While John Jacob Housman, the wrecker king of Indian Key, might not have been guilty of pilfering the abandoned brig Revenge in 1825, charges of misconduct on the high seas, charges that would stick, were in his future.
Another French brig, Vigilant, grounded on the reef near Key Vaccas in 1828. Fortunately for the captain, the vessel managed to be refloated without the aid of wreckers. Unfortunately, once free, the captain found himself surrounded by shallow waters and unfamiliar shoals. It was at this juncture that he employed two wreckers to guide the Vigilant to safe harbor at Key Vaccas. The area is generally referred to as Marathon these days.
Enter Captain Housman. He approached the captain of the Vigilant with a deal. Housman said he would safely guide the brig all the way to Key West for 75 percent of the value of the vessel and her cargo. While it seemed a stiff price, the captain accepted. Part of the cargo of the Vigilant, and what likely made the job so appealing to Housman, was the $32,000 in specie, or coins, aboard the ship. Housman did his job and was awarded the salvage claim.
According to an account printed in the Pensacola Gazette back in 1828, the deal was struck between the two captains, “with an understanding that Housman would return part of the money to the Captain, for Himself.” The two captains were rumored to have been seen sailing north together, likely bound for Charleston. Captain Housman was not charged with a crime. Apparently, rumors were not enough to level charges.
However, Housman’s proclivities would eventually catch up to him. The case of the North Carolina is an excellent example. The schooner had been packed with 366 bales of cotton when Captain George McIntyre sailed from Apalachicola March 9, 1833. McIntyre’s destination, too, had been Charleston. The trip was delayed when the schooner hit Pickles Reef, off the coast of Key Largo, at low tide on the night of March 14.
Captain Joshua B. Smith, master of the Hyder Alley, came upon the North Carolina at first light. When Smith approached the captain of the schooner, McIntyre engaged the wrecker and his crew. To lighten the schooner, the wreckers began transferring bales of cotton from one ship to the other. It took removing 115 bales from the North Carolina before she sufficiently lightened and floated free.
Unbeknownst to McIntyre, Smith was part of a consortium of wreckers associated with nearby Indian Key and was not the only wrecking captain in line to profit from the salvage operation. Captain Austin Packer of the Brilliant was also part of a three-way coalition, as was the captain of the Sarah Isabella, Housman.
Now, there were three approved ways to handle a salvage claim. Terms could be settled at sea, heard by Judge Webb in Key West’s Wrecking Court, or arbitrated by an impartial party of three. To make sure the details were fair to each party concerned, the salvage claim was supposed to be negotiated between three “disinterested” parties.
What Housman arranged was certainly criminal, but it was also good business — if you could get away with it. He convinced Captain McIntyre to forgo the 90 mile trip to Key West to settle the salvage claim before Judge Webb and, instead, go to nearby Indian Key to discuss the terms of the exchange of goods for services. Smooth talker that he had to have been, Housman also convinced McIntyre to allow him to represent the interests of the North Carolina. As his agent, Housman would be paid 5 percent of the negotiated salvage award.
Having arrived on Indian Key, two of the island’s residents, Lemuel Otis and Charles M. Johnson, were chosen to be the “disinterested” parties charged with arbitrating the case. Housman, Otis, and Johnson valued the schooner at $8,940 and, even though the cotton bales had cost $36 just days before in Apalachicola, valued the bales at $20 each.
While a wrecker’s rate was considered to be in the general area of 25 percent of the value of the total salvage operation, vessel and cargo, in the case of the North Carolina, the Indian Key arbitrators decided to award the wreckers 35 percent of the claim or $3,129. Payment was rendered in the form of 122 bales of cotton, $100 in cash, and an IOU for $600. For Captain Housman’s services as agent of the North Carolina, he was paid an additional $156.45.
Housman promptly sailed to Charleston and sold 50 of those bales of cotton for $50 each. It was good he did it when he had the chance because when Judge Webb got wind of the deal, he declared, “that the salvers, by their conduct, have forfeited all claim to compensation, even for services actually rendered.”
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.