Portrait of Captain Michael A. Healy

by John f. Murphy, PhD, late professor of Government, U.S. Coast Guard Academy

The following are three articles about Michael Healy that were written by Professor John F. Murphy of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the Academy's Librarian, Paul Johnson.  Professor Murphy passed away soon after publishing the first of the articles  and Paul Johnson took up his pen and authored the final two articles on Healy's life.  Each of the three was published in the Academy's Alumni Association Bulletin in 1979.  

Part I

[First published in the January/February 1979 issue of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association The Bulletin (Vol. 41, No. 1), pp. 14-18.]

Michael A. Healy was born in 1839, the fifth son of an Irish immigrant who had become a successful Georgia plantation owner and his slave wife.  Because Georgia’s legal code classified the Healy offspring as slaves, each of the children was sent North on reaching age nine or ten.  In 1848 Michael was sent to join his older brothers at Holy Cross College, Worcester, Massachusetts.  Two years later both Healy parents died and leadership of the family fell to Michael’s oldest brother, James, a Catholic priest destined to become Bishop of Portland, Maine.  Unlike his brothers and sisters Michael was uninterested in schooling and by the time he was fifteen he had run away from schools at Worcester, at Montreal, and at Douai, Belgium.  In 1855 James Augustine Healy recognized Michael’s love for the sea and arranged for him to ship out as cabin boy on board the American East India clipper, JUMNA.

The eight Healy children distinguished themselves in several fields.  James became the first black Catholic bishop in North America.  A second son, Patrick, became president of Georgetown University.  Another son became an expert in canon law.  Three daughters entered the convent and gave lifetimes of service.  Michael — though something of a maverick — made his own distinctive mark at sea.  Color of skin varied greatly among the Healys, the bishop and the canon lawyer being moderately dark, as were the daughters, while both Michael and Patrick were quite light.  Thus Captain Healy was not publicly known as a black man.  The closest he seems to have come to encountering social epithets was in Unalaska in 1890 when an unruly sailor who had been disciplined publicly termed Mike ‘the bucko captain” — a reference to his Irish ancestry and name.

The outbreak of the American Civil War found Mike Healy in Australia.  He was by then a consummate seaman who had worked his way up to officer status.  He made his way home and, late in 1864, he applied for a commission in the Revenue Marine.  Appointed third lieutenant on 7 March 1865, he was promoted to second lieutenant the following year and served as a junior officer on the cutters RELIANCE, VIGILANT, MOCCASIN, and ACTIVE.  On July 20, 1870 he was promoted to first lieutenant, having made his first cruise to Alaska in 1868.  In 1874 he sailed with Captain J. A. Henriques (later to become the first Superintendent of the Academy) in the new cutter Rush around Cape Horn to San Francisco.  Healy obtained his first command, the CHANDLER, in 1877 and he served in that ship until 1880 when he was ordered to command the RUSH.  By 1884, when he succeeded Captain C. L. Hooper as commander of the cutter THOMAS CORWIN, Healy had already combined his magnificent gifts as a seaman and navigator with his unsurpassed knowledge of the Arctic to make himself a legendary figure among whaling crews, merchant seamen, and Alaskan natives.  He was promoted to the grade of captain on March 3, 1883 and continued to devote himself to Alaskan and Arctic duty.

The captains of the cutters patrolling the Bering and Arctic were the first and the last group of commanders to savor the true freedom of exercising independent command.  Although each of the cutters received detailed orders from “the Department,” no effective communication facilities existed north of Port Townsend, Washington.  Commanding officers were always enjoined to “protect the interests of the government, a formula which allowed them almost unlimited discretion in carrying out their missions.  The “interests of the government,” magnified by the vast distances, extreme climate, and sparse population of Alaska, were numerous and varied.

In 1884 the Arctic and Bering Sea cutters transported the Governor of Alaska on his annual inspection trip throughout the Territory; expeditions of exploration sponsored by governmental and quasi-public agencies were carried to the scene of their labors; members of the Geological Survey and the Coast and Geodetic Survey were commonly on board the cutters; and the judges of the District Court received passage as they went about their duties.  Official reports reveal that teachers, missionaries, provisions, medicines, and even lumber were carried north of the Arctic Circle by the cutters.

The principal maritime enterprise in Alaskan waters in the 1880s and 1890s was whaling, an occupation made dangerous by the conditions of Arctic navigation.  Endless fog, treacherous and shifting water currents, unpredictable gale force winds, and the lack of reliable charts, lights, or other aids to navigation magnified the toll taken by the Arctic.  Officers and crews of the whaling ships were well paid for their hazardous work, with captains receiving the then princely sum of seven to eight thousand dollars per year, depending on the number of whales caught.

It was not high salaries which drew certain of the officers of the Revenue-Marine to volunteer for service in Alaska and in the Arctic.  Indeed, it was not until 1902 that the officers of the Service were to be given equality of pay and allowances with other officers of the armed forces of the United States.  Personal comfort was never the rule in the Arctic; political preferment was to be gained elsewhere; and the hazards of Arctic navigation brushed aside the fainthearted.  The magnetic power of Alaska and the Arctic for the officers of the Revenue-Marine lay in the challenge of high adventure and in the opportunity for individual distinction.  Arctic service was, in essence, the contest between Man and Nature which excited and attracted the great competitors of the Officer Corps.  The flavor of that challenge is reflected even in Healy ‘s official language in his report of the CORWIN's cruise of 1884.

During the afternoon of the 24th of August the wind had been freshening up from the westward with snow squalls and overcast, threatening weather, and by the time I reached latitude 71° 17' north (ten miles distant from Point Barrow) I found further progress impossible.

