The Unsinkable Stoker

At the turn of the twentieth century, traveling by commercial steamships, commonly called ocean liners, was all the rage.  The finest luxuries were reserved exclusively for first class passengers such as the most exquisite dining saloons, elaborate state rooms, libraries, smoking rooms, gymnasiums, and exclusive access to the main deck, called the promenade deck.  Second class passengers enjoyed more modest experiences with sparsely decorated smaller state rooms, smoking rooms, libraries, and dining facilities.  Third class passengers were housed in cabins that contained little more than a bed, were fed adequate meals, and had access to few, if any, amenities. 

Deep in the bowels of these mammoth vessels, well below the third-class areas, were the ships’ engine rooms and boiler rooms.  These rooms were extremely hot and dirty.  Workers in the boiler rooms usually worked shirtless due to the heat and were collectively called “the black gang” because they were usually covered with black coal soot.  Black gangs consisted of stokers, firemen, trimmers, and a “peggy,” the firemen’s steward who brought food and refreshments to the group.           

John Priest was a professional seaman from the port city of Southampton, England.  He worked as a black gang stoker on several British steam ships.  He and the other stokers had the back-breaking task of shoveling coal into the boiler’s firebox.  John had worked on the sea since his youth, and planned to have a long seafaring career.

In April, 1915, on the eve of World War I, the British Admiralty converted the two-year-old RMS Alcantara, a royal mail ship, into an armed merchant cruiser.  Workers fitted 6-inch guns, antiaircraft guns, and added depth charges to the ship.  For almost a year, with John as part of the ship’s black gang, the Alcantara searched for German ships and submarines in the North Atlantic Ocean.  On February 29, 1916, the Alcantara intercepted the Greif, a German merchant raider ship disguised as a Norwegian ship.  The crew of the Alcantara signaled the Greif to stop for inspection.  The Greif slowed to a near stop, but as the Alcantara reached a distance of about 2,000 yards away, the crew of the Greif increased its speed and opened fire.  The Alcantara returned fire.  For nearly two hours, the ships exchanged volleys, and both received extensive, fatal damages.  The Alcantara capsized and sank, followed by the Greif later that same day.  68 men from the Alcantara died along with 230 men from the Greif.  John was injured by shrapnel from a torpedo, but he survived.       

The British Admiralty requisitioned the passenger ship HMHS Britannic as a hospital ship.  Rooms on the upper deck which had been designed for pleasure were transformed into rooms for the wounded.  The first-class dining and reception rooms were transformed into operating rooms.  On the morning of November 21, 1916, Britannic was transporting wounded soldiers from the Greek island of Lemnos back to England through the Kea Channel when an explosion rocked the ship.  Unbeknownst to the crew of the Britannic, exactly a month earlier, a German submarine, the U-73, had planted mines in the Kea Channel.  All efforts to save the Britannic failed.  Within 65 minutes after striking the mine, Britannic disappeared into the water.  Britannic holds the record for being the largest ship lost in World War I and is the world’s largest sunken passenger ship.  Once again, John survived.

The British Admiralty converted the RMS Asturius, a royal mail ship, into a hospital ship.  John joined the black gang of the Asturius.  On the night of March 20, 1917, John’s ship was steaming toward Southampton with all of its navigational lights on.  Large illuminated red crosses distinguished John’s ship as a hospital ship.  The Asturius had just disembarked approximately 1,000 wounded soldiers at Avonmouth and was headed for Southampton, England.  At around midnight, German U-boat UC-66 torpedoed John’s ship.  The crew aimed the damaged ship toward the shore and ran it aground.  Nearly two dozen people died and many more were injured but again, John survived.

John was next assigned to the SS Donegal.  Built in 1904, the Donegal served as a passenger ferry for an English railway company until World War I.  The British Admiralty converted this ship into an ambulance ship to ferry wounded soldiers from France back to England. On April 17, 1917, the Donegal was ferrying 610 lightly wounded soldiers across the English Channel.  Ambulance ships had been required to be clearly marked and lit to make them easier to identify.  However, the British Navy disregarded these requirements after the Germany Navy began targeting these marked ships.  The Donegal was not marked as an ambulance ship.  Unbeknownst to the crew of the Donegal, a German submarine, the UC-21, was lurking beneath the water.  The German submarine fired torpedoes at the Donegal.  Explosions shook the ship.  Within a matter of minutes, the Donegal sank.  The blasts from the torpedoes and subsequent sinking claimed the lives of 29 wounded British soldiers and 12 members of the crew.  John survived, albeit with a serious head injury.       

John’s reputation preceded him.  Rumors of John’s survival record spread throughout black gangs in England.  Rumors also spread that many of John’s black gang coworkers did not survive the sinkings.  Many believed that it was bad luck to work on the same ship as the unsinkable stoker.  Each time John arrived at a new ship to take his place among its black gang, the other workers refused to work.  John, in body, may have been unsinkable, but his career was not.  Unable to find a black gang that would work with him, John had no choice but to find employment on dry land.  His days at sea had ended.           

