Why History is Horrifying: Massacre on the High Seas

Welcome to Why History is Horrifying, one of Why I Love Horror‘s series. These will be tales from days gone by to remind us that no matter how terrible things get, they can always be (and have always been) worse. So much worse.

Today, we ride the high seas and encounter a tale of paranoid madness and terrible murder. A tale worthy of its own Robert Eggers’ horror movie, the story of the Mary Russell is grim and gruesome.

William Scoresby, Jr. was a man who had experienced and meditated much on what life had to offer. He was an Anglican minister, a scientist, an explorer, and a whaler. The kind of man who accomplished so much that he has a crater named after him. Scoresby led such a cool life that he’s the namesake for the Dark Materials character of Lee Scoresby. For those unaware, the character of Lee Scoresby is so cool that he’s been played by Sam Elliot and Lin Manuel Miranda.

But in spite of all he had seen and learned about, nothing prepared William Scoresby for the morbid sight he laid eyes on in County Cork, Ireland, 1828.

Scoresby, along with several other travelers, had been coolly invited to alight onto a ship that was docked in Cobh Harbor—a ship being kept aside to preserve its status as a crime scene. This ship, the Mary Russell, was the site of a brutal massacre. Yes, crime scenes have long been popular before that special lady in your life started listening to podcasts.

Scoresby was fascinated by the tale and ensuing murder trial of the Mary Russell. It is through his personal investigations and writings in a book called Memorials of the Sea that we have most modern knowledge of how 7 men were butchered on the high seas and what became of their killer.

What Scoresby unraveled was a story worthy of its own horror epic, down to the cliched, drawn out building of dread and climaxing bloodbath.

Wow, Scoresby was super cool and downright handsome.

The Mary Russell was captained by a man named William Stewart. His first mate was named William Smith, and the second mate was named William Swanson. I can only hope they were collectively called the William S.-es. Aside from the Captain, the crew was 7 men strong, plus 3 apprentices (aged 12-15). There was also a passenger, an 11-year old named Thomas Hammond, who was put on the ship “for his health.” Because nothing says “a healthy lifestyle” like months at sea in the 1800s.

The ship left County Cork in February 1828, sailed down to Barbados, and was set to return in June.

But then things started to go wrong…

As any horror buff knows, long isolated trips are destined to end in murder and madness. But a common signal that the plot is about to take a turn can be found in the form of a stranger who joins our intrepid victims. In this real-life horror story, our plot begins to turn with the introduction of Captain James Raynes.

Captain James Raynes had, coincidence of coincidences, also come from Country Cork and wound up in Barbados. However, he was kicked off his ship and left landside for drunkenness. Insert your own tasteless Irish joke here. Drunk and stranded but apparently a bit of a charmer, Raynes managed to convince the Mary Russell to let him catch a ride all the way back to Ireland.

A drunk scallywag mooching a ride back home? What could possibly go wrong?

In May 1828, the Mary Russell took off from Barbados with its crew and guest, headed for home.

Captain of the ship, William Stewart, was in his 50s, trim, with a crop of red hair (hmm, sounds like a CILF). He was known to be steadfast and religious. But during this trip, Captain Stewart slipped from “steadfast” to “batshit insane.”

Stewart wasn’t very comfortable sharing his ship with someone else who went by “Captain.” He started to suspect that Raynes meant to form a mutiny against him. Raynes got along well with the crew. They praised his navigation abilities, he prepared for the day in the crew’s area rather than in separate quarters, and he spoke Gaelic with fellow Irishman—which Stewart did not speak.

Stewart supposed that, since Raynes’ career had otherwise disappeared into a bottle, perhaps Raynes plotted to take the ship over to somehow prove that he was worthy to captain another vessel. Because nothing says “career pivot” quite like alcoholism, mutiny, and theft.

At some point in the voyage, Stewart started dreaming of Raynes leading a mutiny. Taking this as a “sign from God,” Stewart considered the mutiny to be fact rather than, well, a stupid dream.

Stewart started taking steps to prevent mutiny. Simple, proactive steps like: ordering trusted crew members to sleep in his cabin to protect him; stockpiling weapons like an ax and crowbar; throwing all navigational tools overboard to prevent anyone else from sailing the ship back home; and buying a pair of pistols from a passing ship. Yes, Chekov’s pistols have entered the chat.

Certainly if the crew hadn’t been considering a mutiny before, they might’ve been after all this.

Stewart’s paranoia next focused specifically on the first mate, William Smith (no! Not a fellow William S.!). After hearing Stewart’s ramblings of mutiny (no doubt sounding as eloquent and sane as an average LiveJournal post), Smith had the audacity to tell Stewart that believing dreams to be evidence of something real is bullshit. Thus, Stewart ordered the crew tie up Smith and force him into a shallow cellar under the ship’s cabin. Totally reasonable response.