The pack was now moving inshore, and the leads began to close so rapidly that I found it necessary to order increased speed and carry all sail to escape from the imminent danger that threatened us.  Just before we turned, the steamwhalers that had ventured to the northward with us became alarmed and an exciting race of twenty miles between steam and ice commenced.

The leads most clear of ice were sought with as much care as the necessity for haste would permit, but large cakes of ice frequently almost blocked up the way.  Down through the narrow passages with rapidly turning screws, long streams of black smoke stretching out over the quarters. and all fore-and-aft sail bellying to the stiff southwest breeze, the steamers were pushed for a position of safety.  Now one would go full speed into some large piece, and when almost brought to a standstill the cake would split and the two parts shoot from each other in separation; again some vessel would come to a standstill in an unruly piece, and a following vessel would shift her course and strike the binding ice with such judgment and skill as to loosen the former and yet not stop her own progress; now one vessel would slide broadside up on a huge piece and roll covering boards under, while another would force her bows high up out of the water until the ice broke, and the pieces were forced up from under her bottom.  On board these ships little noise was heard except the orders of the officers.  What conversation was carried on was in an undertone, the excitement being so intense as to check the naturally loud tones of the sailors.

CORWIN's orders from the Treasury commanded her to enforce the law and protect the interests of the government, in addition to collecting scientific data and rendering aid to those in need.  In his report of the 1884 cruise Healy noted that the two cruising grounds assigned to the CORWIN lay more than a thousand miles apart and, as a consequence, he had been unable to give proper attention to the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutians.  Having rescued the crews of wrecked whaling ships and taken them on board the cutter for transportation to San Francisco and holding in custody six prisoners arrested by the CORWIN for sealing violations, Healy arrived in San Francisco with ninety-six persons on board the cutter.  What was needed, said Healy in his report, was another cutter to patrol the Gulf of Alaska.

The need for an additional Alaska cutter was solved by the Treasury, characteristically, at no expense to the Treasury.  The sealing vessel BEAR, purchased by the Navy in 1883 with special funds appropriated by Congress to search for the Adolphus W. Greely Arctic Expedition, was lying in the Navy Yard at New York.

Under command of Commander Winfield S. Schley, USN, the Bear had rescued Greely and the survivors of his expedition and returned them to civilization.  The BEAR, woodhulled and built for Arctic service, was of no further use to the Navy after Greek’s rescue and she was to be sold out of the Service.

The Act of March 3, 1885. transferred the BEAR to the Revenue-Marine without cost to the Treasury since special funds had already been laid out for her purchase.  The ship went into the Fundy and Murphy shipyard in New York where she was refitted as a revenue cutter.  She was then sailed “around the Horn” to San Francisco, arriving one hundred six days out of New York.  The Treasury Department designated the BEAR as the Arctic Ocean cruiser and flagship of the Bering Sea Force.  CAPT Healy was ordered to take command.  He reported on board in late February 1886 and remained BEAR’s commanding officer for the next nine years.

During that nine year period from 1886 to 1895 Captain Healy became known throughout the Arctic as “Hell-roaring Mike Healy.”  He was a strong and complex man who considered himself to be the best mariner and shiphandler in northern waters and he prided himself in the high standards of performance he set for himself and his ship.  He gained the unlimited respect and unstinting praise of the whaler captains and crews who relied upon him for protection and rescue.  Healy and the BEAR served as guardians for the lives of those who sailed in the whaling ships.

Healy also possessed a deep-seated sympathy for those in need, whether they were missionaries, distressed seamen, or Alaskan natives.  He was particularly concerned about the Eskimos and Indians of Alaska whose lives were being disrupted and whose survival was being threatened by the advent of seal hunters and whaling ships in the Arctic.  Perhaps as a result of his own parentage he showed great humanitarian interest in the future of the natives and he authored a major social experiment for the benefit of tribes whose lives were being changed by modern civilization.

Healy was also the unswerving defender of the law in Arctic and Bering waters as well as on the coasts and islands of Alaska.  Woe to any mutineer, seal poacher, or liquor trader who fell to Healy’s tender mercies.  In law enforcement he preferred the instant and strong correctives of the frontier to the legal niceties of less harsh climates.

In January, 1894, a feature writer of the New York Sun described Mike Healy’s standing in Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.

Capt. Mike Healy is a good deal more distinguished person in the waters of the far Northwest than any president of the United States or any potentate of Europe has yet become.  He stands for law and order in many thousands of land and water, and if you should ask in the Arctic Sea, "Who is the greatest man in America?” the instant answer would be “Why, Mike Healy.”  When an innocent citizen of the Atlantic coast once asked on the Pacific who Mike Healy was, the answer came, “Why, he’s the United States.  He holds in these parts a power of attorney for the whole country.

For twenty years or more CAPT Healy has been the sole representative of legal authority in much of the territory north of Port Townsend. To the Indians of that region he stands for the United States government.  To the whalers of the Arctic he is by turns a beneficent providence and an avenging Nemesis.  Everybody in San Francisco knows him. He has time and time again suppressed disorder and prevented crime in regions a thousand miles from any legally constituted authority.  He is the ideal commander of the old school, bluff, prompt, fearless, just.  He knows Bering Sea, the Straits, and even the Arctic as no other man knows them.

Part II

[First published in the March/April 1979 issue of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association The Bulletin (Vol. 41, No. 2), pp. 22-27.]

