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Colonial Cases

The Hagarstown, 1887


The Hagarstown


Source: North China Herald, 8 July 1887

  An extraordinary accident occurred on Tuesday on the American ship Hagarstown, resulting in the death of one man, and serious injury to another. The ship left the old Dock buoy about 1.30 p.m. on Tuesday for New York, in tow of the Fuhlee.  Her owner, Mr. A. Webster, accompanied her down the river in his steam launch to see her well on her way.  She had left her moorings about half or three quarters of an hour, and was nearly opposite the point, and a large portion of her crew were engaged in fishing the anchor, when her fish tackle pennant lashing parted and the whole of the heavy gear attached crashed down amongst the men on the forecastle deck, knocking four of them overboard.  A strong flood tide was running at the time and the men were rapidly carried astern.  Life-buoys were quickly thrown from the ship and Mr. Webster immediately went to their rescue in his launch.  He succeeded in picking up John Healy, boatswain, who appeared to be injured by the tackle as well as being half-drowned.    A Chinese junk lent very valuable and timely assistance and picked up Murdoch, the third mate, and a Japanese named S. Kancatchee.
  The fourth man, Charles Blifford, an ex constable in the Municipal Police, was seen to plunge wildly about in the water and it was evident that he was badly hit as he was a good swimmer.  He sank two or three times and came to the surface again, but before aid could reach him he sank, not to appear, before his comrades'' eyes. [See 1887: R. v. Blifford & US v. Blifford.]
  Captain Morrison was amongst those who saw him disappear.  Search was made for the body but in vain, and it is not expected that it will be recovered for some days.  Healy was brought ashore and conveyed to the hospital, where it was found that his leg had been very seriously fractured, and he was detained a patient.
  The accident is supposed to have been caused by an undue strain on the permanent lashing.  The people on board the junk deserve the greatest credit for the assistance they renderer upon the occasion, exhibiting as they did what was an unusual anxiety, for Chinese, to save life.  Murdoch and the Japanese are not seriously injured.  Captain Morrison made a statement to General Kennedy, containing the facts above related, immediately after the unfortunate occurrence and shipped two new hands.
  The ship left on Tuesday night, but we should have thought that there would have been an enquiry before she left, to ascertain if anyone, and if so who, is responsible for the accident and loss of life. The English law compels such an enquiry in the case of a British ship.


Source: North China Herald, 15 July 1887

PRESSURE on our space and time prevented us from referring at length yesterday to the letter of Mr. Artemas Webster on the accident to his ship the Hagarstown and the various results therefrom.  Mr. Webster was nominally replying to a short paragraph in our paper of Monday, but he judiciously said little about it and took up another and very different issue.  What we had pointed out was that no official enquiry into the circumstances of the death of a man called Healy had taken place.  Healy had been injured in the accident on board the Hagarstown, had been taken to the hospital, and had died there.  No official enquiry had been held on this man's death, and we ventured to say that if the deceased had been a  British subject a very searching enquiry would have been instituted and an effort made to fix the blame and responsibility, if any were due, in the proper quarter.  This moderate expression of opinion appears to have excited the surprise of Mr. Webster, though it would be difficult for him to show to the satisfaction of a few men of unbiased minds how he should have felt himself affected by it. He was certainly not in our mind when we wrote the paragraph to which he takes exception, and beyond the fortuitous circumstance that he happens to be the owner of the Hagarstown he was, we think no more required to offer his opinion on the case or on what we said of it than any lounger in the street.
  He had however thought differently, and either as the owner of the Hagarstown, or as a volunteer defender of the United States officials here, he has informed us that there was no necessity for an inquest.  That is an opinion which he will not find shared by many disinterested residents.  A very little trouble will show him that it is generally considered here that there should have been more searching inquiry into all the circumstances attending the accident on board the Hagarstown, and that less desire to make things as comfortable as possible for the owners and others concerned in this ship would have been in conformity with the judicial functions which are imposed on the American officials in Shanghai.
  Whether American law required that an official enquiry should have been held or no, scarcely touches the question at issue, which is that two men have died from an accident on board an American ship and that an inquest on one of them - at which Mr. Webster, the owner of the ship, was the only witness examined as to what took place when the accident occurred - is the only official examination which has been held.  As a matter of fact, nothing satisfactory has been elicited as to the cause of the accident.  It may be that there is nothing to be found out, but that should have been formally ascertained by an official enquiry. Such a proceedings if it had no other effect might have displayed that "legal knowledge and good sense of the Consul-General,:" which it appears "the Americans" are ready to accept in place of those legalised proceedings which people of other nationalities have found it necessary to employ as safeguards of the interests of masters, seamen, and owners.  
  What has occurred since our paragraph appeared shows that the satisfaction with which Mr. Webster reposes on the legal knowledge and good sense of the Consul-General has probably not been altogether unwarranted.  For, some time on Monday it seems to have occurred to some one that more was required than simply burying Healy, and accordingly a certificate as to the cause of death was obtained on that day from Dr. Little.  It is to this certificate, which was not in existence when our paragraph appeared, that Mr. Webster appeals as evidence that no inquest was necessary and also implies that in consequence of it our paragraph was uncalled for.
  In this case, as in every case arising from accidents on board ship, whether in harbor or at sea, we find that it is the duty of the representatives of every nation to do everything to ascertain the truth by formal proceedings in regard to such occurrences.  The differences between the laws of different countries do not affect this contention that the officials of each should do all that is required of them.  People here are not so unreasonable as to expect more than that, and when they know that everything has been done that national law requires, they are satisfied.

Published by Centre for Comparative Law, History and Governance at Macquarie Law School