A few days later, on June 21, the Mary Russell was about 300 miles out from County Cork, Ireland. The crew were no doubt crossing their fingers that a strong wind would hurry them along home so they could get the hell of this boat and away from their nutty captain. But of course, this was the point where Captain Stewart ordered the crew to roll up several of the Mary Russell’s sails—thereby slowing their progress.

Hmm, why would the captain suddenly want to slow down progress if he was worried about a mutiny?

That pit you feel sinking in your stomach? It’s correct. 

That same afternoon, the crew spent the day on deck attending to duties. One of the young apprentices called a crew member down to see the captain in the ship’s cabin. The crew member departed. A few minutes later, another apprentice called another man down to the cabin. A few minutes later, it happened again.

None of the men returned from the ship’s cabin.

…you’d think by the third or fourth time this happened, someone would’ve said, “Nope, fuck you, fuck the captain, fuck the cabin, I’m fine right here.”

But no, eventually all 8 adults (7 crew plus Captain Raynes) wound up in the belly of the ship. Once each man had arrived with his apprentice escort, they’d find Stewart threatening them with his new pistols. Stewart accused each man of being in on the completely imaginary but probably would’ve been a good idea in hindsight mutiny. He then ordered the men to let the apprentices tie them up.

One of the crew members, Howes, was tied up and left on the half-deck. 7 of the men were bound in the cabin. Smith remained cramped under the cabin, right beneath the newer captives. Determined to immobilize his supposed foes, Stewart had the crew in the cabin pinioned with rope, including binding their necks to bolts fastened to the floor of the cabin.

Stewart: “Ever notice how much rope there is on ships? Like heaps and heaps of super convenient, heavy rope? Just making an innocent observation…”

At this point, Stewart had won the apprentices and young Thomas Hammond to his side by promising them great reward for preventing a mutiny. No doubt his pistols, other weapons, and madness also did a lot of the persuading too.

This element, the boys, adds something to this horror tale that I can appreciate. They are simultaneously Stewart’s creepy minions (and you know they had creepy British children voices to boot) but are also vulnerable potential victims.

A few hours after the ambush, Howes on the half deck had loosened his bonds. A fight broke out between himself, Stewart, and the apprentices. Howes was shot three times, beaten by the teenage apprentices, hit with an axe, but still managed to get away and hide among cargo crates. Rather reasonably, Stewart assumed the shot/beaten/axed Howes was dead or about to be. He moved on with his plans.

Figuring the crew had been removed as a threat, Stewart saw an end in sight to this nightmare (that, again, was a literal nightmare that he’d made real by his own paranoia). He had the Mary Russell fly a distress flag. He would need help getting home and having the (not) mutineers guarded and prosecuted.

Twice, ships were in sight and seemed to approach…but each ship changed course.

Stewart decided to ask God for advice again, since God had been such rock-solid help so far.

Stewart’s logic…er, “logic” was this: if the crew were innocent and worthy of being given a chance, God would’ve sent a ship to their aid. But if God wasn’t sending a ship, then more still had to be done to achieve justice.

Turns out, God didn’t think Stewart had gone far enough in taking care of the crew. See, they really needed to be taken care of. Permanently taken care of.

Have I laid this on thick enough yet?

No need to be such a dick, God!

On June 22, Stewart descended upon his bound prisoners in a spirited rage. With the crowbar and then with the axe, Stewart murdered the seven men in the cabin of the Mary Russell. The scene would later be described as “mangled and clotted with gore.”

Wielding his blood-stained weapons, Stewart turned his attack onto Smith, still stashed underneath the cabin. But, perhaps tuckered out from hacking seven men to pieces, Stewart didn’t bother to open the compartment to directly injure Smith or confirm his demise. Smith survived the onslaught. For a full day, he remained trapped in the compartment—injured, bound, and in the company of seven gruesome corpses.

Stewart, seeing this massacre as having done ‘the good Lord’s work,’ he ordered the apprentices aka his minions / hostages to fetch him meat and ale. He even smoked a pipe in relaxation, as blood soaked through the floorboards of the nearby cabin.

The next morning, Stewart decided that God wanted him to tie up the apprentices. Uh oh.

Somehow the youngest and the non-crew member, Thomas, was not included in this divine plan. Terrified at watching the other boys being bound, Thomas begged Stewart not to hurt them. Stewart handed Thomas one of the pistols, saying he didn’t intend to hurt the boys—and if he did, Thomas could shoot him.

Cool, glad we could calmly resolve that.

Fortunately, as if a sign from “God” himself, the very next passing ship, the Mary Stubbs, was successfully hailed. Stewart didn’t try to hide what he had done—why should he? He’d followed God’s plan and snuffed out some no-good mutineers!

“Were I not a valiant little fellow to kill so many men?” Stewart asked aloud to the newcomers, like he’d just stepped out of that “Killed Seven in One Blow” folktale.

