In the Wake of Madness: The Murderous Voyage of the Whaleship Sharon

In the Wake of Madness: The Murderous Voyage of the Whaleship Sharon

by Joan Druett, ett


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After more than a century of silence, the true story of one of history's most notorious mutinies is revealed in Joan Druett's riveting "nautical murder mystery" (USA Today). On May 25, 1841, the Massachusetts whaleship Sharon set out for the whaling ground of the northwestern Pacific. A year later, while most of the crew was out hunting, Captain Howes Norris was brutally murdered. When the men in the whaleboats returned, they found four crew members on board, three of whom were covered in blood, the other screaming from atop the mast. Single-handedly, the third officer launched a surprise attack to recapture the Sharon, killing two of the attackers and subduing the other. An American investigation into the murder was never conducted—even when the Sharon returned home three years later, with only four of the original twenty-nine crew on board.

Joan Druett, a historian who's been called a female Patrick O'Brian by the Wall Street Journal, dramatically re-creates the mystery of the ill-fated whaleship and reveals a voyage filled with savagery under the command of one of the most ruthless captains to sail the high seas.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781565124356
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 01/01/2004
Pages: 306
Sales rank: 628,231
Product dimensions: 5.45(w) x 8.36(h) x 0.85(d)

About the Author

Joan Druett is a maritime historian and the award-winning author of several books, including Petticoat WhalersShe Was a Sister SailorHen FrigatesTupaia, and The Discovery of Tahiti. Her interest in maritime history began in 1984, when she discovered the grave of a young American whaling wife while exploring the tropical island of Rarotonga; she subsequently received a Fulbright fellowship to study whaling wives in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and California. Her ground-breaking work in the field of seafaring women was also recognized with a L. Byrne Waterman Award. She is married to Ron Druett, a maritime artist.

Read an Excerpt



ON A GALE-RACKED DAY in the hamlet of Holmes Hole — now called Vineyard Haven — on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, a whaling captain arrived at the front door of a substantial house that commanded an unbroken view of the storm-tossed waters of the harbor. His name was Howes Norris; he was thirty-seven and had just seventeen months left to live.

The date was May 14, 1841, a day set apart as a national holiday to commemorate the death of President Harrison, and so Captain Norris would have been formally dressed, as befitted a whaling master. He was an impressive figure. Strongly built and tall for his time at five feet, nine inches, Norris had the thick, sloping shoulders of a man who had spent much of his youth pulling heavy oars. Pale-complexioned, with ears that protruded from thinning brown hair and a full-lipped mouth that appeared disdainful in repose, his face was dominated by large and heavy-lidded eyes, wide-set under arching brows. What would have made him most distinctive, however, was his bearing — that of an experienced and successful whaling master, which counted for a great deal in the social milieu of Martha's Vineyard.

It was little wonder that Howes Norris had chosen whaling for his career. As the Rev. Joseph Thaxter, minister of the Edgartown Congregational Church, remarked back in 1824, Vineyard boys could be relied on to "scorn to Hoe a field of Corn, but will row a Boat from morning till Night and never complain." Like his schoolmates, Howes Norris had been raised in the unmistakable island aura of whale oil, clams, smoked herring, and the ocean. As a boy he had swum naked in the lagoon; had taken out boats after codfish and halibut; had swaggered over the oil-soaked planks of Edgartown jetties; had swarmed illicitly through the rigging of anchored whalers.

Like his friends, Norris had regarded the sea as his playground, and his boyhood as a kind of apprenticeship. From childhood, he would have been well aware that he would have to seek his fortune on the ocean. "The Sea is the source from whence the People look for their Support," Thaxter noted, the island being only marginally fertile. Indian corn was raised in a few scattered clay patches, along with rye, potatoes, and turnips, but not enough to satisfy the local market, let alone export to the mainland. So, for young Howes Norris, farming had not been an option.

Born on September 19, 1803, the son of a humble Edgar-town, Martha's Vineyard, pilot, Norris first went to sea at the age of sixteen, shipping on the brig William Thacker of Edgar-town on June 2, 1820. Probably he managed this by pretending to be older than he actually was, because when he joined the Ann Alexander of New Bedford on August 1, 1825, he declared his age to be twenty-three. This obvious dedication was rewarded in July 1828, when he was given the command of the Leonidas of Fairhaven. It was a grave responsibility for such a young man: the Leonidas had been just eight years in the Fairhaven fleet, and had a history of making profitable cruises. Norris managed to fulfill the owners' expectations by bringing her back from the South Atlantic inside twelve months, with a cargo that was worth the creditable amount of thirteen thousand dollars. Norris would have looked back on this voyage with nostalgia, as a wonderful example of beginner's luck.