By all accounts Captain Mike Healy was, in 1890, one of the best-known figures of the West and Northwest.  The frequently cited New York Sun article on Healy referred to him as holding power of attorney for the entire United States from San Francisco northward.  According to the writer, “He is the greatest man in America”.  Mike Healy had received acclaim and tribute from many quarters for his selfless devotion to duty.  This duty had carried him to the most dangerous waters in the interests of law and humanity.  He was acknowledged to be the most skillful of the extraordinary seamen who braved the icy and treacherous Bering Sea.  More than journalistic exaggeration is contained in the New York Sun article.  Healy was truly a towering figure in his times.  But as lightning strikes the highest tree, so too Captain Healy was struck down.  In 1895 charges were brought against him — charges of drinking on duty and misconduct.  For reasons to be examined later the charges were partly sustained.  Healy lost command of the BEAR and was suspended for four years.  The achievement of a lifetime was suddenly destroyed and a great sailor was reduced to humiliation.

The rise and fall of Michael Healy cannot be understood apart from the history of the Healy family.  Michael Healy senior, the adventurous Irish soldier who carved a prosperous plantation out of the Georgia frontier, married a beautiful sixteen-year old woman named Mary Eliza Smith.  According to James Healy, her oldest son, she was an octoroon, that is, she was one-eighth black and a slave.  That circumstance had fateful consequences for the ten children born to this marriage.  First of all, there were legal consequences.  Under the laws of Georgia, no slave could be legally freed without a special act of the state legislature.  Not only must Healy’s wife remain a slave but all their children were in the eyes of the law considered slaves.  Neighbors of farmer Healy jokingly referred to his children as “yard children.”  (On one such occasion the irate father turned loose his pack of dogs on visitors who made such remarks.)  Had they remained in the state, all the gifted and brilliant Healy children would have, on the death of their Irish father, been auctioned off as property and might have spent their lives in the most degrading servitude.  The nation would have been deprived of three great clergymen, a college president, and a great sea captain.

To save his children, the senior Michael Healy devised a plan to send them north, one or two at a time.  Neighbors were surprised that he would waste good money on a northern education for mere “yard children” but the gossipers soon passed to other subjects of local interest.  James and Sherwood were the first to leave home.  In the company of their father they traveled by ship from Savannah in 1841 and landed in New York where the elder Healy had relatives and friends.  A search was made for an appropriate school.  Again and again they were refused on the basis of skin color.  The African inheritance of each boy was clearly visible and was sufficient grounds for rejection.  This was perhaps the first of many instances of racial prejudice which all the Healy children endured throughout their lifetimes.  They had escaped the threat of slavery but the social consequences of mixed racial origins were not so readily avoided.

After many refusals at other schools, one New York school run by Quakers, opened its doors.  The senior Healy visited his oldest sons whenever he could even though travel in the 1840s was slow and uncomfortable.  At the urging of a certain Bishop John Fitzpatrick, Healy later entered his boys at the newly founded Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts.  James was to become the first graduate of this college in 1849.  The senior Healy meanwhile announced plans to sell his 1,600 acres in Georgia and move to New York.  But these plans were never carried out.  Both the father and mother of the Healy children died within months of each other in 1850 and were buried on the Healy plantation.

While the environment of a Catholic college was relatively comfortable for the Healy boys, they were not altogether free of racially based hostility.  Children are notoriously cruel at times and so it was at Holy Cross.  Patrick Healy, another of the brothers, became a teacher at Holy Cross and wrote to his superior concerning the burden of race prejudice:

". . .remarks are sometimes made which wound my very heart.  You know to what I refer.  The anxiety of mind caused by these is very intense.  I have with me a younger brother, Michael.  He is obliged to go through the same ordeal.”

Young Michael’s response to this ordeal was to run away.  Three times he ran away from school; each time he was retrieved.  Since his objective on each occasion was a career at sea his eldest brother James — now his guardian — ultimately consented to this choice, he arranged for Michael to ship out as cabin boy on the American East Indian clipper JUMNA.

Young Michael’s fascination for the sea may have begun on the voyage north from Savannah as a nine-year-old.  Perhaps a friendly sailor took a liking to the boy and showed him how to tie knots and explained to the lad the ways of a ship at sea.  In any case a great sea career began when Michael shipped aboard the JUMNA in 1854.  Little is known of these early experiences aboard ship except that Michael demonstrated his natural gifts as a sailor and rose in time to the rank of officer.  Life at sea allowed him to prove his worth and advance on the basis of merit.  Then, as now, facing the challenges of the sea, the reliable and competent were soon distinguished from lesser men.

It is probable that most of Michael’s shipmates were unaware of his origins.  Being light of skin, he could easily “pass”, as the later expression had it.  But if Michael relied for protection on secrecy, that course of action became impossible as his older brothers rose to prominence in the service of the church.  James, Sherwood, and Patrick all became well known priests in the Boston area.  Michael’s relationship with James and Sherwood, both relatively dark, undoubtedly became a matter of common knowledge aboard the ships on which he served.

The tightly-knit Healy clan by 1860 regarded Boston as home.  Father James, now pastor of St. James Church, had a home in Newton, a Boston suburb.  His younger sisters Martha, Eliza, and Josephine lived there at this time.  In 1863 the family gathered there for Christmas.  Father A. J. Foley, in his book Bishop Healy: Beloved Outcast writes of this period:

Michael was there too, home from the sea for the Christmas weeks.  They all smothered him with affection.  His welcome there meant surcease to his homesickness.  He sat by the fireplace and talked with them far into the night of his travels and adventures.

The Healys must also have discussed the great Civil War then raging in America.  All of them ardently supported the war and particularly one of its objectives, the abolition of human slavery.

