Kidnapped at sea: Capt. James Snell


Soon after the present building of Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church was consecrated, in the year 1700, the congregation received additional bequests of land to the west of its property. At the end of the 18th century, Gloria Dei dedicated a small portion of the land to be used as an auxiliary graveyard, while other portions were rented out or sold off to small farmers and householders. There are strong indications that the burial ground was first opened mainly to accommodate the victims of the yellow fever epidemics of 1797 and 1798. The entrance to the ground was on Second Street, just below Christian.

In the 19th century, it appears that burials in the Second Street graveyard included those of deceased “strangers”—that is, people who were not of the Lutheran faith. However, the records of who was buried there are not completely clear. The task of identifying the occupants of the auxiliary ground was magnified in difficulty because in June 1873 the church sold the land to the owners of the nearby Sparks Shot Tower (built by Thomas Sparks in 1808), who used it for industrial purposes. Supposedly, the gravestones were removed around that time, and the caskets were dug up and relocated to another cemetery.

In 1907, however, it was observed that the tops of three tombstones were still visible above ground. This was reported in an article by Antonia Lynch, “The Old District of Southwark,” printed for the City History Society in 1909. Lynch stated that inscriptions on the stones commemorated Elizabeth Snell (who “departed this life April 29, 1798”), Elizabeth McKechnie (“wife of Lundin McKechnie … who departed this life May 24, 1797”) and Elizabeth Glensey (“who “departed this life … 1800, aged 86”). All three people were identified in Gloria Dei records as being “strangers.”

The site of the Second Street burying ground appears in this mid-20th-century photo to the right of Sparks Shot Tower. Houses in foreground were torn down in late 1960s or the I-95 Expressway.

In 1913, the city of Philadelphia bought the land for use as a playground and ball field, in which capacity it still serves today. And yet, reminders of the old burial ground continue to surface, most notably in stories of a shadowy “green lady” who allegedly haunts the field. More materially, in recent decades, people have reported finding what appeared to be human bone fragments on the property. And so, it is an open question as to whether all of the bodies were exhumed from the old graveyard, as had been claimed.

In order to learn more about the Second Street Burial Ground, Amy Grant, a member of the board of the Historic Gloria Dei Preservation Corporation, and I undertook research on one of the grave occupants mentioned by Antonia Lynch in 1907. Our subject was Elizabeth Snell, whom the inscription on her tombstone had identified as the wife of Captain James Snell. Unsurprisingly, we found much more information on Captain Snell than we did on his wife Elizabeth—or on his two later wives, for that matter. The material that follows reflects an initial investigation into their lives. At present, since historical archives are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our ability to conduct research is limited. However, this article will be updated as more information is uncovered in the future.

James’s parents, Richard and Martha (Roberts) Snell, were married in January 1753, when both were 24 years old. They lived in Falmouth, on the south coast of Cornwall. The picturesque town at the mouth of the River Fal was a bustling port and a base for the Royal Navy. The port was the seat of the Falmouth Packet Service, which maintained a large fleet of vessels to carry mail between Britain, Ireland, and the colonies. Smuggling was also a thriving industry along the coast.

James Snell was born on March 13, 1757. As he entered his teens, James followed his father in the trade of a mariner. On Nov. 13, 1780, he married Elizabeth Hopkins, the daughter of a mariner, probably at the stone parish church of King Charles the Martyr, which still stands in the center of Falmouth. Elizabeth, the eldest child of Hopkin and Elizabeth (Coath) Hopkins, had been baptized there in April 1759.

The young couple had several children during the next dozen years, but we have found no records of any who lived beyond childhood. Entries in the Falmouth parish register show that Richard Hopkins Snell was born on June 24, 1785, but died just a month later. George was born Sept. 23, 1787, and died 13 years later in Philadelphia. Elizabeth was born on Aug. 17, 1788, and died 14 years later in Philadelphia. Charles was born Dec. 14, 1791; he too might have died in Philadelphia, though we have found no records of his death. Finally, there are indications that a child named James was born the following year, probably still in Falmouth. He died within the year, according to Philadelphia burial records.