Single-minded, ambitious, and hardworking, Norris had stopped just one month at home before again taking charge of the Leonidas. This voyage, though, was not nearly as fortunate. Not only did the whales prove much more elusive, but Norris was forced to put into the port of Rio de Janiero, as four of his men were down with scurvy. Still worse, he had to linger there five weeks for expensive repairs, a rotten mast being in dire need of replacement. Then he steered south, back to the Brazil Banks, but it took another season to fill his holds with oil, with the result that they did not arrive home until mid-1831.

Perhaps because of this, the command of the Leonidas was passed on to a fellow Vineyarder, Captain John H. Pease. However, the owners still had enough confidence in Norris to entrust him with the maiden whaling voyage of the London Packet. He left in November 1832, on a cruise to the Indian Ocean that took thirty-three months to complete — and came home tight-lipped about much of what had happened.

However, he was able to report nineteen hundred barrels — sixty thousand gallons — of oil, which meant a reasonable profit for the merchants who had invested in the ship; reasonable enough to encourage them to give him the command of the London Packet again. And this time his luck held. This voyage was an excellent one, with the spectacular report of well over twenty-five hundred barrels. Because of this, and because secrets had been kept, Norris now had the enviable reputation of a man with luck on his side.

Was he still lucky? It would take another voyage like that one to prove it. Down in the anchorage an assortment of sloops and schooners lay huddled under the cold southwest gusts, waiting for the wind to swing east and moderate, so they could sail down Vineyard Sound on the first fair tide. Until then, the shipping was trapped. Captain Howes Norris watched the scud of the waves, and the way the craft pulled at their anchors, clutching his tall hat and the flapping skirts of his frockcoat as he studied the gale-whipped scene. His next command, the Sharon, was waiting for her captain in Fairhaven, in mainland Massachusetts, and he had to cross that water to get to her — to once more look for good fortune on the whaling grounds.

Two days before, the whaleship Champion had blown into Edgartown harbor on the breast of this cold southwest storm, at the end of a sperm-whaling voyage to New Zealand that had lasted three years. She had an excellent report — more than three thousand barrels full of sperm oil from spermaceti whales, the best and most valuable kind. Hearty congratulations were due to her master, Captain George Lawrence. With sperm oil fetching the price of ninety-four cents per gallon, a gross profit of $90,000 was likely — cause for celebration, particularly considering that it had cost only about $10,000 to outfit the ship in the first place. Once that oil was gauged and put onto the market in New Bedford, Lawrence and his officers could expect to take home a very good sum, and even the lowliest crew members would be relatively pleased.

As Norris understood well, it was good voyages like this one that encouraged the merchants of New England to keep up their investment in the whaling trade. Every now and then some legendary skipper would bring in a huge cargo after a remarkably short time away, giving renewed hope to the citizens who sank their money into the ventures. One such was the fabled Captain Obed Starbuck of Nantucket, who had made two record-breaking voyages on the Loper. In 1829 he had sailed home with every one of his barrels full of sperm oil after a voyage of just seventeen months. No sooner had he exchanged his full casks for empty ones than he had turned round and gone out again, returning fourteen months later full of oil again. In just thirty- one months he had harvested 140,000 gallons, grossing more than a hundred thousand dollars, an enormous sum at the time.

What would have nagged at Norris's mind, however, was the knowledge that every one of those gallons had been rendered out of what had once been a live whale — that every good report meant fewer whales for him to hunt. Voyages were lengthening as the ships had to cruise farther in search for prey, and reports were worsening with each season that passed by. The Nantucket ship Obed Mitchell was still at sea thirty-two months after departing on her maiden voyage, and, like everyone else, Howes Norris would have heard the rumor that she had taken only eight hundred barrels in all that time. If true, this meant financial disaster for her owners and a crippling loss of prestige for her captain.

It didn't bear thinking about. His mind edged away. All those who speculated in whaleships — and especially those who commanded them — were gamblers at heart. Optimism was essential, because a man who did not secretly believe that his next cruise was going to be a record breaker would never be able to force himself to embark on a voyage that was increasingly doomed to last three or more years. And, as in all other kinds of gambling, superstition played a large part, too.

