Jim Memmott: : A high-seas mutiny with a Canandaigua connection
Published 1:44 p.m. ET Nov. 20, 2017 | Updated 5:23 p.m. ET Nov. 20, 2017
Philip Spencer of Canandaigua always wanted to be a pirate. Turns out, it was a risky career goal.
Dec. 1 marks the 175th anniversary of Spencer’s execution by hanging in 1842. He and two other sailors, Samuel Cromwell and Elisha Small, were put to death at sea for plotting to take over the USS Somers. Theirs is said to be the only mutiny in U.S. Navy history.
The speed with which the men were convicted created a nationwide controversy. Then, too, the fact that Spencer was the son of the U.S. secretary of War cast attention upon the incident.
The elder Spencer would publicly raise doubts about his 19-year-old son’s guilt. The novelist James Fenimore Cooper also wrote critically of the executions. And Herman Melville drew inspiration from the episode for his novella Billy Budd.
Melville may have learned the details of the Somers mutiny from his cousin, who was an officer aboard the ship. Billy Budd was published posthumously in 1924.
A portrait of Philip Spence. (Photo: Chi Psi fraternity)
Spencer was no angel, and I’m not suggesting that he should be added to our list of Remarkable Rochesterians. Nonetheless, he stands as further proof of the inevitable Rochester-area connection to all national events. If there’s controversy anywhere, chances are one of those involved grew up here.
Spencer’s father, John Canfield Spencer, was a native of Hudson, south of Albany, and a veteran of the War of 1812. He practiced law in Canandaigua and served in the U.S. Congress and in state office before becoming President John Tyler’s secretary of War in 1841. He later was Treasury secretary for a year before resigning.
Philip Spencer was the sixth of his father and mother’s seven children. A devoted reader of stories about pirates, he had brief periods at what is now Hobart College and at Union College, where he was one of the 10 founders of Chi Psi Fraternity.
He then went into the U.S. Navy.
After serving on two ships, he joined the crew of the Somers, which was captained by Alexander Mackenzie. A 1952 story in the Democrat and Chronicle described Mackenzie as “not a captain who hesitated to flog his crew.” Other reports portray him more favorably.
Spencer is seen either as a fun-loving youth or something of a rogue. Whatever, either as a joke or seriously, he seems to have been preaching, and even plotting, a takeover of the Somers. It involved killing Mackenzie and other officers. Once the mutineers had control of the Somers, they planned to convert it to a pirate ship.
On Nov. 26, 1842, Spencer and the two other crew members were arrested. Justice then moved quickly. Witnesses were interviewed, though the accused weren’t allowed to testify on their own behalf at a court of inquiry. Mackenzie, supported by other officers, ordered the three men to be hanged, which they were.
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After the ship arrived in New York City and news of the deaths spread, there was strong support for the captain’s action, though Cooper quickly took the other side. Spencer’s father also asked why the trial wasn’t delayed until the ship reached land. Mackenzie was later exonerated by a court of inquiry and at a court martial. He died of a heart attack in 1848 at age 45.
Many of the sailors aboard the Somers were young and in training. The mutiny led officials to conclude that midshipmen would be better prepared by starting their training on land. This led to the opening of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1845.
In addition to its influence upon Billy Budd, the Somers affair has inspired other treatments, including a 2001 episode of television’s JAG.
And though his time at Union College in Schenectady was short, Spencer is immortalized in a Chi Psi song. It begins:
“Oh here’s to Philip Spencer, who when about to die,/ When sinking down beneath the wave,/ Loud shouted out Chi Psi.”
On Remarkable Rochester
Retired Senior Editor Jim Memmott reflects on what makes Rochester distinctively Rochester, its history, its habits, its people. Contact him at: (585) 278-8012 or jmemmott@DemocratandChronicle.com or Remarkable Rochester, Box 274, Geneseo, NY 14454.
Let’s add two more names to the the list of Remarkable Rochesterians that can be found at RocRoots.com
Kathleen McEnery Cunningham, who served for years on the Memorial Art Gallery board. (Photo: Provided photo)
Kathleen McEnery Cunningham (1885-1971): Born in Brooklyn and raised in Massachusetts, she studied art in New York City with the painter Robert Henri. In 1908, she went to Paris to paint, returning to New York City in 1910, where she exhibited with artists including Henri, George Bellows and Edward Hopper. Two of her paintings were shown at the groundbreaking 1913 Armory Show in New York. A year later, she married Frank Cunningham of Rochester’s Cunningham car company. Settling in Rochester, she raised three children, painted and served on the Memorial Art Gallery Board of Managers for decades.
Elizabeth V. Baker, a leader in the Pentecostal movement. (Photo: Provided photo)
Elizabeth V. Baker (1849-1915): Along with her four sisters, Mary Work, Nellie Fell and Susan and Harriet Duncan, she was a leader in the Pentecostal movement, founding in Rochester a home for faith healing, a Bible training school, the magazine Trust and a church, Elim Tabernacle. The eldest daughter of a Methodist minister, she grew up in an unhappy home and had two unhappy marriages herself. She became an advocate for faith healing after recovering from a significant illness, and she did mission work in India and then trained missionaries here who went around the world. Her sermons were published in the book Chronicles of a Faith Life.
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