This Was Then: The Christmas mutiny of 1857

Who killed Archibald Mellen?


An empty grave in Edgartown is topped with a stone bearing a remarkable engraving:

“Capt. Archibald Mellen Jr.born at Tisbury June 5, 1830, and murdered on board Ship Junior of New Bedford off the coast of New Zealand. Dec. 25, 1857: by Cyrus W. Plummer, who with others of his crew had entered into a conspiracy to seize  the Ship and proceed to the gold diggins of Australia.”

Archibald Mellen Jr. was born in Tisbury but grew up in Edgartown, where his father worked as a schoolteacher. When he turned 20, the young mariner shipped as fourth mate and boatsteerer on the whaling ship Gideon Howland. He sailed next as second mate on a four-year cruise of the ship Young Phoenix, to the Sea of Okhotsk, chasing bowheads off the islands of Siberia. Upon returning home, Mellen enrolled in a navigation program at Comer’s Commercial College in Boston. Finally, he accepted his first position as master, upon the whaling ship Junior of New Bedford. 

So on July 20, 1857, Mellen signed his last will and testament, “being about departing on a whaling voyage in Ship Junior,” bequeathing his belongings to his siblings and widowed father. The next day he set sail on the Junior, fitted out for a two-year cruise for sperm whales in the North Pacific. 

The new captain was, by most accounts, a little green. The 27-year-old master left most of the discipline to his first mate, Nelson Provost of Nantucket, who was described as “an exceptionally cruel man.” The food was said to be rotten, and the treatment of the crew “harsh.” Six months passed; the vessel traveled around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean, bound for New Zealand. They never made it.

On Christmas night, 1857, while the officers slept, five crewmen crept into their quarters, their motives never fully clear. Cyrus Plummer, a 24-year-old harpooner from Providence, R.I., and ringleader of this group of mutineers, shot the sleeping captain with three balls from a 35-pound whaling gun. “Oh my God, what is this?” the captain is said to have exclaimed upon awakening. “God damn you, it is me,” Plummer reportedly replied, seizing him by the hair as another mutineer, Charles Fifield, struck him with a hatchet until he died. The first mate, Provost, was similarly shot as he slept, but managed to escape, even as his bed was set aflame. “Havoc” ensued, and a bloody fight broke out. The second mate, Henry Lord, was wounded, and the third mate, John Smith, was shot dead, and his body afterward decapitated with a spade. “What a carnival of blood for a Christmas morning!” observed a newspaper reporter in the avalanche of press that would follow.

The next morning, the captain’s legs were wrapped with a chain, and his body, together with that of Smith, was thrown overboard into the Tasman Sea, several hundred miles southeast of the Australian coast. Provost hid in the hold for five days with a serious chest wound before he was discovered, near death, seeking water. The mutineers agreed to spare Provost’s life if he helped them navigate the ship to the Australian coast.

A long confession was penned into the ship’s logbook, specifically exonerating Provost, and signed by five mutineers: Plummer, “John Hall,” William Cartha, Cornelius Burns, and William Herbert. “All others in the ship are quite innocent of the deed,” they wrote.

When they were about 20 miles from the Australian coast, the five declared mutineers, together with five additional crewmen, gathered everything of value on the ship and lowered two boats on which to escape. The remaining crew, including First Mate Provost, took the ship to Sydney.

Four of them — Plummer, Cartha, Jacob Rike, and Charles Stanley — made their way up the coast in their whaleboat to the port of Twofold Bay. Wandering into town and spending their loot, the four men soon attracted attention with their fine clothes, excessive spending, and conspicuous behavior. Plummer, who had taken on the name “Captain Wilson,” quickly earned a reputation for his wild stories and the attention he lavished upon the local women. Their arrests came soon after.

The other six landed on a remote shore. Struggling for seven days through nearly impenetrable mallee scrub in the intense summer heat, they eventually stumbled into an Aboriginal village. From there they found another settlement, and split up. Four took jobs in a local town as brickmakers, cooks, and lumbermen, but were soon discovered and arrested. The other two, Burns and William Payne (who shipped under the pseudonym “John Hall”), vanished. They were never seen again.

In April 1858, the eight prisoners were shipped back to New Bedford in the ship they came on — the Junior, now retrofitted with eight strong, triangular cages built of Australian ironwood.

Their trials were a sensation in the press. Plummer had connections, and was able to hire a team of big-name lawyers — politically minded professionals like Benjamin Butler, who later became a general and then a senator, and finally governor of Massachusetts. But despite his first-class legal team, Plummer was convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. Three of his co-conspirators received five years and 10 months of hard labor in State Prison, and were fined $2,000 each.

Plummer maintained his innocence, fingering Fifield (who curiously listed his hometown as “Tisbury” on the return voyage) as Mellen’s murderer, and calling Provost “the most guilty person” of all of them. He claimed they had only intended on taking prisoners when events got out of hand. At his sentencing, Mellen produced a series of letters attesting to his good character, including one from Alfred Gardner, the Nantucket captain who brought the Junior home from Australia, stating his own conviction that Provost was indeed the true culprit. Capt. Gardner had such a bad impression of his fellow Nantucketer that he refused him passage home with the rest of the crew. And upon examining Captain Mellen’s bunk (on which he slept on the trip home), Gardner concluded that none of the balls could have struck him.

At the last moment, in response to a tidal wave of petitions from the public (including one, reportedly, from Ralph Waldo Emerson), Plummer’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by U.S. President James Buchanan. Plummer spent the next 15 years at Charlestown State Prison, until at the request of General Butler, President Ulysses S. Grant granted him an unconditional pardon in 1874. Plummer was a free man. (Archibald Mellen Sr., the captain’s father, still living in Edgartown, undoubtedly read about all this in the newspapers.)

The Junior was sold to a German merchant line. Capt. Provost left Nantucket and had a long and respected maritime career in California. Plummer died an aged hermit, living his final years alone near the Vulture mine in central Arizona, after a quarter-century of prospecting along the Pacific. Capt. Mellen’s gravestone stands a stone’s throw from the Edgartown library today, but his bones lie at the bottom of the sea on the other side of the earth.

“Thus, at an early age, at the flood tide of successful manhood, an intelligent, honest, and worthy man became the innocent victim to the insatiable ambition of these conspirators,” concludes his gravestone.