Skip to Content

Colonial Cases

United States v. Gay, 1898

[arson on ship]


United States v. Gay

United States Consular Court, Shanghai
Goodnow, 10 February 1898
Source: North China Herald, 14 February,1898



Shanghai, 10th February.

Before John Goodnow, Esq., Consul-General, and Messrs. A. W. Danforth and AS. Doctter, Associates.


   Thomas Gay, A.B. belonging to the American ship Luzon, was charged with attempting to set fire to that vessel on Tuesday night.

   Prisoner pleaded guilty, and made a statement to the effect that on Tuesday night he went on board and took an old pair of drawers from his bunk. He soaked them in kerosene, set them on fire, and dropped them down the ventilator into the fore-hold. Prisoner could not say what his object was for doing so.  He had been ashore, but had not been drinking. He had had some trouble with his shipmates, but not with the officers. He joined the ship on the 19th of August last, in New York. After he had dropped the burning drawers into the hold he woke up the other men, as he felt sorry for what he had done. Could not say what made him do it.

   Capt. Park, of the Luzon, was called and sworn. He said the prisoner joined the ship in New York. Witness had never had trouble with him personally, but a few days after leaving New York there was some trouble between prisoner and the officers. Prisoner went on shore on Tuesday without applying for leave. He could not say if prisoner had been drinking, but heard so. On Tuesday night witness was on board the ship McLaurin with the Captain and returned on board the Luzon on Wednesday morning. The mate then showed him a bucket containing some burnt rags and said that during the night someone had dropped the rags, soaked in kerosene, into the 'tween decks and tried to set the ship on fire. Witness sent to the McLaurin for Captain Oaks, who came on board and inspected the fire.  All the men were called below and asked about, but no on admitted doing it. Prisoner was the first man questioned and he denied having had any hand in it. He said he came out on deck during the night and saw smoke issuing from the ventilator. Witness had him placed in irons and brought to the Consulate. 

   Albert Douglas, mate of the Luzon, was called. He said that between twelve and one o'clock on Tuesday night the prisoner came to him and said, "The watchman is asleep and the ship is on fire." Witness got up out of his room as quickly as possible and went down below, where he found some pieces of charred rag, one of which was smouldering (witness here produced some burnt rags and a piece of flannel soaked in kerosene). The woodwork of the ship was just charred sufficiently for one to see that there had been a fire.

   Prisoner - There was no part of the ship burned at all. What was burned was a piece of plank -  damaged - that had been thrown down the hold.

   Witness - The part of the vessel which was burned is quite visible. His Honour (to Witness) - Well, you take care that the part of the ship which you say is burned is not disturbed until I have seen it.

   Nils Eriksen, s seaman belonging to the Luzon, said that on Sunday night prisoner told him that he was leaving the Luzon to go to the "Cleveland." The conversation took place outside the door of the "Cleveland." Prisoner was not drunk. He said if he could get away from the Luzon he was going to take a situation at the "Cleveland" and would do something to the ship before he left. He did not say what he would do.

   J. Connolly, seaman on board the Luzon, said that prisoner told him on Monday evening that he would like to see the ship burn, and that he was not going to sea in her any more as he was going to "run" for the "Cleveland." Witness saw him on board on Tuesday when the fire happened. Prisoner said nothing about the fire to him. Jacob Hopmeister and C. Eljistrom, seamen belonging to the Luzon, gave corroborative evidence.

   Prisoner, in reply to the Court, said he went on board, soaked a pair of drawers in kerosene and put them down the ventilator. As soon as he had done this he was sorry for it and went and called the mate. He did not know why he did it. He had not got a berth ass a "runner" for the "Cleveland House."  He had not spoken to the Captain about it and had never said that he wished the ship would burn, but several times when he was in trouble he had said he would like to see her blow up. He had no money coming to him and had not asked for his discharge. His idea was to do something that would procure his discharge from the ship.

   The hearing of the case was then adjourned until 3.30 in the afternoon in order that His Honour and the Associates might visit the Luzon.

