April 30, 2013
In 1937, Walter Reuther and his United Autoworkers Union had brought General Motors and Chrysler to their knees by staging massive sit-down strikes in pursuit of higher pay, shorter hours and other improvements in workers’ lives. But when Reuther and the UAW set their sights on the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan, Henry Ford made it clear that he’d never give in to the union.
On the morning of May 26, 1937, Detroit News photographer James “Scotty” Kilpatrick was among a crowd waiting for the shift change at River Rouge, which employed 90,000 workers. About 2 p.m. that May 26, Reuther arrived at the Miller Road Overpass at Gate 4 with an entourage of clergymen, representatives from the Senate Committee on Civil Liberties and dozens of women from UAW Local 174, where Reuther was president. The woman wore green berets and carried leaflets reading, “Unionism, not Fordism,” which they intended to hand out to departing workers. At the direction of “Scotty” Kilpatrick, Reuther posed for photographs with UAW organizational director Richard Frankensteen and a few other organizers atop the overpass—public property—with the Ford Motor Company sign in the background.
Then Harry Bennett showed up with his entourage. Bennett, one of Henry Ford’s right-hand men, led the notorious Ford Service Department, a private police force composed of ex-convicts, ex-athletes, ex-cops and gang members.
“You will have to get off here,” one of Bennett’s men told the unionists.
“We’re not doing anything,” Reuther replied.
Like that, what would become infamous as the Battle of the Overpass was on. Forty of Bennett’s men charged the union organizers. Kilpatrick called out a warning, but the security men pounced, beating the union leaders while reporters and clergy looked on. Kilpatrick and the other photographers began snapping away. Reporters accompanying them took notes on what they were seeing.
Reuther was kicked, stomped, lifted into the air, thrown to the ground repeatedly, and tossed down two flights of stairs. Frankensteen, a 30-year-old, hulking former football player, go it worse because he tried to fight back. Bennett’s men swarmed him, pulled his jacket over his head and beat him senseless.
“It was the worst licking I’ve ever taken,” he later told reporters. “They bounced us down the concrete steps of an overpass we had climbed. Then they would knock us down, stand us up, and knock us down again.” Another union leader was tossed off the overpass; his fall 30 feet to the pavement below broke his back. The security men even roughed up some of the women.
The battle, such as it was, ended almost as suddenly as it had begun. But then there was the matter of witnesses—especially the journalists on the scene. Some of Bennett’s security men began to tear notebooks from reporters’ hands. Others went after the photographers, confiscating film and smashing cameras to the ground. They chased one fleeing photographer for five miles, until he ducked into a police station for safety.
Scotty Kilpatrick fled, too—and made it to his car in just enough time to hide the glass-plate negatives from his Speed Graphic under the back seat. When some Bennett men stopped him and demanded that he surrender his negatives, he handed them unexposed plates.
Once Reuther, Frankensteen and witnesses began to tell reporters what they had seen in front of the Ford plant, Harry Bennett issued a statement. “The affair was deliberately provoked by union officials,” it said. “They feel, with or without justification, the [Senator] La Follette Civil Liberties Committee sympathizes with their aims and they simply wanted to trump up a charge of Ford brutality that they could take down to Washington and flaunt before the senatorial committee.
“I know definitely no Ford service men or plant police were involved in any way in the fight,” Bennett continued. “As a matter of fact, the service men had issued instructions the union people could come and distribute their pamphlets at the gates so long as they didn’t interfere with employees at work.” The unionists, he said, “were beaten by regular Ford employees who were on their way to work on the afternoon shift. The union men called them scabs and cursed and taunted them.”
Dearborn Police later said the Ford Service Department was “defending public property.”
Meanwhile, Scotty Kilpatrick developed his negatives, and other photographers, after the event, captured on film the injuries to the bloodied Reuther and Frankensteen. “If Mr. Ford thinks this will stop us, he’s got another thing coming,” Frankensteen said. “We’ll go back there with enough men to lick him at his own game.”
Reuther was more composed: “Before the UAW gets through with Harry Bennett and Ford’s Service Department, Dearborn will be a part of the United States and the workers will be able to enjoy their constitutional rights.”
