May 1, 2012

Sylvester Scovel: Friend of Soapy Smith, part II

Destruction of the U.S. Battleship Maine!
February 15, 1898
(Click image to enlarge)

ylvester Henry Scovel arrived in Skagway, Alaska as an American hero first, and a journalist second. Back on April 22, 2012 I posted part 1 of this story, exploring the time he and Soapy Smith had become friends. Although Scovel was well know across the nation for his reporting and detainment's in Cuba, it is after he left Skagway and returned to Cuba to report on the ongoing revolution that Scovel became a household name.

My personal interest and historical knowledge is primarily based on Soapy's world and the adventures he had. A secondary interest involves the people he met and associated with. The time I consume researching Soapy's life leaves me few occasions to look deeply into the lives of those Soapy knew. On average I don't dwell into the personage of others, much before or after their time spent with Soapy. Occasionally the story of an associate or friend needs telling, and Sylvester Scovel meets that criteria.

Those who have read my book know how important an impact the sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine had on Soapy and the creation of the Skaguay Military Company, his private army. Until now, I have not really explored the contemporary history behind the explosion that sunk the Maine, nor did I know the huge part Scovel played before and during the Spanish-American War. His reporting and personal sympathy for the Cuban people and their fight against their European rulers. How he was literally the first American on the scene within minutes of the Maine's explosion, and how his reports pulled America into a war with Spain.

In part 1 of the story I utilized the Dissertation paper of Darien Elizabeth Andreu. Because I have not researched this area myself I will rely on Andreu's work. I hope you find this as interesting as I do.

The Maine at sea

By November 1897, Scovel was in Cuba again, soon arrested and released for the third time. Shortly thereafter, the Spanish modified its policies in Cuba, establishing home rule, which allowed the Cubans more autonomy and correspondents freer passage. Scovel sent for Frances and the two spent the next few months socializing in Havana and traveling about the countryside, once in late December, riding out to meet Gomez in the backcountry

As it became apparent, no amount of “home rule” in Cuba was going to be adequate after the events of February 1898. The evening of February 15, Scovel, his wife, and Harper’s Weekly writer George Rea were dining in a cafĂ© several blocks from Havana’s waterfront when a huge explosion occurred in the harbor, shattering windows and shaking doors from their bolts. Scovel and Rea saw to Frances’ safety and then sprinted toward the bay. Scovel later wrote, “Arriving at the water front ten minutes after the shock, I found a dazed crowd of police and officers, gazing speechless at a mass of protruding, wrenched iron beams bursting with fire. It was the Maine.” The visiting American battleship had been sent to Havana as tensions heightened between the Spanish, American and Cuban populations over the issue of autonomy. President McKinley had become increasingly concerned “for the thousands of Americans living in Cuba and the millions of dollars invested on the island”. Cuban selfgovernance threatened Spanish interests, which, in turn, produced anti-American sentiment.

Declaring themselves as officers of the Maine, the two correspondents pushed through the crowd and leapt into a rowboat, among the first civilians on the scene. As the boatman paddled toward the wreck, the ship’s ammunition continued to explode around them. In an oft-quoted February 18 dispatch, Scovel described the horrible sight:

Her superstructure alone loomed up, partly colored by the red glare of the flames glancing upon the water.
At first it appeared as if her bow was totally demolished. Then the mass of twisted beams and braces was seen that was blown forward by the awful rending.
One hundred yards away we were stopped by floating wreckage, and moans and agonized cries could be heard.

As the men paddled around to the disaster site, Scovel observed “the naked body of a sailor. He writhed, and the magnificent muscles of his arms and chest strained like cables.”

The World
Scovel's employer

The correspondents assisted in pulling the wounded and the dead from the water for an hour and a half until the Charles D. Sigsbee, the Maine’s captain, asked Scovel to announce in Spanish that everyone should leave the vicinity of the wreck. Then Scovel and Rea joined the captain on the deck of a nearby steamer where they were met by Colonel Paglieri, the first Spanish representative to speak with the ship’s captain. Scovel served as translator. Paglieri spoke first. “In the name of the Captain-General I wish to offer you the most sincere condolence and to know what you may have to say as to the awful affair, and its causes.” The captain’s reply was guarded: “I cannot state more than we are blown up until I closely investigate.”

Sigsbee dictated a similarly circumspect dispatch to Naval Secretary John Long in Washington; then Rea and Scovel rushed to the Havana cable office where Scovel wired his editor in New York the shocking news: the battleship Maine had been destroyed by an unknown cause, hundreds of enlisted men were dead, and dozens were wounded. He included the suggestive observation that became a headline: “There is some doubt as to whether the explosion took place ON the Maine.” Scovel’s dispatch arrived at the New York World in time for the 5 a.m. edition. Only his thirteen sentence report and an Associated Press story had made it across the cable in time for the nation’s newspapers’ first press runs of the day; of the two breaking stories, only Scovel had been an eye-witness to the disaster scene. Thus the world awakened on February 16, 1898, to the news that would propel America into war with Spain.