John Priest, the unsinkable stoker, holds the distinction of being the only person to survive the sinkings of five ships which included the HMHS Asturias, RMS Alcantara, SS Donegal, HMHS Britannic, and another ship.  The first ship’s sinking which John Priest miraculously survived, albeit with frost-bitten toes and an injured leg, happened on the morning of April 15, 1912.  That ship, arguably the most famous ship in history, was called the RMS Titanic.   

1.  The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington), April 17, 1912, p.2.
2.  The Guardian (London, England), March 28, 1917, p.5.  
3.  The Times (London, England), April 23, 1917, p.10.  

Daniel’s Three Days

Daniel was a political activist and pamphleteer in London, England, during the late 1600s and early 1700s.  Pamphlets were a popular medium for authors to broadcast their opinions to a wide audience in that era because they were unbound and inexpensive.  Authors shared their opinions in pamphlets as a way to shape public opinion.  Daniel’s pamphlets were often controversial and critical of the English government.  Daniel had earned a significant income from his writing, and was a sort of regional celebrity.  With each pamphlet, Daniel’s following grew. 

King William III usually overlooked Daniel’s writing because Daniel usually defended the king.  In March, 1702, King William III fell from his horse and broke his collarbone.  While recovering, he developed pneumonia.  On March 8, 1702, fifty-one-year-old King William III died.  Forty-six days later, on April 23, 1702, William III’s sister-in-law and cousin, Anne, who was next in the line of succession of the throne, was crowned Queen at Westminster Abbey.  Hostility erupted in England following King William III’s death and with the accession of Queen Anne to the throne. 

In December of 1702, Daniel published a 29-page satirical pamphlet entitled “The Shortest Way with the Dissenters”.  Daniel realized the controversial pamphlet would be received with criticism from some, therefore he published it anonymously.  Within a short time, however, critics of the pamphlet traced it back to Daniel.  At that time, England had no freedom of speech, nor did they have freedom of the press. 

Queen Anne went on the offensive against political activists, including Daniel.  He was arrested, charged, and, in a short trial presided over by Judge Salathiel Lovell, found guilty of criticizing and provoking dissatisfaction with the English government.  The notoriously sadistic judge sentence Daniel to a punitive fine of 200 marks, three days in a pillory, and an undetermined prison term which would only end after the fine was paid and once the judge was satisfied that he had learned his lesson.

The stocks and the pillory were often placed on scaffolding so everyone would have a good view, and in busy locations.  The stocks and the pillory were meant to punish the prisoner and to show those who witnessed the punishment what could happen to them if they acted out. The pillory was a form of punishment by public embarrassment which is now considered cruel and unusual punishment in most countries.  Many people confuse the pillory with lesser form of punishment called the stocks.  Stocks held prisoners in a seated position with their ankles locked into two wooden boards attached together with a hinge.  (As recent as 2020, police in Chinu, Columbia, locked people in stocks who broke COVID-19 quarantine.)  The pillory consisted of a pole which held two wooden boards with holes for the prisoner’s hands and head.  Rather than seated, as with the stocks, the pillory was designed so the prisoner would have to stand, usually in an uncomfortable, crouching position. 

When people in the surrounding area heard that someone was to be locked into the pillory, they began making preparations.  With few things to take their minds off of their day-to-day lives, they saw the pillory as a form of entertainment.  They gathered items to throw at the prisoner.  Many people spent hours taunting the helpless prisoners.  Some people spat on and cursed the prisoner, while others threw rotten fruits and vegetables.  The prisoner’s hands and head were secured in such a way that he was unable to wipe away the various waste from his face.  For the most despised of prisoners, their turn in the pillory was much worse.  Rather than rotten fruits and vegetables, the crowd threw more substantial items such as stones, sticks, and anything which would cause pain and suffering.  On some occasions, the prisoner was pelted to death.  There was no recourse taken against members of the crowd if a prisoner died in the pillory. 

On July 31, 1703, jailers led Daniel to the pillory.  The crowd roared when they saw Daniel.  The jailers led Daniel up the steps and onto the scaffolding.  One of the jailers opened the top board of the pillory, force Daniel’s head and hands inside, and let the top board slam shut.  The cheering crowd watched their every movement.  Another jailer secured the lock.  Remember, Daniel would have to spend three days straight, a total of seventy-two hours, locked in the pillory.  He would have no bathroom breaks, no opportunity to sit, no opportunity to eat or drink anything unless members of the crowd pitied him, which was unusual, and no opportunity to sleep.  If a prisoner fell asleep, the wood surrounding his neck would cut off his air supply.  Three days in the pillory must have seemed like an eternity for even the strongest of men.

