Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Murder of a Sea Captain

In 1888 a seaman stabbed his captain to death whilst on a voyage to Liverpool but escaped the hangman's noose when the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.


On 5th March that year the Dovenby Hall left San Francisco bound for Liverpool carrying a cargo of grain. On board was a crew of 23, including Steward Charles Arthur, a 34 year old native of Barbados who had lived in Liverpool for a number of years.


Arthur had been on the outbound voyage and remained quiet for most of it, but in San Francisco there was a disagreement between the Captain, David Bailey, and a number of crew members that led to many leaving the ship and the recruitment of a new Chief Mate. On 30th March, Arthur was reprimanded by the 54 year old Captain and ordered to perform  menial duties on deck, temporarily relinquishing his role as a Steward.

Being forced to go on deck was the culmination of a week of berating for supposedly not carrying out his duties properly and the following morning Arthur snapped. One of the jobs he had to do as Steward was take a cup of tea to the Captain in his cabin at 5am but when he did so, he plunged a carving knife into Bailey's stomach as he lay in bed. The Chief Mate and a sailmaker heard screams and ran to the cabin, managing to disarm Arthur and then capturing him as he tried to jump overboard. Captain Bailey died from his injuries 24 hours later and was buried at sea, with the Chief Mate safely guiding the vessel back to Liverpool, arriving on 28th June.

Arthur, who had been held in irons for the rest of the voyage was handed over to the river police on arrival and appeared to be on good terms with the crew, most of whom shook hands with him as he was taken away. On being charged with murder he responded that he had done it, but 'under great provocation.' Standing by the quayside were Captain Bailey's wife and nephew, who heard about his terrible fate for the first time.

At the trial on 3rd August crew members told how the Captain had regularly complained about Arthur's work and threatened him. However, in summing up the judge said that the only grounds for a reduction of the charge to manslaughter were if Arthur had actually been assaulted himself. As it had been admitted that Bailey was lying in his bed at the time and the knife had been removed from the pantry, the jury had no option but to conclude that he was guilty of wilful murder.

Arthur was of previous good character and the jury recommended mercy due to the provocation. Following submissions from his family and the Seamen's Institute, a reprieve was granted and his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

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