Death of a Sailor: A Novel History of Murder in 1830s New York, War and Forbidden Love in the Age of Napoleon, and Captivity and Freedom in the Last Days of the Atlantic Slave Trade; in many, many Parts.


Benjamin Breen, 2012, after Sir Luke Fildes, “Sleeping it Off,” from Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Other Stories (London: Chapman and Hill Limited, 193, Piccadilly, 1880).

“Identity?” said Jack, comfortably pouring out more coffee. “Is not identity something you are born with?”

“The identity I am thinking of is something that hovers between a man and the rest of the world: a midpoint between his view of himself and theirs of him—for each of course affects the other continually. A reciprocal fluxion, sir. There is nothing absolute about this identity of mine. Were you, you personally, to spend some days in Spain at present you would find yours change, you know, because of the general opinion there that you are a false, harsh, brutal, murdering villain, an odious man.”

“I dare say they are vexed,” said Jack, smiling. “And I dare say they call me Beelzebub. But that don’t make me Beelzebub.”

“Does it not?”

—Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander

PART I: The Murderer and the Journalist

Chapter 1: The Strangers’ Grave: A Catechism

The pistol fired. A woman screamed. The end of his story began.

Was attention paid? By whom? Begin again.
It was September 4, 1835, just before midnight on a Friday in New York, and a night watchman named Richard Hockman was patrolling the seam between two of Manhattan’s rougher neighborhoods. It was a thankless job: it had been a hot summer, and the streets stank of sweating trash and human waste.

Who was Richard Hockman? Why was he a night watchman?
He wanted a job. These were the years before New York had a regular police force. Hockman and his fellow night watchmen worked days as stevedores, teamsters, and mechanics. Nights, when Hockman was done unloading ships or driving wagons creaking with beer, he reported to a Watch House. He donned the only piece of his uniform that he didn’t own: a modified fireman’s helmet, varnished twice a year until it was hard as iron. It earned watchmen the nickname ‘leatherheads.’ And at nine each night, he went to work again, patrolling the streets on two-hour shifts with only a rattle and a thirty-three-inch truncheon to keep him safe.

Where was he that night?
Stationed on Monroe Street, in the Seventh Ward, three blocks northwest of the East River, Manhattan’s conduit to the waxing, waning Atlantic World. Three blocks from the cutters, sloops and schooners from Europe, Africa, and the Indies that clung to its docks. Their bowsprits stretched across the footway, almost grazing the city’s windows, and their gangways spilled their guts along the city’s streets.

What did they contain?
Money and men, sometimes interchangeable. Slavery had ended in New York State eight years before. But elsewhere—in the southern United States, Brazil, Cuba—the institution was very much alive. The sugar, cotton, and coffee that slaves produced passed through the fingers of New York financiers like beads on a rosary, or links on a chain. They were sold and traded for silk and metal from England and China, and good American coin. By day, the ships exhaled the tanned and bleached sailors that hauled their loads, and at night the city inhaled, taking their earnings in exchange for food, bed, and, “Oysters in every style.”

And did they drink?
They drank, yes. A block away from Hockman, on Water Street, beneath walls tattooed with colored prints of ships and flags, they drank. Beneath American eagles, Queen Victoria, and George Washington, they drank. Beneath candles that shone through colored glass, they belted out the ballads of “William and his Black Eyed Susan” and “Paul Jones the Pirate.” And then they drank some more. On a Friday it might have been hard to hear anything else.

And what about the women, walking Gotham by gaslight?
A pistol fired.

A woman screamed ‘Watch!’
Another cried ‘Murder!’

And Hockman, the night watchman, began to run. Where?
Towards the commotion: a boarding house at No. 6 Monroe Street.

Who was waiting at the gate?
Two women. The first was Mrs. Harriet Shoults. She rented two rooms in the boarding house above.

Who was she? How did Harriet Shoults make money?
Like many poor women in New York, Mrs. Harriet Shoults made money as many ways as she could. She washed clothes. She rented out one of her rooms to boarders, like the other woman waiting at the gate.

Who was she? What did she do for a living?
Her name was Eliza Seymour; the newspapers didn’t say.

But what else was the Seventh Ward known for?
Prostitution, a growth industry. This was where it began in New York, and the surge in single men, sailors, and traveling businessmen had created a staggering demand. By 1820 there were more than two hundred brothels citywide, and nearby Water Street teemed with opportunity. Streetwalkers called out to sailors and longshoremen fresh from the docks, beckoning them inside. Thirty prostitutes at a time haunted the ferry houses, like the one around the block from Monroe, where Catherine Street ended. They caught young clerks leaving the office, on their way home to Brooklyn.