Sometime in the early 1860s, on one of his Boston visits, Michael had met Mary Jane Roach.  The two were married on January 31, 1865.  James, his oldest brother, performed the ceremony; sister Martha was a witness.  The bride — four years older than Michael —was to support him loyally for a lifetime through many hard times and personal tragedies.  In marrying Michael Healy, Mary Jane Roach defied the opinion of conventional society and demonstrated a depth of affection which never diminished.  She was to experience over the years eighteen pregnancies, only one of which succeeded in the birth of their son Frederick in 1870.

During the war Michael continued to serve his country aboard merchant ships.  With his acquisition of family responsibilities and the ending of the war in 1865, he decided to join the Revenue Marine.  This decision probably stemmed from a desire for duty which would allow him to be home more frequently.  Whatever, he applied for a commission, met all the requirements, and was appointed Third Lieutenant on March 7, 1865.  He served for nine years thereafter on cutters in the Boston area, including VIGILANT and ACTIVE.  This allowed time at home with Mary Jane and visits with his brothers and sisters.

But needs of the service were paramount then, as now.  With nearly twenty years of sea experience, nine of them aboard cutters, the now 1st LT Mike Healy was a highly valued officer.  In 1874 he was chosen to sail as second officer of the cutter RUSH under Captain John A. Henriques — soon to become one of the founders of the Academy.  RUSH was being dispatched to San Francisco, via Cape Horn for service in Alaska.  One can speculate that during the long voyage Henriques must have discussed with Healy and his other officers the need for an Academy where special professional training could be given future officers.  RUSH arrived in San Francisco in 1875 and served many years thereafter in Alaskan waters, later under the command of Mike Healy himself.  It appears, however, that for a period of four months following his arduous voyage around the Horn, Healy was “unemployed”.  Perhaps his wife joined him during this period of relaxation?  Whatever, he returned to work as second officer aboard RUSH on cruises to Alaska in 1876 and 1877, this time under the experienced Captain C. L. Hooper.  Already a seasoned and experienced officer, Healy now began to learn the mysteries of Bering Sea navigation — and ultimately became the supreme practitioner in this field.

The records indicate that in his twenty years of sea service between San Francisco and Point Barrow —nine in command of BEAR — Mike Healy set a standard of performance never matched.  Thousands owed their lives to his skill and daring in rescue operations.  Eskimos and Indians throughout the vast regions of the North came to know and respect this skipper of the BEAR and called his ship “Healy’s Fire Canoe”.  Mission schools depended on supplies carried on the BEAR.  Anyone in distress could depend on Healy for relief.  Medical help was furnished whenever, possible to white or native without discrimination.  Healy’s special compassion for the native population was expressed in thousands of deeds and in his standing order, “Never make a promise to a native you do not intend to keep to the letter”.  This was more than smart tactic.  Healy, because of his own experience, was sensitive to the suffering of the natives.  It infuriated him to hear of the white traders supplying guns and liquor to the Eskimos and Indians.  Whole villages died because of their inability to cope with alcohol.

The compassion of Mike Healy toward the northern people is perhaps best expressed in his sponsorship of the great reindeer experiment.  For decades the seals were being slaughtered by fur traders, leaving the Eskimo without his traditional source of food, clothing, and hides.  Captain C. L. Hooper, in an 1881 report of a cruise by CORWIN to the Siberian coast, noted that natives on that shore sustained themselves very well on herds of domesticated reindeer.  Perhaps John Muir, the great naturalist who participated in that cruise, was the source of a suggestion that Eskimos on the American side be introduced to this reindeer culture.  Clearly the loss of seals was bringing increasing distress to native villages on the American side and the need for relief was becoming urgent.  Whatever the source of the suggestion, it was Captain Mike Healy who took the first action by digging into his own pocket and starting a program of purchasing reindeer from the Siberians and transporting them to Alaska aboard BEAR.  Healy’s scheme was later outlined to Congress and others in Washington by Dr. Sheldon Jackson, a missionary.  Congress then furnished some funds and several cutters became involved in the program.  Over the following decade some 1200 animals were transported across the Bering Strait.  Estimates vary but most agree that the herds eventually multiplied to over a half million.  This great and successful social experiment provided the means of survival to Alaskan Eskimos at a critical period.  Captain Healy had shown himself to be a great humanitarian as well as a man of action.  Yet it was this same humanitarian who later was called “The Revenue Marine monster, Healy, fiend in Alaskan waters” by the Women’s Temperance Union of San Francisco.

How did this strong, competent, intelligent and proud man come under violent attack by a strange alliance of reformers and self-servers?  It was a gradual process.  As Healy’s reputation grew the number of his enemies also grew.  Every criminal apprehended by Captain Healy became an enemy and a source of slander against him.  Every grafting petty official exposed by Healy joined the ranks.  Healy was direct and uncompromising.  Those with influence who sought to use the BEAR for pleasure cruises were bluntly refused.  Those who were given transport were required to pay for the food they consumed.  In such circumstances Mike Healy was no diplomat.  He despised those who pulled strings to achieve their ends.

Among his most formidable enemies were those seamen from whaling ships whom he had punished for mutiny.  As the sole representative of government in the far North, Healy was required to deal with mutiny.  With no court and no jail at his disposal, he acted with characteristic directness — he triced ‘em up.  Tricing up was a punishment Healy knew from his early days at sea before reforms of disciplinary practices.  A man was handcuffed behind his back and a line passed through a ring bolt and attached to the handcuffs.  The mutineer was then hoisted upward until only his toes touched the deck.  While painful, this punishment was never fatal and was a very effective deterrent.  To the genteel folk of San Francisco, it sounded cruel and barbarous.  Union officials — eager to organize seamen — joined the chorus of protest.

