Archibald Swan, 23 – Carbon Monoxide, Accidental Deaths, Five Crew Members Die, Anchor Line SS Ismailia February 22, 1871, Time of Death 4:00.
On the night of February 22, 1871, crew members who were cold in a damp, crowded, cabin for eight aboard the Anchor Line SS Ismailia, decided to create a make-shift heater to dry out the cabin and warm it. As the Ismailia sat in port at Pier 10 in North River, New York City normally the safest place for a merchant marine to be, a tragic turn of events would awake the ship in the middle of the night.
While the plan seemed right, for a half dozen and one crew from Scotland and Ireland who had been drinking the night before, it was not thought out well enough to save the lives of the five who died from carbon monoxide poisoning as they slept.
Two crew members were near death but were revived, after the eighth crew member, James Gillen, 34 came upon his fellow seamen, six in their beds unconscious with the seventh on the floor. The eight seamen all worked as firemen aboard the ship, having been hired to keep the boilers going.
The dead were: Archibald Swan, 23 James McNeiven, 47 William Todd, 29 William Mattheson, 22 Francis Aiken, 20. Taken to hospital and revived were: Adam Galt, 22 John Haynes, 36Around 2130 hours, the crew had put some coal in an iron water bucket and let it burn until the flames were gone. They then took it their tiny, cramped cabin, measuring 15 feet by 7 feet, covered it and placed it in the middle of the cabin floor to provide heat.
The door to the cabin had a ventilating wheel in it, to circulate air. Because the cabin had been damp and cold, an unknown member of the crew residing in the cabin had stuffed the wheel with cotton, cutting off the outside air from entering the cabin and the carbon monoxide from leaving. The seams of the door were also caulked with the cotton. The cabin having gotten toasty warm, the men drifted off to sleep. Around 0330 hours Gillen came back to the cabin and was unable to awaken his cabin mates.
The seamen were taken out onto the deck to gets some fresh air, and another seaman ran into port to find a doctor. The first doctor, Dr. Good of 120 Greenwich Street was contacted but refused to come. An inquest would later find that had Dr. Good came to the ship, all seven crew members might have been saved. The inquest found Dr. Good had exhibited “Inhuman conduct of a physican”.
A second physician, Doctor Merrill of 116 Greenwich Street arrived and pronounced five crew dead and attended the two crew members who were taken by ambulance to Park Hospital. At Park two more physicians on duty Dr. Nichols and Dr. Vanderwater worked to revived both Galt and Haynes.
The inquest heard that all the firemen had joined the ship November 3, 1870, having only been on the ship for less than four months and were under the watch of Robert Meny, the chief engineer. The officers of the ship, including Captain William Brown and Chief Engineer Meny, say they had no knowledge of their men putting the make-shift furnace in their cabin, and had not given them permission to do so.
Galt, who worked as a lead stoker aboard, testified that he and Aiken had been ashore drinking, returned drunk and were the last to enter the cabin. When they arrived at the cabin, the door to the cabin was ajar, allowing air to exchange in the cabin.
Galt went on to say that when he and Aiken came into the cabin Mattheson was groaning. Aiken went out for some water, and poured it on Mattheson’s head, thinking he was drunk. Galt says that the door was left open, when they went to sleep after that.
That testimony was contradicted by Gillen. Gillen said that when he arrived in the cabin to awaken his watch replacement, the door was closed at that time, and that he tripped over the body of Swan, who was on the floor as he entered the cabin.
Apparently, when the two drunk men came back to the cabin, right before they went to bed, one of them closed the door. Galt says it was not him. This trapped the carbon monoxide in the room, and silently killed the five crew members as they slept.
Though with Archibald Swan on the floor, it would seem that he tried to get out at the last minute, but never made it.
Had the seamen not died that night, and instead remained on the ship they would have seen a different fate a year and half later. To see what happened to the SS Ismailia see: Sinking of SS Ismailia – CruiseShipSinking.com