Sunday, October 8, 2017

In Sight of Shore: Prison Ships

By the light of the torches, we saw the black Hulk laying out a little way from the mud of the shore, like a wicked Noah’s ark. Cribbed and barred and moored by massive rusty chains, the prison-ship seemed in my young eyes to be ironed like the prisoners. We saw the boat go alongside, and we saw him taken up the side and disappear. Then, the ends of the torches were flung hissing into the water, and went out, as it if were all over with him.
Young Pip from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations witnesses an escaped convict returned to his floating prison in the Thames estuary.

Down through the centuries ships have been turned to many dark purposes. Most with even a passing knowledge of history know of the slave ships that brought Africans to the New World, of the convict ships that took prisoners from Great Britain to its far-flung colonies, as well as of the widespread use of both slaves and convicts to row galleys from ancient times through the 18th century. (Think Jean Valjean.) World War II brought the Japanese “hell-ships” that transported POWs to labor camps.

Not all may be familiar with the history of ships as anchored, floating prisons. 


In retrospect, the use of old, retired ships – or hulks – as places of incarceration is only logical. The derelict vessels were ready-made, needing only simple adjustments, the surrounding water made a natural moat or barrier to escape, and the nearness to shore allowed for the dispatch of parties of prisoners under guard, and often chained, to be used as forced labor or rented out to local farmers. Little niceties, such as humane treatment for prisoners or communication with families, could be more easily overlooked in the isolated conditions afforded by these offshore prisons.

The Jersey, a sketch from the memoirs of Captain Dring.

Prison hulks were an accepted sight on the Thames and at other locations in Dickens’ time and before. They also became a familiar sight in New York Harbor and other points along the shores of the colonies during the American Revolution. The Jersey was perhaps the most infamous of several ships used by the British to confine rebels taken prisoner during that conflict. Captain Thomas Dring of the Continental Navy wrote later of his months as an inmate of the ship, describing the abysmal conditions in lurid detail:

But terrible indeed was the condition of most of my fellow captives. Memory still brings before me those emaciated beings, moving from the Galley, with their wretched pittance of meat; each creeping to the spot where his mess were assembled, to divide it with a group of haggard and sickly creatures, their garments hanging in tatters around their meagre limbs, and the hue of death upon their care-worn faces. [1]
Historians believe that more American combatants died while imprisoned by the British than perished on the battlefield.


Gold Rush California was served by at least two prison ships, both anchored in San Francisco Bay. That town was overpowered by a ragtag influx of gold-seekers from all over the world in 1849 and the early 1850s. The single “calaboose” supplied by the Mexican authorities soon proved inadequate to house the many rowdies. It was natural for the town council to turn to one of the many abandoned sailing vessels in the bay. The Euphemia was purchased from her owner for $3500 and retrofitted for use as both a prison and an insane asylum beginning in 1850, the same year California became a state of the Union. [2]

About a year later the state obtained the Waban for service as a prison ship. Local newspapers deplored the congested and unsanitary conditions of both the water-borne and land-based detention facilities, comparing them to the Black Hole of Calcutta.  These floating dungeons did not last long; by 1852 prisoners from the Waban were being used to build San Quentin Prison.


In the 20th century, a more developed correctional system in the United States had no need for make-shift prisons for civilian prisoners. However, the United States Navy found a use for prison ships for court-martialed sailors at a number of bases and shipyards. On the West Coast the shipyard at Mare Island, founded in 1853 and located in San Francisco’s North Bay, was the primary detention facility for wayward sailors from throughout the Pacific. Ships were pulled into service from time to time to take the overflow of miscreants from the ever-squeezed shore facilities. The prisoners included a fellow named McDonough, who deserted his position on the battleship Missouri in China in order to see his girlfriend, [3] and another man named Lukesh, a Navy Paymaster with a shady history which included disrobing in a public dining place, confined for public drunkenness. [4]  Both were held on the gunboat Manila in the early 1900s.

In 1944, during the infamous Port Chicago court-martial, a number of the accused were held temporarily on an overcrowded prison barge at Mare Island.


But ships as prisons were something far removed from our shores in the Pacific Northwest. Or were they?

With the chronic overcrowding at the Mare Island prison facilities, the navy turned to its newer base on Puget Sound. In 1908, 70 detainees were taken on two ships from Mare Island to the Puget Sound Navy Yard at Bremerton, to be housed on another ship – the USS Nipsic. That venerable gunboat had served in the Civil War for the Union Navy and barely survived a massive 1889 hurricane in Apia Harbor, Samoa, that destroyed a number of vessels. In 1892, newly repaired at Mare Island, she had been brought up to Bremerton to serve the needs of the newly established Puget Sound Navy Yard. At that time a large deck house or “barn” was constructed on her deck as a drill hall. Nipsic was originally used as a receiving ship – a barracks for new naval recruits. 

The Nipsic as she appeared when she first arrived in Bremerton. Photo courtesy of Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, Joe Williamson Collection.

The Nipsic at anchor at Puget Sound Naval Yard; the new deck house is clearly visible. Photo courtesy of Puget Sound Naval Museum.

