The Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake Bay: The Death of Captain Whitehurst

This is the last article in the series about the Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake Bay. Past articles published in Attraction magazine cover battles ranging from Bishops Head in southern Dorchester County, to the Little Choptank River in the western part of the county. Other stories detail about the life of the people; the dredgers, scrapers, tongers and packing house workers who earned their living when Maryland supplied 40% of the world’s oysters. Oystering was, and still is, hard work, and past stories also included some of the hardships suffered in pursuit of the Chesapeake Bay oyster. This next story has both tragedy and violence and the drama of a courtroom investigation as we read about the death of Captain Whitehurst.

The police schooner, Folly.

The New York Times, December 12, 1888,At 1 o’clock this morning the police sloop Folly of the oyster navy, in command of Capt. George W. Clarke, arrived in Annapolis, Maryland. The Folly had as a prisoner the oyster schooner Albert Nickel of Baltimore. On the deck of the Nickel lay the body of her Captain, William Frank Whitehurst, with a bullet-hole in his left temple and a 16-shot rifle by his side. The blood from the dead Captain’s wound made a crimson stream along the bulwarks of the vessel. The 16 shot captured repeating rifles were scattered near-by on the deck of the Folly and many empty shells of discharged cartridges added to the warlike appearance of the scene. It has made a tremendous sensation here to-day, for it is the first real tragedy in the history of the oyster navy.”

“The oyster grounds nearest Baltimore are assigned to the oyster police sloop Folly, commanded by Capt. Clarke who had considerable trouble this year with the depredators. There have been several lively skirmishes, but no one was injured until last night; in fact, in all the previous history of the oyster navy it has never killed anyone. The battles have been intended more to intimidate than to injure, a great deal of gunpowder has been burned, and that is about all. Last night, however, this record of much noise and no damage was broken.”

“About 8 o’clock in the evening the Folly was patrolling off Hackett’s Point, just north of the mouth of the Severn River. From Sandy Point (next to today’s Chesapeake Bay Bridge), came the sound of the falling and winding of dredges, showing that there was unlawful work going on at that bar. Capt. Clarke weighed anchor. As he approached, he saw seven vessels on Sandy Point, and heard a voice say: ‘Here comes Clarke; what are you going to do?’ The answer came from the Nickel, “Stand your ground; surround him, and don’t let him take you.”

“The Folly came up and called to the Nickel to heave to. This her Captain refused to do, and instead put on more sail to make his escape. In the meantime, several other vessels maneuvered to place the Folly in the middle of them. Capt. Clarke avoided being trapped by tacking out, and he succeeded keeping up and drawing within 30 yards of the Nickel, Capt. Clarke hailed Capt. Whitehouse, and told him several times to heave to. Finding that he would not obey, Capt. Clarke, as is customary in such cases, ordered his men to fire up into the rigging of the Nickel. Four or five shots were thus fired, the captain telling the crew to be careful.”

Maryland oyster police operated under strict guidelines and were instructed to avoid injuring offenders at all costs. Oyster pirates operated under no rules.

“Then the Nickel opened on the Folly. Two other illegal dredgers joined the attack on the Folly, and for 10 minutes the Folly engaged three vessels in a hand-to-hand fight. Bullets struck the sails of the Folly, whistled past the heads of the crew, and cut the rigging, but Capt. Clarke held his own in this disadvantageous position until the Nickel hauled up and was compelled to surrender.”

“With revolver in hand Capt. Clarke jumped aboard the Nickel, and its crew finally surrendered to him. Telling them to stand back, he drove them into the hold. They pleaded to come out to keep from smothering, and this they were allowed to do. The captain was now told of the death of Capt. Whitehurst who lay on the deck of the vessel, a bullet hole in his left temple and empty shells all around him and two undischarged cartridges still in his rifle.”

“Capt. Whitehurst leaves a widow and five children. He had an insurance of $4,000 on his life and was a member of the order of Knights of Pythias. He lived in Baltimore, but was born in Norfolk, Va. His widow was notified by telegraph of his death.”

The newspaper report concluded with this statement: “A legal question will come up and be stoutly contested about the responsibility for Whitehurst’s murder as the first affair of its kind, and the fact that the dead Captain’s friends are well to do will give the case an unusual importance.”

