The HMS Jersey, is she or isn't she?

Meredith Wisner 5 years, 3 months ago

The HMS Jersey, Illustration courtesy of the New York Public Library

It is thought that approximately 11,000 Continental soldiers died in the British prison ships moored in Wallabout Bay. The most notorious of these ships was the HMS Jersey. Known colloquially as "Hell," the Jersey became the subject of a number of first-hand accounts telling of the horrific conditions and punishing treatment wrought by the British. Philip Freneau, a prisoner himself, relayed his experience in a collection of poems published around 1780.  An excerpt of one of his more famous poems is transcribed below (and more here).  


Conveyed to York we found, at length, too late,
That Death was better than the prisoner's fate
There doomed to famine, shackles, and despair,
Condemned to breathe a foul, infected air,
In sickly hulks, devoted while we lay,--
Successive funerals gloomed each dismal day

The various horrors of these hulks to tell--
These prison ships where Pain and Penance dwell,
Where Death in ten-fold vengeance holds his reign,
And injured ghosts, yet unavenged, complain:
This be my task--ungenerous Britons, you
Conspire to murder whom you can't subdue.

Small pox, yellow fever and dysentery ran rampant aboard these ships, and the shores of Wallabout were littered with bodies.  Citizens of Brooklyn, disturbed by the improper treatment of the American Patriots, collected the bones and interred them in a make-shift vault on Hudson Street. Later, in 1905, the Society of Old Brooklynites and the Daughters of the American Revolution commissioned the architectural firm McKim, Mead and White to design a suitable monument to honor the victims.

112 years later I am driving to the Brooklyn Public Library to secure a loan that will return a possible relic of HMS Jersey to the original scene of the crime. Joy Holland, head archivist at BPL, describes some of the mystery surrounding this artifact in an evocative blog post she wrote for Brooklynology. Although she was able to find reference to the unearthing of the Jersey from the silty muck that is the bottom of the bay, and some reported interest from local historical societies to procure the wreck, the provenance of this relic remains uncertain. However, similar artifacts have turned up in other institutional collections, including the Daughters of the American Revolution and our very own New-York Historical Society. The relic Brooklyn Public Library loaned us is shown below.  The text reads: His Majesty Prison Ship Jersey sunk off Navy Yard in time of Revolution."

To my mind it's a safe bet that this item is an authentic artifact dredged up from our bay in the early 20th century, but the question does remain, is it the Jersey? Having seen it up close, my visual analysis tells me that the attached label looks old, and the teak appears sufficiently aged to qualify. Scientific analysis to determine the artifact's age or to the origin of the wood itself might offer more conclusive evidence. However, one thing is certain, if the value of an artifact is measured by its ability to convey a larger story, then this object excels. Marred by water and time and saw blades, one can easily imagine the terrifying specter that once inhabited our bay. The artifact will remain on view at BLDG 92 until September.