It is likely that James and Elizabeth and their children emigrated to Philadelphia in early 1793. Why the family decided to voyage to a different country is not clear. It might have reflected James’s desire to avoid service in the Royal Navy, which could be quite perilous in that period of Britain’s wars with revolutionary France. In any case, he would have found numerous opportunities to work in the shipping industry in Philadelphia—which was the major port of the United States, the country’s largest city, and its federal capital. Within months of their arrival, of course, the city would be decimated by the yellow fever epidemic.

On May 27, 1793, James Snell signed an oath of allegiance to the United States. His certificate afforded him some protection while at sea against being kidnapped by the Royal Navy to work on a British warship. Two weeks later, on June 15, having been hired by Philadelphia merchant James Crawford, he set sail as master of the brig Minerva, bound for Bordeaux, France. Unfortunately, in August, after loading cargo in Bordeaux, the French refused to allow the Minerva to leave port. About 100 American and British vessels were bottled up in Bordeaux by the French embargo on foreign shipping, even though France and the United States were not officially at war.

Snell and the Minerva spent many months in France, not returning to Philadelphia until July 1794—over a year after the voyage had begun. The news upon Snell’s arrival was extremely sad. About 10 percent of the city’s population had died in the 1793 yellow fever epidemic. A possible victim of the epidemic was his one-year-old son James Snell Jr., who had died in November of the previous year.

Snell and the Minerva set off for Europe again in August 1794. The departure was marred when a teenaged “servant” (maybe a cabin boy), using the false name “James Williams,” absconded from the vessel. But far worse developments quickly followed. First, the Minerva was captured by the British and taken to a West Indies port. Once freed, the French embargoed the brig and held her with about 100 other American vessels in the harbor of Le Havre de Grace (renamed Havre de Marat by the revolutionary government). However, the confinement of the Minerva was not as prolonged as it had been a year earlier. The brig was released in February 1795 and returned to Philadelphia on April 9—about eight months since her departure the previous year.

Life for Elizabeth Snell must have been arduous during that period. With her husband at sea or confined in France for the greater part of two years, money was obviously scarce. And as a recent immigrant to Philadelphia, Elizabeth lacked the support of family members to help raise the children. The wives of many seamen during that period found it necessary to earn extra money in occupations such as washerwomen or wet nurses. During the whole of their marriage, Elizabeth and James lived in rented quarters, moving frequently from house to house.

In 1797, after a hiatus of four years, the yellow fever again hit Philadelphia in epidemic form. The disease was most virulent in the district of Southwark, where the Snells rented a house on Catherine Street near Fourth. On Aug. 31, their one-year-old son (who is unnamed in the records) died of the fever after a period of severe vomiting and was buried in the Swedes’ churchyard (Gloria Dei, “Marriages, Baptisms, and Burials,” p. 29).

In late April 1799, Elizabeth, 41 years old, gave birth to a daughter but lost her own life during the birth. Since her husband was still at sea, it appears that a friend, neighbor, or hired person took charge of the funeral arrangements and the care of the children. Probably since Gloria Dei was the closest church to their current residence (on Catherine Street between Front and Swanson), Elizabeth was laid to rest in the Gloria Dei burial ground on Second Street—possibly next to the spot where her son had been buried two years earlier.

At the time of Elizabeth’s death, James Snell was lying in captivity after a voyage to Britain. At the end of January 1799, he had left London as master of the 245-ton ship Harmony. En route to Philadelphia, the Harmony laid over in Cork, Ireland. There had been reports of French privateers molesting American shipping. Accordingly, in beginning the voyage across the Atlantic, on April 21, the Harmony joined a convoy of merchant ships that were sailing under the protection of two U.S. Navy vessels. The Harmony also carried some big guns.

Due to heavy seas, the convoy was slow getting underway. On May 22, the Harmony parted from the convoy and set off alone to Philadelphia. Five days later, however, she was captured by a 36-gun French corvette, the Sturges, which had been sailing to France from Guadalupe. Capt. Snell was removed onto the privateer vessel—along with five seamen, three boys, and one woman passenger—and carried to France. At the same time, a French prize crew was placed on board the Harmony. The mate of the Harmony, Nelson, was allowed to remain with his ship, along with two women passengers (sisters), two male passengers (Mr. Ardley and Mr. Clayton), the cook, and the steward—who one of the women had insisted was her personal manservant. The same woman also managed to convince a French woman on the corvette to use her influence with the French prize master in order to allow Clayton to return to the Harmony to retrieve his baggage. That was a disastrous mistake for the privateers because Clayton had a blunderbuss and pistols concealed in his trunk.