The temperance organizations were convinced Healy’s cruelty was traceable to his use of alcoholic beverages.  At Healy’s trial the charges of drunkenness were refuted through the testimony of twenty-one witnesses, most of whom were masters of vessels in the Arctic trade, and Healy contended that the tricing up was justifiable under the circumstances . He was sustained by the hearing board.  But as Dr. J. F. Murphy so clearly demonstrated in an earlier article “Two Standards of Judgment” (The Bulletin, Sept/Oct ‘65, p. 366), Healy was caught in a conflict between frontier justice and the standards of civilized modern life.  Although acquitted of the charges, his trouble had only begun.

Despite the testimony of friends and admirers to the contrary, it appears that Mike Healy had, in fact, developed a drinking problem of growing concern to his family and to himself.  Frequently he expressed the intention to “give it up”.  In 1883 he persuaded his wife, son and brother Patrick to accompany him aboard CORWIN for the annual cruise north.  The presence of close family was designed to keep Healy away from alcohol — and it did.  It is recorded that during that cruise the cutter struck a large ice floe and climbed up on it half out of the water.  Father Patrick was at this moment in the cabin saying Mass for the family.  When he rushed on deck in his vestments astonished sailors running about thought they were about to enter the Pearly Gates.  Fortunately, CORWIN gently slid back into the sea without damage.

Drinking aboard ships of all kinds was not unusual in that day.  Charges of drunkenness were commonplace, particularly in the Bering Sea where cold, damp weather made warming spirits attractive.  As one news writer put it:

Constant exposure to a climate of ten or twenty below zero does not conduce to gentleness of demeanor; among men who are always cold and wet manners seldom acquire the repose which marks the caste of Vere de Vere. Such men often become rough and severe disciplinarians. Their words of command are apt to be harsh and their impatience of undiscipline fiery . . .  It is an ancient delusion that use of spirits enables a sailor to endure hardships, yet as a matter of fact, navigators who have to contend with ice floes and bitter fogs do consume more alcohol than they would imbibe in balmier seas.

On more than one occasion Captain Healy would spend up to 72 hours in the crows nest of his vessel guiding it through the ice to safety. It is perhaps understandable that he sought relief in a warming bottle of brandy when such labors ended.

After two decades of punishing sea duty Healy began to experience problems of health.  Lung congestion was a frequent complaint — and illness to which his brothers also were susceptible.  On his final cruise aboard BEAR Healy became seriously ill with influenza and remained so a good part of the time.  Dr. D. P. Bodkin, the ship’s physician, prescribed quinine and whiskey for the condition.  It seems an unlikely prescription if Healy were really a chronic alcoholic.  And in fact Dr. Bodkin swore under oath at Healy’s 1895 trial that he was not an alcoholic — that his illness accounted for an appearance of unsteadiness.  His proclivity to drink, however, made Healy an easy target for those who conspired to bring him down.  And during the BEAR’s cruise of 1895, the wolves were gathering for the kill.  How this was accomplished will be examined in Part 3.

Part III

[First published in the March/April 1979 issue of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association The Bulletin (Vol. 41, No. 3), pp. 26-30.]

When in November 1895, Captain Mike Healy sailed south to Unalaska, he was leaving the frozen calm of the Bering Sea only to find a storm of controversy waiting for him.  When the cutter BEAR arrived at Unalaska in the Aleutians Healv was handed a copv of charges against himself signed by 25 officers of the Bering Sea cutters, most of them junior in grade.  The original was sent to Secretary of Treasury [John G.] Carlisle and another copy was furnished Captain C. L. Hooper, senior officer of the Bering Sea fleet.  This remarkable document reflected severely upon the conduct of Captain Healy during the 1895 cruise and an investigation was requested.

The veteran captain, it was said, had been discourteous on several occasions, not only to his own officers but to juniors on other ships in the fleet.  It was also said that he had placed an officer under arrest, and ordered him to erase the entry from the log as soon as he had been released.  It was charged that he had been guilty of discourtesy in refusing to receive an introduction to a Second Assistant Engineer on the GRANT, and that he had violated all the ethics of good breeding by ordering one of his officers from the cabin of her Majesty’s ship PHEASANT during a social function on that vessel.

When questioned by the press, Healy was in good spirits and minimized the charges.  He denied that he had acted improperly aboard the British ship, a contention supported later by the British captain.  Healv admitted LT White had been sent to his cabin as a disciplinary measure.  The log entry in the rough log was erased, Healy said, to save White from the disgrace of the affair.  As for the charges regarding the introduction of a Second Assistant Engineer, Healy conceded that a rebuff may have been given because the officer had not been properly introduced.  Mike Healv jealously guarded his prerogatives feeling that good discipline required respect for a commanding officer.

