Midshipman Philip Spencer

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Philip Spencer

Birthplace: Canandaigua, Ontario County, New York, United States
Death: Died in USS Somers, at sea
Cause of death: by hanging
Immediate Family:

Son of John Canfield Spencer, U.S. Secretary of War and Treasury and Eliza Scott Spencer
Brother of Mary N. Spencer; Laura Catherine Spencer; Eliza Abba Spencer; Ambrose Spencer; a son Spencer and 2 others

Managed by: Richard McKay Cryan
Last Updated:

About Midshipman Philip Spencer



Philip Spencer (January 28, 1823 – December 1, 1842) is remembered for being hanged without court-martial for alleged mutiny while serving as a midshipman on board the USS Somers. He was the son of John C. Spencer, Secretary of War in U.S. President John Tyler's administration, and the grandson of Ambrose Spencer, a New York politician and lawyer.


Spencer was born in Canandaigua, New York. He was described as handsome, despite a "wandering eye" (possibly strabismus) which surgery was unable to correct. As a youth at Geneva College (now Hobart College), he was considered wild and uncontrollable despite displaying signs of high intelligence. His favorite reading matter was pirate stories.

After an abortive stay at Union College – where he was a founder of the Chi Psi fraternity – Spencer ran away and signed on a whaler at Nantucket. His father located him and convinced him that if a life on the sea was what he wanted, to live it as "a gentleman"; in other words, as a commissioned officer.

As Secretary of War, it was easy for Spencer's father to procure his son a midshipman's commission. Unfortunately, Spencer proved to be just as intractable as ever, assaulting a superior officer aboard the USS North Carolina twice while under the influence of alcohol. Reassigned to the USS John Adams, he was involved in a drunken brawl with a Royal Navy officer while on shore leave in Rio de Janeiro. He was allowed to resign rather than face court-martial, but due to his father's position in the Cabinet, his resignation was not accepted. Instead, he was posted to the Somers.

Aboard the Somers, Spencer gained favor with the ratings – many of whom were boys – through his privileged access to tobacco and rum. He also exhibited an irreverent attitude toward the navy and his captain, Alexander Slidell Mackenzie. In November 1842, during the return home from a voyage to Liberia, suspicion arose that Spencer had formed a plan to seize the Somers and sail her as a pirate ship or slaver. His friendship with crew members Samuel Cromwell and Elisha Small was cited as evidence, as both these men were rumored to have sailed aboard slavers in the past. Cromwell in particular was feared.

On November 26, Spencer was cuffed and detained on the Somers' foredeck after a list of names was found in his razor case. The names had been written using Greek letters. The following day, Cromwell and Small were also detained on the foredeck. After a meeting of the ship's officers, all three men were hung on the yardarm on December 1. Spencer was 19 years old.

Court of Inquiry

When the brig returned to New York, the Secretary of the Navy convened a court of flag officers to investigate the matter. Following a month of testimony, on January 23, 1843, the court of inquiry exonerated the captain and his officers, ruling the hangings fully justified.[2] Although the commander was exonerated, public opinion was against him. Mackenzie requested that he be charged and tried by court martial. The court martial acquitted him on a split vote.

Court of public opinion

The government accepted the court's decision, but the acquittal did not satisfy public concerns with the case. Many commentators, including James Fenimore Cooper, denounced the hangings as murder and criticized the Navy's handling of the matter as an example of what today could be called a "whitewash."

The circumstance of Spencer, Cromwell and Small's deaths is one reason the U.S. Navy stopped training boys at sea and founded the United States Naval Academy. The event on the USS Somers may be the only mutiny on a warship in US Navy history. Philip Spencer and the USS Somers affair were almost certainly the model for much of the story Billy Budd, by Herman Melville, who was the first cousin of Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort, an officer aboard the ship.

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Midshipman Philip Spencer's Timeline

January 28, 1823
Canandaigua, Ontario County, New York, United States
December 1, 1842
Age 19
USS Somers, at sea