An inquest was held and widely followed by those sympathetic to Capt. Whitehurst and to the supporters of the oyster police. Capt. Whitehurst was depicted as an “innocent victim and pillar of the community” and the oyster police were soundly criticized for “reckless police brutality and indiscriminately firing on the oyster pirates”. Criticism of the oyster police conveniently left out references of oyster piracy and of the dredgers routinely firing on police boats engaged in upholding the unpopular oyster harvest laws. Emotions ran high and threats were made against the captain and crew of the Folly.

The New York Tribune, December 14, 1888, reported that “the city of Annapolis had been advised that an attempt to assassinate Capt. George W Clarke of the police sloop Folly would be made by a fleet of 40 dredgers. The steamer McLane was having repairs made to her boilers and cannon were being remounted so she could not defend the Folly. The governor of Maryland asked the superintendent of the Naval Academy to borrow two steam launches, one armed with a gatling gun (early form of a machine gun), to guard the police sloop Folly off Hacketts Point (Annapolis) all night. Fortunately, the expected attacks by angry oyster pirates did not occur and the launches were returned to the Navy”.

Democrat and News, Annapolis, February 20, 1888, “Jeremiah T Davis, a guest on the Folly during the incident, testified that Capt. Clarke called on the men on the Nickel to haul down their jib sail a dozen times. Capt. Whitehurst ignored the requests and Capt. Clark called again three more times before ordering his police crew to open fire. The shots were then returned by the Nichol and two other pirate dredge boats joined in and began a crossfire on the Folly. Gunfire was exchanged between the Folly and the three dredge boats for about half an hour.

The Baltimore Sun ran several stories on the aftermath of Whitehurst’s death. On February 21, 1888, the Sun reported that the coroner jury was unable to decide who fired the fatal shot. Statements were taken from the crews of both the police boat Folly and the dredge boat Nichol. The crewmembers on the Nichol all stated they were told to go below into the forepeak and consequently did not see Capt. Whitehurst fire at the police or how he obtained his fatal injury. The police crew stated that their captain had warned Whitehurst several times before ordering the crew to carefully fire high to avoid injuring anyone on the Nichol.

Friends of Capt. Whitehurst, dissatisfied with the Maryland legal system, immediately petitioned the federal commissioner in Baltimore to investigate the case and to “bring the murderers to justice.” They vowed to make a test case as to the authority of the state to have men shot down for dredging on forbidden grounds. Appealing to the federal government, they were told that “the jurisdiction in such cases is absolutely and exclusively the states. Congress has expressly said an assault with a deadly weapon on board a ship which is in state waters is an offence that the state can take cognizance of.

Bowing to political pressure from influential Baltimore businessmen associated with Capt. Whitehurst, the state of Maryland appointed a special legislative committee to inquire into the killing of Capt. Whitehurst.

The Baltimore Sun, February 22, 1888, Dr. George Wells who examined Whitehurst’s body and was part of the coroner’s investigation, wrote a long “letter to the editor” recounting the events, attesting to the good character of Capt. Clarke, and reporting the admittance of a Nichol crewman that illegal dredging activities that precipitated the fatal exchange of gunfire. Dr. Wells stated:

“I do not see that there can be two opinions as to this matter. Certainly Capt. Clarke was justified in what he did and must be held blameless. There is no doubt in my mind that these dredgers, emboldened by previous successful attacks of dredgers on police boats, determined to drive off Capt. Clarke. Indeed, the dredgers have made numerous threats of what they intended to do with him”.

“The very people in Baltimore who are so loud in their indignation at the killing of Capt. Whitehouse have been silent over previous encounters of the dredgers with the oyster police sloops. An indignation meeting held after the first fight between dredgers and a police sloop, and a firm resolve on the part of the owners of the dredge boats to put an end to the lawlessness of their captains, instead of encouraging them in such lawlessness by treating the matter as a joke, would have prevented the tragedy of Saturday night and Capt. Whitehurst would have been alive today. I submit that the tragedy of Saturday night is the logical result that was to be expected when such lawlessness was permitted to go on unchecked by those whose interest and duty alike it was to keep it in check” (and operate in accordance with the law as specified in their licenses to harvest oysters in Maryland waters).