Bennett did his best to put his version into news accounts of the Battle of the Overpass, but once Kilpatrick’s photographs were published, it was obvious that the beatings were far more violent than Bennett had described. And they showed Ford security men surrounding and beating UAW men and grabbing UAW women. In all, 16 unionists were injured in the attack, including seven women. Reuther was pictured bloodied and with a swollen skull, and Frankensteen was even worse—his face cut and his shirt torn and bloodstained. Kilpatrick’s photographs quickly turned public opinion toward the notion that the Ford Service Department was a gang of hired thugs.
In a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board in 1937, the Ford Motor Company was called to defend itself from charges that the company was engaging in unfair labor practices in violation of the 1935 Wagner Act, which prohibited employers from interfering with workers’ efforts to organize into unions. During the hearing, Ford workers testified that if their superiors suspected them of showing interest in the UAW, Ford Service Department men would pull them from the assembly lines and escort them to the gate as they were fired on the spot, often without explanation.
The publicity from the Battle of the Overpass and the ensuing labor-board hearing proved to be too much for Henry Ford. He had tried to raise his workers’ pay soon after the incident in Dearborn, but his efforts came too late, and ultimately, like Detroit’s other automotive giants, he had no choice but to sign a contract with the UAW.
The power of Scotty Kilpatrick’s photographs eventually vaulted Walter Reuther into national prominence as a labor leader and prompted the administrators of the Pulitzer Prizes to institute an award for photography. The first Pulitzer for photography would be awarded to Milton Brooks of the Detroit News in 1942—for his image of UAW strikers savagely beating a strikebreaker.
“Union Acts to Prosecute Ford in Beating of Two Organizers,” The Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 1937. “C.I.O. Leaders Slugged, Driven Off in Attempt to Spread Handbills,” Washington Post, May 27, 1937. “Ford Men Beat and Rout Lewis Union Organizers,” New York Times, May 27, 1937. “The Battle of the Overpass, at 75,” by Bryce Hoffman, The Detroit News, May 24, 2012. “Ford Motor Company Chronology,” The Henry Ford, http://www.hfmgv.org/exhibits/fmc/battle.asp
Books: Nelson Lichtenstein, Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, Basic Books, 1995.
April 22, 2013
It’s hard to think of another event in the troubled 20th century that had quite the shattering impact of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The archduke was heir to the throne of the tottering Austro-Hungarian empire; his killers—a motley band of amateurish students—were Serbian nationalists (or possibly Yugoslav nationalists; historians remain divided on the topic) who wanted to turn Austrian-controlled Bosnia into a part of a new Slav state. The guns and bombs they used to kill the archduke, meanwhile, were supplied by the infamous “Colonel Apis,” head of Serbian military intelligence. All of this was quite enough to provoke Austria-Hungary into declaring war on Serbia, after which, with the awful inevitability that A.J.P. Taylor famously described as “war by timetable,” Europe slid inexorably into the horrors of the First World War as the rival Great Powers began to mobilize against one another.
To say that all this is well-known is an understatement—I have dealt with one of the stranger aspects of the story before in Past Imperfect. Seen from the historian’s perspective, though, even the most familiar of the events of that day have interesting aspects that often go unremarked. The appalling combination of implausible circumstance that resulted in assassination is one; Franz Ferdinand had survived an earlier attempt to kill him on the fateful day, emerging unscathed from the explosion of a bomb that bounced off the folded roof of his convertible and exploded under a car following behind him in his motorcade. That bomb injured several members of the imperial entourage, and those men were taken to the hospital. It was Franz Ferdinand’s impulsive decision, later in the day, to visit them there—a decision none of his assassins could have predicted—that took him directly past the spot where his assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was standing. It was chauffeur Leopold Lojka’s unfamiliarity with the new route that led him to take a wrong turn and, confused, pull to a halt just six feet from the gunman.
April 3, 2013
Bat Masterson spent the last half of his life in New York, hobnobbing with Gilded Age celebrities and working a desk job that saw him churning out sports reports and “Timely Topics” columns for the New York Morning Telegraph. His lifestyle had widened his waistline, belying the reputation he had earned in the first half of his life as one of the most feared gunfighters in the West. But that reputation was built largely on lore; Masterson knew just how to keep the myths alive, as well as how to evade or deny his past, depending on whichever stories served him best at the time.
Despite his dapper appearance and suave charm, Masterson could handle a gun. And despite his efforts to deny his deadly past, late in his life he admitted, under cross-examination in a lawsuit, that he had indeed killed. It took a future U.S. Supreme Court justice, Benjamin Cardozo, to get the truth out of Masterson. Some of it, anyway.
