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Horrific Boon Island Wreck Has Portsmouth Link

Boon_island_wreck_1710HISTORY MATTERS

Don’t ask what Captain John Deane and his shipwrecked crew of the Nottingham Galley ate for Christmas dinner in 1710. It’s a menu beyond imagining. And yet we cannot look away from the most horrifying tale in the annals of local maritime history.  (Continued below)

It happened in December on a barren spit of land called Boon Island. The Nottingham Galley was lost, but all 14 crewmen miraculously survived when the ship crashed into the rocky island during a night time storm. Despite the dangers of a winter voyage and marauding French privateers, the transatlantic business trip was almost a success. The English crew was carrying valuable cordage (rope for ship rigging), 30 tons of butter and 300 cheeses from England and Ireland to Boston. They were within a day’s sail of their goal when the ship wrecked on Boon Island just six miles off the coast of York, Maine.

Cold as Hell

No bigger than two football fields, Boon is a flat mass of broken rock barely 15  feet above sea level. There is no vegetation out there other than seaweed and no life other than mussels and the occasional visiting seabirds and seals. To be precise it was a solitary seagull that the starving crew devoured raw near Christmas Day. When the ship’s cook died, the crew released his body into the sea, hoping it might wash up on the mainland and alert residents to the stranded mariners. It did not.

During an earlier shipwreck in 1682, four crewmen lived for a month on Boon before being rescued. But they were able to catch fish and birds in warmer weather. And spotting smoke on distant Mount Agamenticus, these stranded men were able to build a signal fire and were rescued by Native Americans. In the winter of 1710, however, the castaways could not build a fire and no one on the mainland or in a passing ship knew they were there.

By Christmas the 13 survivors had been lying huddled together under a piece of canvas sail on the sharp frozen ground for two weeks, semi-conscious from exposure and rotting away with frostbite. At high tide the frigid ocean washed into their makeshift tent. Some small bits of waterlogged cheese from their cargo washed ashore and they salvaged enough fresh water to cling to life. But without winter clothing or the ability to make a fire, the crew had all but abandoned hope.

Under impossible conditions a few men managed to build a crude sailboat from the wreckage of the Nottingham Galley, but it capsized in the cruel weather. Then they built a raft on which two volunteers made a last ditch effort to reach shore six miles away. But the two volunteers never returned, and by the time the ship’s carpenter succumbed to the elements, the men on the hellish island were utterly desperate.

What happened next is what makes the story a classic among New England shipwreck legends. And what happened next has never been told more fully and powerfully than in a new book by two New England authors.


BOON ISLAND continued


No stone unturned

Boon_Island_book_coverIn 1710 seacoast residentmussels finally discovered the plight of the men stranded on Boon Island when the frozen body of one of the sailors on the raft washed onto the beach at York. Locals put to sea to investigate. On Boon Island they discovered “the Ghastly Figure of so many Objects, with long Beards, nothing but skin and bone, wild staring Eyes, and Countenances fierce, barbarous, unwashed, and infected with Human gore.”

But for many days the heavy storms prevented the rescue party from getting the survivors off the island. Locals could not even get supplies to the men stranded on Boon until the weather cleared. It was during these final days that they resorted to cannibalism. Trained in England as an apprentice butcher, the captain beheaded and disemboweled the corpse before cutting the meat into strips to make it appear less human.

The gruesome details of how the crew of the Nottingham Galley consumed the  ship’s carpenter have been known for three centuries. Captain Deane wrote a full report soon after he and the emaciated survivors arrived in Portsmouth, NH. Deane published no less than three versions of the shipwreck saga in his lifetime, each slightly different.

Captain Deane’s account became the bloody heart of an historical novel by Maine author Kenneth Roberts. Boon Island (1956) was Roberts’ shortest, last, and least critically admired book. His best known novel Northwest Passage (1937) also has strong Portsmouth connections. (Portsmouth librarian Dorothy Vaughan was among the researchers for the novels.) Roberts won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1957 for his carefully researched historical fiction, and died a few months later.

Roberts’ accepted Captain John Deane’s testimony as gospel and made him the hero of the novel. But a newly published nonfiction book offers a much more detailed and complex, yet no less thrilling, version of the wreck and its aftermath. The title tells all. Boon Island: A True Story of Mutiny, Shipwreck, and Cannibalism (Globe Pequot Press, 2012) leaves no sea-weed covered stone unturned in its updated analysis of the ancient tragedy.

