The Hamilton Spectator Saturday, October 4, 1884

This Article is titled "A Weird Story"


Concerning the history of the subjoined carious narrative, the original manuscript of which, written in now faded ink on the rough dingy paper of sixty years ago, was placed in my hands (writes Mister Archibald Forbes) in the course of a recent visit to America, only a few words are necessary. The narrative is addressed to Mrs Rodgers and sister and appears to have  been written at the request of the former lady, after its author's return from sea on the termination of his service as surgeon of the frigate " President," the famous fighting cruiser of the American Republic in the war with England of eighteen-twelve through fourteen.


Commodore Rodgers, who commanded the " President " during the war, and who was the husband of the lady for whom the account was written, gave to Doctor Turk's narrative his endorsement of its perfect accuracy. Of the authenticity of the document there can be no possibility of doubt: Some time in the latter part of December, eighteen thirteen, a man by the name of William Kemble, aged about twenty-three (a seaman on board the United States President, commanded by Commodore John Rodgers, on a cruise, then  near the Western Islands), was brought to me from one of the tops, in which he was stationed, having burst a vessel in his lungs, being at the time in great I danger of instant death, the blood gushing with great violence from his mouth and nostrils. With much difficulty, I succeeded in stopping the discharge, and he was put upon the use of remedies suited to his case. I visited him often and had the best opportunity of becoming acquainted with his temper, habits, and intellectual attainments; and under all circumstances, during his illness, found his language and behavior, to which I stamped him to be rough, profane, and an illiterate sailor. It is my belief, although I cannot positively assert it, that he could neither read nor write. It is certain that his conversation never differed in the least from that of the most ignorant and abandoned of his associates, constantly mixed with oaths and the lowest vulgarity.  Had he possessed talents or learning, he must have betrayed it to me during his long confinement.


In the early part of January eighteen-fourteen, a vessel bore down upon us, with every appearance of being an English frigate.  All hands were called to quarters, and after a short and animated address by the Commodore to the crew, all prepared to do their duty.  Before I descended to the cockpit, well knowing Kemble's high spirit and how anxious he would be to partake in the glory of the victory,  defeat never entered our thoughts.  I thought it best to visit him, after stating to him the peculiar situation he was in, and the great danger he would be exposed to by the least emotion, I entreated him and ordered him not to stir during the action, which he promised to observe.  We were soon obliged to fire. 


At the sound of the first gun he could restrain himself no longer, but regardless of my admonitions and of his own danger, he rushed upon deck and flew to his gun, laying hold to help run her out.  A fresh and tremendous discharge from his longs was the consequence, and he was brought down to me again in a most deplorable state.  I comprehended immediate death, but by the application of proper remedies, I succeeded once more in stopping the hemorrhage, by which he was reduced to a state of the most extreme debility. Being near the Equator, and suffering much from heat, his hammock was slung on the gun-deck between the ports, affording the best circulation of air. He continued for some time free from hemorrhage, but was under the constant use of medicine, and was confined to a particular diet. This made him fretful, and he would frequently charge my mates with starving him, at the same time damning them in the true sailor fashion.


After some time, being again called to quarters at night, he was necessarily removed below to the sick bay. This was followed by another discharge of blood from his longs, which was renewed at intervals until his death.


On January 17th, in the afternoon, Doctor Birchmore, my first mate, came to me on deck and reported Kemble to be dead. I directed him to see that his messmates did what was usual on such occasions, preparatory to committing his remains to the -deep.  About two hours after this Doctor Birchmore again called on me. He said that Kemble had come to life, and was holding forth to the sailors in a strange way. I directly went down, where I witnessed one of the most remarkable and unaccountable transactions that, perhaps, had ever fallen to the lot of man to behold. Kemble had awakened as it were from sleep, raised himself up, and called for his messmates, in particular, and those men who were not on duty, to attend to his words. 


He told them he had experienced death but was allowed a short space of time to return and give them, as well as the officers, some direction for their future conduct in life. In this situation, I found him surrounded by the crew, all mute with astonishment, and paying the most serious attention to every word that escaped from his lips. The oldest men were in tears, not a dry eye was to be seen, or a whisper heard; all was as solemn as the grave. His whole body was as cold as death could make it. There was no pulsation in the wrist, the temples, or chest perceptible. His voice was clear and powerful, his eyes uncommonly brilliant and animated.  After a short and pertinent address to the medical gentlemen, he told me in a peremptory manner to bring Commodore Rodgers to him, as he had something to say to him before he finally left us.


