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Ezekiel Hand

Some detective work regarding a sea captain of the late 1700s transforms a tall tale into an historical account.

by Vince Farinaccio

In the late 1940s, it seems that a project to record the maritime history of Cumberland County was begun by a Bridgeton resident. The endeavor, which the Vineland Historical Magazine declared in 1950 “has not been successfully carried to its originally conceived conclusion,” managed to inspire a study by Elena J. Darling of a somewhat notorious sailor whose escapades and their consequences followed him from the sea to this area of South Jersey a few years before the start of the Revolutionary War.

Darling, who published her findings in the Vineland Historical Magazine, writes that “steadfast endurance, high adventure, tragedy, evil deeds, heroism and romance went into the lives of these South Jersey seamen about whom there is so little authentic knowledge. Around them tales have gathered where, in some cases, truth has slipped into legend…” Because of this, Darling’s research was careful to check into ancestries and biographical information, relying on sources like the New Jersey Archives and various Philadelphia-based newspapers. And in the process, her detective work transformed a tall tale into an historical account.

Ezekiel Hand was the subject she chose, a sea captain from the Cumberland County region who, in 1770, may have run off with the wife of a Cape May County relative. When Hand became captain of the ship Charming Nancy in 1772, his fate was determined.

Darling identifies the ship as “a fifteen-ton schooner, built in Virginia and entered in the register for the port of Philadelphia, between June 27th and July 3rd, 1758,” adding that Charming Nancy’s “history was unconnected with New Jersey until her command was taken over by Captain Hand following that of J. Harder…”

According to Darling, research did not turn up any reports about Hand’s inaugural departure from Philadelphia as captain of the schooner, but a series of Pennsylvania newspapers, including the Philadelphia Packet and the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, were quick to publish, between December 21 and 23, 1772, the details about the voyage’s ignominious end. It seems that Charming Nancy was bound for the West Indies and foundered off the coast of the Bermudas.

Hand and his crew waited for 48 hours before receiving help from Captain Hyndman and his ship Paisley traveling from Glasgow, Scotland to Virginia, which is where Charming Nancy was towed.

In most cases, such a slight embarrassment would prove uneventful and bring the tale to a quick and unceremonious conclusion, especially considering that, according to Darling, Charming Nancy seems to have disappeared from the pages of the press after December 23. But that would not be the case in this instance.

Only three days after the newspapers lost interest in the event, the Honorable Charles Read, according to documents uncovered by Darling at the Bridgeton Court House, noted that “it appears to me upon examination of Ezekiel Hand & others that there was a sum of money exceeding six hundred pounds in value in Spanish Milled Dollars and Golden Coin called half Johannes’s which are pretended to have been left on board the schooner Charming Nancy…there is great reason & strong suspicions the same are stolen and secreted by the said Ezekiel Hand.”

This was the first hint that Hand had not been exclusively concerned with the plight of his ship while off the coast of the Bermudas.

Read ordered that Hand’s house be searched and “bring from thence the Spanish Dollars and half Johannes’s you shall find therein, counting them before reputable witnesses…” The judge also identified that a man named John Shaw from the Maurice River Township region who had been a crew member aboard Charming Nancy “knows this whole affair” and ordered that Shaw be brought immediately to Read for questioning.

Next Week: The Plot Thickens

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