Henry Scott

The case of Henry Scott is a remarkable chapter in the annals of American racial violence.

Scott was a crew member on the Harry A. Berwind en route from Mobile, Alabama to Philadelphia. Off the coast of North Carolina on the morning of October 10, 1905, Scott systematically killed and threw overboard all of the white crew members and ordered the surviving Black crew members to dock in Cape Fear, North Carolina.

As they headed into port, Captain John Taylor of the Blanche H. King became suspicious of the Berwind and came up beside it. He found three Black sailors, and a fourth Black sailor, John Coakley, who had been killed. Taylor placed the three men – Scott, Robert Sawyer, and Arthur Adams – in custody.

Investigation concluded that Scott had killed Coakley and the other two men were accomplices. Under questioning, Sawyer and Adams told the macabre tale of Scott killing the four white crew members – Edwin Rumill, John Hall, John Falbe, and C.F. Smith. Scott told precisely the opposite story, implicating Sawyer and Adams. Scott later changed his story, claiming that the four Black men acted together in a racially-motivated mass killing.

In a context of white racial fears, this latter story was viewed as most credible and became the basis of the public perception and prosecution’s theory of the case.

The trial of Sawyer and Adams began in federal court in Wilmington on November 1, 1905. With Captain Taylor as a key witness, the prosecution claimed the four Black men acted in concert; a view of the case that would have left the cargo of the Berwind to Taylor and his crew. Scott told a similar story, of a racial mutiny. Sawyer and Adams testified that Scott alone was responsible for the killings.

Sawyer and Adams were convicted and sentenced to death. Their convictions were upheld on appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tried separately, Scott was also convicted and sentenced to death.

Henry Scott

While awaiting execution, a letter sent to Scott presented information that he had previously killed two white men and had dedicated himself to killing white people. Presented with this information, Scott confessed to the killings and acknowledged that Sawyer and Adams were innocent.

Henry Scott was hanged on July 6, 1906.

Based on the new evidence, the executions of Sawyer and Adams were delayed. After further review, President Roosevelt commuted their death sentences to life imprisonment and they were transferred to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta.

With continuing questions about their guilt, Sawyer and Adams were ultimately pardoned by President Taft on January 2, 1912, and released from custody.

Much of this account is drawn from “Washed Down in Blood: Murder on the Schooner Harry A. Berwind
Author(s): Vann Newkirk
Source: The North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. 91, No. 1 (JANUARY 2014), pp. 1-29

Author: Bill Lofquist

I am a sociologist and death penalty scholar at the State University of New York at Geneseo. I am also a Pittsburgh native. My present research focuses on the history of the death penalty in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pa. This website is dedicated to collecting, analyzing, and sharing information about all Allegheny County cases in which a death sentence was imposed. Please share any questions or comments, errors or omissions, or other matters of interest related to these cases or to the broader history of the death penalty in Allegheny County.

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