In the Crossways Cemetery in Tisbury can be found the fallen headstone of Joseph Dias Sr. and his wife, Sarah Manter. Dias served in the Continental Navy during the American Revolutionary War and was captured by the British. He later died aboard the infamous prison ship HMS Jersey. Very little else is known about his life or his military career, save for that he gave his life for his adopted country in its formative struggle.
What historians can reveal are the appalling conditions Dias would have endured in the vessel where he met his end in 1781.
In her article “Death had almost lost its sting: Disease on the prison ship Jersey,” historical writer and researcher Katie Turner Getty described the Jersey as “a gigantic 60-gun warship” that became a hospital ship, and then a floating prison. “The Jersey had been stripped of almost all sails, spars, and rigging. ‘Nothing remained but an old, unsightly, rotten hulk. Her dark and filthy external appearance perfectly corresponded with the death and despair that reigned within.’”
Inside, the vessel was “massively overcrowded,” Getty told The Times, sometimes with 1,100 to 1,200 men locked below decks at night. The British kept the Jersey moored off Brooklyn, N.Y., in Wallabout Bay, fairly close to shore.
Beset by disease, starvation, thirst, vermin, and temperature extremes, the huddled prisoners of the HMS Jersey died at a rate of around five to eight men a day, Getty said.
In the article “Walking skeletons: Starvation on board the Jersey prison ship,” Getty noted one survivor of the vessel described the bread served to prisoners as “mouldy, and filled with worms. It required considerable rapping upon the deck before the worms could be dislodged from their lurking places in a biscuit.”
Getty noted the same survivor recounted “morsels of beef or pork were also provided, but were so rancid ‘one would have judged from its motley hues, exhibiting the consistence and appearance of variegated fancy soap, that it was the flesh of the porpoise or sea-hog, and had been an inhabitant of the ocean rather than of the sty.’”
Men swarmed with lice. Getty wrote of one starving man who ate them from his clothing. Some froze, or partly froze. “There are accounts of men’s feet cracking off,” Getty said.
The dead were either tossed overboard or buried shallowly in nearby dunes. “Bones littered that shoreline for years,” Getty said.
Speaking at the Museum of the American Revolution, historical author Robert P. Watson described the HMS Jersey as a “psychological weapon of terror.” He claimed that on the vessel, “twice as many Americans died than died during combat during the entirety of the American Revolution.”
Getty said the figure for deaths aboard the Jersey that’s frequently used is 11,644 men, but added it’s a number of uncertain provenance.
Getty said she found it likely the body of Joseph Dias Sr. never came back to the Vineyard, as she has found no record of the dead being returned to their hometowns from the Jersey.
“The Revolution is the most romanticized of all America’s wars,” Martha’s Vineyard Museum historian and librarian Bow Van Riper wrote in an email, “but Joseph Dias reminds us of the hard truth behind the romance. War for a noble cause is still war: Good people die, often in terrible hardship, leaving those who loved them to grieve and remember.”