From his first sight of the mangled ship, Scovel was certain that the Maine had been a victim of sabotage. In the days that followed, his dispatches focused on the cause of the explosion as well as the ship’s wounded and dead. En route to a Key West hospital were the injured: 24 men and 17 officers. Some 234 others were “still in the iron tomb” of the Maine. Scovel sent sketches showing how torpedoes could have been placed in the Havana harbor to blow up a battleship. Drawing on his engineering background, he speculated that if investigating divers found “that the indenture in the hull is inward, the conclusion that the magazine was exploded by a bomb or torpedo placed beneath the vessel is inevitable. If the indention is outward, it will indicate that the first explosion was in the magazine. This will be determined within twenty-four hours.” Scovel was overly optimistic. It would be another 41 days before the findings of a U.S. investigating board would be presented to Congress.

Wreckage of the Maine

For the next month and a half, Scovel detailed the developments and findings concerning the Maine. Almost every dispatch emphasized the external explosion theory. He argued that since the wreck had a list to its left, this was the “final evidence that the ship is practically broken in two by the explosion against the port side.” Furthermore, despite the fact that no one had witnessed the perpetrators of the crime, this was not confirmation that a conspiracy or fanatic had not been at the source of the explosion: “Tuesday night when the explosion occurred, was dark.” Then, in February 24 dispatch, Scovel offered no fewer than 50 proofs that the Maine was destroyed by a mine or torpedo. The awful truth, he declared, was that even if the ship’s entire amount of powder in its forward magazine exploded, it could not, have “done the awful damage that the divers find.”

Scovel’s vigil at the disaster scene was relentless. Despite the Spanish efforts to keep newspaper correspondents from the vicinity of the wreck, The World correspondent hovered in a small boat around the Maine, watching the recovery efforts and the on-going investigation. Of one trip he wrote that he

was stopped today by the Spanish patrol boat from getting nearer the Maine than three hundred feet. American officers were on board, and the American flag was flying from the rear and only mast. I requested a permit from the commandant of the Spanish warship Alphonso XII. as a matter of courtesy. It was refused, but I went within five yards of the Maine, claiming my right as an American citizen to go as close as close to a piece of United States soil as desired. Force was not used and I remained.

In his memoirs, Captain Sigsbee would recall that “the ubiquitous American newspaper correspondent could not be denied [. . .]. It caused our officers some amusement to see occasionally a certain newspaper correspondent sitting in the stern of the Spanish divers’ boat while it was working on the wreck. I made no objection.” According to Charles H. Brown in The Correspondents’ War, in Scovel “The World had a man who seemingly could out-scoop and out-write the competition, for most of the voluminous copy coming from Havana to the paper carried his by-line.”

Scovel’s writing throughout this period became exceedingly graphic in its critical evaluations of the U.S. government’s handling of the situation. He lamented the fact that U.S. officials were not moving quickly enough to recover the bodies of the victims. He wrote several times of the vultures hovering over the harbor, “one picking, with muscular jerks of his scaly neck, the portions of a man just risen.” Through Scovel The World had offered to finance the cost of local divers to retrieve the bodies, but the McKinley administration declined. Knowing full well the possible gravity of the final verdict of the Maine investigation, it had moved cautiously, hiring its own divers, whom Scovel felt were not as effective in the murky waters. “The mangled sailors are still there, and identification will be impossible to-morrow, so The World’s humane offer comes to naught.”

The Capture of San Juan Hill

Such frank reportage at times bordered on the sensational. Of the bodies the government divers encountered in the forward part of the wreck, Scovel wrote that all had “arms upstretched and extended fingers in the exact position of reaching for handles to jump out of the hammocks, when suddenly awakened by the first shock and being then caught.” The World journalist’s vivid and coldly analytical diction was seen by readers as grounded in truth, and accolades poured in. Congressmen, newspaper editors nationwide, and armaments experts who had studied Scovel’s reports of the destructive effects of mines and torpedoes contacted The World with expressions of thanks for Mr. Scovel’s “phenomenal achievement in journalism.” On February 23, President McKinley acknowledged thorough a World correspondent “the great obligation which the Administration is under to The World for the information which has reached here from World correspondents during the last few days from Havana and Madrid.” In a similar spirit, a Congressman from Tennessee wrote, “The World is very fortunate in having such an able representative on the ground from the first minute of the terrible affair.” 