The whaleship Sharon did look as if she would be lucky. She had been out on just one previous voyage, to the Pacific Ocean under the command of Captain John Church, and it had been a very good one. Departing in June 1837, she had returned on December 10, 1840, a voyage of forty-two months, which was longer than most men liked to be away. Her holds, though, had been crammed with oil worth $80,000, a sum that made the protracted voyage seem worthwhile.

Naturally, then, Norris was anxious to take over his new and promising command. It is likely that he had already made arrangements with a young man by the name of Holmes Luce — who called himself "Captain" and his humble sloop a "packet" because he made his living ferrying Vineyarders to the mainland — to take him to the Acushnet River. But sailing down the sound could not be done until the wind and tide set fair, which meant Howes Norris had time to take part in a family gathering.

INSTEAD OF KNOCKING and waiting, Norris would have opened the door and walked in unannounced. That he was able to do this would have given him great satisfaction. Set south of Owen Park and on the harborside of Main Street, the house he was visiting was in one of the most prestigious locations in town. Eastville, where Norris had been born and raised, had a very different reputation from Main Street, Holmes Hole. In the years since he had first gone to sea, Norris had risen mightily in social status.

Now known as East Chop, Eastville is a respectable part of Oak Bluffs today, but back then it was nicknamed "Barbary Coast," because it was considered nothing better than a hangout for transient sailors. As well as being despised by the gentry, Eastville was off the beaten track. Howes's mother, Lucy Shaw Norris, would have found it difficult to go shopping, let alone enjoy any social life. To get to Holmes Hole she either had to go by small boat across the harbor — extremely uncomfortable in the northerly winds of winter — or else get in a wagon and drive all the way around the lagoon, a bone-jolting trip of at least four miles each way. For an Eastville man to be accepted in Main Street, Holmes Hole, was a tall step up the ladder of gentility. Yet Norris had managed it, partly because of his success as a whaling master, but mostly because of an advantageous marriage. The fine house he stepped into on this blustery day was the property of his father-in-law, Captain Nathan Smith.

Nathan Smith, who, as host, would have stepped forward first to shake Norris's hand, was a stocky, middle-aged man with an affable smile, a pleasantly open expression, and a benevolent air. "Captain" was an honorary title. Nathan Smith had not made his fortune out of whaling, but out of the liquor trade, running one of the most prosperous and popular watering holes in town. Called Smith's Tavern, the establishment had been built around 1750, and was originally owned and operated by Captain David Smith, Nathan Smith's father. There, Captain David Smith had served Nevis rum at one dollar per gallon, along with "breadstuffs" that he brought in from New York by running the British blockade with the assistance of his son Nathan, who must have been a flamboyant character in his youth. Nathan had inherited Smith's Tavern after the death of his father in 1818, and had spent the next twenty-two years serving behind the bar. It is easy to picture the practiced hospitality of his demeanor as he entertained his guests in front of a roaring fire in the "keeping- room" — or "keeping-company room" — of this fine house, which had been bought with the proceeds of selling the tavern, after his retirement in April the previous year.

Because of the holiday, it is probably safe to assume that Nathan Smith's fifty-six-year-old brother, Captain Thomas Harlock Smith, was in the room as well. Another prosperous man, Thomas had established the foundations of his fortune by sailing in the foreign trade as an "adventurer," speculating in cargoes, and investing his profits in Martha's Vineyard property. In a typical transaction just the previous month, Thomas had sold a lot for $200 that he had bought for $135 in July. Considering the short time of ownership, this was no small return, and the revenue from several transactions like this would have quickly added up to a sizable sum. Quite apart from an energetic program of buying and selling, he owned and operated a chandlery store, which he kept in a boat shed on the beach below his house, on Main Street and south of Owen Park, a couple of lots to the north of his brother's place.

Both brothers had done well when they had married, too. Captain Nathan Smith's wife, Polly Jenkins Dunham Smith, was wealthy in her own right, being a member of a family that had become rich from taverns, stores, and profits made in foreign trade. Captain Thomas Smith's wife, Deborah West Smith — familiarly known as Depza — had brought him both property and the expectation of a substantial legacy from her father, Jeruel West. Both women had given them sons. Two of these would also have been present, having a great deal in common with Captain Howes Norris. Both were whalemen, and both were due to sail with him on the Sharon.