The captain of the Mary Stubbs was certainly impressed by the scene before him—but not the way Stewart hoped. The scene was later described as:

“There were seven human beings with their skulls so battered, that scarcely a vestige of them was left for recognition, with a frightful mess of coagulated blood—all strewed about the cabin.”

Upon realizing that the cavalry had finally arrived, Howes and Smith came out of hiding, begging for help.

Stewart reacted to Howes and Smith’s survival positively. “I am sorry for having hurt you—it was God who spared your life!” Stewart declared to his would-be victims.

I’m sure Howes and Smith were super understanding.

The boys and the surviving adults were moved to the Mary Stubbs. Three crew members were moved to the Mary Russell to help bring it home. Stewart was left on the Mary Russell to continue as captain—after all, under the laws / barbarism of the time, captains were allowed to kill mutineers. Maybe not with as much flare as Stewart had, but he wasn’t considered in the wrong just yet.

From here, things get a little…cartoony. Stewart progressed from “maniacal” madness to “Looney Tunes” nuts.

Since sailors he didn’t know were now manning his ship—you know, helping him out like he asked because he murdered the original crew—Stewart decided a mutiny was still afoot. Perhaps too tuckered out for another rampage, Stewart just jumped overboard to escape. Then he was rescued and brought back onto the Mary Russell…before jumping overboard and being rescued again.

Stewart was then moved to the Mary Stubbs, before (say it with me) jumping overboard again. This time, Stewart swam to a nearby fishing boat, which picked him up and continued on its merry way, new guest / fugitive killer along for the ride. 

At this point, the captain of the Mary Stubbs had heard from the Mary Russell survivors. Rather than pursuing the clearly dangerous and off his rocker Stewart, the captain ordered the pair of ships to continue to the harbor at County Cork to raise the alarm. As for the fishing boat that had picked up a murderous maniac? Good luck to them!

One of the first persons on shore alerted to the fate of the Mary Russell was the harbormaster. In a sad turn of fate, the harbormaster was the brother of the now hacked-to-pieces Captain James Raynes, whose unexpected passage on the Mary Russell had sparked the entire tragedy.

The manhunt for Stewart proved short. The fishing boat that rescued him was intercepted by the Coast Guard (which I guess existed circa 1828? Today I Learned!). Stewart acquiesced to going into custody rather than jumping overboard, for once.

A coroner’s inquest was held. According to practices of the time, the coroner and a jury examined the bodies (which must’ve been a grand old time), questioned witnesses (which actually sounds very fun), and decided upon a cause of death, as well as whether there should be criminal charges.

The inquest was straightforward given several surviving witnesses, no evidence of an actual mutiny conspiracy, and Stewart being really open about the whole “I did butcher seven people but God said it was cool” argument. The coroner’s ruling was that the deaths were a result of murder, but committed “in a state of mental derangement.”

Stewart was charged (they couldn’t get a hold of God to also face charges).At the jury trial, our guy Scoresby re-enters the narrative. Scoresby attended the trial, taking notes to add to his memoirs.

Here’s where things start to get weird again. The judge, again very sensibly, explained to the jury that Stewart couldn’t be criminally guilty if insanity drove him to commit these grisly acts. …but how he explained it is a little wild:

“The question, therefore, is, whether he acted deliberately by the instigation of the Devil, or whether he acted under the visitation of God which impaired his senses.”

Uh… wait a minute. So if the Devil made him do it, he’s guilty, responsible, and deserves to be drawn and quartered or whatever punishment 1828 deemed appropriate. But if he was lost to madness when he viciously hacked seven people to pieces, then God did that and it’s all okay.

…Stewart’s logic is almost starting to make sense.

The jury came back with a verdict of not guilty due to insanity. This of course didn’t mean that Stewart was sent on his way to recruit a new pack of teenaged minions and jump overboard on random ships. Instead, he was sentenced to confinement for life.

Everyone was satisfied with this verdict. …and it seemed many had the attitude of “Welp, all of this is part of God’s plan.”

Scorseby himself wrote of the tale, “Surely the dreadful carnage was permitted by the Providence of Heaven. … we must speak of ‘the might of God’s terrible acts’ with humility and reverence.”

Um.. I guess? That’s certainly…a perspective…to have?

Stewart himself was also very okay with his sentence. “I have great reason to bless God!” Yep, still very good with his relationship with the Big G.

Stewart would never again be a free man. He spent time at the Cork city jail, then the Cork Lunatic Asylum, and then the Dundrum Asylum for the Criminally Insane. During his confinement, he spent time making model boats. Cute.

When later interviewed, Stewart expressed contentment for his position in the safety of confinement, and assured that the seven murders thing was a one-time gig. However, he did later have another breakdown and murder a hospital attendant. So. Maybe not.

Captain William Stewart died at the impressively ripe old age of 98. So, perhaps he really did have the support of God?

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