William Barclay “Bat” Masterson was born in Canada in 1853, but his family—he had five brothers and two sisters—ultimately settled on a farm in Sedgwick County, Kansas. At age 17, Masterson left home with his brothers Jim and Ed and went west, where they found work on a ranch near Wichita. “I herded buffalo out there for a good many years,” he later told a reporter. “Killed ‘em and sold their hides for $2.50 apiece. Made my living that way.”
Masterson’s prowess with a rifle and his knowledge of the terrain caught the attention of General Nelson Appleton Miles, who, after his highly decorated service with the Union Army in the Civil War, had led many a campaign against American Indian tribes across the West. From 1871-74, Masterson signed on as a civilian scout for Miles. “That was when the Indians got obstreperous, you remember,” he told a reporter.
Masterson was believed to have killed his first civilian in 1876, while he was working as a faro dealer at Henry Fleming’s Saloon in Sweetwater, Texas. Fleming also owned a dance hall, and it was there that Masterson tangled with an Army Sergeant who went by the name of Melvin A. King over the affections of a dance-hall girl named Mollie Brennan.
Masterson had been entertaining Brennan after hours and alone in the club when King came looking for Brennan. Drunk and enraged at finding Masterson with her, King pulled a pistol, pointed it at Masterson’s groin, and fired. The shot knocked the young faro dealer to the ground. King’s second shot pierced Brennan’s abdomen. Wounded and bleeding badly, Masterson drew his pistol and returned fire, hitting King in the heart. Both King and Brennan died; Masterson recovered from his wounds, though he did use a cane sporadically for the rest of his life. The incident became known as the Sweetwater Shootout, and it cemented Bat Masterson’s reputation as a hard man.
News of a gold strike in the Black Hills of South Dakota sent Masterson packing for the north. In Cheyenne, he went on a five-week winning streak on the gambling tables, but he tired of the town and had left when he ran into Wyatt Earp, who encouraged him to go to Dodge City, Kansas, where Bat’s brothers Jim and Ed were working in law enforcement. Masterson, Earp told him, would make a good sheriff of Ford County someday, and ought to run for election.
Masterson ended up working as a deputy alongside Earp, and within a few months, he won election to the sheriff’s job by three votes. Right away, Masterson was tasked with cleaning up Dodge, which by 1878 had become a hotbed of lawless activity. Murders, train robberies and Cheyenne Indians who had escaped from their reservation were just a few of the problems Masterson and his marshals confronted early in his term. But on the evening of April 9, 1878, Bat Masterson drew his pistol to avenge the life of his brother. This killing was kept apart from the Masterson lore.
City Marshal Ed Masterson was at the Lady Gay Saloon, where trail boss Alf Walker and a handful of his riders were whooping it up. One of Walker’s men, Jack Wagner, displayed his six-shooter in plain sight. Ed approached Wagner and told him he’d have to check his gun. Wagner tried to turn it over to the young marshal, but Ed told Wagner he’d have to check it with the bartender. Then he left the saloon.
A few moments later, Walker and Wagner staggered out of the Lady Gay. Wagner had his gun, and Ed tried to take it from him. A scuffle ensued, as onlookers spilled out onto the street. A man named Nat Haywood stepped in to help Ed Masterson, but Alf Walker drew his pistol, pushed it into Haywood’s face and squeezed the trigger. His weapon misfired, but then Wagner drew his gun and shoved it into Masterson’s abdomen. A shot rang out and the marshal stumbled backward, his coat catching fire from the muzzle blast.
Across the street, Ford County Sheriff Bat Masterson reached for his gun as he chased Wagner and Walker. From 60 feet away, Masterson emptied his gun, hitting Wagner in the abdomen and Walker in the chest and arm.
Bat then tended to his brother, who died in his arms about a half hour after the fight. Wagner died not long afterward, and Walker, alive but uncharged, was allowed to return to Texas, where Wyatt Earp reported that he later died from pneumonia relating to his wounded lung.
Newspapers at the time attributed the killing of Jack Wagner to Ed Masterson; they said he had returned fire during the melee. It was widely believed that this account was designed to keep Bat Masterson’s name out of the story to prevent any “Texas vengeance.” Despite the newspaper accounts, witnesses in Dodge City had long whispered the tale of the Ford County sheriff calmly shooting down his brother’s assailants on the dusty street outside the Lady Gay.