   On resuming after tiffin,

   His Honour said - The Associates and myself have been to the ship, and we have seen the traces of the fire. The charge against this man is one of arson - which consists in maliciously or deliberately setting or attempting to set fire to any building, or, in this case, vessel, ordinarily occupied by human beings. The essence of the charge is the danger to human life, and not primarily the destruction of property. In this case there were seventeen people on this vessel. 

   This setting on fire, or attempting to set on fire, took place between twelve o'clock and one o'clock at night, and the vessel was then lying in the middle of the Woosung River, opposite to the mouth of the Yangtzepoo Creek, and was lying in such a situation that these sailors and officers, in case of the ship burning, had only their choice of being burned to death or being drowned in attempting to get on shore. It was a physical impossibility for any sailor who jumped off that ship, lying where she was and with the tide running as it was then, to swim ashore.

   The prisoner is not a citizen of the United States, by birth or adoption, but whilst on the articles of an American ship he comes under the jurisdiction of this Court. The Associates have to determine as to whether this man is guilty of the charge of attempting to set fire to this ship maliciously and deliberately and whether there was such burning, destroying the fibre of the wood of the vessel as would constitute arson. He has confessed that he attempted to set fire to the ship with kerosene and this constitutes the crime of arson, provided the woodwork caught fire enough to destroy and of the fibre of the woodwork. That is the question you (Associates) have to determine after having seen the burned ship with your own eyes. As this man has owned his guilt, you will only have to decide whether the conditions found on the ship are such as are necessary to make that crime arson. The fact that the crime was committed at night will make it arson in the first degree, if you decide to make it arson at all.

   The Associates concurred in the opinion that the case was one of arson on the first degree.

   His Honour - This man is guilty of arson in the first degree, (To prisoner) - You will remain in prison to be dealt with, and the Court will take your sentence into consideration.

11th February.

   Thomas Gay, A.B. belonging to the American ship Luzon, was brought up for sentence for attempting to set fire to the ship on Thursday night.

   In reply to the Court the prisoner said he had nothing to say before sentence was pronounced.

   His Honour, in passing sentence, said - I have considered your case very carefully and the crime of which you stand here now convicted is a very serious one. It is not only a question of the destruction of a great deal of property, but a question of seventeen human lives which were at stake on that ship. I have seen the ship and the place where the ship lies, and if you had delayed calling the mat when you did I have not the slightest doubt that most of these men would have lost their lives by being burnt to death or by being drowned in attempting to reach the shore, running as the tide was then. 

   The ship is a wooden ship, and old ship, and had she caught fire she would have burned like a match-box.  When you threw that burning rag down the ventilator you took into your hands the lives of those seventeen men. You not only endangered your own life, but the lives of all on board. You are just as morally guilty of the attempted murder of those seventeen men as if you had gone into the cabin with a knife. There cannot be too much consideration upon that point.

   You have no excuse for doing what you have done. It was not done in a fit of anger.  You obviously had deliberately made up your mind to do it. You cannot excuse yourself on the grounds of drunkenness, for you were perfectly sober at the time, and you would not have been justified in acting as you did had you not been sober.  You had not been hanging around a saloon that night, but, on the contrary, had been to the Mission and had come under its good influence.  You have said you wanted to see the ship burned out, that you wanted to see her blown up, that you wanted the ship to go to the bottom of the sea.

   You had no reasonable case against the Captain and officers of the ship; you have complained of no brutality nor any ill-treatment on their part; and there was nothing shown in this Court that there is anything between you and your shipnmates except the petty quarrels which are usual between sailors.  There is, however, one point in your favour, and that is the fact that you were afraid of what you had done and that you called the mate. It was evident that you thought very little of the lives of those other seventeen men.

    This Court has determined that all sailors coming on American ships - wether American citizens, or not - to this, and so far as I can influence it, all other ports on this coast, who wilfully and maliciously endanger property and the lives of sailors coming here, shall be dealt with severely, and the sentence of this court is that you be imprisoned for a term of two years with hard labour. 

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