Chasing Shadows: The strange case of the Edward Rawlins

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In early March 1859, a party of four or five men walked into an Apalachicola hotel, announcing that they were from a hunting party and had come to town to stock up on provisions and ammunition. When they paid for their purchases with Spanish money, suspicions were aroused.

Being closely questioned, they admitted they were from a vessel lying in St. Joseph’s Bay. Why a vessel should be moored in that uninhabited body of water seemed very strange, and Robert J. Floyd, the customs collector for Apalachicola, decided to investigate, probably suspecting smuggling.

The Coast Survey Steamer Vixen was in Apalachicola mapping the bay. Mr. Floyd contacted the Vixen’s commander, Lt. John R. Duer, and on Monday, March 14, they left Apalachicola to investigate this mysterious vessel. Arriving the next day, they spotted a bark moored deep within the bay with its fore and main topgallant masts struck down. Approaching closer they saw that the name of the vessel had been expunged from the stern. Hailing the strange ship to identify herself, the reply was received that she was the Rosa Lee from Savannah. Still suspicious, the Vixen sent a boat over to inspect the stranger.

Boarding the bark, the inspectors from the Vixen were told by the officers on the Rosa Lee that the vessel had been damaged during their voyage from Havana and they had put into St. Joseph’s Bay to make repairs. They also stated that the captain had gone to Apalachicola and taken all the ship’s papers with him.

An examination of the ship revealed no storm damage, but an unusually large number of water casks, far more than would usually be carried for the size crew that would normally man such a vessel. Other articles and papers found onboard caused the inspectors to conclude that the vessel was being prepared for a trip to Africa to pick up a cargo of slaves. The Vixen towed the vessel back to Apalachicola Bay, where it was anchored in deep water about four miles from the city, until the courts could decide its fate.

Under questioning the crew revealed a very strange tale. The real name of the bark was the Edward A. Rawlins, and she had set sail from Savannah on the 15th of December with a cargo of rice for Havana. At the Cuban port most of the crew deserted, and some Spanish sailors and a Spanish captain came aboard. The American officers remained on board.

Upon leaving Havana, the bark was supposed to rendezvous with a schooner carrying supplies for a voyage to the west coast of Africa to load a cargo of slaves. For reasons that were never made clear, that trip never occurred.

Instead, the American officers tried to drug the Spanish captain with morphine in his coffee. After administering the narcotic, they planned to seize him and take the Edward A. Rawlins into an American port. When the four officers confronted the Spaniard, he fought back and was killed in the ensuing struggle. His body was dumped overboard, and the bark sailed to St. Joseph’s Bay.

Newspaper accounts from the time period universally call into question the veracity of this story. Some even questioned if the Spanish captain even existed at all.

Enough evidence existed in the form of testimony from the crew members that the four officers were charged with murder. Capt. Horace H. Hayden was not aboard the vessel when it had been seized. He had been in Apalachicola, but left on a small fishing boat about the time of the seizure. He was later apprehended in Pensacola and returned to Apalachicola for trial.

Likewise, First Mate Francis L. Norton, Second Mate Henry Sloan and Third Mate Mr. Thomas were also charged with murder. All four men were confined on board the Edward A. Rawlins as it lay anchored in Apalachicola Bay.

Murder on the high seas was a federal crime, so the men were scheduled to be tried in federal court. McQueen McIntosh was the federal judge for the Northern District of Florida. The court convened in Apalachicola on May 9, with Chandler C. Yonge the prosecutor for the U. S. government. The first trial, of Second Mate Henry Sloan, was delayed several days because an attorney to represent the accused could not be found. Finally, the U. S. Marshal, E. E. Blackburn, found an attorney traveling through Apalachicola for his health aboard a ship. He volunteered his service as the defense attorney, and with all the parties in place, the trial of Henry Sloan proceeded.

It was not a swift trial. The first jury was discharged for having improper communications with the public. A second jury was seated and heard testimony from all the witnesses, lasting several days. They returned a verdict of guilty of manslaughter, and Henry Sloan was sentenced to three years in the federal penitentiary and a fine of $1,000. Since there was no federal penitentiary in Florida, he was housed in the Apalachicola jail until he could be transported to Washington, D. C. for incarceration.

First Mate Francis L. Norton was the next man to be tried. The two juries called for the first trial had about exhausted the pool of potential jurors in Franklin County, so jurors from Gadsden County were called. On essentially the same evidence that had convicted the second mate, the jury found Francis Norton not guilty.

With few potential jurors available in Apalachicola, it was decided to move the trial of the captain, Horace Hayden, to Pensacola. Still confined onboard the bark in the bay several miles from town, on the night of June 26 Hayden jumped overboard. The splash was heard when he hit the water, but his body was never found. It was the general opinion in Apalachicola that there had been a boat waiting for him to jump, and it had plucked him out of the water and helped him in his escape.

Likewise, Henry Sloan never served his sentence or paid his fine. While still held in Apalachicola, one morning in July the jailer entered the jail to find the cell door open and Henry Sloan gone.

The abolitionist press was livid about the easy escapes of the convicted and accused officers. After trials costing the government $8,000, nobody was ever held accountable for the murder of the nameless Spanish captain on the Edward A. Rawlins. Although the men were on trial for murder and not for the illegal importation of slaves, the Northern press saw this incident as evidence of the weak enforcement of the laws regarding the slave trade in the Southern states. In recounting the incident, the Boston Journal opined, “Such are the vigorous measures by which the government is putting down the slave trade. The slave traders may well be indifferent as to whether the laws are repealed or not.”

The Edward A. Rawlins was rumored to be owned by Charles A. L. Lamar, of Savannah. He had led a group of investors who had financed an illegal slave ship, the Wanderer, that deposited a cargo of over 500 smuggled African slaves on Jekyll Island in Nov. 1858. Mr. Lamar, along with other men associated with the Wanderer, was prosecuted, but not convicted, for engaging in the illegal slave trade a year after the trial of the Rawlins’ officers.

The Edward A. Rawlins was confiscated by the U. S. government and sold at auction at the end of August 1859 to the Apalachicola customs collector, R. J. Floyd, for $5,250.

Lt. John R. Duer, the commander of the Vixen, who had helped apprehend the Edward A. Rawlins, died in Apalachicola on June 14, 1859. The preliminary chart of Apalachicola Bay that the party under his command drew up had been published in 1858. Other maps, including the western part of St. George’s Sound, were published a couple of years later, and acknowledged Duer’s contribution.

Robert J. Floyd died in the early 1860s. His only son, Gabriel, married the daughter of Dr. John Gorrie. Gabriel Floyd was killed in Virginia on Feb. 5, 1865, where he was serving as a captain in the 11th Florida Infantry Regiment.

Judge McQueen McIntosh went on to represent Calhoun County in the Florida Secession Convention. He resigned his federal judgeship in 1861 and was appointed the judge of the Confederate District Court for Florida. He died in Pensacola in 1868.

Charles A. L. Lamar became a colonel in the Confederate Army. He was killed in Columbus, Georgia after the Battle of Columbus in April 1865, under strange circumstances. One report said he was struck by a stray bullet. A different account says he was killed by Union soldiers after surrendering, possibly after having a confrontation with the soldiers.


Mark C. Curenton, head of the Franklin County planning department, is the historian for the Apalachicola Area Historical Society. He can be reached at curenton@fairpoint.net



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