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Bad Wrecker 3


The schooner North Carolina had been packed with 366 bales of cotton when the ship’s master George McIntyre set sail from Apalachicola on March 9, 1833. The ship was bound for Charleston, but struck Pickles Reef off the coast of Key Largo at low tide on the night of March 14.

Joshua B. Smith, master of the Hyder Alley, came upon the North Carolina at first light. When Smith approached the captain of the schooner, McIntyre engaged the wrecker and his crew. To lighten the schooner, the wreckers began transferring bales of cotton from one ship to the other and only after 115 bales were removed did the North Carolina float free of the reef.

Unbeknownst to McIntyre, Smith was part of a consortium of wreckers associated with nearby Indian Key. Included with this group was the master of the Brilliant Austin Packer who had engaged in a three-way salvage coalition with Smith, and the Sarah Isabella owned by Housman.

In those days there were three ways to handle a salvage claim. Terms could be settled at sea, heard by a judge in Key West’s Wrecking Court, or arbitrated by an independent, impartial party of three where the salvage claim was supposed to be negotiated between three “disinterested” parties.

Housman not only convinced McIntyre to allow him to represent the interests of the North Carolina, but to forgo the 90 mile trip to Key West to settle the salvage claim before Judge Webb and, instead, go to nearby Indian Key to discuss the terms of the exchange of goods for services. As his agent, Housman would be paid five percent of the negotiated salvage award.

For the arbitration process, while Housman represented the best interest of the North Carolina the two parties chosen to arbitrate the claim were Lemuel Otis and Charles M. Johnson both of whom, though representing themselves as having independent opinions, reported either directly or indirectly to Housman. In any case, the schooner was valued at $8,940 and, even though the cotton bales had cost $36 just days before in Apalachicola, they valued the bales at $20 each.

Indian Key arbitrators awarded the wreckers 35 percent of the claim or $3,129. Payment was rendered in the form of 122 bales of cotton, $100 in cash, and an IOU for $600. For Captain Housman’s services as agent of the North Carolina, he was paid an additional $156.45. Housman promptly sailed to Charleston and sold 50 of those bales of cotton for $50 each.

It was good he did it when he had the chance because when Judge Webb got wind of the deal he declared, “that the salvers, by their conduct, have forfeited all claim to compensation, even for services actually rendered.”