Everyone knew Healy’s style was that of a brusque, “old school” officer.  Yet his manner and his language to junior officers were resented and his use of profanity was the basis of another charge.  Healv was not squeamish about strong language.  During an earlier hearing in 1890 Healv had shocked ladies of the WCTU by repeating some of the language used against himself by a mutinous whaling ship sailor.  ‘‘He told me I could ---- myself,’’ said Healy.  To an officer of Healy’s mettle such an insult demanded immediate punishment.  Since the punishment, tricing up. was being questioned, Healy had to be specific concerning the provocation.  The fine WCTU ladies did not agree.  On another occasion when the BEAR was under way, Healy was startled in his cabin by the sudden absence of noise topside.  He emerged on deck to find the ‘exec’’ conducting a burial at sea, a ceremony requiring the presence of the captain.  The lieutenant was reading ‘‘I am the resurrection and the life when Healy bellowed "Aboard this ship I am the resurrection and the life.’’  So saying he took his proper place in the proceedings.  Harmless as these incidents seem today, they weighed heavily against Healy in the opinion of his contemporaries.  Yet Healy made no apologies for his brusque manner and salty language, explaining "When I am in charge of a vessel, I always command; nobody commands but me.  I take all the responsibility, all the risks, all the hardships that my office would call upon me to take.  I do not steer by any man's compass but my own.  I do not phrase my words with an 'if you please.' I say 'Set the mainsail' or whatever the order may be."

Mike Healy fully expected to ride out the storm.  He was accustomed to prevailing over great obstacles.  In a real sense his whole life was a struggle against adversity.  Born in Georgia of an Irish soldier-plantation owner and his octaroon wife, Healy began life in a very precarious situation.  His mother was a slave under Georgia law and therefore he himself carried the burden of slavery.  Having been sent north to escape the threat of slavery, Michael Healy ran away to sea at age 15 and fought his way up to officer rank in the Revenue Cutter Service.  By 1895 he had won a reputation as the finest seaman in the service.  As shiphandler he was without equal and his uncanny ability to navigate in treacherous, ice-packed water made him almost legendary in seafaring circles.  His feats of seamanship and his long service had won many friends and admirers.  Testimonials from such supporters had won him acquittal in 1890 when he was charged with cruelty and drunkenness.  Having survived that episode, Healy was reasonably confident of a similar outcome in 1895.  Besides, he was on terms of friendship with two very influential senior officers, Captains L. G. Shepard, Commandant, and C. L. Hooper, senior officer of the Bering Sea fleet.  Writing in 1893 to his friend Commandant Shepard, Healy comments on the mounting opposition:

. . . when I act officially, I do it without fear or favor to anyone rich or poor.  The consequence is, that while I have the confidence in the fullest of all honest people interested in the North, I have made no small number of evil wishers who would like an opening to say something.  I never return home without the chance of a suit in court or a scorching from the newspapers.

These words were prophetic revealing Healy's awareness of the ever-growing hostility around him.  In 1893 Healy was presented with a large gold watch and chain, the gift of a group of whaling ship owners in gratitude for his "services at all times freely offered."  He wrote of his delight to his friend Captain Shepard "The whole thing is simply magnificent in its elegance.  I know you will rejoice with me.  It reflects credit upon the Service; besides, I may need such public endorsements . . ."

If Mike Healy believed such public endorsements would save him again, he was mistaken.  Because he had little respect for the junior officers who were largely responsible for the charges, Healy underestimated their collective strength.  This time he was not fighting the WCTU or sailor’s unions but a sizeable group of young officers of his own service.  With 25 signatures on the complaint, Washington could not ignore it.  Where there is so much smoke there must be some fire was the frequently heard argument.  What is so remarkable is the fact that many young officers from other ships joined in the attack on Healy.  Some of them had served with him in previous years, some had never served with him at all.  Healy’s fellow captains, on the other hand, gave him complete support.  Significantly, the enlisted men of the cutter BEAR were behind him to a man.  They sent a statement to the press, to wit: "The men say with one accord that a better master never issued an order.  Some of the crew have felt the result of the captain's discipline, but from all accounts they like him the better for it."  Captain C. L. Hooper, Healy's immediate superior dismissed the charges out of hand as having no substance.  In Washington the matter was regarded more seriously.  The number of complaints and the repeated allegations of excessive drinking forced the Department to act.  Tragically Shepard had died in office and there was no one in Washington to speak in Healy's defense.  Captain healy was surprised and shocked on receiving the telegram relieving him of command.  At muster he appeared agitated.  As soon as his men were lined up he stepped forward and announced that he was no longer in command and that he had received instructions from the secretary of Navy [sic] to turn the BEAR over to Lieutenant [Albert] Buhner.  Then, thanking the crew for their faithfulness, he made way for the temporary commander.

 Captain Healy left the BEAR and went to his cottage on the hill at Sausalito where he resided with his wife and son.  They now awaited further word on the date set for a court-martial.  Healy was crushed by the humiliation he had suffered but far worse punishment lay ahead.

Shock gave way to fury and indignation.  Healy sought an audience for his cause in the bar of the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco.  Drinks flowed freely and before long Healy’s anger was expressed in loud tones with the junior officers of the BEAR the main object of his wrath.  One account suggests that Healy became violent and was given a "mickey finn" to quiet him.  The prostrate Healy was then hauled off to the Home for the Inebriate where he spent 36 hours.  Although Healy’s friends deny that he caused an uproar in a saloon they’ conceded he had been drinking freely.  Healy ‘s physician said the BEAR’s ex-master walked into the Home of his own accord and asked for treatment of his lungs, a severe congestion having set in rather suddenly.  During the night the Captain had several hemorrhages of the lungs which continued into the following day with such severity that the doctor sent for Mrs. Healy and a priest as he feared death was at hand.  Healy rallied and survived to face the ordeal of a trial.  It was at the very least an ominous turn of events extremely damaging for Healy’s defense.