Sometime between 1903 and 1907 (sources vary), with the arrival of the larger USS Philadelphia, Nipsic was converted to a prison ship. However, she was not put into service as such until early 1908, in time to receive the Mare Island folks. At that time government records list her with a capacity of 125 inmates. The diagram below shows the lay-out of the ship with prison cells in the lower deck and something called “Dark Cells” in the hold below. One can only guess that the dark cells were solitary confinement. 

Inboard profile of Nipsic as a prison ship, ca. 1905. Adapted by Richard M. Anderson from a sketch in the Holbrook Collection, Kitsap Regional Library, Bremerton, WA; appears in Richard M. Anderson, “The USS Nipsic,” The Sea Chest, June 1996.

The centennial history of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard quotes one Ray Raines on his memories of the Nipsic.
All portholes and windows were barred over, and she was painted black from waterline to her stubby mastheads. The prisoners served court martial sentences for serious crimes -- not just drinking or a few days of AWOL. They were serving time at hard labor, and did menial work around the Yard, such as cleaning streets, raking leaves etc. They wore prison-grey uniforms and worked under the watchful eyes of a Marine guard armed with a sawed-off pump-action shotgun --- loaded with buckshot. I was told at the time, and quite likely it was true, that if a prisoner in a work party escaped, the Marine guard would be court-martialed, and if found guilty of neglect, he would be sentenced to serve out the unexpired term of the escapee ... I never heard of a prisoner escaping from a work party. [5]
Raines’ description might lead us to suspect that Mare Island sent its worst up to Bremerton. However, newspaper accounts of the day tell us of one man who had served several months on the Nipsic in 1909 for the simple crime of overstaying his furlough. This man, Chandler Rogers, made news headlines due to a subsequent bout of amnesia which wiped out all memory of his time on the prison ship. [6]

The Nipsic’s career as a prison ship was her last service to the US Navy. In 1912 the Nipsic was replaced by the cruiser Philadelphia as the station’s prison ship. The Philadelphia continued in that role for about four years until the Navy chose to consolidate its prison facilities at Portsmouth, New Hampshire (really in Maine!) and at Mare Island.


There is one other interesting historical anecdote connecting prison ships to Puget Sound. In 1915 a floating museum, the Success, dropped anchor in Seattle and in Tacoma; Her gangplanks were lowered for visitors to view exhibits depicting the British penal system of transporting convicts to colonies in Australia. The paradoxically-named Success had a lengthy history of displaying the horrors of penal transportation throughout the world, including an appearance at the San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. It was a supreme effort of showmanship worthy of P.T. Barnum – in fact, the Success had never been a convict ship, although it did have a brief career as a prison hulk in South Australia, approximately 1852 to 1857. 

The Success moored at the Tacoma Municipal Dock on Foss Waterway in 1915. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library, Marvin D. Boland Collection G50.1.103.

The ship did make for enthralling viewing. In the words of a local reporter, “more than 15,000,000 persons have inspected the vessel, gazing with horror into her gloomy cells and blackholes, where the original chains and instruments of torture still clank tragically with the roll of the antiquated hulk.” [7]  That’s an impressive, if suspect, attendance figure, even if calculated over a period of some twenty years. According to the article, the Success was spending the winter of 1915/16 lying up in the Snohomish River.

Gruesome images of the displays on the Success, including this one, are available on the Facebook Page “Sailing Ship Success.”  

Promotional postcard; image courtesy of Rich Norgard,

For a more humorous look at the horrible hulk, go along with film stars Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand as they tour the ship in the film reel “Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco,” available through the Library of Congress. Pick up the hijinks at about minute 10:00 and don’t miss Fatty’s interaction with the iron maiden!


No prison ships currently ride the waves of Puget Sound. The same cannot be said with assurance of the rest of the seven seas. The very nature of ships – contained, yet movable – make them ideal for shadowy doings. It is likely that prison ships still float many parts of the world, with ghosts both dead and alive.

-- Eleanor Boba


[1] Thomas Dring, Reflections of the Jersey Prison Ship, edited by Albert Greene (Providence: H.H. Brown, 1829).

[2] James P. Delgado, "Gold Rush Jail: The Prison Ship “Euphemia,’ California History," Vol. 60, No. 2, Summer 1981.

[3] “Romance of Fleet Ends in Irons,” The (San Francisco) Call, December 15, 1908.

[4] “Lukesh put in Mare Island Prison Ship,” The (San Francisco) Call, January 9, 1907. “Lukesh Prevailed Upon to Resign,” Ibid., January 16, 1907.

[5] Louise M. Reh and Helen Lou Ross, Nipsic to Nimitz: A Centennial History of Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (Bremerton, WA: Federal Managers’ Association, 1991).

[6] “S. Chandler Rogers Took Name of Kenny,” The Seattle Daily Times, November 1, 1911.

[7] “Convict Ship Success, Oldest Craft in World, Offered Grain Charter,” The Seattle Daily Times, February 20, 1916. It should be noted that the Success was not the oldest commissioned craft in the world; that claim was held then and continues to be held by the USS Constitution.

Special thanks to Karl House and Joe Baar, Puget Sound Maritime, and Megan Churchwell, Puget Sound Navy Museum.