In the cold winter of 1913, tall, bare masts appeared above the trees along the lower James River. Gliding silently behind the dripping tow line of a Norfolk tug boat was “The Convict Ship Success,” an old slab-sided sailing ship with a lurid history of punishment, torture, and all manner of sadistic delights. It was also billed as the oldest ship afloat, older than the 1797 USS Constitution in Boston. The Success was said to have had a hand in the Titanic tragedy, relaying radio signals from the stricken passenger ship in April 1912 while trudging across the Atlantic.
There was only one thing amiss with this intriguing history of the Success: none of it was true.
According to The History of the Convict Ship ‘Success,’ and its Most Notorious Prisoners, a book sold on board the ship, the Success was launched in 1790. The old ship, it claimed, was 135 feet long and 30 feet in width and first sailed the world as a freighter, traveling the exotic East in high style. “Her decks were trodden by the silken-slippered feet of Indian princes,” intoned the ship’s history, “…and nabobs of rank and quality, and by merchants trading in ivory, silk, and precious stones…”
The history recounts how, after plying the seas for years, the ship was pressed into service as a transport to ship English criminals to Australia. Economic disruption during the Industrial Revolution combined with a skyrocketing population encouraged England to send the majority of its criminals on ships to Australia. The Success served as a transport ship for a comparatively short time, and certainly not in the sadistic fashion that it later promoted.
The long history of the Success took a very different turn around 1890 when the ship was converted from an old but fairly conventional freighter into a floating prison museum and equipped with all manner of lurid tortures and punishments for its inmates. Promoted as a “weird old craft...this devil ship…this ocean-hell,” the Success began to tour the world as a museum devoted to this dreadful part of British history.
The owners of the Success equipped the ship with all manner of solitary confinement cells, engines of torture, whipping posts, and chains and cast-iron balls, designed to lure crowds on board at 25 cents a head. In the age that gave us P. T. Barnum, the “Convict Ship” Success was a seagoing museum of curiosities and sensational vignettes. It was all beautifully described in the official history sold to visitors – but was entirely fictional.
The Success became a roving side show and a carnival midway under sail, with provincial visitors crowding on board to view mannequins of convicts undergoing exotic tortures. It was a more gullible age, where crowds were attracted to a sea-going fraud like the Success and fascinated by tales delivered in a matter-of-fact manner by her uniformed crew. As an entertainment enterprise, the ship was apparently quite lucrative for the ship’s owner, Captain D. H. Smith.
Richmond turned out to be worth the long tow up the James. A full-page ad in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 15, 1913 proclaimed:
Aboard Her Are Now Shown, in Their Original State, All the Airless Dungeons and Condemned Cells, the Whipping Posts, the Manacles, the Branding Irons, the Punishment Balls, the Leaden-Tipped Cat-o’ Nine Tails, the Coffin Bath and the Other Fiendish Inventions of Man’s Brutality to His Fellow Man.
In that bitter winter of 1913, while Captain Smith lived with his wife at the Hotel Rueger (today’s Commonwealth Park Suites, at the foot of Capitol Hill), the crew of the ship entertained through the cold and rainy Richmond Christmas season. Richmonders flocked to the fictional “ocean hell” parked at the foot of 18th Street. Admission was 25 cents, which was a high price considering a skilled carpenter made about 50 cents an hour in 1913. The Success was able to keep its gangplank open for business from 10 am to 10 pm since it was “completely illuminated by electric light.”
The Success tied up in Richmond’s Great Ship Lock in 1913 and the same scene today.
On December 15, 1913, a delegation of about 100 of Richmond’s leading citizens and city and state officials trooped aboard, including Richmond Mayor George Ainslie, most of the City Council, Delegates, representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, the City Sheriff and the president of the Richmond Businessman’s Club. A Richmond newspaper reported the guests emerged from below decks “…shaken by the concrete evidences of a barbarity which exceeded all knowledge, emerged from the cell rows into the bright light of the deck with a sigh of relief.”
