THE KEY WEST BUBBAS AND THE GROUNDING OF HERCULES Part III

Key West was sold twice in 1821.  Spanish owner Juan Pablo Salas sold it September 21 (recorded in St. Augustine on September 24) to John B. Strong, of that city.  Three months later he sold it again, to John Simonton, and Simonton “took peaceable possession of the said island on the 19th of January, 1822, where no living person was on said island”.  Three days later his deed was also recorded at St. Augustine.  In August John Geddes, former Governor of South Carolina and who had an interest in the ship,  General Geddes, later a Keys wrecker, arrived in Key West to also settle the island, having purchased it from owner John B. Strong! (Geddes did not sell his claim to the island until 1826.)    But Strong sold Key West twice, just as Salas had done, the second time to George Murray.  A mortgage from Murray to Strong is recorded December 7, 1824, which brings us to the territorial wrecking law of 1823:  George Murray, of St. Augustine, either had or would have a lot of financial interest in Key West.  He was the President of the Legislative Council, and was the author of the wrecking law.  It is likely that John B. Strong had no qualms about the mortgage for although he too was an official in St. Augustine he also owned a wrecker, the Leopard.  And his character was dubious:  in 1823 he abandoned two of his crew on Key Biscayne.  They made their way back to St. Augustine and sued Strong, who was a judge.  One can imagine Judge Strong and Council President Murray nudging Governor William P. DuVal into signing the self-serving legislation for Key West, for there was money to be made there! (Salas’ deed to Simonton held up as more valid than his deed to Strong, for it had Salas’ wife’s signature as well.)

****

In the summer of 1823 the territorial wrecking law was passed, eliminating the 400-mile trip to the District Court in St. Augustine for salvage cases.  The territorial wrecking law ordered that a report be made to the Justice of the Peace or a Notary Public that salvage had been performed.  It was the Justice’s or Notary’s duty to summon 5 people to determine the facts of the wrecking and to award salvage.  According to the law, all concerned who were at Key West would be notified of the “trial”.  Two members of the jury to be nominated by owners or their representative, two members of the jury to be appointed by the wreckers and one member of the jury to be appointed by the Justice or Notary.  If no owners present, the Notary would appoint two members to act for their behalf.

John Whitehead testified in the Johnson case that the wrecking law was “obtained and passed at the solicitation of the inhabitants of St. Augustine.”  It was a half-truth, for he didn’t share with the New Yorkers the St. Augustine Murray and Strong financial interests at Key West. 

The population of Key West in 1825, according to John Simonton’s testimony was 180, exclusive of the military, about one-third colored.  St. Augustine’s newspaper, East Florida Herald, praised Key West on April 30, 1825, thusly:

            “Notwithstanding the local situation of Key West being unfavorable to health [there was a yellow fever epidemic that year], yet there is, from a variety of circumstances, a great field for industry and enterprize (sic); the place is rapidly improving.  Very extensive warehouses are building – roads are cutting in different directions, and enterprizing merchants are locating there.”  Some of those “enterprizing merchants” were Whitehead, Simonton, Fielding A. Brown, and a former slave ship captain, Pardon C. Greene.  They were united (although in their depositions they hedge the connection) in the warehouse business of “P. C. Greene & Co.” which held and auctioned wrecked goods.  In the one year period Dec. 1824 – Dec. 1825 $ 293,000 worth of wrecked property was sold at Key West, and P. C. Greene & Co. received sales commissions and storage fees on it all.  The more ships and cargoes ordered to be auctioned to pay the salvage fee, the more money they all made.

Upon arrival at Key West captain of the Hercules Seaman hired the Greene firm.  Seaman testified that “everyone there seeming to be leagued with the wreckers,” he endeavored to obtain a boat to take him to some place where he might obtain justice and enter a protest, but without success.  The wreckers proceeded to summon a jury, and before 10:00 at night the very day the Hercules arrived 31% salvage was awarded the wreckers, and the cargo and ship ordered to be sold.  It would have been a higher percent, wrecker Johnson believed, but  for the testimonies of Seaman and his crew, who repeated what Johnson had commented after the grounding, that he had told his son the day before that the Hercules would be his prize in the morning.  Fearful of Johnson, Capt. Seaman sought protection from the Naval Commander there, Capt. Paine, but Paine was very ill and unable to provide transportation.  Seaman applied to Richard Fitzpatrick as Notary Public to permit him to protest – then applied to Brown, as Deputy Collector, to enter a protest.  He declined.  He asked Whitehead if the sale could be postponed until he could go to New York and consult with the underwriters, but Whitehead, by his own testimony, advised a postponement could not be possible; some of the jury had left the island and the award had been made public, he told Seaman in Key West and the court in New York.

