Death of a Sailor: Chapter 3: The Locked Room

Header Image

Benjamin Breen, 2013

EDITOR’S NOTE: While unrequired, you may also read Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of this story.

The cell door opened.

The murderer stirred.
And the interview began.

Was the prisoner free to move about?
A stout steel ring hugged his ankle, fastened to a heavy chain that bound him to the ground, like a frigate to the ocean floor.

Did he wince at the light? Had he been dreaming of man-bats that leapt over tall prison walls?
His dreams were his own.

But it was early fall, 1835, and the light, still warm, could have glanced off the East River that edged the twenty-acre “Bellevue Establishment.” What stray beams reached the interior of Bellevue’s prison were always welcome.

Or perhaps it was dark and cold?
Or perhaps it was dark and cold. A thin sailor’s mattress, filled with rough straw, kept his warmth from seeping into fathoms of floor.

Describe the cell.
This particular chamber was narrower than the other cells in Bellevue. The prison was nearly twenty years old, a 50-by-150-foot stone pile. It was made up mostly of large rooms that the prison’s keeper, Mr. Lyons, kept packed thirty to seventy deep with New York City’s guilty and innocent alike. The accused and the witnesses to their asserted crimes were imprisoned together, awaiting the trial in which the former would face down the latter. There were the condemned, and there were also the poor and the vagrant, who taught each other how to survive when they escaped. And last but not least there was also the “vilest and most profane language” New York had to offer, and the illnesses like the dreaded ‘jail fever’ that would carry away Mr. Lyons himself in a year-and-a-half’s time.

But this particular room?
Was only large enough for a single prisoner, and the only thing that might carry away its occupant a few weeks hence was the cart to his execution.

A few years before, a visitor to a similarly condemned man in a similarly apportioned Bellevue room—

Perhaps this very room?
—described the narrow cell “as a living grave.”

How does one escape a living grave?
The cell door opened, and another man stood in the doorway.

If it was bright enough to see, what countenance did the visitor present, when the prisoner adjusted to the light?
A serious man, thirty-five years old. About five feet seven inches tall. Garbed in what clothes he could afford on a newspaperman’s salary of twelve dollars a week, after supporting wife, daughter, and drinking habit.

His face ink-smudged and gin-blossomed?
“Strongly pitted by smallpox,” rather. A childhood illness that had also left him on either side of his sharp, “aquiline” nose with permanently crossed eyes: strabismus. Yet there was “a certain calm, clear luminousness” about those eyes. His sometime literary rival Edgar Allen Poe remembered his forehead as “truly beautiful in its intellectuality.”

But to the prisoner?
The visitor was ‘not a prisoner.’

And did ‘not a prisoner’ introduce himself?
His name was Richard Adams Locke and he was from England. Born into a rich family, he hadn’t inherited his father’s estate, having become a journalist who railed against aristocratic privilege and anti-Catholicism. In 1831 he had moved his family to America, where the publisher of the New York Sun had hired him to be the pioneering penny-paper’s editor. Locke had since tried to convince the Sun’s readers that America’s two million slaves deserved freedom. In 1834, he had watched his birthplace, England, abolish slavery throughout its empire while white mobs in his adopted city looted the homes and churches of black New Yorkers. This past summer, the summer of 1835, he had defended American abolitionists threatened with death and lynching, and made his most full-throated condemnation of slavery yet.

Was that why he was New York’s most infamous journalist that fall?
No. It was not. He was New York’s most infamous journalist that fall because he had authored the Sun’s great moon hoax of 1835.

In a series of articles, the Sun had ‘revealed’ that Earth’s lunar satellite was populated by man-bats, unicorns, and other fantastical creatures. Locke’s creation may have been a failed satire of religious astronomers who predicted life beyond the stars, or a very subtle diversion from the tension over abolition, but it had landed as pseudo-scientific revelation. It was too good not to be believed. Debunked in New York, the story was now winging its way across the Atlantic, where European newspapers would further its flight. Richard Adams Locke had tricked the world, whether he had meant to or not.

Did the Sun’s readers still trust him as a journalist?
Through the moon hoax, the Sun had become the most-read newspaper in New York by the widest of margins. And Locke needed his next story.

All this he explained to the prisoner?
Richard Adams Locke stepped inside. The door closed behind him.

Did the prisoner stir? Who was he?
That was what Locke was here to find out.

Did the journalist know the prisoner?
Not personally, but by sight, yes. The last time Locke had seen the prisoner, the latter had been on trial for the murder of John “Little Jack” Roberts.

What was the prisoner’s name?
Richard C. Jackson.

But had he been born Richard Jackson?
The prisoner had been a sailor.

But was he born a sailor?
The prisoner spoke with a foreign accent.

