William Brown (ship)

William Brown was an American ship that sank in 1841, taking with her 31 passengers. A further 16 passengers were forced out of an overloaded lifeboat before the survivors were rescued. In the case of United States v. Holmes, crewman Alexander Holmes was charged with murder and convicted of manslaughter for his actions.

Name: William Brown
Fate: Sank on 19 April 1841
General characteristics

Sinking and rescue

Under the command of Captain George Harris, the ship departed from Liverpool on March 18, 1841 for Philadelphia with 17 seamen and 65 passengers, mostly poor Scottish and Irish emigrants. At about 10 p.m. on the night of April 19, William Brown struck an iceberg 250 miles (400 km) southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland and sank. The captain, eight seamen, and one passenger made it to the jolly boat (to be picked up six days later by a French fishing vessel), while nine crewmen and 32 passengers occupied the longboat. One person had died earlier on the voyage, and 31 passengers, many of them children, went down with the ship.[1]

Before the two boats parted ways to increase their chances of being found, Captain Harris placed the first mate, Francis Rhodes, in charge of the crowded, leaking longboat. At about 10 p.m., 24 hours after the sinking, the wind picked up, sending water over the longboat's gunwales, and it began to rain heavily. The first mate shouted, "This . . . won't do. Help me, God. Men, go to work."[1] When the crewmen did nothing, he stated, "Men, you must go to work, or we shall all perish."[1][2] Then, the seamen, among them Alexander Holmes, forced 12 men out of the boat. Two women also went into the frigid water, though they may have voluntarily followed their brother, Frank Askin. Early the next morning, two men were found to be hiding and were also jettisoned. All of the male passengers, except for two married men and a young boy, had been sacrificed,[1] while all of the crewmen remained aboard. Later that day, the survivors were picked up by the American ship Crescent and taken to Havre de Grâce, Seine-Maritime, France.[3]


When some of the passengers finally reached their destination of Philadelphia, they filed a complaint with the District Attorney. Holmes was the only crewman to be found in the city, so he was the only one charged. He was accused of murdering Frank Askin. A grand jury before Supreme Court Justice Henry Baldwin refused to indict him on that charge, so it was reduced to manslaughter. In the case of United States v. Holmes, the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to six months in jail and a $20 fine.[2] None of the other crewmen were ever brought to trial.


The 1937 film Souls at Sea, with Gary Cooper, George Raft, and Henry Wilcoxon, is somewhat based on the disaster, changing the cause of it to a fire accidentally set by a little girl. A story involving abolitionists against the slave trade is involved, but the conclusion has Cooper's character forced to jettison passengers out of the overcrowded lifeboat, and facing a trial for murder as a result.

The 1957 film Seven Waves Away (renamed Abandon Ship! in the USA), was also loosely based on the incident, with Tyrone Power starring as "Alec Holmes".

A 1975 made-for-television version, The Last Survivors, featured Martin Sheen.

See also


  1. "UNITED STATES v. HOLMES - Circuit Court, E. D. Pennsylvania. 26 F.Cas. 360 (1842)" (PDF).
  2. "Alexander Holmes Trial: 1842 - Holmes Tried For Manslaughter". Law Library - American Law and Legal Information. Retrieved March 8, 2009.
  3. "Dreadful Shipwreck". The Times (17671). London. 15 May 1841. col C, p. 6.
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