The two vessels, now under French command, sailed for France in tandem but separated after a couple of days. That provided the opportunity for the mate Nelson and Mr. Clayton, who carried the blunderbuss and pistols, and the cook and steward, armed with an axe and a poker, to stage a rebellion in order to retake the ship. Nelson and Clayton stealthily entered the cabin of the prize master and his mate, showed their weapons, and demanded their surrender. The prize master attempted to grab the pistol from Clayton, who fired, but the pistol failed to discharge. The prize master then bolted and attempted to climb the ladder to the deck in order to give the alarm to the crew. But the steward, with the axe in his hand, headed him off. When the prize master retreated, Clayton pulled him down the ladder and hit him with the pistol, severely cutting the man’s head.

In the meantime, Nelson confronted the French mate, a youth of 17, with the blunderbuss and managed to tie him up. And the steward and cook engaged the crew members on deck and subdued them after a struggle. The French seamen were assured by Nelson that they would be treated well if they assisted in sailing the Harmony back to Philadelphia—otherwise, they would be confined in the hold and fed nothing but bread and water. The two sisters helped by dressing the wounds of those who were injured in the melée; they took turns in sleeping in order to help keep watch.

The Harmony returned to Philadelphia on June 22, 1799, under the command of Nelson. The French crew members were detained and placed under observation downriver at the Lazaretto since they had come from Guadalupe, and there was fear that they might bring yellow fever to the city once again.

In the meantime, Snell remained in custody by his French captors for several months. After being released, in early October, he was reported to be in Savannah, Ga. He soon made his way back to Philadelphia, possibly only then receiving the news of his wife’s death. Snell named his new daughter Lucy, after his older sister in Falmouth. It might have been at that time that he ordered the stone to mark his wife’s grave—the one that was still in place a century later.

Remarkably, within a couple of weeks, James Snell gained a new wife. On Nov. 6, 1799, he married Elizabeth Fletcher, recently arrived from England, who at 21 was half his age. The ceremony was conducted by the Rev. Collin at Gloria Dei church, and witnessed by William and Nathan Richards. Nathan ran a grocery shop on the Catherine Street block where Snell resided, and William was a sea captain.

It is unclear how or when the newlyweds met. Perhaps as a young single immigrant from the old country, Elizabeth had been befriended by the first Elizabeth, or perhaps she had helped in household chores during the older woman’s pregnancy. Now with the death of his first wife, James needed someone to mother his children and evidently believed the young woman could fulfill that role.

A little more than a month after their marriage, on Dec. 22, 1799, the young couple went to St. Paul’s church, on Third Street, for the baptism of the infant Lucy. Despite that happy instance, it was a solemn time in Philadelphia; the city was in mourning since news had arrived a few days earlier that George Washington had died. The theatres and many shops shut their doors, and people wore black armbands. With that as the background, the marriage of James and Elizabeth Snell almost immediately began to wither.

It is possible that the death of one of the Snell children had a role in widening the conflicts between James Snell and his new wife. On April 6, 1801, 13-year-old George Snell died. His father was at sea at the time of his death. We can imagine the pressures that the young wife had to endure in those months, especially with a gravely ill boy in the house. Not only did she have to act as a single mother—taking care of another woman’s children—but as a recent immigrant, she lacked many avenues of support. Perhaps because of those pressures, young Elizabeth took to drink.

James Snell was undoubtedly unaware of his son’s death for many months. At the time, he was master of the barque Patty, which had left Philadelphia at the end of November 1800. In March, the Patty arrived in Londonderry, Ireland. After loading its cargo, the vessel then continued to the eastern side of Scotland and to the Isle of May, at the entrance to the Firth of Forth. The Patty arrived there about April 23, picked up a load of table salt (a natural resource that the Isle of May was noted for), and sailed a month later—arriving in Philadelphia on June 27.

