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United States Supreme Court

73 U.S. 582

The Wren

APPEAL from the District Court for the Southern District of Florida, condemning as prize of war the Wren.

The steamship Wren, a merchant vessel, left the port of Havana on the 12th of June, 1865, for Liverpool, via Halifax, Nova Scotia, with a crew of about thirty-five persons, who, on the morning of the next day, mutinied, confined the officers in their quarters, carried the vessel into the port of Key West, and delivered her as prize to the acting admiral commanding at that station. The seizure was in pursuance of secret arrangements with the United States consul at Havana, before the vessel left that port. A libel was filed against the vessel by the United States District Attorney, before the judge of the Southern District of Florida, as prize of war. The master, one Stiles, put in a claim in behalf of John Laird, a British subject, as owner.

This Stiles had been an officer in the navy of the United States. The record also disclosed this answer of his to the standing interrogatory as to the papers of the vessel:

All the letters and papers of which he has any knowledge of having been on board on the present voyage were taken by the asserted captors with the exception of one letter to himself from the agent of the vessel, Mr. Helms, at Havana, which was destroyed, and an order in favor of this deponent from Mr. Helms for the payment of £40, payable on delivery of the ship at Liverpool.

After hearing the proofs, including those hereafter mentioned, the court condemned the vessel on the ground that she was the property of the enemies of the United States. Laird appealed.

In this court it was insisted, that the vessel was liable to be condemned—

1. For breach of blockade on the voyage next preceding that on which she was captured.

2. As being enemies' property.

1. As respected the breach of blockade. It appeared that the vessel had been engaged in running the blockade of the port of Galveston, Texas, from the port of Havana, and that a shourt time before she entered on the present voyage she had successfully entered Galveston, discharged her cargo, and taken on one of cotton, and returned in safety to Havana.

2. As it respected the ownership. On the side of the claimant, it appeared from the registry of the vessel that the 'Wren,' her registered name, was a British ship, built at Birkenhead, in Chester County, England, by Messrs. Laird Brothers, in 1864; that she belonged to John Laird, the younger, of Birkenhead, ship-builder, as owner; that William Raisbeck was, at the date of the registry, master of the ship; that Liverpool was her port of registry; and that she was of 267 tons registry tonnage. The registry bore date the 24th December, 1864.

John Duggan, one of the crew examined in preparatorio, and who resided in Liverpool, testified that he shipped in the vessel at Liverpool, in December, 1864, on the voyage to Havana, and continued one of her crew while she was engaged in running the blockade, and down till her seizure by the crew, the 13th June, 1865. He stated that she was British built, called The Wren, and never had any other name; and that he knew nothing as it respected any bill of sale. Other witnesses examined on this subject of a sale agreed with this witness. Shipments addressed to him as master, dated Havana, 15th March, 1865, showed that Rais beck, the registered master of the vessel, came out with her to Havana. Stiles was appointed master afterwards.

On the other hand, the material evidence, to prove that the vessel at the time of seizure was enemies' property, was as follows: The answers of the purser of the ship, McGahan, to the fourteenth interrogatory were thus:

'He believes that Frazer, Trenholm & Co., of Liverpool, are the owners of the vessel, and were so at the time she was seized; has no personal knowledge as to who are the owners; he has heard Major Helms, at Havana, and Mr. Lafitte also, at Havana, speak of Frazer, Trenholm & Co., as owners.'

So Duggan, one of the crew, in reply to the fifth interrogatory:

'He does not know to whom the vessel belonged, but has heard Captain Moore, one of her former masters, with whom he sailed in said vessel in former voyages, say that she was owned by the Confederate government.'

Another item of proof relied on was, that Major Helms, a Confederate agent at Havana (and who had been connected in some way with the voyages of the vessel while running the blockade), appointed Stiles to the command of the vessel for the voyage from Havana to Liverpool. McGahan, the purser already mentioned, testified that the master was appointed to command, as he understood, by Major Helms, at Havana; he did not know who delivered possession of the vessel; he believed that the master took possession by the authority of Major Helms. Duggan, one of the crew, stated that the name of the master was Stiles; that he was appointed to the command of the vessel by Major Helms, at Havana.

McGahan was again examined, among others, on an order for further proofs, in which examination he says that he did not know who appointed Stiles to the command of the Wren at the time of leaving Havana; he believed that Major Helms appointed him; he arrived at the conclusion from hearing Major Helms speak of the resignation of the former captain.

It appeared, however, from the testimony of Stiles himself, and of Long, his first officer, that he was appointed to the command by a Mr. Ramsey, who shipped the crew at Havana for the voyage to Liverpool, and thus seemed to have had some agency of the vessel.

The first officer stated, also, that when he needed anything for the use of the vessel, he was generally sent by Captain Stiles to Ramsey to obtain it.

Mr. Pierrepont, for the appellant, contended—

On the 1st point: That the vessel having run the blockade and completed her return voyage, ceased to be in delicto. [1]

On the 2d point: That there was no sufficient evidence whatever-it being, at best, but slight and loose hearsay-of enemy property, even if war had not ceased before the capture, and made prize of war impossible. But the war had ceased. This capture was on June 16th. It was matter of public history, and one of which the court would take judicial notice, that Lee had surrendered 9th April, Kirby Smith and Johnson in the same month, and h at Davis was captured on the 13th May. Independently of this, that the capture was by a band of mutineers while the vessel was on a peaceful voyage, which took from the case every aspect of capture jure belli.

Mr. Ashton, special counsel of the United States, contra, argued—

1. That the last voyage before the capture having been one in breach of blockade, this subjected the vessel to lawful capture on the present voyage. [2]

2. That the register was a mere cloak for rebel title, that the Lairds were not novi hospites in this court. They were notorious as builders of the Alabama and other piratical cruisers of the rebel combination. Mr. Trenholm, of the firm of Frazer, Trenholm & Co., was a citizen of the rebel confederacy. The character of all these parties, and of rebel ship-building interests, was established by the judicial records of Great Britain and the diplomatic history of the late contest, [3] and were facts of which this court would take cognizance, and to which it would give due effect in a case of asserted ownership by these firms or any of their members, of a vessel found in any way employed or navigated in the interest of their rebel patrous. Moreover, Helm was an agent of the confederacy. Stiles had been an officer of its marine forces. And the spoliation of papers was the crowning proof. The capture was made nondum cessante bello, and though effected by non-commissioned persons, yet being adopted by the government, the property became on condemnation one of its droits, as it became, independently of capture, as part of the assets of the extinct confederation.

Mr. Justice NELSON delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  Wheaton on Captures, 306; Haslett v. Roche, Maritime Warfare, 175; 1 Duer on Insurance, 88; 1 Kent's Commentaries, 152; The Mentor, 1 Robinson, 179; The Rosalie and Betty, 2 Id. 343; The Nancy, 3 Id. 122; The Lisette, 6 Id. 387; Carrington v. The Merchants' Insurance Co., 8 Peters, 495; Williams v. Smith, 2 Caines, 1.

^2  The Christiansberg, 6 Robinson, 376.

^3  Diplomatic Correspondence, part 1, pp. 222, 377, 381, 382.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).