Masterson spent the next 20 years in the West, mostly in Denver, where he gambled, dealt faro in clubs and promoted prize fights. In 1893 he married Emma Moulton, a singer and juggler who remained with Masterson for the rest of his life.
The couple moved to New York in 1902, where Masterson picked up work as a newspaperman, writing mostly about prizefighting at first, but then also covering politics and entertainment in his New York Morning Telegraph column, “Masterson’s Views on Timely Topics.” A profile of him written about him 20 years before in the New York Sun followed Masterson to the East Coast, cementing the idea that he had killed 28 men out west. Masterson never did much to dispute the stories or the body count, realizing that his reputation did not suffer. His own magazine essays on life on the Western frontier led many to believe he was exaggerating tales of bravery for his own benefit. But in 1905, he played down the violence of his past, telling a reporter for the New York Times, “I never killed a white person that I remember—might have aimed my gun at one or two.”
He had good reason to burnish his reputation. That year, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Masterson deputy U.S. marshal for the Southern District of New York—an appointment he held until 1912. Masterson began traveling in higher social circles, and became more protective of his name. So he was not pleased to find that a 1911 story in the New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser quoted a fight manager named Frank B. Ufer as saying Masterson had “made his reputation by shooting drunken Mexicans and Indians in the back.”
Masterson retained a lawyer and filed a libel suit, Masterson v. Commercial Advertiser Association. To defend itself, the newspaper hired a formidable New York attorney, Benjamin N. Cardozo. In May 1913, Masterson testified that Ufer’s remark had damaged his reputation and that the newspaper had done him “malicious and willful injury.” He wanted $25,000 in damages.
In defense of the newspaper, Cardozo argued that Masterson was not meant to be taken seriously—as both Masterson and Ufer were “sporting men” and Ufer’s comments were understood to be “humorous and jocular.” Besides, Cardozo argued, Masterson was a known “carrier of fire arms” and had indeed “shot a number of men.”
When questioned by his attorney, Masterson denied killing any Mexicans; any Indians he may have shot, he shot in battle (and he could not say whether any had fallen). Finally, Cardozo rose to cross-examine the witness. “How many men have you shot and killed in your life?” he asked.
Masterson dismissed the reports that he had killed 28 men, and to Cardozo, under oath, he guessed that the total was three. He admitted to killing King after King had shot him first in Sweetwater. He admitted to shooting a man in Dodge City in 1881, but he wasn’t certain whether the man died. And then he confessed that he, and not his brother Ed, had shot and killed Wagner. Under oath, Bat Masterson apparently felt compelled to set the record straight.
“Well, you are proud of those exploits in which you killed men, aren’t you?” Cardozo asked.
“Oh, I don’t think about being proud of it,” Masterson answered. “I do not feel that I ought to be ashamed about it; I feel perfectly justified. The mere fact that I was charged with killing a man standing by itself I have never considered an attack upon my reputation.”
The jury granted Masterson’s claim, awarding him $3,500 plus $129 in court costs. But Cardozo successfully appealed the verdict, and Masterson eventually accepted a $1,000 settlement. His legend, however, lived on.
Books: Robert K. DeArment, Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend, University of Oklahoma Press, 1979. Robert K. DeArment, Gunfighter in Gotham: Bat Masterson’s New York City Years, University of Oklahoma Press, 2013. Michael Bellesiles, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, Soft Skull Press, 2000.
Articles: “They Called Him Bat,” by Dale L. Walker, American Cowboy, May/June 2006. “Benjamin Cardozo Meets Gunslinger Bat Masterson,” by William H. Manz, New York State Bar Association’s Journal, July/August 2004. “‘Bat’ Masterson Vindicated: Woman Interviewer Gives Him ‘Square Deal,’ ” by Zoe Anderson Norris, New York Times April 2, 1905. “W.B. ‘Bat’ Masterson, Dodge City Lawman, Ford County Sheriff,” by George Laughead, Jr. 2006, Ford County Historical Society, http://www.skyways.org/orgs/fordco/batmasterson.html. ”Bat Masterson and the Sweetwater Shootout,” by Gary L. Roberts, Wild West, October, 2000, http://www.historynet.com/bat-masterson-and-the-sweetwater-shootout.htm. “Bat Masterson: Lawman of Dodge City,” Legends of Kansas, http://www.legendsofkansas.com/batmasterson.html. “Bat Masterson: King of the Gunplayers,” by Alfred Henry Louis, Legends of America, http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-batmasterson.html.