The younger of the two, Nathan Skiff Smith, was the son of Captain Nathan Smith, and therefore Norris's brother-in-law. A brown-haired, narrow-eyed twenty-five-year-old, Nathan Jr. looked a lot like his father, though his expression was not nearly as jovial. One eyelid was markedly lower than the other, so that he looked both alert and suspicious, an impression emphasized by a down-turned mouth. The other whaleman was Nathan Skiff Smith's first cousin, Thomas Harlock Smith Jr., a light-complexioned, sandy-haired, tough and nuggety little fellow, just four feet, nine inches tall. Though a mere five feet, four inches, Nathan Skiff Smith had quite an advantage in height.

Norris was going to rely on these men a lot: Thomas Harlock Smith Jr. would be his first mate on the Sharon, while Nathan Skiff Smith would be the second officer. Both would play a vital part in the daily running of the ship. They would transmit the captain's orders and be in charge of discipline, functioning as intermediaries between Captain Norris and the crew.

The fact that they were in-laws must have been a factor when the two Smiths were offered the prized jobs, but nevertheless Norris would have been acutely aware that the performance of these two fellow Vineyarders could make or break the voyage. He had never sailed with his brother-in-law Nathan before, and probably knew little of his reputation at sea. Since shipping first at the age of seventeen on the Albion, Nathan Skiff Smith had shifted from vessel to vessel, never staying longer than one voyage with each captain. However, Howes Norris knew his first officer, Thomas Harlock Smith Jr., very well. Thomas Smith had signed up with Norris on the Leonidas in 1829, as a fifteen-year-old greenhand, and had sailed with him again as a harpooner on the 1832 voyage of the London Packet. Thomas was tight-lipped, a trait Captain Norris would have valued highly. That he could be relied upon to keep secrets would have been another reason Thomas Harlock Smith Jr. had landed the plum job of first mate.

It is likely that the wives of Nathan Jr. and Thomas Jr. were present, too — though they may have found the company of their confident, prosperous mothers-in-law somewhat intimidating, as their own circumstances were unusual. Nathan Skiff Smith and his wife, Jane Bousiron de Neuville Smith, had been married on April 26, 1835, when Nathan was not quite nineteen years old and Jane was twenty-eight. That he should have wed so young and chosen someone nine years his senior was unusual. Thomas Harlock Smith Jr. had married much more recently, on March 21, just a few weeks earlier. In contrast to Nathan's choice of a bride, his wife, Elizabeth West Dunham Smith, was only thirteen years old.

Nathan Skiff Smith's sister was also in the room. This was Elwina, the wife of Captain Howes Norris, who no doubt had gone to stand possessively beside her. A small, slim, brown-haired woman with deep-set eyes and the same down- turned mouth as her brother, Elwina was quiet and submissive, her entire attention on the baby she nursed and the two children playing by her skirts.


Excerpted from "In The Wake Of Madness"
by .
Copyright © 2003 Joan Druett.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

ONE Martha's Vineyard,
TWO Fairhaven,
THREE Into the Atlantic Ocean,
FOUR Toward the Pacific,
FIVE Rebellion,
SIX The Groups,
SEVEN Desertion,
EIGHT Reign of Terror,
NINE That Direful Madness,
TEN Retribution,
ELEVEN George Black,
TWELVE Captain Thomas Harlock Smith,
THIRTEEN Homecoming,
The Crew List of the Whaleship Sharon,
Chronology of Melville's South Seas Adventures and Relevant Publications,
Chapter Notes,

