Hal Roth - December 2007

Old News from Delmarva:
Paid Off by the Boom
by
Hal Roth

     Frequently, in my search for old news about Delmarva, I first encounter a local story on the pages of a distant journal. In the case of a German sailor’s death at the hands of a Chesapeake Bay schooner captain, it was a copy of the Nebraska State Journal that alerted me to this barbarous tale of torture and murder.
      Oyster harvesting on the Chesapeake was severely reduced by the Civil War. Bay watermen, many of whom were sympathetic to Southern interests, found smuggling to be a far more profitable venture and much less labor intensive.
      But when a new economic boom succeeded the war, national clamor for oysters resumed, and the industry quickly rebounded. So great was the demand that processing of the bivalve in Baltimore, then referred to as “Oyster City,” grew to fifteen million bushels by 1885, an industry that employed thousands of freed slaves and foreign immigrants.
      Dredging, which had been introduced to the Chesapeake by New Englanders in 1808 and quickly outlawed by the Maryland Legislature, was again legalized, opening the door to the great oyster boom of the 1880s, or what author Paula Johnson has called the “era of general mayhem.”
An oyster fleet composed of 700 schooners, bugeyes, pungies and sloops plied the waters of Chesapeake Bay, and competing captains indulged in every kind of lawlessness. Johnson quotes a Fish and Wildlife inspector, who described the scene in 1887 as “a general scramble carried on in 700 boats by 5,600 daring and unscrupulous men, who regard neither the laws of God nor man.”
      Many captains hired or shanghaied their crews from the streets and the alleys and bars of Baltimore, where homeless orphans, convicts and recently arrived immigrants were plentiful. Hard work and harsh treatment became the norm for these indigents, and tales abound of those who were “paid off by the boom.”
      While the term refers to deliberately knocking a man overboard with the swinging spar to which a sail is attached, crewmembers were more likely to be knocked on the head with an iron bar and manually tossed into the freezing waters of the bay. I have heard stories of bodies washing ashore on deserted beaches. “It was so common,” one woman told me, “that the county sheriff didn’t even bother to check it out.”

     December 30, 1884––The police have succeeded in finding Fritz Boyse and Ferd Haase, the two absconding German sailors who testified that they saw Captain Williams, of the schooner Eva, murder Otto Mayher, one of the crew.

     Otto Mayher’s last name is sometimes spelled “Meyer” or “Mayer,” but I have been consistent in spelling it correctly while transcribing the story.

     An inquest has been held on Mayher, whose frozen body was found on the shore of the Chesapeake, and a verdict of death from exposure returned. The Germans admitted that the man had been murdered, but, after becoming alarmed, they disappeared until found by police in Baltimore. Their story shows that the crime was one of startling atrocity, combining features of inhumanity almost incredible. Mayher, they say, was unable to speak English, and the captain, when drunk, would assail him ferociously for not obeying orders, which he (Mayher) could not understand.
      On several occasions when Mayher cried with pain caused by blows from a marlin spike, the captain planted his heel on his victim’s throat to stop his cries and stifled him into unconsciousness. At another time a rope was fastened about Mayher’s armpits and he was hoisted up by the halyards, stripped of his lower garments and drenched about the lower limbs with ice water. On the day before his death he was taken down in the hold and strung up by his thumbs, his body being suspended seven feet above the flooring. While in this position he was swung to and fro in order to increase the torture.
      On the day previous to that on which Mayher died, the captain, they charge, was more vindictive than ever. Owing to the terrible treatment he had received, Mayher was so weak as to be scarcely able to walk. The vessel had reached lower Fairmount, where the work of unloading was begun. Mayher was down in the hold when ordered up. Unable to speak English, he intimated by signs his inability to work. This incensed the captain, who, springing on his defenseless victim, pounded him unmercifully with an iron bar. Finally he brought it down with crushing effect across the poor fellow’s loins . In his agony he writhed on the ground and shrieked for mercy as best he could. To prevent his cries being heard, the captain, they charge, then placed his boot heel on the prostrate man’s throat and kept it there till unconsciousness prevented further outcry.
      The work of unloading was continued, and at nightfall, when all was quiet, the captain ordered Boyse and Haase to bring their comrade on deck. They obeyed the order, and, more dead than alive, Mayher was brought from below. After they had deposited their burden on deck, they were ordered below, there to remain till called.
      After a while the hatchway, which had been closed when they went down, was partly opened, and the captain’s voice was heard asking if they were still there. Receiving an affirmative answer, he appeared satisfied. As soon as it was considered safe, the two men slowly ascended and, cautiously lifting the hatch cover, saw clots of blood on the deck. A moving lantern directed their gaze to the shore, where they saw the body of Mayher stretched on the ground. The yawl boat, in which Mayher had probably first been flung, had just been thoroughly cleaned and was still wet.
Before morning the captain had moved his vessel out into the stream and prevented anyone from coming on board. During the four weeks that followed, the two Germans were not allowed intercourse with anyone outside of the boat. When discharging a cargo, they were always directed below and were carefully guarded. They saw no more of Mayher and did not know that he was dead until the police told them.
      The Germans say that Otto Mayher told them before his death that he was the oldest son of a petty German count. After sewing his wild oats, he came to this country. He landed in New York one week before he reached Baltimore. Getting drunk, he was shanghaied and sent on board the Eva. Mayher was an educated man, spoke French fluently and frequently quoted German poetry and literature for the amusement of his fellow Germans on the schooner. The German consul will report the affair to the German legation at Washington.

