First Federal Death Sentence - in New Bern?
by Claudia Houston, Historian, New Bern Historical Society
A true tale of mayhem, mutiny, and murder on the high seas led to six mariners being charged with murder off the coast of Ocracoke. The subsequent court case, held in New Bern in 1793, resulted in the death sentence for four of the mutineers. For years, it was widely believed that this was the first death sentence proclaimed under authority of the U.S. Let’s take a closer look at this claim and the grisly story on which it is based.
During the spring of 1792, two Frenchman, two Englishmen, an Irishman, and an American were part of a crew on a ship out of Charleston bound for Bordeaux, France. They devised a plan to kill the captain and mate, seize the ship, sail to a European port, and divide the plunder prior to their escape.
Three days later, near Ocracoke Inlet, the conspirators struck. One of the Frenchmen, Philip Maunier, hit the mate in the back with an axe. When the mate cried out, Maunier threw him overboard. The outcry alerted the captain and when he ran to the deck an Englishman struck him with an iron bolt. Both Englishmen then seized the captain and threw him overboard.
The murderers then broke open the chests and divided money and plunder while drinking the captain’s wine. However, they soon realized that none of them knew how to navigate the ship! When they were sighted by a schooner from Norfolk, the conspirators placed their plunder in a longboat, scuttled the ship and headed to Ocracoke, leaving the remainder of the crew and passengers to drown.
The schooner captain was able to rescue the survivors and returned them to Norfolk. He and his mate then set off in pursuit of the murderers. They reached Ocracoke and learned that six men in a longboat had passed two hours earlier headed for Edenton. The captain left his schooner near Ocracoke Inlet, then secured a whale boat and volunteers to chase the fugitives. After a pursuit of almost forty hours, the mutineers were overtaken near the Croatan Sound Narrows and taken to Edenton where they were imprisoned and charged with mutiny and murder. They were later moved to New Bern, site of the Federal circuit court.
There was a six month wait for trial as the judge had fallen ill, but in June 1793 the new term of the court opened with Circuit Justice William Paterson and District Judge John Sitgreaves presiding. Francois Xavier Martin represented the Frenchman Maunier. Four of the six crew members were found to be guilty. The Irishman, it was reported, “so cunningly conducted his part of the conspiracy and murder that he was acquitted.” One of the Englishmen was a witness for the prosecution and therefore not sentenced. The four others were found guilty, and Justice Patterson sentenced them to be hanged. On July 6, 1793, with thousands in attendance, John Edwards, Henry McDaniel, Claude Paine, and Philip Maunier were hanged in New Bern.
For years it was believed by many, including the trial judge, that this was the first federal death sentence in the country. Local historian and author Gertrude Carraway cited this case in her list of New Bern “Firsts”, claiming that the first death sentence under authority of the US was ordered in 1793 by the Federal Court in New Bern in the case of the United States vs. Maunier. This fact was also cited in the court papers as well. Recent research has revealed, however, that this was incorrect. It is now established that the first federal death sentence was issued by Judge David Sewell of the District of Maine, who sentenced Thomas Bird to death in June 1790 for the murder of Captain John Conner while aboard The Mary off the African coast.
Those were interesting times, indeed.