Philip Spencer

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For other people named Philip Spencer, see Philip Spencer (disambiguation).
Philip Spencer
Philip Spencer.jpg
Portrait of Spencer from Chi Psi Fraternity
Born (1823-01-28)January 28, 1823
Canandaigua, New York
Died December 1, 1842(1842-12-01) (aged 19)
Atlantic Ocean, aboard USS Somers
Occupation Sailor
Criminal charge
Plan to mutiny
Criminal penalty
Death by hanging
Criminal status Deceased
Parent(s) John C. Spencer

Philip Spencer (January 28, 1823 – December 1, 1842), a midshipman aboard the USS Somers, was hanged for mutiny without a lawful court-martial.[1] He was the son of John C. Spencer, Secretary of War in U.S. President John Tyler's administration, and the grandson of Ambrose Spencer, a New York politician and lawyer.


Spencer was born in Canandaigua, New York. He was described as handsome, despite a "wandering eye" (possibly strabismus) which surgery was unable to correct. As a youth at Geneva College (now Hobart College), he was considered wild and uncontrollable despite displaying signs of high intelligence. His favorite reading matter was pirate stories.

After an abortive stay at Union College – where he was a founder of Chi Psi Fraternity – Spencer ran away and signed on a whaler at Nantucket. His father located him and convinced him that if a life on the sea was what he wanted, to live it as "a gentleman"; i.e., as a commissioned officer.

As Secretary of War, it was easy for Spencer's father to procure his son a midshipman's commission. Spencer proved to be just as intractable as ever, assaulting a superior officer aboard the USS North Carolina twice while under the influence of alcohol. Reassigned to the USS John Adams, he was involved in a drunken brawl with a Royal Navy officer while on shore leave in Rio de Janeiro. He was allowed to resign rather than face court-martial, but due to his father's position in the Cabinet, his resignation was not accepted. Instead, he was posted to the USS Somers.

Aboard the Somers, Spencer gained favor with the ratings – many of whom were boys – through his privileged access to tobacco and rum. He also exhibited an irreverent attitude toward the navy and his captain, Alexander Slidell Mackenzie. In November 1842, during the return home from a voyage to Liberia, suspicion arose that Spencer had formed a plan to seize the Somers and sail her as a pirate ship or slave ship. His friendship with crew members Samuel Cromwell and Elisha Small was cited as evidence, as both these men were rumored to have sailed aboard slavers in the past. Cromwell in particular was feared.

USS Somers, 1842 lithograph, with men hanging from yardarm.

On November 26, Spencer was shackled and detained on the Somers' foredeck after a list of names was found in his razor case. The names had been written using Greek letters. The following day, Cromwell and Small were also detained on the foredeck. After a meeting of the ship's officers, all three men were hanged on the yardarm on December 1 (at 17°34′28″N 41°24′45″W / 17.57444°N 41.41250°W / 17.57444; -41.41250 (hanging site)).[2] Spencer was nearly 20 years old.

Court of Inquiry[edit]

When the brig returned to New York, the Secretary of the Navy convened a court of flag officers to investigate the matter. Following a month of testimony, on January 23, 1843, the court of inquiry exonerated the captain and his officers, ruling the hangings fully justified.[2] Although the commander was exonerated, public opinion was against him. Mackenzie requested that he be charged and tried by court martial. The court martial acquitted him on a split vote.

Court of public opinion[edit]

The government accepted the court's decision, but the acquittal did not satisfy public concerns with the case. Many commentators, including James Fenimore Cooper, denounced the hangings as murder and criticized the Navy's handling of the matter as an example of what today could be called a "whitewash."

The circumstance of Spencer, Cromwell and Small's deaths is one reason the U.S. Navy stopped training boys at sea and founded the United States Naval Academy.[3] The event on the USS Somers may be the only mutiny on a warship in US Navy history. Philip Spencer and the USS Somers affair were almost certainly the model for much of the story Billy Budd, by Herman Melville, who was the first cousin of Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort, an officer aboard the ship.[4]


  1. ^ "Somers, deck log". U.S. Navy. 27 April 2001. Retrieved 2010-08-08. Commander Mackenzie having called on all the Ward Room and steerage officers, excepting the acting Midshipmen the day before to inquire into the guilt of acting Mid'n P. Spencer, Bo. Mate Sam'l Cromwell, and Seaman Elisha Small of the crime of being concerned in a mutiny and as to the best mode of disposing of them if guilty under the existing circumstances. The officers gave it as their opinion that they were decidedly guilty and that the safety of the vessel required that they should be immediately put to death, Commander Mackenzie entirely concurring in their opinion ordered preparations to be made for hanging them at the yard arm. 
  2. ^ a b White, Thomas W., ed. (March 1843). "Cases of Mutiny at Sea". Southern Literary Messenger (Richmond, Virginia: P. D. Bernard) IX (III): 135–136. Retrieved 2010-08-08. 
  3. ^ Lehman, John (August 8, 2010). "Review of William Leeman's Naval Academy history, The Long Road to Annapolis". Washington Post. p. B6. Retrieved 2010-08-08. In 1842, midshipman Philip Spencer, who happened to be the son of the secretary of war, was hanged aboard the training brig Somers by his captain on suspicion of conspiracy to mutiny. In 1845, Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft seized on the Somers affair as a reason finally to establish a naval academy at Annapolis. 
  4. ^ "Philip Spencer: Last Man Hanged." Hobart and William Smith Colleges Notable Alumni. Geneva, NY.

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