Forced to row under guard of British marines, a boatload of captured American sailors approached the forbidding black hulk of the old British warship, HMS Jersey. Nicknamed “The Hell Afloat,” the Jersey and other decommissioned British warships were moored in Wallabout Bay, just off Brooklyn, New York, where they served as floating prisons for captives taken at sea by the Royal Navy.
In one of the small rowboats sat “universally detested” David Sproat, a Loyalist who had been named Commissary of Prisoners and whose responsibility it was to oversee the captives. As they approached the prison ships, Sproat gloated about the imminent confinement of his rowing prisoners.
One of the men rowing Sproat’s boat was Capt. Thomas Dring, a twenty-three-year-old American sailor captured off the privateer Chance from Rhode Island. As Sproat exulted at the sight of the filthy, black hulk looming before them, Dring quickly averted his eyes—but not before catching sight of the shuffling masses of imprisoned men moving about the upper deck in the twilight.
Decades after surviving their imprisonment aboard the prison ships, many men in writing their memoirs recalled their immediate impressions upon seeing the Jersey for the first time.
The Jersey was a gigantic sixty gun warship built in 1736 that had been converted into a hospital ship in 1771. In 1779, being repurposed from a warship to a prison, the Jersey had been stripped of almost all sails, spars and rigging. “Nothing remained but an old, unsightly, rotten hulk. Her dark and filthy external appearance perfectly corresponded with the death and despair that reigned within.”
The derrick and bowsprit, however, remained intact, their skeletal outlines extending from the decaying carcass of the Jersey like bones picked clean by carrion birds. Typically used for hoisting supplies on deck, the derrick stood out from the blighted hulk, putting prisoners in mind of a gallows. Captain Dring saw men clambering out upon the bowsprit, in a desperate bid to temporarily escape the close confines of the decks and perhaps savor a momentary breeze.
Ebenezer Fox, imprisoned on the Jersey as a seventeen-year-old in the late spring of 1781, recalled that, “The idea of being a prisoner in such a place was sufficient to fill the mind with grief and distress. The heart sickened, the cheek grew pale with the thought.”
It was now sunset and Captain Dring and the other prisoners had reached the Jersey. A sickening miasma emanated from the ship. The men whom Captain Dring had glimpsed shuffling on the deck had tasted their last breath of fresh air for the evening and were now locked down below, in the fetid, suffocating hold of the ship. Captain Dring happened to be facing one of the airholes which dotted the side of the ship and out of which “came a current of foul air . . . with accumulated nauseousness which it’s impossible for me to describe.”
Prisoners locked within the hold called out to Dring and the others through these airholes. One prisoner, whose face Dring couldn’t see in the gloaming, expressed regret that such young, healthy men were about to join the ranks of sick and starving sufferers aboard the Jersey. Captain Dring recalled that the man told him that, “Death had no relish for their skeleton carcasses and that he would now have a feast upon fresh comers.”
To be imprisoned on the Jersey was to inhabit a hell on earth of sickness, contagion, and misery. Once on board, the health of a prisoner was doomed to deteriorate due to a myriad of factors—rampant disease, rotten food, contaminated water, infestations of lice, and suffocating heat or frigid cold. According to prisoner Thomas Andros, who had been captured on the brig the Fair American in 1781, the Jersey“contained pestilence sufficient to desolate a world; disease and death were wrought into her very timbers.”
Every evening at dusk, the prisoners were herded below deck. The clang of the grate as it closed over the hatchway behind them signaled the start of yet another hellish, interminable night. Allowed no fire or light, the prisoners languished in darkness. Though unable to see each other, the moans and lamentations of suffering men comprised a perpetual and maddening cacophony, haunting what few precious moments of rest a prisoner could steal. “But silence was a stranger to us. There was a continual noise during the night . . . some the effects of pain and some from delirium but mostly the effects of heat or suffocation.”
Any attempt at finding comfort below deck proved futile. Desperate for fresh air, Captain Dring often competed with other prisoners to find a place to sleep near the barred breathing holes. Lying down along the sides of the ship “not only secured us from being trod upon by night but also afforded a breathing place, which was very desirable, particularly by night when the nauseous smell was scarcely to be endured.”
Locked in the netherworld of the hold, the men who were still somehow clinging to health were intermingled with gravely ill and dying men. Contagion and illness were simply inescapable. “All the most deadly diseases were pressed into the service of the king of terrors, but his prime ministers were dysentery, small-pox, and yellow fever.”
Of the hundreds of men confined in the hold overnight, only one or two men at a time were ever permitted to climb up on deck during the night. The most pressing reason to ascend would be to relieve oneself—which, owing to the rampant disease on the Jersey, often took on an unprecedented urgency.