     Princess Anne, Maryland, January 1, 1885––Captain John Williams, skipper of the oyster schooner Eva, was this day committed to jail to await the action of the grand jury in April next on a charge of murdering Otto Mayher, a member of his crew. The details of the crime are revolting in the extreme. A Chicago Daily News editorial says: “Captain John Williams, of an oyster boat, found one of his crew so sick that he could not work. In the presence of the other members of the crew, Williams began a system of torture, such as standing on the sick man’s throat, tying him above deck by his thumbs, swinging him up by his feet and pouring cold water over his body, and finally throwing him on a bleak shore, leaving him there unattended to die. Not only should Williams be hanged quick and high, but the able-bodied men who were heartless enough to stand by and permit their captain to perpetrate all these devilish crimes should be strung up alongside him as accessories to one of the most brutal and unprovoked murders in the history of all time.

     Denton Journal, April 25, 1885––The trial of Captain John Williams for the murder on November 26th of Otto Mayher, a German dredger, began at Princess Anne, Md., Monday. John W. Crisfield, Henry Page and T. S. Hodson, Esqs., appeared for the prisoner; State’s Attorney Miles for the State. The regular panels were exhausted, and only nine jurors obtained. Forty Talesmen [sic] were then summoned.

     Princess Anne, Md., May 2, 1885––Captain John Williams, the oyster boat captain who killed Otto Mayher, a young German, last winter by persistent and unparalleled cruelty, and who has been on trial here for the past ten days, has been convicted of murder in the second degree. Sentence deferred.

     Denton Journal, May 5, 1885––Captain Williams, who so brutally slew Otto Mayher, a sickly German employed on his oyster boat, is asking for a new trial. Some men never know when they are well off. Instead of appealing from the verdict that will send him to jail for life, Williams should thank the leniency of the jury and the efforts of his counsel for his escape from richly merited death. The Somerset Herald says: “He was clearly proven guilty of a deliberate, slow, brutal and malicious murder. Yet the 12 men who passed upon the evidence found him guilty only of murder in the second degree. We never find fault with the findings of our court or its sworn panels. Let the verdict stand uncriticized. The people will pay the bill. But he, too, should let it stand uncriticized and his appeal should be abandoned. No people will stand still too long under the taunt of unwhipt [sic] crime. Beyond a certain point they take the matter into their own hands and administer justice in a manner more swift than that laid down in the state books, but quite as effective. Have the Cincinnati riots been forgotten? Williams has cost Somerset taxpayers enough. Let him now go to the penitentiary and contentedly and thankfully serve out such sentence as the court may impose. Thankfully, because his life has been saved to him by great good fortune.”

     I was both excited and a little confused when I came across the following clipping about the murder of Captain John Williams, three thousand miles away and two years later in California, but it proved to be another John Williams. Ours, as the second clipping indicates, was still safely tucked away in the Maryland Penitentiary.

     The Daily Morning Republican, Fresno, California, May 4, 1888––The jury in the case of John Johnson, the seaman charged with the murder of Captain John Williams on the ship Occidental in March 1887, found him guilty of manslaughter today. The jury returned a verdict after six hours’ deliberation. Johnson will be sentenced Monday.

     The News, Frederick, Maryland, June 13, 1890––Governor Jackson refused to pardon Captain John Williams, who is serving a term of 18 years in the Maryland Penitentiary for the murder of Otto Mayher, an oyster dredger, in Somerset County in 1883 [it should read 1884].

     But do not believe that schooner captains were the only scoundrels in the Chesapeake drama. Sometimes the skipper became the object of violence, though in the following incident he succeeded in turning the tables on a mutinous crew.

     The Newtown Record, Pocomoke City, Maryland, May 7, 1868––We learn from the Princess Anne paper that another attempt at piracy was made in Hooper Straits last Monday night. Captain Bramble, belonging to Dorchester County, while asleep in his berth was aroused by a noise as of weighing anchor, and on getting up to ascertain the cause, found the cabin doors closed, and the motion of the vessel disclosed the fact that she was under sail. Fortunately, he was well armed and with the assistance of a large bar rod succeeded in making an aperture between the doors of the cabin sufficient to get the end of his pistol through and a slight glimpse of the negro at the helm. He fired, and the negro immediately fell, and the other negros rushed to the forward part of the vessel to arm themselves.
      Captain Bramble then made a desperate lunge at the doors of the cabin, the hinges of which gave way, and he came on deck. Instantly, two immense Africans made at him, but the ardor of their fury was terribly cooled by the laden missiles of death. Two others, maddened with savage frenzy, instantly rushed upon the brave Bramble, and they too met the fate of their fiendish conspirators. The remaining one quickly jumped in the hold of the vessel, begging for his life. The captain secured him and made him steer the vessel up to Cambridge, where he delivered himself and the darkey up to the authorities. It is supposed that they intended to get the vessel underway and then kill the captain for his money.

You can reach Hal Roth at nanbk@dmv.com.