 As was to be expected, the crowd had carefully selected items to throw at the prisoner.  Even before the jailers were clear of the pillory, the crowd began their ritual of hurling objects at the prisoner.  To the jailers’ surprise, the crowd did not throw stones, nor did they throw rotten fruits and vegetables.  This crowd was made up of people who agreed with what Daniel had published in his pamphlets.  They were fans.  Rather than stones and rotting food, the crowd threw roses.  They brought food and drink for Daniel.  The jailers kept anyone from climbing the steps to the pillory, so members of the crowd tied various types of food and cups of drinks onto long sticks and carefully lifted them up to Daniel’s lips.  Several people in the crowd stayed with Daniel the entire three days. 

On August 3rd, jailers released Daniel’s hands and head from the pillory.  Daniel had survived three long days in the pillory with little injury other than exhaustion.  Within a short time, Daniel secured enough funds to pay the fine and was released.  He later wrote that his time in the pillory would stay with him forever.  Had the crowd been against Daniel and throne stones instead of roses, it is likely that he could never have written the book which is purportedly second only to the Bible in its number of translations.  Sixteen years after his three days in the pillory, Daniel wrote a book about a castaway who spent 28 years on a remote desert island.  Daniel Defoe titled the book after the lead character, Robinson Crusoe.  


1.  Lee, William. Daniel Defoe the First Volume of His Writings: His Life and Recently Discovered Writings, Extending from 1716 to 1729. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University, 1869.

DeForest Loved Lauren… and Santana

Love affairs in Hollywood are nothing new.  DeForest’s third wife claimed that DeForest was having affairs outside of their marriage.  Their alcohol-fueled arguments were so well known that newspapers reported on them regularly.  Their expletive-filled arguments usually ended with DeForest’s third wife throwing whatever was within reach at DeForest, at which time he made a hasty exit.  They would usually reconcile for a short period of time before another battle ensued.  Whether or not DeForest was having affairs outside of the marriage cannot be proven, but it is likely.  On May 10, 1945, DeForest’s third wife filed for divorce, which was finalized the same day.  On May 21, 1945, just eleven days after his divorce from his third wife, DeForest married Lauren, wife number four, who was twenty-four years his junior.

Whereas DeForest and his third wife fought so openly as to get the attention of newspaper reporters, DeForest and Lauren’s relationship seemed to flourish.  The press could no longer rely on DeForest’s marriage woes for newspaper fodder.  Eventually, just as with DeForest’s previous wife, Lauren became jealous.

DeForest was on his fourth marriage, his marriage to Lauren, when he first met Santana.  To use an old cliché, it was love at first sight.  To DeForest, Santana was beyond comparison.  Even in his wife’s presence, DeForest was unable to take his eyes off of her.  DeForest had an eye for detail and he noticed each and every one of Santana’s impressive features, and there were many.  He could enjoy her company all he wanted, but he could not have her.  She belonged to Dick Powell, the actor mostly remembered for his portrayals as a private detective in motion pictures such as “Murder, My Sweet”, “Cornered”, and “The Bad and the Beautiful”. 

Within a few months, Dick Powell ended his relationship with Santana.  Immediately thereafter, DeForest and Santana began their relationship.  Rather than keeping their relationship a secret, DeForest spoke openly about the relationship.  DeForest was so infatuated with Santana that he named his production company Santana Productions.  Lauren was jealous, and rightfully so.  “If ever I had a woman to be jealous of,” Lauren wrote in her 1979 autobiography, By Myself, “it was Santana.”  Lauren said Santana enslaved her husband.  “[He] was in love.” 

DeForest’s favorite hobby was sailing in the Pacific Ocean.  For someone who was constantly in the public eye, being out on the ocean provided him rest, relaxation, and privacy.  For the last ten years of his life, DeForest spent the majority of his free time sailing with Santana.  Rather than lose her husband to Santana’s charms completely, Lauren regularly joined DeForest and Santana on their forays.  Sailing made Lauren seasick, but she usually soldiered through it.  She learned to sail and to repair sails.  Lauren liked Santana, but the jealousy remained.  DeForest, Lauren, and Santana remained together for the rest of DeForest’s life. 

In 1956, eleven years into his marriage with Lauren, DeForest developed esophageal cancer.  For most of his adult life, he was a heavy drinker and heavy smoker.  He often appeared on screen smoking a cigarette.  On January 14, 1957, DeForest lost his battle with cancer.  He was just fifty-seven years old.  Images of DeForest smoking a cigarette have become so iconic in the decades since his death that it is almost impossible to imagine DeForest without one.  A smoker’s expression, one which has been in common usage for decades, was named after DeForest’s smoking; “Stop Bogarting that cigarette!”  DeForest was the middle name of Humphrey Bogart.  DeForest’s fourth wife, Lauren, was actress Lauren Bacall, who met DeForest in 1944 on the set of “To Have and Have Not”.  Santana, whose relationship spawned jealous tension between DeForest and Lauren, was a 55-foot yacht.


1.  The Kansas City Star, October 14, 1945, p.55.
2.  The Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1945, p.13.
3.  The Tipton Daily Tribune (Tipton, Indiana), February 18, 1946, p.2. 4. “5 Restored Yachts Once Owned by Hollywood Stars.” Accessed November 19, 2020.