The “concrete evidences” ogled by the Richmonders included the solitary cells, vignettes of floggings, the ball and chain, a steel gag, beatings, torture with cayenne pepper, condemned cells, the “bath” where freshly whipped prisoners were vigorously scrubbed with salt water, and branding. The book sold on board detailed the mutinies, revolts, hangings at the end of a yard arm, a revolt onshore where prisoners worked in quarries, and always the leg chain, either attached to a giant cast-iron ball or a string of other prisoners.
It was not exactly a field trip consistent with the holiday season, but was apparently judged an important character-building exercise for the children of the Belle Bryan Day Nursery when Captain Smith sent them a ticket for admission on December 20. “The educational value of the Success…has been a source of constant comment by local school teachers” noted a Richmond newspaper, perhaps leading Captain Smith to open the ship to all 20,000 Richmond school children for free on Christmas Eve. Smith promised, “The guides who conduct parties about the ship will be instructed to pay particular attention to the young people….and to be sure that the children understand all the explanations given of the interesting points about the Success.”
When the students of Mrs. J. R. Gill’s Richmond Male Orphan Asylum were invited aboard, Mrs. Gill herself “seemed just as impressed and just as much thrilled by the ghastly relics of the Success as any of her charges.”
The ship also interested Miss Emma Hay, who lived at 2910 East Broad Street. In a writing contest published that winter in a Richmond newspaper, Miss Hay repeated the fallacious story about the Success being the oldest ship afloat. Remarking on the lurid tools of torture exhibited on the ship, the number of blows with a whip received by a prisoner were as many, Emma added primly, “as thought necessary.”
The idea of scaring the hell out of Richmond’s youth and thereby preventing them from embarking on a life of crime endured long after executions in Richmond were no longer public events and witnessed by adults and kids alike. As late as 1935, hundreds of Richmonders and their children trooped through two different funeral homes to view the freshly electrocuted bodies of Robert Mais and Walter Legenza, notorious gangsters who were put to death at the State Penitentiary in Richmond.
In fact, the notion of morality being generated by sheer fright carries through with our current “Scared Straight” programs, where in-danger youth are confronted with jailed and hardened criminals in an attempt at deterrence.
The new year of 1914 found by the trial of Harry Thaw for the murder of architect Stanford White and the depredations of revolutionary Pancho Villa in Mexico. The Success finally cast off from her Richmond berth on January 14 and was towed downriver toward the Chesapeake Bay.
With what was perhaps a publicity flourish for the benefit of the next stop on her tour, Captain Smith said while in Richmond he received an offer of half a million dollars for the Success but felt it an inappropriate amount in light of the ship’s popularity and potential for ticket sales. After a stop in Alexandria, the ship eventually made its way south, through the Panama Canal to the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco where the Success was on display for the duration of that World’s Fair.
While in San Francisco, the Success gained further fame when it appeared in a 1915 silent movie “Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair in San Francisco.” The duo of Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand was a Hollywood staple for early comedy director Mack Sennett and the same Keystone Studios that became famous for the Keystone Kops. Accompanied by the ever-solicitous and neatly uniformed Captain Smith, Fatty and Mabel mugged their way through the Success and various engines of torture, with Mabel jumping in and out of the spike-lined “Iron Maiden” with exaggerated expressions of horror.
[See the clip HERE - at 9:15 for footage of the Success.]
With the shortage of usable ships created by the shipping crisis of World War I, and with an engine installed, the Success briefly returned to its original purpose as a freighter. Much more profitable as a tourist attraction, it again refashioned itself as a convict hell-hole. The Success lasted long enough to be exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, but soon thereafter was declared unseaworthy. While awaiting scrapping at Sandusky, Ohio, the Success sank at the dock Raised from the waters, the Success was then set on fire by vandals and burned to the waterline in July 1946. The charred ribs and planks of the old seagoing fraud can still be seen in shallow water near the shore of Lake Erie.
More than a hundred years have gone by since the Success tied up at Richmond’s Great Ship Lock and passed in the shadow of the bascule bridge. The bridge, with it’s interesting counterweighted design, remains, although the Great Ship Lock is quiet and the Success is only a distant memory. The story of the floating fraud called Success reminds us that in 1913, as today, we’re still susceptible to a well-crafted lie delivered in an authoritative manner.