Co-author Andrew Vietze is a skilled veteran writer of six books and a seasonal ranger at Baxter State Park in Maine. Stephen Erickson of Portsmouth is working on his doctorate in early American history. Erickson says he bumped into the Boon Island legend while writing a novel (“a terrible one,” he says) set on the Isles of Shoals. He abandoned the novel to research the Nottingham Galley a few years ago at the British Museum in London. Erickson published an academic essay on the shipwreck in New England Quarterly and hoped to write a book. Meanwhile Vietze, author of the acclaimed Becoming Teddy Roosevelt , had a contract to expand his own Boon Island article in DownEast magazine into a book. The writers decided to pool their resources and their Boon Island is a superb collaboration. It is both well-researched history and a page-turning mystery that begs to be a motion picture.

A Portsmouth story too

Boon_Island_roberts_coverThe authors alternate the action from the cold isolated ledge at sea to the village of York, ravaged by Indian raids, to the evolving colonial seaport of Portsmouth, to the bookshops and coffee houses of London. A key twist in the plot takes place here in Portsmouth where the gaunt, half-dead sailors began their recovery housed at a local tavern in January 1711. Here Vietze and Erickson start unpacking the alternate version. Though weak and hospitalized, three of the Boon Island survivors refused to sign off on Deane’s legal account of the tragedy. They swore an oath, instead, that their half-crazed captain was covering up the true story of the Nottingham Galley.

New Hampshire’s lieutenant governor John Wentworth, whose 1695-era house once stood across from modern day Prescott Park, played a role in the tale. So did Portsmouth’s well-known magistrate Samuel Penhallow, who reported the seedy details of cannibalism to his friend, the powerful Puritan minister Cotton Mather. Mather sermonized on the events at Boon as evidence of God’s mighty wrath. He warned the people of Portsmouth and New England to guard against the “outrageous wickedness among the strangers lately broke into your Neighborhood.”

Rather than sign-off on Deane’s deposition, three of the sailors hired a lawyer and wrote their own version of the truth. Deane’s family was in debt, the crewmen claimed, and he wanted his ship to be captured by privateers or wrecked in order to collect the insurance money. The captain whipped and starved his crewman, took unnecessary risks at sea, and feasted more than the rest on the ship’s dead carpenter, they said.

The war of words continued back in England as each side published its version of the tragedy in various pamphlets. These booklets were the hot viral media of the 18th century.  Educated readers devoured them and they sparked the conversation in the court of public opinion. Deane’s reputation was sullied, in part, because of the negative impression he had made on the people of Portsmouth in America. Popular opinion here tended to favor the lowly sailors who had nothing to gain and much to loose by taking on their powerful captain.



History’s mysteries

Was Captain Deane trying to commit insurance fraud? Did he have a secret deal with French privateers? Was his brother Jasper in on the scam? Or were the crewmen of the Nottingham Galley, perhaps, working some mutinous revenge of their own against the innocent captain? Were they driven mad with feasting on their dead companion? Inquiring minds still want to know.

“All history is interpretation,” Erickson says. “When you are dealing with something that happened 300 years ago, sources are scarce.”

“It became very clear to me,” says co-author Andrew Vietze, “working on the structure of this book, that it was just begging to be treated like a mystery novel. Open with a body, follow up with twists and turns and hints of menace, and then close with the big reveal. The story is one of history's great mysteries - you have the Captain saying one thing and the First Mate and two other crewmen saying something else entirely, and under oath.”

Equally mysterious is what will happen to the 137-foot lighthouse that now stands on Boon Island. Built in 1855, the tallest lighthouse in New England was not there when the Nottingham Galley crashed during a December nor’easter in 1710.  It may not be there long.

“The future of Boon Island Lighthouse is in limbo at the moment,” says historian and author Jeremy d’Entremont. “The light itself, still used for navigation, will continue to be maintained by the Coast Guard for the foreseeable future. The lighthouse tower, however, is up for transfer to a suitable new owner.”

“It's one of the most fascinating lighthouse locations in the country, but it has none of the advantages of tourist attractions like Portland Head Light and the Nubble Light,” d’Entremont adds. “Boon Island is simply a miserable little pile of rocks far out in the ocean.”

Victorian poet Celia Thaxter may have said it best from her vantage point on the Isles of Shoals 15 miles away. Boon Island, she once wrote, is “the forlornest place that can be imagined.”


Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER. His signed collectible gift books are available on and in local stores.

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