Hanged in chains at Execution Dock, 5th January 1771, for the murder of his cabin-boy.
AT the Admiralty sessions, held at the Old Bailey, on the 17th of December, 1770, David Ferguson, master of the merchant-ship Betsey, was tried for the murder of his cabin-boy, a lad about thirteen years of age, during his voyage from Virginia to Antigua.
It appeared that four of Captain Ferguson's crew died, and he was charged with the murder of them all. On one of these alleged crimes he was tried in Virginia, and acquitted.
Lord Bortelot, the then governor of that colony, transmitted the proceedings of the Court to the secretary of state for foreign affairs in London, with a favourable opinion thereon.
Though we have had too frequent occasion, in the course of this work, to state the wanton exercise of that power necessarily given to commanders at sea, yet we also know that the crew are too often ready to construe necessary correction into cruelty; and, should any of the hands corrected by the captain die, even by accident, or the common course of nature, they are sure to aggravate the affair, and persecute their commander.
The ship Betsey sailed from the Capes of Virginia in the depth of winter, when the cold is intense to a degree, of which Englishmen have hardly a conception. Heavy gales of wind and long falls of snow succeed each other, day after day. The shrouds and rigging are incrusted with ice, and they often snap from the tension thereby occasioned. The masts, thus deprived of their principal support, are often ready to fall by the board, while the deck is deeply covered with snow.
(Note: A shocking instance of the sad effects of these sudden snow storms, on the coast of America, happened to the officers of the Assistance man of war, lying off Sandy-Hook, near New York, in the year 1784. Six Seamen of that ship confederated to desert, jumped into the yawl, and pushed off from the ship towards the shore, Another boat was got ready for a pursuit, and was manned by the first lieutenant, eleven other officers, and one seaman. Before they could come up with the deserters, a snow storm came on, which, as is often the case, so overpowered them, and so darkened the horizon, that they lost sight both of the yawl and the ship, and were all, except one, next morning found dead on the beach, near Middleton Point, in New Jersey, most of them sticking in the mud.)
In such cases seamen do their duty with much reluctance; and, when their extravagance in harbour has deprived them of the means of laying in an allowance of brandy and tobacco, they grow clamorous to their captain for those indispensable articles, with which he is not bound to supply them; in fact, he generally provides little more than may serve himself.
Captain Ferguson's crew, thus situated, were often remiss in their duty; and, on several occasions, his utmost exertions were called upon for the safety of his ship; but that he exceeded the bounds of moderation must be admitted, from his conviction by an English jury of the murder of his cabin-boy.
Perhaps the severity of the season, the crew being unprovided with liquor, and also without sufficient warm clothing, contributed more to the death of the remaining three that perished than correction. The survivors imputed the murder of them all to the cruelty of their captain.
To come to the charge on which he was convicted: it was proved that he had frequently beat the boy in a manner far too severe for his tender years to bear; and that he had knocked him down, and then stamped upon him. After this barbarous usage he confined him almost an hour upon deck, to the weather-side of his long-boat, when the weather was so severe that snow covered the deck, and the shrouds were snapping. That he again pushed him down, and trod upon him with both his feet.
The seamen said that the boy provoked this punishment by coming upon deck with only one stocking on. The sufferer did not make complaint of the effects of his usage until eleven o'clock at night; and the next day he fell into the hold, and was missing five hours. He was found dead upon the ballast.
In his defence Captain Ferguson proved the distress his ship was in from the weather, and the refractory spirit of the crew, several of whom he was obliged to force to their duty.
On the passage of the Betsey home to England, Major Watson and Captain Lilly, who were passengers, proved that she was wrecked on the coast of Sussex; and that it was owing to the resolution and good conduct of Captain Ferguson that they, together with the crew, were saved. It also appeared that many vessels at sea with the Betsey, on the coast of America, had several of their crews frost-bitten, which turning to gangrene, they died. The inference attempted to be made was that the frost had killed the cabin-boy.
Several respectable merchants gave the prisoner a good character for integrity and humanity; but the jury found him guilty, and sentence of death was passed upon him accordingly.
Considerable interest was made to obtain the royal mercy, and (a circumstance seldom granted to murderers, and then only when some doubts arise in the minds of the privy council on the case) he received a respite.
On the 4th of January, 1771, eighteen days after conviction, the warrant arrived for his execution; and the next day, attended by the marshal of the Admiralty, carrying a silver oar, he was carried from Newgate to Execution Dock, and there hanged.
His body was hung in chains upon the marshes of the river Thames.
Thus perished Captain David Ferguson, a victim to his ungovernable passion, in the twenty-sixth year of his age.