Oystering has been a long-standing tradition on the Chesapeake Bay. It became a booming business after the Civil War. Chesapeake Bay oysters were in demand around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, oystermen came from near and far to dredge and gather the much-desired shellfish. Some came from as far away as New Jersey to find the precious shellfish. Baltimore was the primary hub for Maryland’s oyster industry during the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, particularly oyster packing. Hundreds of oyster canneries lined Baltimore’s harbor. Wind powered oyster dredging ships, such as the skipjack, were used to harvest oysters from the Chesapeake Bay. Sloops headed for the Chesapeake Bay and the Port of Baltimore made their way daily through the C & D Canal and the Elk River to reach their destinations.
In the late afternoon of October 13, in the town of North East, Justice Isaiah Biddle arrested oystermen Thomas R. Witcraft, of Philadelphia and Robert B. Ryall, of Salisbury, MD. They had walked to the town and confessed to knocking their captain overboard after a scuffle.
The two men told Justice Biddle that they had been hired by Captain Joseph Hilton on the Golden Light and had quarreled with the captain. The men claimed that Hilton had accused Ryall of stealing money and had attacked him. Witcraft claimed he had interfered on Ryall’s behalf and in punching the captain had knocked him overboard. Ryall said that he had jumped into the water out of fear, and Witcraft had lowered a dinghy and picked hm up. The men claimed they looked for Captain Hilton, but could not find him in the water, so they went ashore and walked to North East.
Deputy Sheriff Myron Miller was quickly summoned from Elkton. He made the trip to North East by water on the Colonial Express. When he returned to Elkton with the prisoners, gossip about the event had spread and a crowd had gathered at the dock.
Upon arriving in Elkton, the prisoners were taken to the jail, where Witcraft was treated by Dr. John H. Jamar for injuries he had received. He had a superficial wound on the left breast near the heart, which he blamed on Captain Hilton. The prisoners remained in the Elkton jail.
The next day, Tuesday, October 9 Coroner Ricketts Nelson, State’s Attorney Squier, and Sheriff Kirk returned to the scene of the incident. They boarded the Golden Light, which had been tied up by John Futty, Jr. On board they found blood stains on various parts of the boat, and on several items that did not match Witcraft’s description of the incident.
Captain Hilton’s brother arrived that day as well, and offered a cash reward of $100 for the person who found his brother’s body. No searching could be done on that day though, because the Elk River was too rough for boats to go out.
On Wednesday morning, the dragging of the river began. Around 2 pm, a drag worked by William J. Arrants and Joseph McKenney caught on the stocking of the dead man. The body was immediately identified by the captain’s brother. The body had been without a coat or shoes. The left pocket of his trousers was turned inside out. Wounds were found on the front and back of the head. The officials wrapped Captain Hilton’s body in canvas and laid him on the shore. It was carried to Elkton by water on the Spray.
Coroner Ricketts Nelson announced that an inquest would be held on Thursday, October 11. (An inquest is an investigation into the facts of how a person died, usually in front of a jury. A coroner will look at different information and decide the cause of death.) On Thursday morning, the coroner called 12 men to be the jury, and H. H. Gilpin was named the foreman. Witnesses were also called, including Captain Martin Hilton, the brother of the deceased, Captain Harry Wilson, who had known the deceased, William Arrants, owner of the farm shore where the Golden Light was found, and Dr. William R. Stokes of Baltimore, who made the post-mortem examination.
The first witness called was Captain Harry Wilson of Port Norris, NJ. He had known Captain Joseph Hilton for about 8 years, and was travelling with him on October 8 in his own boat. They had come from New Jersey through the C & D Canal together and were bound for Baltimore. As they reached the middle of the canal, they were separated by a tug travelling through the canal. Captain Wilson estimated that the Golden Light was 2 hours ahead of him. When Wilson’s boat finally reached the end of the canal, one of his men happened to notice the Golden Light, near the shore, with its sails partly lowered. He approached the boat, but no one was aboard. Captain Wilson boarded the boat and saw signs of a struggle. Blood marks were on the floor, the deck, the bulkhead door, in the hold and on the starboard quarter aft. Wilson went ashore and found a nearby farmhouse with a telephone. He called officials in North East and later arrived in the town of North East. As he entered Justice Biddle’s office, he saw Witcraft and Ryall, recognized them, and learned that they had surrendered. Captain Wilson returned to the Golden Light, where he found various items covered in blood. Wilson was present when the boat was searched and when Captain Hilton’s body was found. He also reported that had never known Captain Hilton to be quarrelsome and had never seen him strike a blow in his life.
Thomas Witcraft and Robert Ryall both testified at the inquest. Witcraft testified that he was employed by Captain Hilton and was present when Hilton went overboard. His attorney, Omar D. Crothers, advised him not to tell any more information. Robert Ryall testified that he was hired by Hilton while in Delaware City. He claimed that while on the boat, he overheard a quarrel between Witcraft and Hilton over money. He also heard the splash when the captain went overboard and became scared, jumping overboard. He then testified that he and Witcraft went ashore and walked to North East. Coroner Ricketts Nelson decided to hold the prisoners for trial in December.
The lengthy inquest resulted in both boat hands being held for trial in December. Did the prosecution have enough evidence to convict the men? Did Captain Hilton start the fight? Part 2 of this story will answer these questions and more! Look for it in a few short weeks.
The Historical Society of Cecil County is open on Mondays and Thursdays from 10 am – 2 pm. We are also open on the first Saturday of each month. We will be closed this Monday, January 17 for Martin Luther King Day.