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Ship of Blood: An Interview with Charles Oldham

March 19, 2022

Have you heard of the Berwind Mutiny? No? Neither had I, until I read Charles Oldham’s terrific new book Ship of Blood: Mutiny and Slaughter Aboard the Harry A. Berwind, and the Quest for Justice. It’s a true crime tale with an intriguing premise. On October 10, 1905 the schooner Harry A. Berwind was drifting aimlessly about thirty miles off Cape Fear. Boarding parties were dispatched from shore to investigate and they discovered the Berwind was the scene of a bloodbath. The captain and four of his crew were dead. Three surviving crewmen were locked up and charged with mutiny. Were the murders were committed by one rogue member of the crew or was it a conspiracy involving all three men who had been charged? The crux of the matter was that all but one of the victims was white, whereas the three men charged with mutiny were black. In the South at a time when slavery and the Civil War were still a living memory for many people, one would think there was only ever going to be one outcome. However, this landmark case defied everyone’s expectations.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Charles Oldham about the Berwind Case and his writing of Ship of Blood. An Attorney based in Charlotte, North Carolina, in person Charles comes across as everything you would want a lawyer to be – measured, analytical, empathetic, a gentleman orator and a good listener. Moreover, he’s a Carolinian to his core.

My opening question to Charles was how did he first get interested in the story:

I came across the story almost by accident. It was about three or four years ago after I had finished working on my first book (The Senator’s Son), which also dealt with a true crime story that happened in eastern North Carolina. It was around the same time period as Ship of Blood, the early 1900s. After writing that book, it had got some favourable responses and I knew I wanted to do a second one. So I was looking around for a subject and I came across the story of the Berwind Mutiny by chance. I found an article that was written about it and it was published in a Historical Review Magazine here in North Carolina. It’s not a very old article. It was written in 2014, but it summarised the basic dynamics of the story – the mutiny, murder trials and what happened afterwards.

I was really stunned that I had never heard of that case before as I am someone who grew up in North Carolina. I have spent most of my life being really familiar with eastern North Carolina, vacationing there. It’s part of my family heritage but I was really surprised that I had never heard of that case with all the twists and turns and how fascinating it was. I was very surprised that nobody had yet written a book about it. So I thought I’m looking for a subject for another book and this needs to be it.

Ship of Blood has a great sense of time and place. The culture, values and speech of North Carolina are beautifully evoked. Charles puts this down to North Carolina being:

Where I’ve grown up. It’s my family heritage, both sides of my family have North Carolina roots and I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve always been a history buff ever since I was kid. It comes naturally.

I ask Charles to tell me more about his background as an attorney. Did it help him when it came to researching and writing the book?

When I was practising law most of what I did was Criminal Defence, Civil Litigation. With a background like that I know my way around the courtroom quite well. So I’ve always had a thing for a really interesting courtroom drama which obviously this is. When I first came across the story I thought the history itself is fascinating with all the new studies which have focused on the Wilmington Insurrection over the past few years. I came across the story and I saw this is just a very fascinating postscript to everything that happened in 1898. I was very fortunate to find the transcripts of the trials. I found all of the appellate court documents. There’s a wealth of material out there.

I’m not gonna claim that I was the best attorney around, which I certainly wasn’t, but just having enough of a background to know my way around a court transcript and to have a pretty good idea of what I’m looking at when I dig up those old documents. I thought an attorney who has some experience in that type of thing is probably the best storyteller for this particular case. Not to toot my own horn too much, but I thought it was a convenient confluence of events.

Newspaper Article Covering the Case

We live in an age when race relations are back on the agenda. Did the parallels affect the writing process?

I’m coming along at just the right time frankly because when you look at the setting of the case – Wilmington, North Carolina, 1905 – the inevitable reality is that race and politics were inextricably bound up in that case. That was just unavoidable because of the history. It’s just within the past twenty or twenty-five years that a lot of other historians have looked seriously into the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, and we’ve had several really good accounts that have been published within the past few years. Up until then it was a very neglected chapter in our history here. And all of that is to the good as we’ve become more aware of the tragedy that occurred back then. I’ve certainly been the beneficiary of all that and what I’ve written expands and expounds on what has come before.

I’m just glad that I came across the story and I’m happy to say that the story ends well. The particular case of these three men who were put on trial when everyone was expecting that they surely would be convicted and hanged very quickly, but it actually turned out not to be the case. A lot of people in Wilmington acted against type, against prejudices that you would have expected them to hold and because of that justice actually prevailed in the end, which makes it a really fascinating tale. 

What can the story of the Berwind tell us about justice and race relations in the US today?

I look at the story in the way people used to think about Watergate for example, and the Dreyfus Case in France. In the end the good guys won in both of those instances, and here in Eastern North Carolina in 1905, even in the very worst days of the White Supremacist movement there were a surprising number of people in Wilmington who actually listened to the evidence in this case and they realised that out of those three men who were put on trial, three black men charged with killing four white men, they listened to the testimony of these guys and they realised well one of them probably is guilty, and if anyone ever deserved the death penalty he did and that’s what he got. But they recognised that the other two were probably not guilty and people acted upon it and the newspapers acted upon it, and a number of people in Wilmington, even people who had taken part in that insurrection in Wilmington several years ago realised that justice needs to be done here. They were the ones who got behind these guys and found legal counsel for them and eventually took the case to the Supreme Court and eventually to the White House, the presidential clemency petitions.

I hope if anyone gathers anything from the book it’s a message of hope. Even in the worst days justice can prevail. Fast-forward more than a hundred years to where we are right now. As much as we hear in the press about Black Lives Matter and nasty incidents like George Floyd, our situation today is incomparably better than it was back then. Politics today is nasty but politics back then was nasty, brutal and bloody. If justice can prevail back then we are in much happier times today. If people can draw some sense of perspective from that then I’ve accomplished my purpose. 

You’ve managed to accomplish that purpose by avoiding sensationalism. So many books in the True Crime genre rush for easy answers or jump to far-fetched conclusions.

I try not to go beyond what’s actually in the historical record. When I speculate about what might have happened I make it as explicit as I can that I’m sort of going beyond the record right here and I’m speculating a little bit. I try to keep everything footnoted and documented as best I can and make it clear to delineate what’s in the record and what goes beyond that.

Writing is an addictive, rewarding and frustrating process. Now that Ship of Blood has been published will you follow it with another book?

I have a couple of ideas that I’m mulling around a little bit. I definitely want to do another one. I’d like to find a topic which might have more of a national appeal. My first two books have both dealt with local stories from Eastern North Carolina, from the same time period, and I’d like to get beyond that but I’m not going to venture into the details on it yet because I’m not sure exactly what direction I’m going to go in. But I fully anticipate there will be a third book.

Ship of Blood is published by Beach Glass Books.

Charles Oldham
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