Friday, January 20, 2012

Tories: the first beach bullies on LBI

As if our Brigantine adventure last Saturday wasn't enough, we stopped at Barnegat Light to see the numerous waterfowl that usually winter there. We were pretty well assured of seeing longtails, harlequins and loons if we were willing to brave the icy gusts buffeting Long Beach Island.

We dropped the car at the lot near the lighthouse, and I caught sight of a historical marker I hadn't noticed before.

The October 1782 date had me a little confused about whether this attack was, in fact, related to the  Revolutionary War. The British Commons had formally voted to end the war six months earlier, and while the Treaty of Paris wouldn't be signed until September 1783, the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781 had effectively ended hostilities.

So what's this Long Beach massacre about? A few possibilities came to mind:

  • Somebody didn't get the memo that the war was over.
  • Animosity between the sides was still quite high, and someone was looking for a fight.
  • Someone forgot his beach tag.

From what I can tell, the conflict wasn't related to the war at all. Captain Steelman and his crew were sailing near LBI on the privateer galley Alligator when they noticed a grounded vessel. Further investigation revealed that while nobody was aboard, the ship still held tea and other valuable cargo, so Steelman and a detachment of men went to the mainland to recruit others to help them unload it. Some stayed at the scene after assessing the situation, while others chose not to participate. Among those who left, it's surmised, was a local Tory sympathizer.

The Americans worked through the day, and while many of them returned to their own homes for the evening, Steelman and some of his crew stayed on the shore overnight, possibly drinking. What they didn't know was that the sympathizer had reported the grounded ship to John Bacon, one of the most feared and hated men in the Pinelands region.

Who's John Bacon and what makes him so influential? From what I read, he put the "tory" in "notorious." He'd gotten his criminal start under the auspices of the Board of Associated Loyalists that was chartered by Colonial Governor William Franklin before the war. The Tory-aligned Board authorized Bacon to raid British military targets in New Jersey, supporting the cause of the Crown while freeing up troops to directly engage the Americans. Apparently he enjoyed the fruits of his work so much that he continued practicing it after the war concluded.

As Steelman's group was retiring for the night, Bacon and his group were laying in wait on the bay side of the island. Early in the morning they made their attack. The knife-wielding Tories set upon the sleeping men one by one, awakening the others in the process. The Americans attempted to fight off the attackers but were at a serious disadvantage, even with help from their crewmates, who came to shore after hearing the melee from their ship. Before leaving, the Tories had succeeded in killing Steelman and most of the salvage party, whose bodies were largely abandoned on shore as the Alligator departed.

So... the next time you're on the northern end of LBI, consider that you may be laying your beach blanket on a centuries-old crime scene. I haven't heard any ghost stories attached to the incident (perhaps because phantoms can't afford a beach tag), but if a drunk apparation offers you some 230-year old iced tea, take my advice. Turn him down.

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