Fun Friday: The Convict Ship That Wasn't

Whipping posts, Iron Maidens and salesmanship: This is a story of Success.

by
posted on March 18, 2022
The success convict ship at anchor, free of ghosts

There has likely never been a poorer name for a prison ship than Success. However, the ship was very successful in another sense—she was the focus of the longest and largest nautical hoax in the history of the Great Lakes, and possibly all of North America.

Measuring 135 feet in length and having three masts, Success was built in 1840 in India during the days of sail. Early in her long career, she made trips transporting immigrants from England to Australia; then functioned for several years as a prison ship, anchored in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo Bay. But it was when the ship’s owners put her up for sale that Success sailed into nautical history.   

A group of promoters purchased the ship, planning to sail her around the world for the public to board and tour, for a price. But before her debut, they believed Success could benefit from a bit of refurbishing. Large black arrows were painted on her sails, and on the sides of the hull, in large black letters, were painted the words “Convict Ship.” Unusual equipment was also brought aboard: handcuffs, leg-irons, branding irons, metal straitjackets, a triangular-shaped whipping post, even a medieval, coffin-like torture device known as an iron maiden.

None of this apparatus had ever been on the ship previously, let alone used onboard, but no matter. The promoters even went so far as to erroneously add half a century to the ship’s age. So now, Success had not only been converted to a “convict ship,” complete with all its ghastly accoutrements, but was also the “oldest and most historic ship afloat.” Appealing to the darker side of human nature, the public ate it up, no questions asked.

Sailing from England, Success arrived in Boston in 1912 after a long, slow 99-day transatlantic trip, her captain for the voyage complaining, “She sails like a bale of hay.” Ironically, Success had left England enroute to America on the very same day—April 10,1912—as the RMS Titanic. Though sluggish, Success would arrive at her destination safe and sound. Titanic, on the other hand, hit an iceberg and sank just five days into her maiden voyage, resulting in the deaths of some 1,500 passengers and crew. At the time, Titanic was the newest and largest ship afloat anywhere in the world. Success, at the time, was already more than 70 years old.       

After touring major U.S. cities along America’s east and west coasts, as well as the Gulf of Mexico, Success sailed up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, stopping at major ports along the way. She entered the Great Lakes in 1923, where the ship toured for the following five years.

One of the promoters’ ploys at each port, to help drum up business, was to hold a contest offering a cash prize. The challenge was to see how long young women from the local community could remain in solitary confinement in one of the ship’s dark, damp, windowless prison cells, known as the “Black Hole.” But before a woman went below, it was made sure she knew that the ship was haunted by many of the ghosts of its long-ago dead prisoners.

When the contest was complete and the winning damsel declared, the fainting female was carried up to the top deck into the sunshine in the arms of a handsome, burly, smartly-uniformed crew member. The local newspaper photographer had, coincidentally, been tipped off to the photo-op, and the resulting black and white glossy always made the front page, in turn, selling more admission tickets. Detroit’s Anna Case said of her ordeal, “The experience was much worse that I would have believed possible…”

In addition to pretty young women, the promoters were also concerned about children, of course. A postcard printed and distributed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, admonished the public to “come forward and help save the children of today from crime, sin and careless accidents, that we may not have a repetition of such days as that of the Convict Ship. Crime does not pay!”

Well, crime may not pay, but intentional deception seemed to be paying very well. Success was such a popular attraction at Toledo, Ohio, in 1924 that it was reported, “…every day since its arrival here it has been visited by good-sized crowds.” Her owner in 1925, Captain David H. Smith, reported the ship “…a tremendous paying game.” A conservative estimate of the ship’s income during the 1920s was $450,000 annually, equivalent to many millions of today’s dollars.             

Unfortunately, the good times were not to last. With the sudden stock-market crash of 1929, the largesse of the Roaring Twenties quickly ended, ushering in the Great Depression. Many Americans struggled to make ends meet during the 1930s, let alone have money enough left over for entertainment. It was during those lean years that the crowds dwindled, then eventually stopped coming altogether. Success gradually fell out of popularity and into disrepair.

Purchased by a businessman in Port Clinton, Ohio, in the fall of 1945 the decrepit, old hulk was being towed from Cleveland to Port Clinton near the western end of Lake Erie when she ran aground and stuck fast on a sandbar about a half-mile from shore. There she remained mired until the evening of July 4, 1946, when a group of young vandals/revelers set her afire just to watch her burn.   

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