THE KEY WEST BUBBAS AND THE GROUNDING OF HERCULES Part II

The day before, wrecker Charles M. Johnson, 52, had seen the Hercules.  According to his crewmember, Herman Rich, Johnson told the men and his son, John W. Johnson, “that brig thinks she is going fast through the water, but she will find herself mistaken.  I think she will be ashore before tomorrow morning – we will go into Black Caesar’s Creek and anchor because if she does go ashore it will go on somewhere thereabouts.”

       What followed was the basis of Charles Johnson’s arrest at New York, where he resided part-time, in January, 1826, under a warrant charging “civil and maritime trespass.”  It was a charge brought by ten New York insurance companies that had insured the Hercules and her cargo. The libel stated Johnson had acted “in collusion with the territorial officers of the Territory of Florida,” and the insurance companies were referring to people at Key West, a place where greed prevailed over all.

       All that follows is from depositions given for Johnson’s trial: of those aboard the Hercules or aboard the two wrecking ships, and of some “founding fathers” of Key West that happened to be in New York at the time. Or were they all there to defend their corrupt system?

       The morning of the grounding the captain sounded around the ship and determined she could not be gotten off.  At 5 a.m. wrecker John W. Johnson arrived in the aptly-named  Surprize and asked if he wanted assistance.  Capt. Seaman had already decided to abandon ship because of the weather, and a boat was alongside being prepared with supplies.

       John Johnson conferred with Capt. Seaman out of hearing of the crew and then the men of the Hercules took cargo out and put it on his sloop by the instructions of Capt. Seaman.  Later Charles M. Johnson arrived in the Florida and the Eclipse, Capt. Easton, as well, although Easton was told not to assist unless the Johnsons’ attempt to save the ship failed. Then Seaman’s crew retired and Johnsons’ crews (a total of 19 men) started to pull the ship off the reef with anchors.  At about 1:00 in the afternoon the vessel was freed.

       After she got off, according to Herman Rich, a Surprize crewmember, “Capt. Easton advised Capt. Seaman of the Hercules to go to Mobile as he was bound there.  The respondent [Charles Johnson] turned round to Capt. Easton and said, ‘Capt. Easton, I don’t thank you for any of your advice.  The brig shall not go to Mobile, for she is my property’, or, ‘my prize’, but which, the witness cannot recollect.  ‘I have offered Capt. Seaman to go either to Savannah or Charleston or to Key West’.  That Capt. Seaman was onboard the sloop at the time this conversation took place.  The respondent turned to Capt. Seaman and asked him if this was not the fact.  Capt. Seaman was within hearing, but made no reply.  That Capt. Seaman did not, in the presence of witness, at any time urge respondent to go to Mobile.  That witness heard respondent [Johnson] says he would blow up the vessel before she should go to Mobile.”

Photo from the Library of Congress

       Rich described the damage to the Hercules, which was mostly from the gale.   “Eight inches water in her…foretopmast and maintop gallant mast were gone.  The boom was also gone.  They had a temporary jib boom and a temporary foretopmast rigged.  The foretopsail was gone – her foresail was a good deal shattered.  The stern boat was lost.  The witness thinks that in ordinary weather, the brig might have gone on to Mobile.”

       Upon seeing the Surprize sail away with the offloaded cargo Seaman asked where she was going, according to August Lemonier.  Johnson replied that she was going to Key West that the vessel was his prize and he would take her where he pleased, and “Johnson had guns on board”.  Lemonier said that the offer to Savannah or Charleston was useless as Seaman had to follow the cargo.

       Johnson totally intimidated Seaman; on the way to Key West he told one of the crew that he “wished to God the brig had went to pieces” rather than deal with Johnson.  Having asked Johnson why he didn’t warn the Hercules of the reef danger the day before Johnson replied that he had to make money.  The ships met Capt. Jacob Housman sailing up the Keys, on his way to Charleston.  Charles Johnson had had a long association with Housman, a fellow New Yorker and regarded by most historians as another sordid character of the 1820s Florida Keys. (A Charleston newspaper article of 1822 noted their sailing on a wrecking voyage together.)  Johnson and Seaman both wrote letters and requested Housman to deliver them in Charleston.  William West, crewman on the Hercules, told the court “That some days after the letters had been sent witness and [William] Edwards heard Capt. Johnson say, in a laughing manner, that Seaman’s letter never would arrive – that he had written to Housman not to deliver it”.

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