March 18, 2013
Ninth-century Scandinavia has had good press in recent years. As late as the 1950s, when Kirk Douglas filmed his notorious clunker The Vikings—a movie that featured lashings of fire and pillage, not to mention Tony Curtis clad in an ahistorical and buttocks-skimming leather jerkin—most popular histories still cast the Denmark and Norway of the Dark Ages as nations overflowing with bloodthirsty warriors who were much given to horned helmets and drunken ax-throwing contests. If they weren’t worshiping the pagan gods of Asgard, these Vikings were sailing their longships up rivers to sack monasteries while ravishing virgins and working themselves into beserker rages.
Since the early 1960s, though—we can date the beginning of the change to the publication of Peter Sawyer’s influential The Age of the Vikings (1962)—rehabilitation has been almost complete. Today, the early Viking age has become the subject of a History Channel drama, and historians are likely to stress that the Vikings were traders and settlers, not rapists and killers. The Scandinavians’ achievements have been lauded—they sailed all the way to America and produced the Lewis Chessmen—and nowadays some scholars go so far as to portray them as agents of economic stimulus, occasional victims of their more numerous enemies, or even (as a recent campaign organized by the University of Cambridge suggested) men who “preferred male grooming to pillaging,” carrying around ear spoons to remove surplus wax. To quote the archaeologist Francis Pryor, they “integrated into community life” and “joined the property-owning classes” in the countries they invaded.
Much of this is, of course, necessary revisionism. The Vikings did build a civilization, did farm and could work metal. But, as the medievalist Jonathan Jarrett notes, the historical evidence also shows that they took thousands of slaves and deserved their reputation as much-feared warriors and mercenaries. They could be greedy and implacable foes, and over the centuries reduced several strong and wealthy kingdoms (not least Anglo-Saxon England) to the point of collapse. Much of the time, moreover, the same men who were doing the farming and the metalworking were also responsible for the raping and looting—it was a matter of economic imperative that Vikings who planted crops in the poor soil of Norway, Orkney or northern Scotland in the spring went raiding in the summer before returning home at harvest-time. Finally, as Jarrett points out, being a well-groomed but brutal soldier is scarcely a contradiction in terms. One of the Viking fighters killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 gloried in the nickname of Olaf the Flashy, and “the era that invented and lauds James Bond really shouldn’t need telling that someone can plausibly be all of heroic, well-dressed and pathologically violent.”
March 12, 2013
The plot they hatched was as audacious as it was impossible—a 19th-century raid as elaborate and preposterous as any Ocean’s Eleven script. It was driven by two men—a guilt-ridden Irish Catholic nationalist, who’d been convicted and jailed for treason in England before being exiled to America, and a Yankee whaling captain—a Protestant from New Bedford, Massachusetts—with no attachment to the former’s cause, but a firm belief that it was “the right thing to do.” Along with a third man—an Irish secret agent posing as an American millionaire—they devised a plan to sail halfway around the world to Fremantle, Australia, with a heavily armed crew to rescue a half-dozen condemned Irishmen from one of the most remote and impregnable prison fortresses ever built.
To succeed, the plan required precision timing, a months-long con and more than a little luck of the Irish. The slightest slip-up, they knew, could be catastrophic for all involved. By the time the Fremantle Six sailed into New York Harbor in August, 1876, more than a year had passed since the plot had been put into action. Their mythic escape resonated around the world and emboldened the Irish Republican Brotherhood for decades in its struggle for independence from the British Empire.
The tale began with a letter sent in 1874 to John Devoy, a former senior leader with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, known as the Fenians. Devoy, who was born in County Kildare in 1842, had been recruiting thousands of Irish-born soldiers who were serving in British regiments in Ireland, where the Fenians hoped to turn the British army against itself. By 1866, estimates put the number of Fenian recruits at 80,000—but informers alerted the British to an impending rebellion, and Devoy was exposed, convicted of treason and sentenced to 15 years’ labor on the Isle of Portland in England.
After serving nearly five years in prison, Devoy was exiled to America, became a journalist for the New York Herald and soon became active with clan na gael, the secret society of Fenians in the United States.