Prisoner Christopher Hawkins, who was about seventeen years old during his imprisonment, recalled that “We had a great deal of sickness on board the Jersey, and many died on board her. The sickness seemed to be epidemic and which we called the bloody flux or dyssenterry.”
Dysentery, a highly contagious disease often spread by contaminated food or water, resulted in severe stomach cramps and uncontrollable, bloody diarrhea. According to Christopher Vail, who was confined on the Jersey in 1781 at age twenty-three, “many of the prisoners was troubled with the disentary and would come to the steps and could not be permitted to go on deck, and was obliged to ease themselves on the spot, and the next morning for twelve feet round the hatches was nothing but excrement.”
Hawkins echoed Vail’s complaint. “Only two prisoners were allowed to visit the upper deck at the same time in the night let the calls of nature be never so violent, and there was no place between decks provided us to satisfy those calls. This induced an almost constant running over me by the sick, who would besmear myself and others with their bloody and loathesome filth.”
Captain Dring, during his time on the Jersey, could at least avail himself of the “necessary tubs” that had been placed below deck—but the tubs proved noisome “and it was with difficulty they could be reached . . . in utter darkness, particularly as we had to tread over many who were strewn along the deck to sleep, though all had avoided, as far as in their power, a place of repose near those tubs.”
In addition to dysentery, prisoners were also susceptible to the mosquito-borne illness yellow fever. Thomas Andros recalled the horror of trying to sleep below deck amidst men in the throes of fever and accompanying delirium. At any given moment, according to Andros, the man sleeping next to him “would become deranged and attempt in darkness to rise and stumble over the bodies that every where covered the deck.” In an effort to prevent the man from roaming deliriously through the hold, stepping on others and adding to the chaos, Andros said he would “hold him in place by main strength.” If his exertions failed and the man was able to rise, Andros would be forced to “trip up his heels and lay him again upon the deck.”
Sometimes, a man in the grip of delirium might manage to break free from the grasp of his well-intentioned bedfellows and restlessly wander, disoriented and hallucinating, through the hold. Or even worse, slashing and swiping with a weapon. “To increase the horror of the darkness that shrouded us, (for we were allowed no light betwixt decks,) the voice of warning would be heard, “Take heed to yourselves. There is a mad man stalking through the ship with a knife in his hand.”
Other times, the man sleeping next to Andros would prove to be preternaturally still and silent during the night. Only in the morning would Andros find that the man beside him was not sleeping, but dead.
Captain Dring passed his first night on the Jersey in misery. Finally, the desolation of night gave way to the slow creep of dawn and sunlight filtered into the hold. The hatches sprang open, and Captain Dring and the other prisoners, in anticipation of moving about the deck for the day, climbed out of the darkness.
As the sun rose higher in the morning sky, it flooded the Jersey’s deck with light and illuminated the faces of his fellow prisoners. Captain Dring suddenly noticed a nearby man whose flesh bore the unmistakable signs of smallpox. He quickly scanned faces of the other men around him and realized, with dawning horror, that he was “surrounded by many with the same disorder.”
Ichabod Perry, though confined on a different prison ship in Wallabout Bay, also endured an outbreak of smallpox. “To add to our misery, we soon got the smallpox among us, which was some alarming, as but few of the prisoners had ever had it . . . All that was taken with it soon died . . . I put the vituals [sic] into a fellow’s mouth (which was the last he ever ate) who was blind with the smallpox but I did not take it then; our situation had got so hopeless that Death had almost lost its sting.”
Placing food, morsel by morsel, into the mouth of a person infected with smallpox was altruistic indeed, especially considering that part of the progression of the disease is the breaking open of sores in the mouth, spreading large amounts of virus into the mouth and throat.
Rather than risking catching smallpox naturally from one of the other men, Captain Dring decided to inoculate himself against the disease. Inoculation usually, though not always, increased one’s chances of surviving the illness and obtaining the one benefit that smallpox bestowed—the welcome after-effect of lifelong immunity.
To inoculate himself, Captain Dring obtained some “matter” from the oozing pustules of a fellow prisoner he deemed sufficiently “full” with pox. “Having no one to do it for me, it was my task to stand my own doctor.” Using a pin, he scratched the flesh of his hand between the thumb and forefinger. He then loaded the smallpox material into the scratch, and bound it up. The next day, the wound began to fester—a sure sign that the virus had been effectively transferred.