Under the law Captain Healy must be tried by a board composed of three officers, his equal in rank.  Selected for this unpleasant duty were Captains D.  B. Hodgsdon, W. C. Coulson, and L.  M. Stodder.  The court met in the U.S. Appraiser’s Building in San Francisco with officers wearing the prescribed uniform.  Healy’s attorney chose to have the hearings behind closed doors but almost from the start leaks to the press from both sides provided detailed information on the testimony.  During the proceedings more than thirty officers from five cutters sat in the courtroom in full dress uniform.  Guarding the closed doors was an officer of the BEAR in full uniform with a scabbard containing an ugly looking cutlass.  The atmosphere of the courtroom was charged with tension and hostility.  Acting as prosecutor was Lieutenant W. E. Reynolds, later to become Commandant and in 1923 first flag officer of the service.

Although 25 officers had signed the original complaint against Healy, the officers who preferred the charges were First Lieutenant Howard Emery, Second Lieutenant G. M. Daniels, and First Assistant Engineer L. B. Jones, all of the BEAR.  Briefly they charged Captain Healy with misconduct at several social occasions in Sitka and further that he had been intoxicated while on duty at sea.  Defense attorney asked the charges be dismissed on grounds that they did not comply with rules of the Treasury Department in such cases and that they were too general in character.  The motion was rejected after deliberation by the three-man court.  While these proceedings were underway another court of inquiry dismissed charges against Daniels and [John Edward] Dorry, two lieutenants of the BEAR.  Several members of the crew had filed charges of misconduct against them, perhaps to help Captain Healy.

During the hearings there were moments of high drama.  Daniels testified concerning an occasion in the Captain’s cabin when he allegedly spat in Daniels’ face.  Apparently Daniels and Emery arranged a deliberate provocation of the short-fused Captain.  Healy was in his cabin having his shoes shined when Daniels appeared at the door with, according to Healy, an insolent smirk on his face.  Emery was posted just outside listening.  Healy ordered Daniels to leave saying, “You disgust me, sir.”  Then Healy, to emphasize his feelings, spat in the general direction of the spittoon.  Daniels thereupon said. “Sir, why did you spit in my face?”  This was obviously meant to be heard by Emery, concealed nearby.  Healy angrily replied “If you say I spit in your face you are a damned liar!”  On another occasion deliberate provocation was in evidence.  A certain eminent scientist, Dr. Benjamin Sharp of the National Academy, was a passenger aboard BEAR.  Healy, no diplomat, insisted passengers stay the hell out of the way.  The junior officers, seeing their opportunity, falsely reported to Healy that Dr. Sharp had referred to him as a “Goddamned Irishman.”  Understandably Mike Healy was sensitive to remarks about his Catholicism or his Irish and black ancestry.  Predictably an ugly confrontation resulted and Healy’s enemies had another witness.  For months these same young lieutenants would spy on the captain with binoculars from the concealment of the pilot house.  They took detailed notes on his activities afloat and ashore.  They meant to bring him down and some were quite open about it.

Noteworthy in the trial was the extraordinary amount of perjury evident.  Over and over one witness would testify Healy to have been dead drunk on a particular occasion while another witness would swear he had been perfectly sober.  Once during the trial, Daniels testified that Healy, while intoxicated, had beaten a Japanese wardroom boy.  The Japanese himself swore that no such beating took place and that on the contrary Healy had treated him in a fatherly and kindly way.  Concerning Healy’s drinking, the BEAR’s enlisted men testified that he seldom touched alcohol, a statement the board found difficult to believe.  Even Captain C. L. Hooper’s testimony in support of Healy was discounted as the statement of a close friend.  How was truth to be sorted out of all the trivia and contradiction?  Probably the mere volume of testimony against Healy convinced the court.  Where there was so much smoke, there must be some fire.

Having exhaustively investigated the charges over a period of six weeks and having examined 58 witnesses at length under oath, the Board submitted its final report to the Treasury Department on March 5th.  They found Healy guilty of the following charges:

  • Conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline.
  • Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.
  • Tyrannous and abusive conduct to inferiors.
  • Conduct detrimental to discipline.
  • Placing a vessel in a perilous position while in an intoxicated condition, thereby endangering the lives and property under his command.
  • Insulting and abusive treatment of officers.
  • Drunkenness to the scandal of the Service.

The Board concluded its report with the following recommendation: “And the Board therefore recommends that the accused officer, Captain Michael A. Healy, United States Revenue Cutter Service, be dismissed (from) the Service.”

Final action was now up to Treasury Secretary Carlisle.  In making known his decision on the case against Healy, he issued the following order on June 8, 1896:

That Captain Michael A. Healy be dropped to the foot of the list of Captains of the Revenue Service, and that he retain that place hereafter; that he be suspended from rank and command and kept on waiting orders for a term of four years. and that he be publicly reprimanded by reading this order on board all vessels of the Revenue Cutter Service, by the commanding officer of each, at a muster of the commissioned officers, and admonished that if again found guilty of the excessive use of intoxicants during the term of this sentence or thereafter, whether afloat or on shore, he will be summarily dismissed the Service.

                                                                                                                     J. G. Carlisle, Secretary.

In severely punishing Captain Healy the Department began to effect reform in the Bering Sea fleet.  Healy’s conviction put on warning the many heavy drinkers of all ranks in the cutters.  Liquor would not be banned aboard ship until 1912 but intoxication now carried a severe penalty.  Cruel discipline had been curtailed earlier following Healy’s tricing-up episodes.  In another move Lieutenant Worth Ross, first Academy’ graduate, was severely reprimanded.  Ross, in the spirit of the era, had brought charges against Captain [Frederick M.] Munger.  Again excessive drinking was alleged.  In his zeal Ross bypassed the chain of command communicating directly with the department.  Ross, incidentally’, had been actively seeking the post of Commandant as early’ as 1889 when only a lieutenant ten years out of the Academy.  He did not achieve this goal until 1904, long after his disastrous “end run.”  Perhaps most important of the reform measures was the successful passage of retirement legislation in the late 1890s and early’ 1900s.  Once the log jam of semi-retired senior officers was broken, the way was open for long-frustrated junior officers to advance.  The effect on morale was miraculous.  Had such reform come earlier the Healy trial might not have occurred.

