"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, July 2, 2018

Murder at Sea: the "Glendower" Mystery

"Harrisburg Independent," June 10 1911

For an Edgar Allan Poe devotee such as myself, the strange and bloody goings-on aboard the good ship “Glendower” have an irresistible fascination. Here we have a murder claustrophobic enough to unsettle Hitchcock, strange enough to make Dame Christie throw up her hands, and impenetrable enough to baffle Poe’s M. Dupin. It resembles the Lizzie Borden case, in the sense that we think we “know” who committed the crime in question, but we can never truly know. Also like the Borden murders, the complete absence of discernible motive leaves one deeply disquieted. If the captain of the “Glendower” could be slaughtered in such an apparently pointless fashion, who among us is safe?

Our tale-without-a-moral began on June 9, 1911. The “Glendower,” a coal barge that had seen seventeen years of service, was part of a three-ship flotilla. The captain was fifty-five year old Charles Wyman, a man with a long, and so far as is known, perfectly commendable history at sea. His three crew members, William DeGraff, William Nilsen, and Antonio Priskich, seemed both hard-working and respectable. The vessel appeared to be approaching its scheduled destination of Newburyport, Massachusetts without incident. The first sign of trouble came at about eight in the evening, when the barge began whistling. It sent out signals indicating it wanted the “Monocacy,” the tug that was leading it, to change course and come alongside.

The “Monocacy’s” pilot, a Captain Camp, realized this was a sign of trouble, but what happened next must still have been a great shock. When his tug approached the barge, the ship’s cook, William DeGraff, shouted to him, “The captain is dead!” When Camp sputtered out words of disbelief, DeGraff reiterated phlegmatically, “He took a rest this noon at twelve, and when we went to call him around five o’clock—well, he was dead, that’s all. We found him dead.”

Camp was understandably stunned by the news, but he assumed Wyman had died of some unexpected, but perfectly natural causes. Before heading to shore and notifying the police, the flotilla dropped anchor and he attempted to question DeGraff further. In response to these inquiries, the cook said that Wyman had evidently died around noon, casually adding the information that “there was blood in the bunk, too.” He invited Camp to come aboard and inspect the corpse himself.

Camp declined—he probably already suspected by this point that events were becoming far too weird for him to handle alone—and the ships made their way to Boston, where he went ashore to file a report with the police and the local coroner.

It was not until dawn of the following day that the Suffolk County medical examiner, Dr. George Magrath, accompanied by several policemen, went aboard the ill-fated barge. DeGraff greeted them quietly. DeGraff, a sailor for nearly forty years, had joined the crew of the “Glendower” only a month before. DeGraff ‘s background was and is a puzzle—virtually all we know of him is contained in the previous sentence—and although he was a strongly-built man with powerful arms and shoulders, he was also extremely hunchbacked. His strange, oddly composed figure only compounded the grim atmosphere of the scene.

The visitors found Wyman’s body lying face-down in his bunk. He was wrapped in a blanket, which was heavily bloodstained. Drops of blood also covered the area around him. His head had been repeatedly battered with what was believed to be a hatchet or large club. Dr. Magrath found a hammer loosely held in the dead man’s hand. It was, however, bloodless, proving that it had been placed in Wyman’s hands after the blood on them had already dried. It did not take a forensic genius to realize this was not, as Camp had assumed, a stroke or heart attack, or even a suicide.

When Magrath and the patrolmen questioned the crew, they obtained little helpful information. The trio insisted that there could not have been anyone but themselves aboard ship, and they all professed complete ignorance of how their captain met his violent end. The policemen made a minute search of the little barge, without discovering a single clue to help them solve the mystery. The crewmembers were all placed under arrest and brought ashore. It was noted that DeGraff, unlike his obviously confused shipmates, was quietly wary, taking careful notice of all that went on around him.

When the trio faced a Boston Grand Jury, it was brought into evidence that while Nilsen and Priskich bunked some distance away from the captain, DeGraff’s cabin communicated with Wyman’s, enabling him to clandestinely enter Wyman’s quarters. It was also revealed that the other two survivors of the “Glendower” were continuously alone together during that fatal afternoon, in a different part of the ship. It was judged to be a ridiculously easy case to solve. There appeared to be literally no one in the world who could have killed Captain Wyman but his crippled cook.

DeGraff went on trial on February 19, 1912. Testimony showed that DeGraff called the men to meals by ringing a bell. Three of them ate at a time, while the fourth manned the wheel. On the day of the murder, Nilsen was at the wheel for the midday meal, which was served at eleven. Priskich was with him until the dinner bell rang, and DeGraff arrived for his turn at the wheel. Wyman ate a full meal and retired to the chartroom, which adjoined his cabin, shortly before twelve. It was the last time anyone admitted seeing him alive.

Newspaper sketch of DeGraff's trial

Nilsen took the wheel at noon, and Priskich went to the engine room, where it was impossible for him to reach Wyman’s cabin unobserved. DeGraff went somewhere below deck, where he was unseen by Nilsen or Priskich until close to five PM. Around one-thirty Nilsen thought he heard a groan or cry, without being able to place its source. (Some vaguer accounts state he heard an angry cry of “Get out of here!”) Doctors who examined the murder victim believed that what he heard were the last sounds made by Captain Wyman.

