Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Seaman Killed on Emigrant Ship

A crew member on board an emigrant ship was killed by another who was convicted of manslaughter in what today would be seen as a racially aggravated attack.

On the morning of 16th July 1864 the Raymond sailed from Queenstown in Ireland bound for New York, carrying mainly emigrant passengers. The voyage was a long one and she was still at sea on 16th September, when a disagreement broke out between 21 year old John Bennett and John West, who was twice his age.

Bennett had seen West with a knife on deck and said to others around him 'If the black beast has a knife I'll knock his head off'. West turned around and told Bennett that he was just minding his own business and he should mind his, leading to Bennett throwing a punch. Someone shouted out that if they were going to fight West should put the knife down which he did.

Despite the knife having been thrown down, Bennett was seen to keep hold of a marlin spike that was used for ropework and during the struggle West was stabbed. After the two men were separated West was seen staggering on the deck with his bowels protruding. Bennett was immediately put in irons and said he had acted in self defence by stabbing him with the marlin spike. When asked what had happened West said he was stabbed by a knife not the marlin spike and a search of Bennett found no knife on him, just an empty sheath attached to his belt. 

There was no surgeon on board the ship and West had to be operated on by fellow crew members, who gave him brandy and laudanum to try and ease the pain. They put his entrails back in and sewed the wound, but he was unable to keep any food down him and died the following day. 

On arrival at New York, Bennett was handed over the British Consul. Although there were dozens of witnesses to the incident, the captain didn't have the authority to detain any of them and not surprisingly nobody volunteered to return to the British Isles to give evidence. Bennett was sent back on the mail steamer Persia, while the two crew members who witnessed the incident remained in New York until the Raymond was ready to set sail again.

Bennett arrived in Liverpool on 26th November and was taken into custody by Detective James Graham. Due to the two witnesses sailing back on the Raymond via Antwerp, he was unable to appear at the following month's assizes and instead had to wait until 27th March the following year to be tried before Mr Justice Mellor.


When the chief mate Thomas Cunningham gave his evidence he said he had seen Bennett paint West's jaw white a few weeks before the incident, but had believed it to be a joke. He also said that prior to throwing the punch Bennett had called him a 'black son of a bitch' and had not been attacked. Under cross examination though he admitted that Bennett had a reason to have the marlin spike in his hand at the time and also that West was about half as strong again.

The ship's master Lawrence Lenders told how he was attracted by a large crowd and cries of female passengers and when he got to the scene Bennett was boasting 'I told you I'd let them out for you.' When Lenders asked Bennett why he had done what he did he replied 'because he was annoying me.' In respect of the wound, the master said it was too large to have been cut with a marlin spike and he believed that a knife had been used which was thrown overboard.

In addressing the jury on behalf of Bennett, his defence counsel Charles Russell said there had been no evidence of prior ill feeling between the two men and no premeditation. As such he suggested that a manslaughter verdict would be more appropriate. In summing up the judge said that for a manslaughter verdict there had to be some form of reasonable provocation, leading to the jury deliberating for an hour before finding Bennett guilty of manslaughter.


In his pre sentencing remarks the judge said that this case was 'a very serious one for manslaughter' and that his life had been spared by the jury's decision. Telling Bennett that he deserved a 'long period of penal servitude' he then sentenced him to fifteen years. Bennett then said he was satisfied with the verdict that Lender's evidence about him saying 'he would let them out' was false. The judge then interrupted and said that his sentence was very reasonable under the circumstances and that if he had anything else to say he should raise it with the Home Secretary.

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