Devoy was in New York City in 1874 when he received a letter from an inmate named James Wilson. “Remember this is a voice from the tomb,” Wilson wrote, reminding Devoy that his old Irish recruits had been rotting away in prison for the past eight years, and were now at Fremantle, facing “the death of a felon in a British dungeon.”
Among the hundreds of Irish republican prisoners in Australia, Wilson was one of seven high-profile Fenians who had been convicted of treason and sentenced to death by hanging until Queen Victoria commuted their sentences to a life of hard labor. After being branded with the letter “D” for “deserter” on their chests, the Fenians were assigned backbreaking work building roads and quarrying limestone beneath an unforgiving sun. “Most of us are beginning to show symptom of disease,” Wilson wrote. “In fact, we can’t expect to hold out much longer.”
Devoy was also feeling pressure from another Fenian—John Boyle O’Reilly, who had arrived at Fremantle with Wilson and the others, only to be transferred to Bunbury, another prison in Western Australia. O’Reilly grew despondent there and attempted suicide by slitting his wrists, but another convict saved him. A few months later, with help from a local Catholic priest, O’Reilly escaped from Bunbury by rowing out to sea and persuading an American whaling ship to take him on. He sailed to the United States and eventually became a poet, journalist and editor of the Catholic newspaper the Boston Pilot.
But it wasn’t long before O’Reilly began to feel pangs of guilt over his fellow Fenians’ continued imprisonment in Fremantle. He implored his fellow exile John Devoy to rally the clan na gael and mount a rescue attempt.
It was all Devoy needed to hear. Escape was entirely possible, as O’Reilly had proved. And he couldn’t ignore Wilson’s letter, imploring him not to forget the other Fenians that he had recruited. “Most of the evidence on which the men were convicted related to meetings with me,” Devoy later wrote. “I felt that I, more than any other man then living, ought to do my utmost for these Fenian soldiers.”
At a clan na gael meeting in New York, Devoy read Wilson’s “voice from the tomb” letter aloud, with its conclusion, “We think if you forsake us, then we are friendless indeed.”
Devoy put the letter down and in his most persuasive voice, shouted, “These men are our brothers!” Thousands of dollars were quickly raised to mount a rescue. The original plan was to charter a boat and sail for Australia, where more than a dozen armed men would spring the Fenians out of prison. But as the planning progressed, Devoy decided their odds would be better using stealth rather than force.
He convinced George Smith Anthony, a Protestant sea captain with whaling experience, that the rescue mission was one of universal freedom and liberty. Before long, Anthony concluded that the imprisoned Fenians were “not criminals,” and when Devoy offered the captain a “hefty cut” of any whaling profits they would make, Anthony signed on. He was told to set out to sea on the whaler Catalpa as if on a routine whaling voyage, keeping the rescue plans a secret from his crew; Devoy had decided that it was the only way to keep the British from discovering the mission. Besides, they were going to need to return with a full load of whale oil to recoup expenses. The cost of the mission was approaching $20,000 (it would later reach $30,000), and one clan na gael member had already mortgaged his house to finance the rescue.
Devoy also knew he needed help on the ground in Australia, so he arranged for John James Breslin—a bushy-bearded Fenian secret agent—to arrive in Fremantle in advance of the Catalpa and pose as an American millionaire named James Collins, and learn what he could about the place they called the “Convict Establishment.”
What Breslin soon saw with his own eyes was that the medieval-looking Establishment was surrounded by unforgiving terrain. To the east there was desert and bare stone as far as the eye could see. To the west, were shark-infested waters. But Breslin also saw that security around the Establishment was fairly lax, no doubt due to the daunting environment. Pretending to be looking for investment opportunities, Breslin arranged several visits to the Establishment, where he asked questions about hiring cheap prison labor. On one such visit, he managed to convey a message to the Fenians: a rescue was in the works; avoid trouble and the possibility of solitary confinement so you don’t miss the opportunity; there would be only one.
Nine months passed before the Catalpa made it to Bunbury. Captain Anthony had run into all sorts of problems, from bad weather to faulty navigational devices. A restocking trip to the Azores saw six crew members desert, and Anthony had to replace them before continuing on. He found the waters mostly fished out, so the whaling season was a disaster. Very little money would be recouped on this trip, but financial losses were the least of their worries.