One of Captain Dring’s messmates, a twelve-year-old boy whom he had known on the Chance, was suffering from severe case of smallpox. The boy had been inoculated but the disease took a fierce turn and the prognosis was dire. One night, in the final throes of the illness, the boy suffered extreme agony—writhing and screaming. Captain Dring sat up with the boy in the blackness of the hold and cradled him in his arms until dawn.
Decades later, Captain Dring recalled “This night was truly a painful one to me, most of which was spent in holding him in his convulsed state, and that in utter darkness.” His attempts to soothe the boy were in vain. “It was truly heart-piercing to me to hear the screeches of this amiable boy calling in his delirium for the assistance of his mother and others.”
The boy passed away in Captain Dring’s arms. In the morning, the bodies of the prisoners who died overnight would be ferried to the sandy shore of Wallabout Bay, where they would be hastily interred under a few shovelfuls of sand. Captain Dring wanted to help bury the boy, but could not—by then, he had broken out with smallpox due to his inoculation.
Luckily for Captain Dring, his case of smallpox proved to be fairly light and he recovered fully. At least, his body recovered. His mind, however, still rankled four decades later with memories of the Jersey, the scar on his hand serving as an immutable memento of his imprisonment. Writing his memoir as a sixty-five-year-old man, he mused, “I often since (after a lapse of more than forty years) look at the scar it has left upon my hand. It brings fresh to my recollection the dread upon my mind upon that occasion.”
Two months after his capture, Capt. Thomas Dring was released from the Jersey in a prisoner exchange. On the day of the exchange—hardly daring to hope—Captain Dring and the surviving crew of the Chance waited anxiously to hear their names called. He remembered, “Our hearts beat hard with joy, fear, and apprehensions at the same time . . . My name was soon called, and I cheerily answered “here.” The commissary pointed to the boat. I believe I never stepped quicker. It certainly was to me the most happy moment I had ever experienced in all my life.”
Captain Dring stepped aboard the cartel which would take him home to Rhode Island. But he and the other crew members silently worried that their freedom might be snatched back at the last second and that they would be forced back on board the Jersey. “The very thought of again being put on board the hulk was terrifying to us, and I believe that an event of this kind would have been immediate death to most of us.”
At long last, the prisoner exchange was officially completed. Aboard the cartel, finally free from the horror of the Jersey, Captain Dring looked back at the old hulk. It was sunset, just as it was when he first caught sight of the Jersey two months before. Yet again, he saw the shuffling masses of imprisoned men moving about the upper deck in the twilight, preparing to descend into the hold for the night. But this night, Capt. Thomas Dring would not be among them.
Thomas Dring, Recollections of Life on the Prison Ship Jersey, ed. David Swain (Yardley: Westholme Publishing, 2010), 21. Captain Dring’s manuscript was published by Albert G. Greene in 1829 and is available on Google Books. However, in this writer’s opinion, the Greene version of Captain Dring’s story should not be relied upon as Greene substantially re-wrote the work so that it no longer reflects the voice or word choice of Captain Dring. For this article, the manuscript as edited by David Swain has been relied upon.
Ebenezer Fox, The Adventures of Ebenezer Fox, in the Revolutionary War (Boston: Charles Fox, 1847), 96, archive.org/details/adventuresebene00foxgoog/page/n10.
Thomas Andros, The Old Jersey Captive: Or a Narrative of the Captivity of Thomas Andros On Board The Old Jersey Prison Ship At New York, 1781(Boston: William Peirce, 1833), 8, books.google.com/books?id=sTZPAAAAYAAJ&dq=Narrative%20of%20Thomas%20Andros%20on%20board%20the%20Jersey%20Prison%20Ship&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Christopher Hawkins, The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins(New York: Privately Printed, 1864), 66, archive.org/details/adventureschris00bushgoog/page/n6
John O. Sands, “Christopher Vail, Soldier and Seaman in the American Revolution,” Winterthur Portfolio, The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc. vol. 11 (1976): 53-73, www.jstor.org/stable/1180590.
Ichabod Perry, Reminiscences of the Revolution (Lima, New York: Ska-Hage-Ga-O Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution, 1915), 16, archive.org/details/reminiscencesofr00perr/page/n5.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Smallpox Signs and Symptoms,” Cdc.gov, www.cdc.gov/smallpox/symptoms/index.html.
In his manuscript, Captain Dring states that he spent almost five months on board the Jersey. But, the extensive research of editor David Swain has revealed that Dring’s imprisonment was actually about two months. According to Swain, “Clearly Dring’s memory, filled with the horrors of the Jersey, stretched out the duration of his imprisonment to fit his concept of the magnitude of those horrors (Dring, xxxiii—xxxiv).