But had he always been ‘foreign’?
He had not.

Describe him. What countenance did the prisoner present?
Locke had seen the accused at the trial, but only from a distance. Now, he was able to study the condemned close up, finding him “a man below the middle stature, of 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, notwithstanding the shade of care which bedimmed them.”

Did he look like a murderer?
He looked like a sailor accused, convicted, and condemned to die. Weathered driftwood ready for the pyre.

Did Locke fear the murderer?
It is unclear. Locke, who had learned shorthand in order to cover trials like Jackson’s, had furiously transcribed the witnesses’ clear-cut testimony, and the fragile defense that Jackson’s lawyer attempted to shroud him with, cobweb-like. The lawyer had claimed that Jackson had indeed shot John “Little Jack” Roberts, but he had been moved to do so not from jealousy of Roberts’s relationship with Mrs. Harriet Shoults. Rather, because he was insane. After his arrest, when he had tried to hang himself with his handkerchief, it was out of madness—not guilt or despair.

Or so the lawyer claimed. Did the argument succeed?
It failed, and Jackson was condemned to death.

But still, the journalist Locke was moved by the lawyer’s attempt. After the trial he worried over two seemingly extraneous facts that the trial had revealed, and that hinted at the story behind Jackson’s story.

What ‘facts’ were those?
That Jackson had been born in Portugal, suggesting that his real name was likely not ‘Richard C. Jackson.’ And that he had been tried in Boston, once, for piracy.

A pirate, tried in 1830s America, under a false name, condemned to die. Was that rare?
As such, Jackson was the last of his kind, almost. Four years before, in 1831, Charles Gibbs, a white Rhode Islander, and Thomas J. Wansley, a mulatto from Delaware, had been hanged at Ellis Island for commandeering a silver-loaded brig, the Vineyard, and killing its captain and first mate. They had wrecked the vessel off the coast of Long Island, losing most of the treasure. Jeffers and Wansley were caught, sentenced—Wansley accused the court of racism— and sent to the gallows, among the last men America executed for piracy.

But to the journalist Locke, Gibbs was as famous for what he hadn’t done as what he had. Before Gibbs was hanged he had given interviews from his own “living grave” of a cell at Bellevue in which he claimed to have authored acts of piracy and murder of such number and violence that, if true, would have rivaled those of the dread pirate Blackbeard. Born James D. Jeffers in 1798, Gibbs had changed his name and gone off to sea. He claimed to have become one of the last pirates of the Caribbean, taking advantage of Spain’s shrinking presence in the Caribbean to maraud vessels off the coast of Cuba, Colombia, and later Argentina. He had killed many, he said, including a woman he may have loved. He confessed to so many acts of violence and piracy that journalists and readers alike decided that he was exaggerating—but that his stories were entertaining, nonetheless. Newspapers were sold.

But were those stories true?
In their broadest of strokes—perhaps. In their details—perhaps not. It depends on how we define ‘true.’ If Gibbs was telling a truth, then he would have lived a life that left little trace. Piracy in the Caribbean was on the wane, and he could hardly have found his companions—if they survived—to vouchsafe his tale. And even if Gibbs hadn’t done all that he claimed, then he at least was producing himself as an ersatz culprit for the true, collective crimes of his fellow final pirates of the Caribbean, who were now shuffling into the fringes of the fraying Atlantic World.

In Richard Jackson, who was not Richard Jackson, who had been born in Portugal, then, had Locke found his Gibbs?
After the murder trial, news of Jackson’s own supposed pirate past had begun to circulate. He was soon rumored to have been “a sublimely atrocious pirate,” wrote Locke, “and of course, connected with Gibbs and Wansley, who were executed a few years since; if not, indeed, with the renowned Barbarossas, Horuc and Hayradin, who were the terror of the Mediterranean, three hundred years ago.”

And was that enough for Locke?
Locke would not have entered Bellevue’s high stone walls on that wild intelligence alone, he claimed. He said that he had been called.

By whom?
By the prisoner himself.

On what pasts does a convicted killer dwell?
As Locke wrote later, in his typically florid style, Jackson, hopeless in “the solitude of his gloomy dungeon,” had retraced his life. He wanted someone to tell his story—to “make known to the world, the chief incidents of a life not less distinguished by remarkable adventures and sufferings, than by the ignominy which would seal its close.”

Did he feel remorse?
“He naturally wished that some personal relic might reach the strand, which might, perchance, awaken some sympathy among his fellow-men with his sufferings as a man, to mitigate, if possible, the dark opprobrium of guilt which surrounds his name. So enduring is the social principle in the human breast, that it is rarely extinguished, even in those the most deeply stained with crime …” And in Jackson’s heart, “it was strong even to peculiarity.”