At two, Priskich took his place at the wheel. Nilsen testified that he briefly rested in his bunk, and then rejoined Priskich. From then until the four-thirty supper time, the pair were constantly within sight of the other.

Supper was—for the first time—late, by about fifteen minutes. DeGraff came to take the wheel, and Nilsen and Priskich went to eat. They were surprised to find the captain was not there. After waiting fruitlessly for a while, they went to question the cook about what they should do. DeGraff told them indifferently to go ahead and eat—the captain would turn up eventually. Priskich knocked on Wyman’s door, but got no reply.

After the two men ate, they again consulted DeGraff about their increasing unease with the situation. The cook, with the same air of nonchalance he displayed throughout the entire story, dismissed their worries. When Priskich pointed out that Wyman was due to take the wheel at five, DeGraff replied that he himself would take the captain’s place. However, after Priskich left to look after the engines, the cook told Nilsen to take over the wheel, as he had to clean up after the meal.

Priskich returned to the wheelhouse an hour and a half later. Upon seeing that the captain had yet to make an appearance, he insisted on breaking into Wyman’s cabin—a plan DeGraff strongly discouraged--but his crewmates finally overruled him. Priskich and DeGraff entered Wyman’s cabin, where their captain’s body was finally discovered. Priskich—again over DeGraff’s demurrals—insisted on immediately alerting their tug. Before doing so, he suddenly stopped and said “I don’t really know Captain Wyman is dead.”

“Sure, he died,” DeGraff replied. “He died long ago, for I took his hand like this,” holding his left wrist with his right hand.

The weapon that killed Wyman was never found, and no blood was on the clothing of the three survivors. However, only one of DeGraff’s aprons—freshly washed and unused—could be located.

At DeGraff’s trial, the prosecution’s main difficulty was establishing motive. They found two witnesses who testified that DeGraff had said Wyman was “no good,” and that he had sworn to kill him. These men were unable to give any reason for the cook’s reputed hostility, however.

When DeGraff himself took the stand, his testimony was terse and unenlightening. The best his attorney could do for a defense was to suggest that a stowaway had secretly hidden aboard ship, slaughtered the captain for reasons unknown, and then managed to jump overboard and swim to shore unseen. The prosecutor, on the other hand, was able to establish that DeGraff was the only one on the ship who had the time and opportunity to commit the crime. He also pointed out that the murder must have been done by someone familiar with Wyman’s habits, and surely some secret lurker would be unable to know when the captain would be invisible to the rest of the ship.

By the morning after both sides had rested their case, the jury reached a verdict: “Not guilty.” Evidently, the prosecution’s inability to prove why DeGraff would wish to kill his captain  outweighed everything else, as far as these jurymen were concerned. They also likely found it difficult to picture such a calm, nondescript figure in the role of wild butcher. DeGraff left the courthouse, and disappeared. Some believed he changed his name and went on with his life at sea, but his subsequent history remains as shadowy as everything else in this case.

There is a legend that, immediately after DeGraff was freed, he confided to someone who had struck up an acquaintance with him during his imprisonment the story of his murder of Charles Wyman. The tale said that many years before, when DeGraff was a strong, healthy young man, the brutal Wyman had attacked him, causing him to suffer a fall that left him permanently crippled. DeGraff waited decades to take his revenge, biding his time until Wyman had forgotten him and the tragic incident. Aboard the “Glendower,” he finally found the opportunity to settle scores.

This slice of Gothic melodrama is almost certainly the product of an enterprising journalist or overly imaginative local blowhard, but in the absence of any other explanation for what happened that gruesome day on the “Glendower,” it has lingered ever since.

The fate of the “Glendower” itself may be clearer. Robert Ellis Cahill, the founder of Salem Massachusetts’ New England Pirate Museum, has told of visiting an abandoned building in his city where the second story is composed of an old barge. Upon entering this upper half of the site, he was greeted by a ghostly voice yelling “Get out of here!”

Cahill was convinced that the barge used to construct the building was none other than the remains of the “Glendower,” complete with the restless, un-avenged spirit of its murdered Captain. “It sounds,” he wrote, “like the ‘Glendower’ was kind of a hoodoo vessel.” This is certainly as good an answer to the mystery as any.

In any case, let us pay tribute to the otherwise unmemorable William DeGraff. This quiet, unassuming little cook may well have been as mad, bad, and dangerous to know as the most bloodthirsty pirate.

[Note: this originally appeared in July 2012 as a guest post on the excellent--and now sadly on-hiatus--blog "Pauline's Pirates and Privateers."]


  1. A murderous hatchet fish perhaps?

  2. It does seem an open and shut case. It's strange that in days when insanity was much more generally thrown about as a cause (and an effect) of many things, simple craziness was not seen as a motive.

  3. I just came here to say I love the vintage graphic at the top!


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