The ill-fated William and Mary departed from Liverpool with a human cargo of 208 British, Irish, and Dutch emigrants in early 1853. Many of the families on board suffered privations and stormy weather before they even reached the port of Liverpool, standing on wave-washed decks beside cattle and horses as the steamers pitched and tossed and threatened to go under, and the livestock squashed them against the sides. Scottish and English travellers fared far better in trains and carts or on foot, but once on board the newly-built ship their lives were just as at risk as those of their fellow passengers.
Fourteen soon died of measles, yellow fever, and other common ailments – probably hastened to a watery grave by the lack of ship surgeon or effective medicines, and the inexperienced captain’s insistence on prescribing slices of ham as a cure-all. As their supplies of already meagre and rotting provisions dwindled, the William and Mary sailed more slowly than it should have across the Atlantic towards New Orleans, and the emigrants feared they might starve.
Passengers were also horrified and unnerved by the brutal torture of their cook on deck, and the crew’s threats to do the same to them if they complained or attempted to help him. Trapped and fearing for their well-being if not their lives, the emigrants were delighted when they eventually saw land for the first time in weeks, and celebrated their anticipated arrival in America with laughter and singing – only for the ship to wreck in the Bahamas in mysterious circumstances.
Captain Timothy Stinson chose to sail through the treacherous shallows of the New Bahama Channel, a notorious wrecking site full of rocks and coral outcrops that had claimed another vessel just a few weeks prior. When the William and Mary entered the channel during a storm, standard procedure would have been to slowly proceed while the crew continually sounded the lead, checking the depth of the channel as they watched for hazards. Stinson only ordered the depth to be checked once in half an hour and soon the hull was impaled on one rock, washed onto another, then freed by another enormous wave. Stinson and his crew proceeded to lie about the depth of water flooding into the hold, doubling the figures and terrifying the passengers.
Then, instead of grounding the holed vessel on a nearby shore or building rafts for the passengers, Stinson and the majority of his crew sneaked away in lifeboats stuffed with supplies – murdering at least two of the emigrants with a hatchet as they did so – and reported the ship sunk with all on board lost before their eyes.
But as the cowardly captain sailed for the American coast, the passengers divided into groups and manned the pumps, keeping the ship afloat and hoisting a distress signal which caught the eye of a passing crew of wreckers two days later. All were rescued by these heroic Bahamians as the William and Mary sank, leaving the courageous Captain Robert “Amphibian” Sands to swim up from the bowels of the ship as it went down around him.
Arriving in New York a few days later, Captain Stinson and his crew quickly disappeared to other states or on other vessels, leaving newspapers to bewail the tragedy around the world and families to mourn their dead – then rejoice several weeks later as the truth came to light.
Now, over 160 years on, the tale of the two murdered in Bahamian waters and the hundreds who escaped thanks to kindly wreckers can finally be told. Stinson and his crew are no longer getting away with murder.