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In the Wake of Madness: The Murderous Voyage of the Whaleship Sharon 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
JeffV on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In the early to mid-19th century, the whaling industry offered much profit for those daring enough for the challenge. Think The Deadliest Catch before reality TV. Adventures on the high seas eventually were hot stories in the media (once they got there), as well as the stuff of novels. In fact, the greatest whaling novelist of all time, Herman Melville, intersects this story of the whaleship Sharon several times throughout its course.Perhaps I've too many similar stories that even authentic ones seem formulaic. A sadistic captain terrorizes his crew. Some or all of the crew rebels. In this case, captain is killed. drama and legal issues ensue.The captain of the Sharon was killed by some islander crewmen picked up in the Pacific, but not before he beat a black crewman to death. The islanders then took control of the ship, which was single-handedly retaken by the first mate, who became a hero for his action. The inquiry afterward seemed to avoid the issue of mass desertions before the murder; and the one surviving killer was never even charged with a crime. Author Joan Druett pieced this together from journals recently uncovered, written by the third mate and cooper. While embellished to create a full story; Druett doesn't stay too far from what is known. The result is rather thin...we never really know the characters too well, foreshadowing is not couched in mystery, ("...little did the captain know he had but 17 months to live." While I'm not expecting a completely over-the-top fictional account ala Melville, a little more plausible connecting of the dots could have resulted in a more robust story (say, like Erik Larson). If you like 19th century nautical adventures -- and I do, In The Wake of Madness might scratch an itch. There are a lot of good fiction and non-fiction books covering these same waters...this one doesn't quite make it to the bow, however.
Radella on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was quite an interesting book, with a realistic look at what a whaling ship was like (and all things considered, I'm quite happy I never shipped out on a whaling vessel!). What caused Captain Howes Norris to be murdered? Why were there so many desertions from the ship? Joan Druett looks beyond the sensational stories of the time to the journals and logs of the crew to piece together the story. It was an easy read, (much easier than the oft-mentioned Moby Dick!) and interesting.
cathyskye on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Once again, I've dived into the realm of maritime history with New Zealandresident Joan Druett. I've read two of her earlier books about females atsea and greatly enjoyed them. Recently I discovered that Druett has begun towrite a mystery series featuring a character who's a member of the U.S.Exploration Expedition. (I reviewed a book about this expedition earlierthis year.) Since I'm fascinated by the Expedition and I enjoy Druett'swriting, I couldn't wait to get my hands on one of these mysteries, so Iscurried over to Barnes and Noble's website. I wanted to get free shipping,so I just *had* to buy two books. I bought the first in Druett's mysteryseries, A Watery Grave, and this one: In the Wake of Madness, The MurderousVoyage of the Whaleship Sharon.In its day, the murder of Captain Howes Norris by three native sailorsaboard the whaleship Sharon was sensational stuff, but the entire story wasnever told and interest died out rather quickly. Recently journals writtenby men on board the Sharon were unearthed, Druett read them and wrote thisbook. I gobbled it up.The story began in Martha's Vineyard in the late 1830s. Druett sets thescene by explaining how the entire whaling industry began and why iteventually centered in New Bedford. She tells us the backgrounds of each ofthe important "players" on this voyage: Captain Howes Norris, First Officer(and relative of Norris) Thomas Harlock Smith, Second Officer (and anotherNorris relative) Nathan Skiff Smith, and Third Officer Benjamin Clough.When the Sharon sets out on this voyage, Druett gives enough particularsabout how to go whaling and life aboard a whaler to keep you fascinatedwithout going into overkill. Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, weaves inand out of the picture. He was at sea during the same time, knew some of thesailors on board the Sharon, and experienced many of the same things theydid. Fortunately, he did not experience Captain Howes Norris.One of the many tidbits I learned while reading this book is that NewZealand was a center of the American whaling industry and, for a while, hadmore Americans living there than practically any other nationality. Once theBritish government took over there, they made it uncomfortable for theAmericans who were forced to look elsewhere for a base. But I digress.In the Wake of Madness is a deft blend of history and mystery.
usnmm2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
[In The Wake of Madness] by Joan DruettAn interesting read. This is the account of the cruise of the whaleship 'Sharon' out of Fairhaven Mass. from 1841 till 1845. Whose Captain was murdered a year later by three of the crewmen. And then the ship being almost single handedly being retaken by the third officer. The story mostly unfolds through the journals and letters of the Third Officer Benjamin Clough and the ships cooper Andrew White. Also other ship logs from other ships that crossed their path.Two things make this simple account very interesting; One, it reveals the sinister side of the whaling industry. At this time, whaling at it's height with over 700 American ships hunting for whales. This leads to ships being manned by sailors with little or no experience. This also seems to be the case with many captains as well as many were given this post at very young ages with only one or two cruises under their belts. This inexperience and youth seems to be a factor in the violence of many Captains to their crews. Two, these years (1841 to 1845) were the same ones that Melville was sailing the same waters. Where he jumped ship (the whaleship Acushnet ). He had seen many of these same conditions that are described in the book on his ship. Also as there were over 20 deserters from the Sharon he might have heard tales about the Mad Captain who flogged a seaman to death. The author Joan Druett references Melville many times during this narrative.She also dwells on the reasons that this chapter in whaling history is not well known.All in all a very readable and interesting history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in nautical history (specifically the whaling industry). The story of the whaleship Sharon will definitely appeal to anyone with an interest in mutinies and other disasters at sea. I thought her theories were interesting and well-developed.