The colored cook of the Hercules, William West, told the court that “Capt. Seaman had no friends at that place.  Witness considered Key West a den of thieves.”  Asked to be specific on that point West said “because they all steal there – if you lay down a piece of food they will be sure to cut off a piece and fill their hats and shoes full – they make their slaves steal – they bury things up in the ground to conceal them.”   He said that prior to the trial Fitzpatrick drew up depositions for West and crewmember Edwards but the men “refused to sign because they were not true…that it was a bad time for Capt. Seaman – five and twenty wreckers to one man.”  Asked why Capt. Seaman employed P. C. Greene & Co.  West said “because he could not do better sir – if you get your head in the lion’s mouth you will employ anybody you can to help get you out.”

The composition of the jury summoned by Fitzpatrick with great hurry was a classic case of Bubbaism.  Seaman did not appoint any members, as owner’s representative – apparently, no one asked him to. The Key Westers appointed J. N. Latterman, who was employed by P. C. Greene as a wrecking captain, Augustus Griswold, also employed by P. C. Greene, William W. Rigby, who ran a bar but was also a clerk for P. C. Greene, J. B. Lansing, Inspector of Customs, and Griffith W. Roberts, a storekeeper also from New York and former clerk of P. C. Greene.

In New York Fielding A. Brown testified that all these proceedings were proper.  John Whitehead also testified there.  John Simonton testified that he did not see anything improper in the conduct of Capt. Charles Johnson and tried to blame the underwriters; they would have gotten money after the sale of the Hercules and cargo except “New York had declared their determination to seize any property which might be taken to Key West.”

 The underwriters at New York had already been burned by the Key Westers and thus Simonton’s comments.  In February of that year the ship Point a Petre was lost on Carysfort, but the wreckers saved 891 bales of cotton from her hold.  They were awarded 76% salvage according to the Newport Mercury of April 9th.  Later in the year, after the Hercules award, the same paper had this to say on November 12:

       “Great complaints are now made of the Florida wreckers.  Great complaints are now made particularly by the underwriters respecting the conduct of the Florida wreckers in consequence of the exorbitant salvage usually allowed them under the law of the territorial government.  It is frequently the case that nothing is left after the payment of salvage for either underwriters or owners.  It is the general opinion among the well informed lawyers in Florida that the law is unconstitutional and that it will be repealed at the next session of the legislative council.  It has, in fact, been over-ruled by Judge Lee in the Admiralty Court of South Carolina District in the case of the American and Ocean Insurance Companies of New York who claimed restitution on 356 bales of cotton [from the Point a Petre brought to South Carolina by a purchaser, who the insurance company had arrested for participating in fraud].  The libel states that the cotton in question was sold at Key West by virtue of a decree of a notary and five jurors and over 50% allowed to the salvors.  The simple question for my decision was: the territorial court at Key West was incompetent to the trial of the case. A sale under the authority of such a court cannot divert the claimants of their property.  Salvage cases are peculiarly of Admiralty and Maritime jurisdiction and in no case of abandonment or derelict do the maritime courts of England and America allow over 50%.”

Forewarned by what had happened to the insured cargo of  the Point a Petre and empowered by the District Court decision that Key West’s “court” was incompetent the insurance companies – all the insurance companies in New York but one –  involved with the Hercules sent Capt. John Earle with powers to do everything he could to keep their property from the wreckers, after they learned from a southern newspaper that it had been brought to that place of terror for owners and underwriters:  Key West.  Earl arrived on October 26, 36 days after the ship ran aground on Carysfort.  He gave a paper, a letter of credit for P. C. Greene & Co., to John Simonton, who said he was managing the affairs of the company.  He read it and told Earle, “You are too late, the vessel and cargo has been condemned and sold”.  “By what authority?” the incredulous Earle asked.  “Under the wrecking law of Florida” Simonton replied.  The sale of the ship and cargo had amounted to a little over $ 90,000.  Johnson got $ 25,000 and it is assumed that P. C. Greene & Co. got the rest of the money.  Simonton told him some of the sold cargo had been removed and there were ships in the harbor to take the remainder, as most was purchased by residents of Havana.

