Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Justifiable Homicide On The High Seas

In 1844 a ship's cook killed his captain in the Bay of Biscay but was acquitted of murder after claiming to have acted in self defence.

Elisha Halsey was a father of four who lived in Charleston, South Carolina. He was Captain of the Thomas Bennett, which sailed from Liverpool for Charleston on 3rd August 1844.

On the afternoon of 8th August First Mate William Gibbons heard a commotion on deck and rushed up to see Captain Halsey lying on his back with a wound to his neck. Within a minute he was dead, having not been able to say anything. Cook John Kent was stood nearby and said that if he had not have stabbed Halsey, he would have been killed himself.

Kent was overpowered by Gibbons and other crew members and put in irons, the vessel turning back for Liverpool where it arrived on the 14th. At the Coroner's inquest in Lord Street, crew members told how Halsey has regularly been drunk on board the ship and finding fault in many things, especially in respect of how food was prepared and served. Steward George Houghton Monro told how he had seen Halsey drink almost a pint of brandy then  go into the galley and demand his dinner instantly and brandishing a carving knife before dragging Kent away by his collar. This knife was shown to the jury, in addition to the sailor's knife that Kent had stabbed Halsey with.

Both Halsey and Kent were described by crew members as good men, but it was admitted that Halsey had been drinking liquor far more on the return voyage than the one from Charleston to Liverpool. Other American seamen gave evidence in respect of Halsey's good character and the surgeon who conducted the post mortem stated that the liver was in a healthy condition. With the killing having taken place on an American vessel and the victim an American citizen, the US consul was keen to have Kent (who lived in Great Howard Street) extradited there for trial. However, the jury returned a verdict of 'Justifiable Homicide', which under English law meant he could be released without any further charges and on 21st August Home Secretary Sir James Graham ordered Kent's release.

Halsey was interred in St James Cemetery in a service that was attended by many American seamen who were in Liverpool at the time. 44 of them signed a testimonial that he was nothing other than a sober man.

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