gratia spotted the abandoned Mary Celeste.
The Azores current travels eastward at 2 knots an hour away from the islands. Suppose, for some reason - perhaps because of a leak of explosive alcohol fumes, or  crew members driven mad by drinking the pure alcohol - the crew had abandoned the Mary Celest in good weather. And suppose that a gale had suddenly blown up, seperated the life boat from the ship, and had driven the desperate little yawl northeastward for three or four days while breaking the little life boat to bits. And suppose the survivors had gathered the flotsam into a pair of rafts. Without food or water, suppose those rafts, carrying the remains of the crew, and still tied together, had drifted for five months into Biscayne Bay. And suppose the rope joining those rafts had finally seperated, just before they were driven in toward The Beach of Silence, on the northern coast of Spain. Suppose all of that happened. That may have been what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste.
I think it was. And I think little Sophia would have grown into a very lovely young lady.
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