Earle asked to see the authorities, but Simonton told him, correctly, that there was no civil authority on the island.  The wreckers found their match in John Earle.  He immediately threatened everyone in Key West, and told them that “Johnson was no better than an old pirate and that he had him now and would make him suffer for the offices at New York would unit and they hired lawyers by the year.”  He immediately tacked up notices for everyone to return the property and Whitehead was so threatened by Earle that he did indeed buy most of it back, for higher prices than it had been sold.  The ship was also re-purchased.  It had been sold to a Key Wester for $ 1,500.  He sold it back to Earle for $ 5,500; for a total of $ 7.200.  The Hercules, with some new sails, proceeded on to Mobile, where her hull was checked for damage from the reef.  There was none.

Earle described Key West as “12 miles long & about 2 miles wide, a small part only inhabitable…There was but one house on the island that was comfortable – it was owned by P. C. Greene & Co. and they all (the “jurors”) lived there.” And that he stayed with Simonton whose house had been a tavern but was then kept by P. C. Greene & Co…There is no other business but wrecking business done there.”

            After Earle’s experience the papers relentlessly exposed the wreckers.  Some examples:

  • On January 7, 1826, the Savannah Georgian wrote, “[There is] a summary process at Key West by which before four or five persons, all property was decided, and from 50 to 90 percent salvage taken.  When it is recollected that this imposition is practiced only upon the unfortunate, its enormity will be seen…A greater amount of salvage, under the above arrangement, is allowed at Key West than in any part of the United States.”
  • Same paper of May 4, “In Key West it appears that questions of salvage on wrecked property are now decided by arbitration.  It would appear, however, they decide the question in what way they will in this island; the sufferer [of shipwreck] is fleeced.  In the case of the Transit, recently decided by arbitration, the award of salvage amounted to eighty percent and that of L. Adele to seventy-five percent.
  • Same paper, on May 23, “It has been observed that the island of Key West is considered by merchants and underwriters an object of equal terror with the late piratical establishment at Cape Antonio [Cuba].  The evils of the present mode of proceeding at the former, in regard to those vessels so unfortunate as to fall into the hands of the wreckers of Florida are represented in a forcible light in an article in a subsequent column.  We know of no obligation which should induce a master of a vessel to submit a claim to arbitration where the certain result is the loss of all which the sea has spared.”  The column referred to was a “CAUTION TO SHIP MASTERS” announcement, warning not to submit to Key West arbitration to avoid a lengthy trial in a District Court.  That at Key West there was the “impossibility of selecting intelligent arbitrators who are not concerned either as wrecker, clerk, merchant, etc.” in the wrecking business.  It also listed and discussed outrageous salvage awards given there on the Adele, Transit, Virginia, General McDonald, Gen. Lafayette, Mary, and the Hercules.

            In 1826 Representative Cambreleng (N.Y.) presented a resolution to discontinue a Port of Entry status at Key West, “the transactions at that island…notorious”.  Congress annulled the territorial salvage law the same year.

            In 1825 Charles M. Johnson, wrecker of the Florida Keys, made $ 25,000 for getting the Hercules afloat at Carysfort Reef.  In 1828 the U. S. District Court in New York ruled he had to give $ 22,000 of it to the insurance companies.

 Sources:  The case of Ten New York Insurance Companies vs. Charles M. Johnson was transcribed  which resulted in  156 typewritten pages, and was donated by Nancy Jameson to the Key West and Islamorada libraries in 1996.  John Viele provided me with the Georgia newspaper articles.  Some information on the sale of Key West came from a 4- page  paper by Alberta Johnson dated February 8, 1939 entitled “Juan-Pablo Salas”.