Friday, August 29, 2014

Press Gang Week: The Murder of Thomas Nogan

For our final installment in support of HMS Acasta's Press Gang Week, we cross the Atlantic to London.

"The Press Gang," Walpole Library

Thomas Nogan was a pressed man. He was also a murder victim. We know both of these facts because of a transcript of a trial held at the Old Bailey on October 24, 1759.

Desertion from the Royal Navy was rampant. In turn, impressment was used to replace those who fled. Understandably, men pressed into service were discontented, and themselves deserted. This created a circle of desertion and impressment from which the Royal Navy could not escape until well into the nineteenth century.

Nogan typified this dilemma. Pressed into service aboard the hospital ship Phoenix (or Phenix as recorded by the Old Bailey's stenographer), Nogan sought his escape by stealing a boat to take him ashore. Almost immediately his bad luck began. Shouts erupted from the ship at his escape: "Come to! Come to!" and "Stop the man!" According to a witness at the trial by the name of John Walker, Nogan "did not understand rowing the boat very well" and was pursued by another boat a mere twenty yards off.  James Pritchard, a waterman serving aboard the Phoenix confirmed that they were closing on Nogan when someone shouted "Fire!" Though the source of the order is unclear, both Surgeon's Steward Matthew Makepeace and Boatswain's Steward Joshua Squire were accused of uttering the fatal word. One witness even claimed that both had said it.

Marine John Neale proclaimed "If I have orders to fire, I'll fire." He took up his musket from the ship's wheel, and pulled the trigger. The bullet found its mark and Nogan "failed in his rowing upon the first fire." Matthew Makepeace called out "For God's sake, fire no more!" Squire, however, commanded another shot. Neale grabbed fellow Marine Samuel Black's musket and bored a hole in Nogan's boat with the ball.

Pritchard, in pursuit, pulled alongside and took Nogan's boat in tow, helping the mortally wounded man back onto the ship. Despite medical treatment and four days in hospital, Nogan succumbed to his wound.

In the end, the court found Makepeace, Squire, and Neale all guilty of manslaughter. Each was sentenced to a painful branding on the hand.

The sentence in this case may represent the uneasy attitude of the British people toward impressment. It was perfectly understandable for a man to try and escape a situation in which he is physically and sometimes violently forced into a life not of his choosing. Though the need to stop him from escape was not disputed, the use of deadly force to prevent that escape was being examined here. The questions asked of the witnesses often dealt with the likelihood of his apprehension. How far off from the pursuit boat was he? Was he likely to evade his pursuers? Where was he headed? These questions imply that the concern of the court was whether the death of the man was really necessary to prevent his escape. In this case it was not.

Though Nogan's case was extreme, he was one of the innumerable sailors and common men kidnapped and pressed into service throughout the eighteenth century.

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