While the four-year suspension was shattering to his self-esteem, it provided Healy the chance to pull himself together.  Years of hardship in the Arctic had reduced his health to a low state.  Now he was able to find the rest he needed so desperately.  Consoled by loyal friends and nursed to health by a faithful wife, Mike Healy gradually regained strength and with it a desire to return to sea.  In the Autumn of 1897 the opportunity’ seemed at hand.  Three hundred whaling ship men were trapped at Pt. Barrow by early ice.  Unless help could reach them they were doomed to starvation.  The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, appealing to President [William] McKinley, asked for Captain Healy to head up a relief expedition.  This faith in Healy’s reliability and competence cast more than a little doubt on the justice of his suspension.  In any case, the department refused and sent the BEAR with Captain [Francis] Tuttle to rescue the whalers.  An interesting question remains unanswered.  Did the department, in deference to the whaling ship owners, consult privately with Healy as to the best way to proceed with the rescue?  Even his enemies admitted that no one knew the Alaska of that era so intimately as Healy.  A careful reading of the orders to [David H.] Jarvis, [Ellsworth B.] Bertholf, and [Dr. Samuel] Call reveal a detailed knowledge of terrain, inhabitants, language, weather, and ice.  Such knowledge was possessed by few, if any beside Healy to the minute degree found in the instructions.  Perhaps, after all, the old master of the Bering Sea did have a part in the spectacular rescue at Point Barrow.

Little is known of Captain Mike until the end of his four year suspension.  Sheldon Jackson had dinner with the Healys in 1899 at his hotel.  Healy was eager to return to duty despite his sixty years.  In July 1900 his chance arrived to command the McCULLOCH, newly returned from the Battle of Manila Bay.  What began as a joyous occasion turned into nightmare.  Healy reported aboard in time to witness the burial at sea of his oldest and most loyal friend, Captain C.  L. Hooper.  This devastating news was followed soon by news of the death of James, his oldest brother.  Then came yet another blow.  He was to return to San Francisco and turn over command to W. C. Coulson, one of the judges at his court-martial.  Following that, Healy was to proceed to Boston to take command of the new cutter SEMINOLE.  This to Healy was the ultimate humiliation.  He had spent a lifetime in the Arctic learning its secrets and facing its challenges.  Now he was to go on routine patrol in another distant part of the country.  It was too much for the old skipper.  He was found dead drunk on 7 July 1900 threatening his own life.  Restrained by his officers Healy nevertheless attempted four times to commit suicide, twice by jumping over the side, once by hanging and finally, under restraint, he covertly slashed an artery with the crystal from his much-prized gold watch.  After a period of treatment in a hospital at Port Townsend, he was released to his home.  He had again survived but it seemed a certainty his career was ended in disaster.

Something in Captain Mike Healy would not give up.  Then, in 1902, a new administration came to power in Washington.  The case against Healy was reviewed and it was found that he had been treated too harshly.  Much of the testimony at his trial had been perjured and favorable testimony given too little weight.  Almost miraculously, Healy, despite his most recent experience, was restored to number three place in the captains precedence list.  This act of compassion was followed by another.  Healy was given a new command, this time the THETIS, a steam bark acquired for the Greeley Relief expedition in 1883 along with the BEAR.  Restored to dignity and self-respect, Mike Healy successfully completed cruises to Alaska in THETIS during 1902 and 1903.  He retired in 1903 at the mandatory age.  He died of heart failure less than a year later, his life’s work done.

In the life of Captain Healy we have an American tragedy — in the odyssey of Michael Healy is revealed a side of American life seldom considered in history texts.  The struggle for survival by those subject to the oppression of prejudice is an important part of our national story.  Mike Healy’s efforts to find a place in American life and to prove his worth as a man commands our respect.  His position as foremost officer of the Bering Sea fleet, won at the cost of health and personal comfort, must rank as one of the seafaring triumphs of the era.  The loss of that eminence amid the wreckage of a great professional career also ranks as one of the saddest episodes of our maritime history.  In the end Mike Healy, restored to command and with his dignity intact, emerges triumphant as a truly great American.  Proud and courageous to the end he would not accept defeat as final.  Gaining his last reward in 1904, Mike Healy the man passed into legend part of the lore of the sea and one of the great figures of the Cutter service.  A portrait of Captain Mike Healy now hangs in the Coast Guard Museum.  Surely it is time for the Coast Guard to recognize his achievement in another way, by naming a major cutter after this heroic officer who gave so much in the service of his country.


During his lifetime Captain Healy was told by Revenue Bureau Chief Sumner I. Kimball that he had no right to a post as an officer of the government because of his Catholic faith.  Long after his death in 1905 prejudice continued to plague Healy. In the late 1930s representatives of the film industry, planning to make a film on the life of the noted captain, wired to Healy’s daughter-in-law their wish to examine his four-volume diary.  When they arrived it was in ashes.  Apparently the daughter-in-law, reading the diary for the first time, learned that her husband’s grandmother had been a slave.  In a state of shock she destroyed an important historical document and once again inflicted damage on Healy’s memory out of blind prejudice.