Baltimore Sun, March 8, 1888,The legislative committee visited the scene of the killing at Sandy Point on the state steamer Gov Thomas. The steamer anchored on the oyster ground and four of the crew of the police sloop Folly were examined. Their testimony was essentially the same as they gave at the coroner’s inquest, previously published in the Sun. Rough weather prevented the steamer from proceeding further and the testimony of the Sandy Point lighthouse keeper who was said to have witnessed the shooting was not taken. The committee will next meet with the crew of the dredger to hear their side of the story.” (Friends of both Capt. Whitehurst and oyster police Capt. Clarke attended all hearings.)

With the investigation complete, and all witnesses interviewed, the committee made its report to the Maryland legislature.

Baltimore Sun, March 29, 1888, “In the house of delegates today the committee appointed to investigate the killing of Capt. Frank Whitehurst by the crew of the oyster police sloop Folly, Capt. George W Clarke, reported as follows:”

Your committee have made a full investigation of all facts and circumstances attending the said killing of Capt. Whitehurst and we find the most convincing proof that Whitehurst on the evening of February 18, 1888, was engaged in dredging upon exempted grounds during unlawful hours. We further find that Capt. George Clark of the oyster navy and commander of the police sloop Folly, in the exercise of his duty as a commander in the oyster navy, believing the Nichol to be unlawfully dredging. As aforesaid, attempted to arrest the vessel and ordered it to surrender.”

“Instead of doing so Capt. Whitehurst ordered up his flying jib and attempted to escape. Shots were fired from the police boat in the direction of the Nichol. Which were returned by Whitehurst in person, he, having ordered his crew below. At this point several other dredge boats in the immediate vicinity joined in the affray, and shots were fired by them and while your committee believe that it is probable that the shot which caused the death of Capt. Whitehouse was fired by some person on the police boat, yet from the indiscriminate firing and cross firing, it is impossible to fix the responsibility with any positive degree of accuracy.

If the fatal shot came from the police boat, your committee believe that it was not intended to do bodily harm but was for the purpose of intimidation only, which is clearly within the scope of authority and discretion of officers of said oyster police service.

In a rebuttal statement, Capt. Thompson, friend, and close associate of Capt. Whitehurst spoke about the findings of the report:

This is a serious question. It involves the deliberate killing of one of many men who are engaged in the humble but noble occupation of taking oysters from the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. I must say it is my duty to defend the dredgers before this House and ask you to disqualify the man who shot Capt. Whitehurst. His crime was not of such enormity as to deserve death. He was guilty of the misdemeanor and for this he should have been punished. It was all on suspicion that he was fired upon and fired upon too when he was trying to get out of the way. If you adopt this report, you license these men to go all over the bay and shoot down their fellow men.

Mr. Duncan, the chairman of the committee, in reply closed with the comment that “the committee had reached its verdict after a careful and thorough sifting of evidence taken and were not guided by sentiment as was Capt. Thompson whose heart was larger, if possible than his massive frame.” The legislature voted and accepted the report and the captain and crew of the Folly returned to patrol duties.

Some articles refer to the captains as Capt. “Whitehouse” and Capt. “Clark.”

This concludes the series of articles on local oyster wars. Contemporary newspaper reports supplied the information and stories of people and events that happened over 130 years ago, often during the night and in isolated places on the Bay and its estuaries. Some events and the characterization of the people involved in the oyster wars reflects journalistic practices of the day. Sensationalism sold newspapers then as it sells news today. Economic necessity or the temptation to make good money in a few winter months dredging for oysters, sometimes over the line in forbidden ground was a temptation then and is a temptation that still exists today. It took strong men and back breaking work to harvest the oysters of the Chesapeake and its tributaries, and I have great respect for the watermen of yesteryear and the surviving watermen of today who dredge or tong for oysters.

Bud Marseilles is past president of the Dorchester Skipjack Committee and has sailed on the skipjack Nathan of Dorchester out of Cambridge for 15 years working as a sail crewmember and docent. He also volunteers at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St Michaels.

To get a better understanding of oysters and dredging under sail, Bud recommends visiting the museum or book passage on one of our local skipjacks during the next sailing season, including Nathan of Dorchester  at

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