The 19th century is justifiably regarded as America's golden age, a formative time of progress in the arts, literature and the building of a commercial empire. But we often forget that the century was also a golden age of crime. Americans were periodically obsessed with the details of spectacular criminal cases—the 1812 disappearance of Russell Colvin in Vermont, the 1836 murder of New York prostitute Helen Jewett, the 1892 Lizzie Borden ax murders in Massachusetts—that enriched the tabloid-news business and revealed a national character that was a curious mélange of Victorian morals and salacious interest in violent crime.
The bloody havoc that unfolded aboard the oyster sloop E.A. Johnson in 1860 was one of the more bizarre cases entertaining a public hungry for lurid details. On the morning of March 21 that year, the boat was found adrift in New York's Lower Bay off Brooklyn, its bowsprit and foresails torn off during a predawn collision with another ship. The crew of a schooner out of New London, Conn., was the first to spot the Johnson, and the scene they found after boarding the ghost ship was grisly and perplexing. The Johnson crew had vanished, but down in the cabin the boarding party found ax marks in the ceiling and floor, a sailor's shirt with slash marks from a knife, and the drawers and closets ransacked. Pools of blood ran from beam to beam as the ship swayed in the waves. Later, police investigators would find four amputated fingers and a thumb still clinging to the starboard rail.