During the first months of the War of 1812, the privateer schooner Teazer, belonging to John Adams of New York, was seized by HMS San Domingo. Small schooners like Teazer were quickly being licensed by both America and Britain under “letters of marque” — legal documents bestowing on masters of such private vessels the right to capture enemy merchant ships for profit.
In short order, Adams replaced the lost Teazer with a new armed schooner christened Young Teazer. Maine-crafted from oak and Norway pine, Young Teazer displaced 124 tons, boasted a copper-plated hull and carried five deck guns. It was a fast sailer but in light winds could be rowed with 16 sweeps at a speed of just over 4 knots. On the bow it carried a carved alligator figurehead to display the vessel’s predatory nature.
Young Teazer’s first lieutenant, Frederick Johnson, had also served aboard the former Teazer, where he had proven to be an unpopular officer with a sour disposition. Johnson had been captured with Teazer’s crew and taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, as a prisoner of war. Officers like Johnson were considered gentlemen by the British, and so were “paroled” — given the freedom of the town once they signed a parole document in which they promised not to take up arms against Britain again, under pain of death. Johnson signed, but shortly thereafter was repatriated in a prisoner exchange.
On June 3, 1813, citizens of Portland, Maine, turned out to watch Young Teazer hoist sail and shape a course for the dangerous coastal waters off Nova Scotia — dangerous because Britain had stationed at Halifax 106 naval vessels, including 20 massive 74-gun ships of the line, as well as frigates and sloops of war. But for those crewing Adams’ new privateer schooner, the financial incentive was well worth the risk. British prizes could net even an ordinary seaman as much as 10 years’ wages for a few weeks of hot and hazardous cruising.
By June 11, Halifax newspapers were carrying stories of Young Teazer’s daring and profitable cruise, much to the embarrassment of senior Royal Navy staff. Orders were issued to capture this upstart American, or blow it out of the water. Every British vessel ready for sea patrolled the coast, but whenever sighted, Young Teazer always seemed to escape into a convenient fog bank. The vessel continued capturing and sending rich prizes home, but the little armed privateer’s luck was about to change.
By mid-afternoon of June 26, the frigate HMS La Hogue spotted Teazer and managed to bottle it up in Mahone Bay, between Lunenburg and Halifax. There was no fog to hide in as the late afternoon wind began to fail. The American vessel set out its sweeps in the dying breeze but had nowhere to go. La Hogue, dead in the water, but with Young Teazer in sight, anchored and immediately sent off five heavily armed ship’s boats toward the privateer. Onboard Young Teazer, the captain considered his only two options. He could choose to fight it out, or abandon his schooner and row his ship’s boat to the mainland. While the captain pondered his decision, Johnson took matters into his own hands, making a panicked and particularly selfish decision to end the dilemma. Knowing that he would swing from the nearest yardarm for breaking his parole if taken prisoner again, Johnson rushed down into the galley and, taking a ladle of glowing coals from the stove, headed to the schooner’s powder magazine.
The resulting explosion rattled windows more than 10 miles away. Twenty-eight of the 36 crew, including Johnson, were killed outright in the blast. Local fishermen gathered the badly burned survivors and took them into their homes, while a local clergyman conducted a Christian burial for the dead. Johnson’s fateful decision later caused angry debate in America. One indignant New York newspaper editor suggested of Johnson that “he must have been possessed of the disposition of a devil to plunge such a number of his friends into eternity, who had parents, wives and children to mourn their untimely fate.”
The destruction of Young Teazer at the hands of its own first officer spawned a maritime tradition — that of a ghostly apparition of a bold Yankee schooner with raked masts that still regularly slips out of the fogs of Mahone Bay to drift a few minutes among yachts and fishing boats, before disappearing in a silent, fiery flash, known as The Teazer Light.
J. Gregory Dill