An incredible story as a nonagenarian hero applies for help from the Lord Mayor

Trafalgar, 21 October 1805: 'Situation of HMS 'Bellerophon'

Trafalgar, 21 October 1805: ‘Situation of HMS ‘Bellerophon by William Joy

On Saturday 27 June 1840 the Mansion House Police court was held enthralled as a very old man told his life story in the hope that he would get some support form the City coffers. Isreal Furmen was 91 years of age – impressive in 2019 and even more so the mid nineteenth century – and he was down on his luck. He told the incumbent Lord Mayor of London that he was a native American Indian who had been living in Wales for several years after previously serving with the British Royal Navy.

He had to leave Wales, he said, because he have been implicated in ‘Frost’s treasonable outbreak’ (the Chartist rising in Newport) even though he claimed to have wanted nothing to do with and had been ‘compelled’ to join the rebellion. The Newport Rising in November 1839 had ended in the death of 22 or more Chartists as they attempted to seize the Westgate Hotel in Newport and were fired on by troops stationed there.

The rising was organized and led by John Frost but was probably doomed to fail. Rumours of the rising had alerted the authorities and many of those involved had mixed feelings about the revolt. Chartism itself was divided on the merits of using ‘physical force’ to achieve its laudable aims of enfranchising all men and introducing (amongst other things) a secret ballot to the voting process.

John Frost was one of several Chartists arrested and sentenced to death as traitors after the rising but was spared and sent to Australia. He was pardoned in 1856 and returned to Britain. He died in 1877 at the ripe old age of 93.

His fellow nonagenarian, Israel Furmen now told the Lord Mayor he had first gone to Bristol then travelled up to the capital. On arrival in London he’d applied to the Whitechapel parish for relief but had been set to ‘break stones at a penny a ton’. Despite his age he’d had a go but because he was slow they cut his pay. He only wanted to get back to America and his people. He then outlined his life story in the hope that the Lord Mayor help him. His story was quite amazing.

Furmen claimed to be the son of an India chief and to have been apprenticed to a blacksmith in Philadelphia when he was 15 (in 1764). In 1776 he had fought against the British in the American War of Independence, but had later switched sides to fight the rebels. After the war he’d gone to Europe and visited France and Spain. He said he was in Paris and saw Louis XVI being guillotined.

He signed up as a sailor for the Americans and served aboard a brig named Pelly where he was later capture by the British and pressed into the Royal Navy.  That was in 1794 and he served until 1816. This meant, he explained, that he had been on board the Bellerophon at Trafalgar under captain John Cooke, who died bravely in the encounter, one of 27 men of that ship that died that day.  However, the Bellerophon is probably most famous for being the naval vessel that took the formal surrender of Napoleon after his defeat at Waterloo. If Furmen’s account is to be believed he was present at that key moment in history as well.

Not only was he present at Trafalgar (where he was badly wounded) Furmen also said he had served at the battle of Copenhagen and at Flushing, and had been in the same sick bay at Lord Nelson. This then was a man with a knack for being in the right (or perhaps wrong) place to see history unfold before his eyes. He had been captured twice by the French but had escaped and finally ‘retired’ to Wales to live out the rest of his days in peace. That was until John Frost and his Chartist rebels decided to coopt him into their ranks of course.

He said his Indian tribe was ‘very long-lived’ and (as proof) added that just 10 years earlier he had received a letter from his father, who was still alive. He was also very strong and proved this in court by performing ‘several difficult feats of agility, to the surprise of all present’.

In 1840 the Morning Chronicle reported this case without comment or embellishment but can we take the facts at face value? It is entirely possible that a man born in 1749 could have witnessed history at such first had as he claimed, but is it probable? I expect that is what the Lord Mayor had to decide. The Bucks Herald added that Furmen was accompanied by his wife (39) and their three-year-old child.

In none of the papers could I find the outcome to this case but I imagine that Furmen’s story (real or imagined) was such a rich and compelling one that someone reading it would have paid him for the rights to publish it in full. If so then even if the City didn’t find it in their hearts or pockets to pay his passage back to the USA some speculative London printer would have.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, June 29, 1840; The Bucks Herald, Saturday, July 04, 1840]

P.s A man named Isreal Furmen was indeed implicated in the Newport Rising and appears in the records at Newport Reference Library. He is also mentioned in a treatise on longevity published by John Charles Hall in 1841. I can’t find a crew list for the Bellerphon in 1805 or 1815 but perhaps others can?

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Forced aboard a merchant ship in New Orleans: an echo of modern slavery on the high seas

NewOrleans1841AcrossRiver

New Orleans, c.1841

John Burns was a steward on board a merchant ship named the Rio Grande. He’d sailed with it to New Orleans in 1849 where he’d gone ashore with a fellow crew member who had been taken ill. He took temporary lodgings in a boarding house and made plans to collect his pay packet in the morning. This was normal: sailors often collected their pay onshore, being paid at a shipping agent’s office.

However, this was also when they were vulnerable to thieves and fraudsters who knew they were likely to have been carrying fairly large amounts of cash. In London the Ratcliffe Highway and its associated dockland was notorious as an area where prostitutes would inveigle seaman into bars, get them drunk, take them upstairs and rob them (or assist others in their robbery). I’m fairly New Orleans presented very similar hazards to the unwary.

As Burns left his lodgings to collect his money two men seized him and forced a drink down his throat, which ‘rendered him insensible’. Having dragged him they manhandled him on board a ship called the Ashley, which was run by Alfred Greg. The two men were what were known as ‘runners’ or ‘crimps’; in effect they acted as a press gang for merchantmen, forcing men to serve as seaman against their will.

We are probably all familiar with the concept of the press gang as it operated in the eighteenth century, forcibly enlisting men and boys into the Nelsonian navy but this was nearly half a century later and in a foreign country. In 1849 New Orleans was, as it is today, the largest city in Louisiana, the 18th state of the USA. In 1849 something like half of Louisiana’s population were enslaved and it is hard to think of what happened to Burns as anything other than enforced labour by kidnapping.

Burns tried to explain to the master (Greg) that he was no sailor, just a steward with no experience of seamanship but he was ignored and set to work. He was promised $35 and the ship sailed to England, docking in London in April. When he asked for his pay he was told he’d already been paid, but he’d never seen ‘a halfpenny of it’. Instead the master had paid all the money to the two men that had pressed him.

Perhaps this was a common scam, akin it seems to me, to modern slavery where men and women and kidnapped and forced to live and work in terrible conditions by criminal gangs. The steward had the sense to get away from the ship and present him himself at the Thames Police court where he obtained a summons against Greg. A few days later the master was in court to hear Burns testify against him. Two other crew members turned up to confirm his evidence and Mr Yardley (the magistrate) said it was evident that a ‘gross and scandalous fraud’ had been committed.

However, it doesn’t seem like he was able to do much about it, perhaps because the crime (of kidnapping) had happened outside his jurisdiction. He could – and did – insist that John Burns was paid however, and would remand the master in custody if necessary until the sum was handed over.

The story served as a cautionary tale for others travelling to ‘foreign’ parts to not get taken unawares by unscrupulous captains in search of a crew.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 23, 1849]