One can imagine the hurt—and perhaps the anger—that James Snell felt on his arrival in learning that yet another child had died in his absence. On April 13, George had been buried in the churchyard of St. Paul’s, on Third Street; his father, after returning to Philadelphia, ordered a stone to mark the grave. The inscription read: “Here rests the fairest / That e’er to fondest wish was giv’n / Oh, would’st thou know its happier state / repent & seek the flow’r in heav’n.”

Capt. Snell soon went off on another voyage on the Patty, this time to Belfast. When he returned, on Nov. 30, it must have been quite clear to the couple that they were incompatible, and they went their separate ways. A month later (Dec. 30, 1801), James placed an ad in the columns of the Aurora & General Advertiser: “The Subscriber and his wife Elizabeth being separated from each other, all persons are hereby cautioned not to trust or entertain her, the said Elizabeth, on his account, as he will not pay any debts of her contracting, after this date. — James Snell, Northern Liberties, Dec. 30.”

Less than a week later (Jan. 5, 1805), Snell and the barque Patty left Philadelphia, bound for Belfast. Once there, they loaded a cargo of rabbit furs and two crates of linens, along with 44 passengers. They left Ireland in the middle of April, and after a relatively long return voyage of 56 days, returned to Philadelphia on June 12. Capt. Snell had been away for over six months. Unfortunately, in coming home, he found that his wife’s dissolute ways had worsened, and he decided to put an end to the situation. That same week, he petitioned the court to commit Elizabeth to the lunatic asylum, stating that due to “the abandoned conduct of his wife,” he had been “obliged to break up housekeeping, she being in a state of Intoxication the whole of her time.” The judge ruled in accord with his wishes, and Elizabeth, just 23 years old, was confined to the Alms House (Daily Occurrence Docket, Guardians of the Poor, June 18, 1802).

A cold front had swept into Philadelphia on the day the Snells were in court. The breeze brought in days of persistent rains. Houses stank from the dampness, and mosquitoes swarmed everywhere. In July, the heat returned, with the thermometer hitting 90 degrees on several days. Yellow fever made its appearance in some districts of the city.

James Snell had to look to the welfare of his three-year-old daughter, Lucy, who was ill. The young child died on July 17. Her father decided that she would be buried in the grave of her mother at Gloria Dei’s Second Street burial ground. Two weeks later, Snell and the Patty made ready to sail. The departure was marred when a boy named Richard Fisher, 15, absconded from the vessel. But on Aug. 6, Snell the Patty left port for Cape François, Haiti.

Haitian Revolution: The Battle for Palm Tree Hill by January Suchodolski, (Wikimedia Commons)

Due to war and pestilence, a visit to that destination was quite perilous at the time. Cape François was wracked with yellow fever. The Philadelphia Gazette & Daily Advertiser, citing letters from the Cape, remarked on June 16 that “the violence of the disease is unprecedented. It is particularly mortal among strangers, few surviving its attack.” It was said that some 15,000 French troops, which had been sent to try to overthrow the revolutionary Black government and recolonize the island, had fallen victims to the fever.

The Black people around Cape François were in full rebellion against the French military occupation; scores of white-owned plantations were pillaged and burnt, with former slave holders murdered. Although the French army had been weakened by the fever, it was soon bolstered by reinforcements. The French proceeded to slaughter the Black population, and American vessels in the harbor remarked that the surrounding water ran red with their blood.

The Patty sailed from Cape François on Dec. 9, 1802, and arrived back at Philadelphia on Dec. 28. Once safely in port, Capt. Snell indicated that things in Haiti had gone fairly well with the Patty. He and the captains of two other vessels that had just returned from Cape François reported that the situation had been relatively quiet there after new troops arrived under the command of General Rochambeau. The Black insurgents had evacuated the fort before the arrival of the troops and withdrew into the hills some 10 or 15 miles from the town. However, the French, they reported, were ruthless with any Black stragglers that they encountered. Some were shot, while others were “carried on board the ships and there tied by the neck, and their head brought down and tied to their knee; and in that state, thrown overboard, more or less every night” (New York Mercantile Advertiser, Dec. 31, 1802).

