'Ship of Blood': New book revives forgotten true crime tale from early 1900s Wilmington –

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Murder on the high seas: The story drew headlines in The New York Times, The Washington Post and other papers, who sent reporters to Wilmington to cover it. 
On Oct. 10, 1905, the four-masted schooner Harry A. Berwind was spotted zig-zagging erratically, a distress beacon shining from its mast, about 30 miles off Cape Fear.
Boarding parties found a bloody scene. The captain, first mate, engineer and cook had all been killed and thrown overboard. A fifth sailor was shot and killed.
The Berwind was towed into Southport and its three surviving crewmen locked in the county jail, charged with mutiny. 
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What happened? Determining that would be the focus of two of the highest-profile trials ever held in Wilmington. Charlotte criminal lawyer Charles Oldham retells the story in his new book “Ship of Blood: Mutiny and Slaughter Aboard the Harry A. Berwind and the Quest for Justice.”
Essentially, there were two competing stories. Did crewman Henry Scott, a known sorehead, go on a bloody, one-man rampage in the middle of the night? Or did fellow crewmen Arthur Adams and Robert Sawyer join in what amounted to mutiny?
In an age of Jim Crow — barely seven years since 1898, when a white mob had overthrown Wilmington’s city government and gone on a killing spree — the story had another complication. Of the five dead men, four were white. Of the three suspects, all were Black.
Relying heavily on newspaper accounts and a few surviving transcripts, Oldham navigates the legal ironies of the case. Since murder on the high seas is a federal crime, the defendants were spared trials in state courts at a time when Black suspects were often lynched even before a verdict.
Also, most of the lawyers defending these sailors were men who had been part of the white supremacist conspiracy that pulled off America’s only successful coup d’etat to date. Men such as George Rountree and Alfred Moore Waddell figured in the case, and they and their friends would end up petitioning appeals courts and presidents for leniency for these men.
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Oldham clearly knows how a courtroom works, but he labors under some serious limitations. Aside from news clippings, very little is known about the three defendants or their dead shipmates. 
Inevitably, then, “Ship of Blood” seems a little padded. Oldham provides an extended history of the events of 1898 and their aftermath and he throws in colorful episodes — Jack London’s career at sea, how Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son wound up in the Atlanta Penitentiary, the sad fate of the “buffalo soldiers” of the 25h Infantry — most of which have only vestigial connection to the main story.
In narrating the trial and appeals, however, Oldham shows how criminal and constitutional law evolved ever so slowly toward more humane ends. Local characters such as James Sprunt put in appearances, as does one-time matinee idol H.B. Warner, who in his later years would co-star memorably in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“Ship of Blood” sometimes steers off in tangents, but it never bores.
‘SHIP OF BLOOD: Mutiny and Slaughter Aboard the Harry A. Berwind and the Quest for Justice’
By Charles Oldham
Beach Glass Books, $28



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