Throughout the month of February, World headlines touted Scovel’s tireless work. One article noted that members of congressional circles “rely upon The World to furnish them with the most recent and reliable intelligence concerning the great disaster.” Another article observed that it was Scovel’s reports that informed public perception:

Eight days ago, on Saturday, Feb. 19, The World’s special correspondent in Havana electrified the country by the exclusive announcement that the principal forward magazine of the Maine had not exploded. This fact changed the whole current of popular opinion. Up to that time, and even as late as the next day, every other newspaper assumed, like President McKinley in his authorized statement to The World, that the awful calamity was the result of an accident.

Sylvester Scovel would become a spy for the United States and a transporter of U.S. intelligence, all the while, continuing to report the front-line news of the war that other newspaper reporters could not possibly begin to compete with as they were not familiar with Cuba as Scouvel was. Scovel's duties included trying to find out the location of the Spanish fleet that had recently arrived in Cuba. Finding the fleet was the one big moment of the war that Scovel missed. Once the fleet was found Scovel covered the American blockade of Cuba to keep the Spanish fleet from escaping, and the U.S. invasion of the mainland. At the surrender of the Spanish and the raising of the American flag Scovel felt he deserved to assist in hoisting up the flag and when he tried he was pushed aside by Major-General Shafter, the commander of the American Army in Cuba. In the lowest point of his career he chose to punch the major-general.

The Army deported Scovel, and he was not able to report the remaining events of the Spanish-American war in Cuba. By December 15, 1898 after a personal appeal to President McKinley, Scovel was allowed to return to Cuba and report the post-war events until his reports were no longer news worthy. Scovel and his wife Francis established a car dealership in peace-time Cuba. In 1905, at the age of 36, Sylvester Henry Scovel died of complications from a malarial fever, never to be forgotten for the role he played in the history of the Spanish-American War.

  • Andreu, Darien Elizabeth, "Sylvester H. Scovel, Journalist, and The Spanish-American War" (2003). Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations. Paper 8.

Sylvester H. Scovel
April 3, 2011

Sylvester H. Scovel: pages 436, 473-74.

May 1
1751: America’s first cricket tournament is held in New York City. 
1805: The state of Virginia passed a law requiring all freed slaves to leave the state, or risk either imprisonment or deportation. 
1852: Martha Jane “Calamity Jane” Canary is born in Princeton, Missouri. She served as a muleskinner for the Army She “married” Wild Bill Hickok in 1870 and in 1893 joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. 
1861: Union soldiers surrender Fort Washita, Present day Oklahoma to Confederate troops without one shot being fired. 
1863: In Virginia, the Battle of Chancellorsville begins. General Lee's forces fight with Union troops under General Joseph Hooker. Confederate General Stonewall Jackson is mortally wounded by his own soldiers in this battle (May 1-4). 
1867: Reconstruction in the South begins with black voter registration. 
1877: President Rutherford B. Hayes withdraws all Federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction. 1877: James Dolan, a junior partner for L. G. Murphy in Lincoln, New Mexico Territory shoots and kills 20-year-old Heraldo Jaramillo, an employee who pulled a gun on him. Dolan is acquitted. 
1878: Jim Murphy and his father are arrested for harboring the Sam Bass Gang in Texas. Jim cuts a deal with Texas Ranger Major John B. Jones, in which Murphy pretends to join the gang and tell the Rangers where the gang is hiding. Sam Bass becomes suspicious but is talked out of killing Jim by Frank Jackson. 
1880: The first issue of the Tombstone Epitaph, Tombstone, Arizona Territory is published. The paper is owned and operated by John Clum who states, “every tombstone should have its epitaph.” 
1883: William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody performs his first Wild West Show. 
1883: Captain Emmett Crawford leads a force of 100 troops and 93 Indian scouts into Mexico, searching for Chato's Apache Indians. 
1884: The construction of the first American 10-story building begins in Chicago, IL. 
1889: Asa Candler published a full-page advertisement in The Atlanta Journal, proclaiming his wholesale and retail drug business as "sole proprietors of Coca-Cola ... Delicious. Refreshing. Exhilarating. Invigorating." Mr. Candler did not actually achieve sole ownership until 1891 at a cost of $2,300. 
1898: Soapy mistakenly reported as being arrested in Tacoma, when he is in Skaguay leading a parade as captain of the Skaguay Military Company. 
1898: An American naval squadron under the command of Commodore George Dewey defeats the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, in the Philippines, in the first major engagement of the war. 
1901: Soap Gang member, Van B. “Old Man” Triplett dies in poverty at age 60.

U.S. Battleship Maine
by Petr Merkulov

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