The Patty brought back to Philadelphia a Captain Harland, lately of the sloop William, as a passenger. Harland informed the newspapers of his own mishaps: According to the story in the Mercantile Advertiser, the William had sailed from North Carolina to the West Indies in October, and on the 20th and 21st of that month was subjected to a great gale. The William split open, and the crew was compelled to hold the vessel together with cables. On Oct. 25, they met a Spanish ship, the Phoebus, which had also been damaged by the gale. The captain begged Harland to take them in tow, and offered a large sum of money in return, but Harland had to refuse since the William was taking on water and in danger of sinking. Luckily, the sloop was able to make it to Cape François, where she was condemned. It was there that Harland encountered Snell and the Patty for the voyage home.

In January of the following year, the Patty (after some rebuilding, considered a “ship” rather than a “barque”) left for Newry, Ireland. The ship returned on Aug. 6, 1803, with 109 passengers. Snell then remained in Philadelphia for almost three months until his next voyage. It might have been during that period that he began to court a schoolteacher, Mary Gordon. Mary (Alexander) had married Daniel Gordon in 1796 at Christ Church, but her husband died two years later. She was now 33 years old, and unlike Snell’s second wife, much closer to his age. What happened to Elizabeth Snell during her confinement at the Alms House is unclear; perhaps she and James Snell were divorced, or perhaps she died. In any case, James evidently felt free to seek a new wife. But first, he undertook a new voyage to Europe, which turned out to be longer than he had probably anticipated.

The Patty left Philadelphia on Nov. 2, 1803, for Oporto, Portugal. However, at Reedy Island in the Delaware River, the vessel was delayed for almost a week by floating ice. Then upon arrival at Oporto, low water over the sand bars would not allow the ship to enter the harbor. Together with a number of other vessels, the Patty was compelled to change her course to Vigo Bay. Once in the bay, however, a gale struck, which threatened to smash the ship onto a reef. Snell ordered the anchor cables to be cut, and the Patty instead drifted toward a sand beach, where she was grounded. Once free, the leaking ship was able to make once again for Oporto, where she underwent repairs on her hull.

Finally, at the end of August, Snell and the Patty arrived back in Philadelphia with a cargo of port wine. Perhaps Snell saved a bottle for himself, since little more than a week after docking, on Sept. 8, 1804, he married Mary Gordon at Christ Church. The couple had a very quick “honeymoon”; two weeks after the wedding, on Sept. 24, the Patty was cleared to leave on another voyage.

As far as we can tell, Mary Snell tolerated being the wife of a sea captain who was away from home for half the year. As a former schoolmistress, she appears to have been a self-reliant woman. Their daughter Mary Campbell Snell was born Jan. 13, 1807. And their daughter Catherine Alexander Snell was born at the end of the same year—Dec. 3, 1807.

For the next decade, James Snell continued his voyages to Europe and to the West Indies. He captained several vessels over the years. At the end of 1811, he might have received word from England that his older sister, Lucy, had died on Oct. 16 in Falmouth; she was 57. At the time, grievances were mounting between Britain and the United States. A major issue was the actions by the Royal Navy in kidnapping U.S. seamen to work on their warships. On Feb. 20, 1812—a few months before war with Britain broke out—Capt. James Snell’s oath of allegiance to the United States was reaffirmed and recorded. The document described Snell as being 55 years old, nearly five feet and six inches tall, with gray hair, a florid complexion, and a small scar under his chin.

On Jan. 13, 1817, James Snell passed away after becoming infected with typhoid fever—a disease usually associated with contaminated water or food due to poor sanitation. He was two months short of his 60th birthday. The next day, the Captains’ Society sponsored an afternoon funeral reception at his house, 124 N. Front Street. The casket was then conducted a distance through the city to the small churchyard behind St. Paul’s, where he was buried. Mary Snell continued living at the Front Street house for a year after her husband’s death, raising the children alone. She then moved to other addresses within the Northern Liberties district, eventually sharing the house of her daughter Mary and her daughter’s husband, James Fopliff. It appears that Mary Snell died of dropsy in 1850 at age 80, and was buried at Odd Fellows Burial Ground.

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