Who were these “girls on the town”? And where did they live?
Here, there. In brothels, and in boarding houses, like that of Mrs. Shoults. They were good tenants: hungry, entrepreneurial, uncovering themselves in doorways to stay warm. They were white, black, often poor but sometimes wealthy, running their own businesses, making their own money. Many were from the ranks of immigrants and rural arrivals that quintupled the city’s size from 1790 to 1830. In a city of 270,000, social reformers claimed that prostitutes numbered as many as 10,000. The real number was probably closer to 3,000. But more when times were bad.

Were times bad that September?
It depends on who you were. If you were a merchant, then business was booming. But if you were a woman, if you were foreign, if you were poor, then high rents and rampant inflation made life wretched.

Who else was waiting at the gate?
A man, smoking a musty cigar.

Who was he?
His name, the watchman learned, was Richard C. Jackson, and he was a sailor.
He was one of Mrs. Shoults’ other boarders.
He spoke with a foreign accent.
And according to the women, he had just shot a man.

Was New York that violent? Was it more violent than it used to be?
It was bigger, richer, but also tighter, poorer, more diverse. In places where those worlds rubbed together, like prostitution—whites sleeping with blacks, the wealthy with the poor—pride, prejudice and resentment boiled over into violence. New York would only see seven murders go to trial in 1835, but the suspiciously dead turned up regularly, along with the victims of other violent crimes. The 1830s was the era of brothel riots, and for four nights in 1834 white mobs had attacked blacks and the abolitionists who demanded the end of southern slavery. White Bowery B’Hoys and “brothel bullies” ganged together and went on sprees, roaming from saloon to saloon, and brothel to brothel, threatening wealthier prostitutes with rape and blacks with worse. In 1836, the following year, the country would be horrified by the brutal murder of Helen Jewett, a prostitute from Maine.

Was Jackson a brothel bully?
He was a sailor, amongst other things.

Did he try to escape? Did Hockman, the night watchmen, chase him down, and throw him in the mud?
He did not, though all agreed that Jackson could have made a run for it if he had wanted to. He was very calm instead; mild and composed, even. He was not addled by liquor, the witnesses claimed. When Hockman took charge of him, he didn’t resist.

What did Hockman do next?
He left Jackson in the care of a fellow watchman, and then walked down the alley, into the darkness. He climbed the rickety stairs to Shoult’s quarters. He opened the door.

What did he find?
A room, about fourteen feet square, bathed in candlelight. He saw a bed, a bedstead, and a body laid out upon the floor.

Whose was the body?
His name was John Roberts, “Little Jack” to his friends. He had been born in Prussia thirty years before. He was also a sailor. His ship had arrived in New York that very morning.

Was he alive?
Hockman got closer, and saw that a small stream of blood, about three feet long and growing, ran across the floorboards from Robert’s head. The night watchman “took him by the hand to see if there was any life in him.” There was not.

What else did Hockman observe?
That the bed had been sat on, but was otherwise unrumpled; that there was no liquor, and no glasses.

Was there anything Hockman missed?
A chair, where the murderer once sat.

What did Hockman do next?
He went downstairs and looked closer at Jackson.
He was not a bad looking man, the newspapers later reported, but an intense one. About five feet nine inches tall, he had

a slight but apparently agile frame, and a swarthy weather-beaten countenance. His cheek bones were broad and high, and his eyebrows were dark and heavy; but the expression of his eyes were rather humorous than ferocious, not withstanding the shade of care which bedimmed them.

He was only thirty-five, but looked forty. There was a quiet, melancholy air about him, and a scar, on his forehead, two or three inches long.

Was the murderer still armed?
He was. Hockman asked Jackson what he had done with the gun. Jackson reached inside his jacket, a short blue frock, and from an inside pocket pulled out a pistol with a brass barrel.
“Here it is,” he told Hockman.

Was that all?
No. He also had a knife, which Hockman took as well.

Did the watchman and the murderer wait around for the crowd to develop?
They did not. Hockman took Jackson to the Watch House on Chatham Square, three blocks to the northeast, at the edge of Five Points.

And what was Five Points?
It had a reputation for being “the most notorious slum in the Western Hemisphere.” It had more brothels than any other neighborhood, and more brothel bullies. Pigs rooted for cabbage stalks in a menacing labyrinth of streets that made outsiders uneasy. It was far from Broadway’s cobblestones, coaches, phaetons, tilburies, and carriages.

But for many, Five Points was home. The hard-up working class, white and black alike, lived here and made do with what they could. In the bedroom, and on the street, this was the most racially integrated neighborhood in New York. Buildings that once housed single families became tenements and boarding houses, where multi-generational families and workers dossed together in single beds, or mounds of rags, straw and shavings. Even in the darkest rooms, wrote Charles Dickens after a visit to New York a few years later, “[t]hey have a charcoal fire within; there is a smell of singeing clothes, or flesh, so close they gather round the brazier…”

So close that the buildings often burned, leaving charred husks exposed to the moonlight.