Once Breslin met up with Captain Anthony, they made a plan. The Fenians they had come for had been continually shifted in their assignments, and for Breslin’s plan to work, all six needed to be outside the walls of the Establishment. Anyone stuck inside at the planned time of escape would be left behind. There was no way around it.
To complicate matters, two Irishmen turned up in Fremantle. Breslin immediately suspected that they were British spies, but he recruited them after learning that they had come in response to a letter the Fenians had written home, asking for help. On the day of the escape, they would cut the telegraph from Fremantle to Perth.
On Sunday, April 15, 1876, Breslin got a message to the Fenians: They would make for the Catalpa the next morning. “We have money, arms, and clothes,” he wrote. “Let no man’s heart fail him.”
Anthony ordered his ship to wait miles out at sea—outside Australian waters. He would have a rowboat waiting 20 miles up the coast from the prison. Breslin was to deliver the Fenians there, and the crew would row them to the ship.
On Monday morning, April 16, the newly arrived Irishmen did their part by severing the telegraph wire. Breslin got horses, wagons and guns to a rendezvous point near the prison—and waited. He had no idea which prisoners, if any, would make their way outside the walls that day.
But in the first stroke of good luck that morning, Breslin soon had his answer.
Thomas Darragh was out digging potatoes, unsupervised.
Thomas Hassett and Robert Cranston talked their way outside the walls.
Martin Hogan was painting a superintendent’s house.
And Michael Harrington and James Wilson concocted a tale about being needed for a job at the warden’s house.
Moments later, Breslin saw the six Fenians heading toward him. (It might have been seven, but James Jeffrey Roche “was purposely left behind because of an act of treachery which he had attempted against his fellows ten long years before,” when he sought a lighter sentence in exchange for cooperating with the British, Anthony later wrote. The deal was ultimately rejected, but the Fenians held a grudge.) Once on the carriages, the escapees made a frantic 20-mile horse-drawn dash for the rowboat.
They hadn’t been gone for an hour before the guards became aware that the Irishmen had escaped. Breslin and the Fenians made it to the shore where Anthony was waiting with his crew and the boat. The Catalpa was waiting far out at sea. They’d need to row for hours to reach it. They were about half a mile from shore when Breslin spotted mounted police arriving with a number of trackers. Not long after that, he saw a coast guard cutter and a steamer that had been commandeered by the Royal Navy to intercept the rowboat.
The race was on. The men rowed desperately, with the authorities and the British, armed with carbines, in hot pursuit. To spur on the men, Breslin pulled from his pocket a copy of a letter he had just mailed to the British Governor of Western Australia:
This is to certify that I have this day released
from the clemency of Her Most Gracious Majesty
Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, etc., etc., six Irishmen,
condemned to imprisonment for life by the
enlightened and magnanimous government of Great
Britain for having been guilty of the atrocious and
unpardonable crimes known to the unenlightened
portion of mankind as “love of country” and
“hatred of tyranny;” for this act of “Irish assur-
ance” my birth and blood being my full and
sufficient warrant. Allow me to add that in taking
my leave now, I’ve only to say a few cells I’ve emptied;
I’ve the honor and pleasure to bid yon good-day,
from all future acquaintance, excuse me, I pray.
In the service of my country,
John J. Breslin.
The Fenians let out a cry and the crew kept rowing for the Catalpa, which they could now see looming in the distance. But the steamer Georgette was bearing down, and the wind was rising—the beginnings of a gale. Darkness fell and waves came crashing down on the overloaded boat as it was blown out to sea. Captain Anthony was the picture of confidence, giving orders to bail, but even he doubted they’d make it through the night.
By morning, the Georgette reappeared and went straight for the Catalpa. The Georgette‘s captain asked if he could come aboard the whaler.
Sam Smith, minding the Catalpa, replied: “Not by a damned sight.”
The Georgette, running low on fuel, then had to return to shore. Anthony saw his chance, and the Fenians made a dash for the whaler, this time with a cutter joining the race. They barely made it to Catalpa before the British, and the ship got under way. Anthony quickly turned it away from Australia, but the luck of the Irish seemed to run out. The wind went dead, the Catalpa was becalmed, and by morning, the Georgette, armed with a 12-pound cannon, pulled alongside. The Fenians, seeing the armed militia aboard the British ship, grabbed rifles and revolvers and prepared for battle.
Captain Anthony told the Fenians the choice was theirs—they could die on his ship or back at Fremantle. Though they were outmanned and outgunned, even the Catalpa’s crew stood with the Fenians and their captain, grabbing harpoons for the fight.