But did he regret the crime he had committed? Why had he killed John “Little Jack” Roberts?
That truth would take time to unfold.

Truth? Was Locke prepared to believe him?
Given Jackson’s rumored association with Gibbs—not at first, no. Locke sought “the gloomy cell of the unhappy sailor” expecting that he was about to reveal an elaborately scrimshawed career of crime. Locke was prepared to tell his readers to swallow Jackson’s “marine monstrosities…cum grano salis—that is, with a grain or two of their native salt.”

But what happened instead?
Bellevue’s keeper, Mr. Lyons, had made Locke promise neither to help the prisoner escape, or commit suicide. Lyons now locked the door behind the journalist. The accused hoaxer began the interview, and the convicted murderer began to speak.

How long did they talk?
The words swam up from the sailor’s mouth, and Locke tried to haul them in as quickly as he could. Writing in his shorthand, he chronicled the life of a man he had never known free. At first, he thought it would be a short engagement. But a day passed, and then a week. Finally, Locke would be “the lone companion of a murderer whose days were numbered” for nearly a month. Daily, for three full weeks, while still publishing a newspaper, while enduring whispers that he was drinking too much, Locke made the time to ride north and spend several hours a day with Jackson.

Locke had learned that Jackson’s story, from birth to death, contained far more chapters than the one that had brought him to this living grave in Bellevue. His life was one of romance, war, and injustice: kidnapping, sea battles, mutiny, and, yes, piracy, ranging from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean and South America, from China to New Orleans, from London to New York. There were secret lovers and hidden identities. Throughout, there was slavery—the bondage and torture inflicted upon Jackson as a sailor, and the slavery he inflicted on others for pay. And then there was the murder that brought him to his chains, and this last foul prison cell.

Did he do it?
The prisoner would reveal all, hoping for absolution.

How do we know what he said?
As Jackson told it, it was a life as epic, exciting, and awful as the Atlantic age of sail and slavery now ending—the life not of a great man, the usual stuff of history, but that of an unsung antihero, who’d otherwise be forgotten. And Locke had an exclusive. When he was through he had enough for ten installments, or chapters, that the New York Sun began to publish on November 14, and would continue to publish, right up until the day of Jackson’s scheduled execution. Like the moon hoax, the serialized chapters were compiled as a book and sold to the Sun’s readers. Locke claimed he had had to edit it down, for brevity’s sake—but at 22,000 words, it still surpassed the moon hoax for length.

Locke knew that drawing out Jackson’s story as exceptional lifted the sailor up for attention usually not afforded men of his class. Jackson was no ‘great man,’ and he hadn’t lived a life that yielded “many of those moral and intellectual illustrations of character which abound in the biography of persons less exclusively and peculiarly associated.” But in his life, with its flight from ships, where he was the “slave of imperative authority,” and from land, where he was enslaved by his passions, Locke found something deeply human and worth understanding. The ocean was Jackson’s refuge, even as it had robbed him of what he held most dear.

For “heroism in thrilling perils,” wrote Locke, “for patient endurance of hardship, and for desperate enterprise, what narrative can compare with that of a sailor who has encountered the storms of every latitude and the dangers of every shore?”

But what of those thrilling perils could we possibly trust? A convicted murderer tells his story to a confessed hoaxer behind a locked door, with no witnesses. What room is there, in such a room, for anything believable?
Locke claimed to trust Jackson entirely; he ran down Jackson’s creativity, his imagination; and suggested that he had confirmed several of Jackson’s more “remarkable occurrences” with his own “recollections and reading.” Jackson, Locke claimed, was illiterate, and thus unable to embellish his tales with others. Instead, the sailor “relied entirely upon the retrospection of a memory more vivid, perhaps, in the solitary gloom of his dungeon than at another period of his life.”

Illiteracy as honesty? Then where did that leave Locke?
“For ourselves, we have added neither incident nor tint to the tale, for we found it so crowded with interesting facts, as to render fictitious embellishment not only unnecessary but inconvenient. We have of course related it in our own language, for the imperfect English of the uneducated foreigner made this unavoidable; but this comprises the whole of our claim to its authorship.”

What of that “uneducated foreigner” did Locke retain?
A voice that could lie and tell truths, in equal measure; a voice “weak and plaintive,” one that still can be heard.

Exaggerations. Violence to the historical record.
And facts. Possible to confirm.

Was it fiction? Or chronicle?
It was something more powerful, hulking in between. A mystery to confound.

Who was Jackson really, then?
His name was Manuel Fernandes.

He was born on March 16th, 1800, at Coimbra, Portugal.

He was the son of a soldier.

This, Locke wrote, was his story.

Or perhaps not.