Violent Death at Sea

Merchant Sailing Ship under sail (in this case, the British-built clipper, Cutty Sark); Wikipedia- Cutty Sark


Bow Street Police Station and Police Court


Royal Naval Hospital and Asylum, Yarmouth, built 1811



By November 1872, Chief Inspector George Clarke was handling another potentially difficult case with international dimensions, this time the possible extradition to the USA of a British sailor on a murder charge.1 At the time, British and American relationships were still suffering from sensitivities between the two countries concerning perceived British actions during the American civil war, and American actions (or inaction) during the Fenian conspiracy (see 'The Chieftain' pp.65-105). Following a Home Office request, prompted by the Foreign Office, Clarke, accompanied by Detective-Sergeant Butcher, took the train to Falmouth on 30 October to take John Henry Crunk (a.k.a ‘Crank’) into their custody. 

Crunk had arrived at Falmouth Harbour on 21 October on board the US-registered merchant ship Top Gallant which was en route from Rio to Rangoon. On 23 June, he had been involved in a vicious 15 minute fight with another seaman, John Rodgers, known as ‘Liverpool Jack’. Most of the fight had not been witnessed by others on board. Rodgers had died of his injuries three days later and had been buried at sea. Before he died he indicated that he had received a knife cut on the face and a severe kick to the lower abdomen.In a gruesome description of Rodgers’ injuries, the Captain, George Phillips, confirmed that:

“The testicles were very much swollen and of a very dark colour as if circulation in that part had stopped.  He was then also bleeding from the mouth, nose and fundament and matter was issuing therefrom and the stench was terrible.”1

Later in the voyage Crunk, who had been heard to say that he would knife the Captain or any officer, had run at the Mate with a knife in his hand; the Captain had knocked Crunk down and had put him in irons. At the request of the US Consul in Falmouth, Crunk had been arrested shortly after arrival, on charges of murder, and assault with intent to murder. As the apparent offences had been committed on a US ship at sea, Crunk was committed at Falmouth magistrates’ court to await possible extradition to the USA.

By the time that Clarke and Butcher had secured Crunk in their custody, the Top Gallant had left Falmouth for London.  Anticipating the need for onboard witnesses at an extradition hearing in London, Clarke telegraphed his boss, Superintendent Williamson to arrange for them to be made available, and for witness depositions to be taken from them. On 2 November, Clarke brought Crunk up before Sir Thomas Henry at Bow Street on a warrant under the 1843 Extradition Treaty between Britain and America.  The Vice-Consul General of the USA, Joshua Nunn, was also present.  Williamson had made the necessary arrangements for the five witnesses from the Top Gallant, and all were present in court.

Perhaps it is not surprising that, within a tight-knit crew, there were no discrepancies between the evidence given by the different witnesses. None of the witnesses had seen Crunk holding a knife in his hand (though a knife had been seen on the deck). Likewise, no-one had witnessed a serious kick to the lower abdomen, and the Mate’s statement included a comment that Rodgers had been sick two days before the fight. With such little evidence to go on, and having to deal with the fact that the existing Extradition Treaty included individuals charged with murder but not manslaughter, Sir Thomas Henry concluded that Crunk could not be surrendered to the American authorities.  Fortunately, the US representative, Nunn concurred with the judgement, regretting that manslaughter was not an extraditable offence. 

Crunk was detained in custody for some further inquiries into his background, which Clarke undertook. It emerged from these that Crunk had previously been in the Royal Navy but had been discharged on account of insanity and had been confined at naval lunatic asylums in Axminster and Yarmouth. He had been discharged in 1867 “being then in a sane condition”.  He was also well known to the police at Devonport (where his parents lived) and had been convicted several times for assaults and other offences.  Informed by Clarke’s enquiries into his background, Crunk was brought up before Sir Thomas Henry and, with no further charges against him, was released.2 The fate of Crunk is not known, but the odds seem to be stacked towards the chance of it being a violent one.

Notes: 1. The National Archives TNA:PRO HO45/9320/16886 Report of Commissioner to Under Secretary of State Home Office 9 November 1872. 2. Daily News 4 November 1872.

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