The Georgette then fired across Catalpa’s bow. “Heave to,” came the command from the British ship.
“What for?” Anthony shouted back.
“You have escaped prisoners aboard that ship.”
“You’re mistaken,” Anthony snapped. “There are no prisoners aboard this ship. They’re all free men.”
The British gave Anthony 15 minutes to come to rest before they’d “blow your masts out.”
The Catalpa was also perilously close to being nudged back into Australian waters, with no wind to prevent that from happening. It was then that Anthony gave his reply, pointing at the Stars and Stripes. “This ship is sailing under the American flag and she is on the high seas. If you fire on me, I warn you that you are firing on the American flag.”
Suddenly, the wind kicked up. Anthony ordered up the mainsail and swung the ship straight for the Georgette. The Catalpa’s “flying jibboom just cleared the steamer’s rigging” as the ship with the Fenians aboard headed out to sea. The Georgette followed for another hour or so, but it was clear the British were reluctant to fire on an American ship sailing in international waters.
Finally, the British commander peeled the steamer back toward the coast. The Fenians were free.
The Catalpa arrived in New York four months later, as a cheering crowd of thousands met the ship for a Fenian procession up Broadway. John Devoy, John Breslin and George Anthony were hailed as heroes, and news of the Fremantle Six prison break quickly spread around the world.
The British press, however, accused the United States government of “fermenting terrorism,” citing Anthony’s refusing to turn over the Fenians, and noted that the captain and his crew were only “laughing at our scrupulous obedience to international law.” But eventually, the British would say that Anthony had “done us a good turn; he has rid us of an expensive nuisance. The United States are welcome to any number of disloyal, turbulent, plotting conspirators, to all their silly machinations.”
The Fremantle Six still carried the torment from their ordeals at the Convict Establishment, and despite their escape, the men remained broken, Devoy noted. He’d known them as soldiers, and he was not prepared for the changes that ten years under the “iron discipline of England’s prison system had wrought in some of them.”
Still, the Fenians had reinvigorated the spirits of their fellow Irish nationalists at home and abroad, and the tale of their escape inspired generations to come through both song and story.
So come you screw warders and jailers
Remember Perth regatta day
Take care of the rest of your Fenians
Or the Yankees will steal them away.
* The Real McKenzies “The Catalpa,” 10,000 Shots, 2005, Fat Wreck Chords
Books: Zephaniah Walter Pease, Capt. George S. Anthony, Commander of the Catalpa: The Catalpa Expedition, New Bedford, Mass, G. S. Anthony Publication, 1897. Peter F. Stevens, The Voyage of the Catalpa: A Perilous Journey and Six Irish Rebels’ Escape to Freedom, Carrol & Graf Publishers, 2002. John DeVoy, Edited by Philip Fennell and Marie King, John Devoy’s Catalpa Expedition, New York University Press, 2006. Joseph Cummins, History’s Great Untold Stories: Larger Than Life Characters & Dramatic Events that Changed the World, National Geographic Society, 2006.
Articles: “The Escaped Fenians,” New York Times, June 11, 1876. “The Rescued Irishmen,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 27, 1876. “The Fenian Escape,” by J. O’Reilly, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 23, 1876. “The Arrival,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 20, 1876. “Irish Escape,” Secrets of the Dead, PBS.org, Thirteen/WNET New York, 2007, http://video.pbs.org/video/1282032064/ “Devoy: Recollections of an Irish Rebel,” Ask About Ireland, (John Devoy: Recollections of an Irish Rebel: A Personal Narrative by John Devoy, Chase D. Young Company, 1929.) http://www.askaboutireland.ie/aai-files/assets/ebooks/ebooks-2011/Recollections-of-an-Irish-rebel/DEVOY_RECOLLECTIONS%20OF%20AN%20IRISH%20REBEL.pdf ”Over the Sea and Far Away: The Catalpa and Fenians,” by J.G. Burdette, September 13, 2012, http://jgburdette.wordpress.com/2012/09/13/over-the-sea-and-far-away-the-catalpa-and-fenians/ “Catalpa (The Rescue) A Brief Compilation of the Major Points of the Catalpa Rescue Story,” by Paul T. Meagher, Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, http://friendlysonsofsaintpatrick.com/2010/09/catalpa-the-rescue/.