The Commodore consented to go with me when a scene was presented, truly novel and indescribable and calculated to fill with awe the stoutest heart. The sickbay (or berth) in which he lay was entirely set apart to the use of those who are confined to their beds by illness.  Supported by the surgeons, surrounded by his weeping and astonished comrades, a crowd of spectators looking through the latticework which enclosed the room, a common japanned lamp throwing out a sickly light, and a candle held opposite his face by an attendant, was the situation of things when our worthy commander made his appearance, and well does he remember the effect produced by so uncommon a spectacle, especially when followed by the utterance of these words from the month of one long supposed to be dead.


"Commodore Rodgers, I have sent for you, sir; being commissioned by a higher Power to address you for a short time, and to deliver the message entrusted to me when I was permitted to revisit the earth. Once I trembled at your commands; but now I am your superior, being no longer an inhabitant of the earth. I have seen the glories of the world of spirits. I am not permitted to make known what I have beheld; indeed, were I not forbidden, language would be inadequate to the task; tis enough for you and the crew to know that I have been sent back to earth to re-animate for a few hours my lifeless body, commissioned by God to perform the work I am now engaged in.


He then, in language so chaste and appropriate as would not have disgraced the lips or pen of a divine, took a hasty view of the moral and religious duties incumbent on the commander, of a ship of war. He reviewed the vices prevalent on ship-board, pointed out the relative duties of officers and men, and concluded by urging the necessity of reformation and repentance. He did not, as was feared by our brave commander, attempt to prove the sinfulness of fighting and wars; but, on the contrary, warmly recommended to the men the performance of their duty to their country with courage and fidelity. His speeches occupied about three-quarters of an hour, and if the whole could have been taken down at the time they would have made a considerable pamphlet which would, no doubt, have been in great demand.


Doctor Birchmore, now at Boston, heard all the addresses, I only the last. When he finished with the Commodore, his head dropped, his eyes closed, and he appeared to have passed through a second death.  No pulsation nor the last degree of warmth could be perceived during the time that he was speaking. I ordered him to be laid aside and left him. I retired to bed, deeply reflecting upon the past, unable to sleep, when about 9 o'clock p-m, many hours after Kemble had been laid by, I was called out of bed to visit a man taken suddenly ill in his hammock; hanging near Kemble's apartment. It was an hour when all but the watch on deck had turned in, general silence reigned, and all the lights below put out with the exception of a single lamp in the sick apartment where lay the remains of Kemble. I bled the sick man he was relieved. 


I entered the sick room before I retired, to replace something, and was turning round to leave it, being alone, when suddenly I was almost petrified upon beholding Kemble sitting up in his berth, with his eyes (which had regained their former brilliancy and intelligence) fixed intently upon mine. I became for a moment speechless and motionless. Thinks I to myself, what have I done, or left undone, in this man's case, that should cause him thus to stare at me, and at this late hour and alone.  I waited a long time in dreadful, suspense, dreading some horrid disclosure when I was relieved by his commanding me to fetch him some water.  With what alacrity I obeyed can easily be imagined. I gave him a tin mug containing water, which he put to his mouth, drank off the contents and returned to me; then laid himself down for the last time. His situation was precisely the same in every respect as before described. The time was now expired which, he had said, was given him to remain in the body.


The next day, by noon, all hands attended, as usual, to hear the funeral service read, and see his remains consigned to a watery grave. It was an unusually solemn period. Seamen are naturally superstitious, and on this occasion, their minds had been wrought upon in a singular manner. 


Decorum is always observed by sailors at each time, but now they are all affected to tears, and when the body was slid from the plank into the sea, everyone rushed instinctively to the ship's side to take a list look. The usual weights had been attached to the feet, yet, as if in compliment to their anxiety to see more of him, the body rose perpendicularly from the water breast high two or three times. This -incident added greatly -to the astonishment already created in the minds of the men. I beg to leave a remark that it was not thought proper to keep the body any longer in the warm latitude we were in.


I have now given a very Imperfect sketch of the important events attending the last illness and death of William Kemble. It is submitted to the ladies in this State, begging they will excuse haste and inaccuracy. The change produced upon the crew was for a time very remarkable. It appeared as if they would never smile or swear again. The effect wore off by decrees, except when the subject was renewed.  W. Turk


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