Did black fiddlers and tambourine players beat out a tune as dancers twirled in dark basements?
So wrote the novelist, when he toured them in the company of the watch.

Did Jackson resist, as Hockman marched him onto that supposed Golgotha?
He did not.

How long was the walk to the Watch House?
Three minutes. From Monroe, they turned right on Catherine. They walked along the sidewalk, or perhaps in the center of the road. They passed a dry goods store named Lord and Taylor.

Did Jackson, the sailor, stop and gaze through the plate glass window at the women’s clothes? Did frocks, shawls and memory catch him by surprise?
By night, the shop lay dark.

Did Hockman and Jackson talk as they walked? Did they converge from parallel pasts?
Hockman asked Jackson why he killed Roberts.

Did Jackson respond?
“He has deprived me of my comfort,” Jackson replied, in his light foreign accent. “And I have taken his life.”

What comfort had Roberts taken? What comfort had Jackson lost?
Dickens visited New York’s cemetery. “The saddest Tomb I saw there,” he wrote, “was ‘The Strangers’ Grave. Dedicated to the different hotels in this city.’”

Jackson smoked his cigar all the way to the watch house. When they arrived, Hockman handed the sailor’s pistol to the foreman, and Jackson went into a cell, alone. He was to wait there until six o’clock that morning, when he would be taken back to Mrs. Shoults’s for the coroner’s inquest.

Did the sailor say anything once in the Watch House? Did he show remorse?
According to one watchman, Jackson said that he had killed Roberts, and he had meant to kill the woman also. Another watchman told Jackson he’d hang for it. Jackson did not reply.

Who was Roberts? What was his relationship to the landlady, Mrs. Harriet Shoults?
He was a sailor.
She did his laundry.
He visited her when he was home from sea.

Was that all?
When the watchman took Jackson away, Shoults ran to No. 161 Madison Street, to find Roberts’s friend, James J. Richardson. She banged on the door, waking him up. “For God’s sake, James,” she said, “come around to my house, for there is a murder there.” The friend followed her back to No. 6 Monroe. “There was no man there but the dead man,” he later told the court.

Where was Mr. Shoults?
He lived at No. 50 Oliver Street, a two-minute walk from Mrs. Shoults’s boarding house, on the way to Five Points.

They didn’t live together?
“The fluid structure of prostitution even enabled working-class couples to enter and leave the trade periodically,” writes the historian Eric Gilfoyle: “skilled artisans, saloonkeepers and families slipped in and out of the underground economy. Commercial sex was a means to a supplementary income and a quick profit.”

But what does that mean? Was Harriett Shoults a prostitute? Was Harriet Shoults a madam?
She was a landlady. But the line between a boardinghouse and a brothel was … blurry. Brothels posed as boardinghouses, and boardinghouses sheltered prostitutes. And then there were the panel houses.

And what was a panel house?
A house where prostitutes lured a man and robbed him, often with the help of a second man.

So what was Jackson to Shoults? Why did Jackson kill Roberts?
“Roberts had taken away his comfort,” explained another newspaper, “and he had now taken him out of the way.”

Roberts came ashore that morning with pockets full of pay. Where did his money go? Who profited?
As a member of the watch, Richard Hockman, received one dollar and fifty cents per night. For taking Jackson into custody, he would have made another at least another twelve and a half cents. For getting Jackson to prison, he made yet another twelve and a half cents. Hockman faced dawn with an extra dollar and seventy-five cents jingling in his pocket.

Roberts’s money went unmentioned.

And how much did working women make?
Perhaps no more than thirty-seven and a half cents per day. Two dollars a trick, if they were a prostitute. And a virgin could make much more.

What comfort had he taken? What comfort had she lost?
Harriet Shoults did not sleep that night. The police made sure she stayed put for the coroner’s inquest the next day.

Did Jackson sleep?
No: he tried to kill himself.
The watchman Charles Foster checked in on Jackson three times over the course of the evening. At one point, he left Jackson for three quarters of an hour. Foster tried to enter the cell when he returned, but something stopped the door from opening. Foster pushed his hand in and felt fabric—a handkerchief tied taut to the bars. He moved his hand down and felt Jackson’s body, hanging from the cell door.

Foster cut Jackson down. The mariner’s face was black and breathless. He was insensible at first. But then he breathed.

Foster carried Jackson upstairs. He threw water in the sailor’s face. Jackson recovered in about twenty minutes, and the watchman returned him to his cell.

Foster inspected the handkerchief: Jackson had tried to kill himself with a standing bowline, a sailor’s knot.

Who was Richard Jackson?
He was a sailor.
He spoke with a foreign accent.
And in truth, his name wasn’t Richard Jackson.


The author would like to thank James Sidbury and James Sweet for comments and encouragement on earlier versions of this piece. Their contributions will be even more apparent in forthcoming chapters. The author would like to thank Jean-Pierre Hufnagel for his micro-film surfing.