Mutiny and Murder? – what really became of Captain Latto?

At the dedication of the Walter Hood memorial cairn near Wreck Bay in 1927, which took place 57 years after the wreck, an extraordinary thing happened. Robert E.F.Williams, one of the last survivors of the wreck, made a startling and disturbing allegation.

Robert Williams, survivor of Walter Hood shipwreck (centre), Charles Murray on left (President of Clyde Shire) in 1927 at Wreck Bay

Speaking after RH Cambage, Charles Murray and John Harrison, Williams began to talk about the circumstances surrounding the death of Captain Latto. By 1927 Williams has retired from seafaring life and become a very popular lay Methodist preacher in the Cessnock area.

According to the accounts of Latto’s death given by Tickler, Hewison and others, he had gone below to look for some papers, or perhaps because he was hurt (suspected broken ribs). While he was there, the side of his cabin disintegrated in the huge waves and he was washed out. They had tried to throw him a life buoy but he was unable to reach it, struggled “ineffectually’ in the waves and went under.

But on this day, as reported in the Ulladulla and Milton Times of 15 March 1927, Williams horrifies his audience by saying:

“Of the captain I have little to say. All I have to say is: he had an appetite. The mate, the bos’un and I were with the captain on deck. The captain said ‘I will go down to my cabin and get the ship’s papers’. I knew that the side of his cabin was knocked out. The captain went down. The sea washed him out. We saw him struggling in the water crying to us to save him. The mate turned his back upon him. So did the bos’un; and I did the same. We let him drown”.

“We let him drown”

It is hard to imagine how the dignified and respectable local men and women standing in the crowd reacted to this astonishing and terrible admission. Mutiny AND murder?

The reporter for the Ulladulla and Milton Times was horrified. He described Williams as standing at the tomb of his captain:

“relating with equal callousness and without pang or tremor in his voice, and even with an introductory joke, this awful callous deed”

The reporter noted that Williams was accusing Latto of being a drunkard and a man who had led his crew into calamity and one not worthy of saving. He says that are no other reports of Latto being a drinker or compromising the safety of his ship and crew, however he was noted for being a ‘stern disciplinarian’.

“it is to be feared that Mr Williams remarks prove, at least to the majority of hearers, that in fact officers and men hated their captain, and quarrelled with him, and that it is probably that under-officers and men did not assist or obey him and that disorder reigned on that ship, and that a spirit of mutiny existed, which possibly greatly contributed to the wreck of the boat.”

In late April 1927, Williams wrote to the paper to clarify the report which he felt had not published his words correctly.

“The captain came from the remains of his cabin to where the remaining portion of the ship’s company was in the forenoon. He took a sniff of the wind and took in the general situation….he said he was going to rescue some of his papers. I remarked that we had our opinion of what he wanted to rescue, for he had an appetite. He was washed out of what remained of his cabin. He called for help but the chief mate, the second mate, the third mate turned their back on him and he was drowned”.

“Then I told the gathering in unmistakeable words that seven years after the wreck God came into my life, and I am sorry ever since that the power of Godliness was not in operation in my being at the time, so that I could have done all that was possible in me to rescue that unfortunate man”.

But he continued:

“Which is the crime, to give an alcoholic man a chance to live, or to risk your own life to save him and give him another opportunity to drown twelve more precious beings and bring sorrow to their homes?”

Did this perhaps explain why the Town and Country journalist had written after the beachside inquest on 30 April 1870 (published 14 May 1870):

“I could give many more details of what occurred and what I heard during the four days I remained at the scene of the wreck, but they are some of them of a very painful nature ; others I got only at second-hand, and therefore, although by no means unimportant in their character, I do not think myself justified in publishing them. I cannot help thinking, however, that tho cause of humanity would be served by a more thorough investigation than has yet been made into all the circumstances leading to and connected with the loss of the Walter Hood.”

Interestingly, the Sydney Morning Herald‘s 12 March 1927 report of the dedication makes no mention at all of Williams’ extraordinary revelations:

Walter Hood Cairn – ‘A Wreck of the ‘Seventies Memorial Cairn’ in Sydney Morning Herald Saturday 12 March 1927 page 18

But was there an even more dastardly deed committed than three men choosing not to help their drowning captain?

In 1966, divers rediscovered the wreck of the Walter Hood and in the following years, other divers started to retrieve items from the wrecked hull. In 1976, Chris Miller and Sue Thompson found the bones of an index finger and an arm. Alongside the finger was a ring with the initials ‘APL’, or ‘AJL’. The police discounted their grisly discovery as a recent crime or accident. And, in 1927, there had been a description of Andrew Latto wearing a diamond ring on his little finger.

We could speculate that perhaps someone in the crew decided that Latto was not getting back on the ship after he had been washed out of his cabin. Did someone take the axe, which would have been nearby after chopping down the mizzen mast, and hack off Latto’s arm as he tried to regain the ship? There is no mention of Latto missing an arm when his body is identified at the inquest, but the description of other severed limbs, including a foot and an arm turning up around the wreck site in May 1870 means the coronial court might not have been thought it unusual or worth mentioning at the time.

So who should we believe when we read about the Walter Hood shipwreck and its aftermath?