Gideon Jones, the middle member of a San Francisco liquor business known as Truett, Jones, and Arrington, was arrested and jailed in 1863 as the middle man in a scheme to aid the Confederate cause in the Civil War by outfitting a rebel “pirate ship,” a conspiracy that went terribly wrong for the participants.
Shown above is a billhead that lists the whisky dealers. All three were immigrants to California. Miers (sometimes “Myers”) Truitt was born in New England, part of a long established family there. Jones was a native of Kentucky, according to his record in the 1860 census. The only true Southerner among the trio was William Arrington who hailed from North Carolina.
The three were in partnership in San Francisco from at least 1858, according to local directories. In addition to their being “importers of “wines and liquors” with stores at 60 Front Street and 43 Sacramento Street, the trio also were advertising in California, up the Pacific Coast and into Canada as “wholesale dealers.” In an 1860 liquor ad in a British Colombia newspaper Truitt, Jones, and Arrington promised: “Dealers who may favor us with orders, may rest assured that we will endeavor to give satisfaction in the article, and dispatch in forwarding.” The firm also seems to have dabbled in general merchandise. A newspaper article from Victoria, B.C., credited the partners with having been the conduit for the purchase of fire equipment from San Francisco and its shipment north aboard the steamer Oregon.
With what appears to have been a thriving business, how did Gideon Jones get caught up in a scheme to assist the Confederate cause? The answer may lie in the Kentucky connection. The ringleader of the conspiracy was Asbury Harpending, a Kentuckian who was an unabashed supporter of the Confederate cause and under loose Federal watch. A fellow Kentuckian, Ridgeley Greathouse, a banker, was the money bags.
With the Civil War raging in 1863, Harpending, shown left, hatched a plot to have Confederate sympathizers in California outfit a “pirate ship” and sail the Pacific Coast, preying on U.S. merchant vessels. Traveling to Richmond he met with Jefferson Davis and received from him “letters of marque” that gave him permission to make war on Union ships as a privateer for the Confederacy. Between Harpending and Greathouse they had enough money to pay for a crew, supplies and munitions to execute the plot. Gideon Jones was enlisted to help them buy the needed items. As a local merchant and trader, Jones’ purchases, even of guns and ammunition, likely would go unremarked. It also can be assumed Gideon was responsible for putting aboard the whiskey and beer the crew would require on the voyage.
The ship the conspirators chose was a small but fast schooner called the J. M. Chapman. It was docked in San Francisco Bay, shown above as it looked in the 1860s. The ship, built in New London, Connecticut, had engendered some excitement in San Francisco when it made the trip from Connecticut, around the Horn, and up the coast of South America in 138 days. One observer said of the craft: “She was a splendidly built schooner, of beautiful lines, and a rapid sailor.” For Harpending the J.M. Chapman was a perfect privateer.
As the captain he chose William C. Law who was living in San Francisco at the time. A man who had sailed both the Atlantic and Pacific, Law had a reputation for being erratic and had been relieved of his last command by the ship’s owners. Earlier he had resided in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was engaged in running slaves from Richmond to New Orleans. Interviewing Law, Harpending was quoted as put off by the seaman’s “sinister, villainous mug,” considered him capable of any crime, and “the most repulsive reptile in appearance I ever set eyes on.” Finding no other candidates for the command, however, he hired Law, commissioning him as a captain in the Confederate Navy.
Under Harpending’s plan, after loading the schooner with arms and munitions, an activity that Gideon Jones apparently abetted, the Chapman would proceed to Manzanillo, Mexico, and wait for the first Pacific Mail steamer that entered the harbor and capture it. The steamer would be converted into a second privateer and intercept two more eastbound Pacific Mail vessels. The objective was to intercept the millions in California gold used to pay Union troops and turn it over to the Confederacy.
The conspirators attempted to hide their intentions by ads such as the one shown here that depict the Chapman’s voyage to Manzanillo as strictly hauling cargo. Their efforts to hire a crew took them to San Francisco taverns where their recruitment required divulging elements of the plot. Known to brag, Harpending well might have dropped the name of Jefferson Davis. Word soon got back to Federal authorities who began to watch the group closely. The plot also likely was betrayed by Captain Law, who had become wary of the affair.
On March 4, 1863, the appointed day of departure, Law was not to be found. Fearing treachery, Harpending attempted to set sail without the captain. But there was no wind. Nearby on the U.S. warship Cyrene, boatloads of Marines were dispatched to board the ship. On the steam tug Anashe, revenue officers and San Francisco police had been idling, watching as supplies were being brought aboard the Chapman. At a signal from the Cyrene, the tug headed toward the erstwhile pirate ship. A San Francisco newspaper artist caught the scene as the boats closed in. Before long the authorities had boarded, found the guns and ammunition, and arrested all on board. As shown below, the Chapman, dwarfed by the Cyrene, then was anchored under the guns of the warship.
Meanwhile back on land, whiskey man Gideon Jones was in deep trouble. A bench warrant was issued for his arrest and he was thrown into the San Francisco jail. Early press accounts, noting that Jones had been a merchant in the city for many years, expressed puzzlement about his role in the conspiracy.
A subsequent indictment from the U.S. Circuit Court shed some light on the charges. Jones was accused of “treason,” charged with having aided in fitting out the J.S. Chapman and for unspecified “conduct directed against the country.” He was confined in the local jail without bail awaiting trial. Meanwhile the other conspirators all languished in Alcatraz, shown here as it looked during the Civil War.
Charged along with his co-conspirators for “treason in wartime” under a 1862 Act of Congress, the ultimate penalty being death, Gideon must have feared for his life. Opinion in San Francisco ran strongly that the conspirators should be hanged. In the end, however, Jones was released on time served by the court as were most of the others. President Lincoln had recommended leniency. In the end only Harpending, Greathouse and a third ringleader were fined and sent to jail. Captain Law, who had watched the capture from shore while reputedly nursing a hangover, was arrested but soon released and not brought to trial, fueling speculation that he had tipped off authorities to the planned departure. The J.M. Chapman was confiscated, sold, and its cargo of arms put to U.S. government use.
Gideon Jones rejoined his liquor firm, where others may have harbored pro-Southern attitudes. A former company employee named Washington Iams later was identified as a captain in charge of ordinance for Confederate forces in Texas and also said to have served on the staff of General Van Dorn. Such Southern attachments, however, apparently did not seriously damage the profitability of Truett, Jones, & Arrington and the company survived the Civil War. In the post-bellum period, however, its fate and that of Gideon Jones fade into the mists of history. I have been unable to find further reliable information on either and hope an alert reader will help fill in the blanks.
Note: Narratives abound regarding this aborted attempt to pillage Union shipping during the Civil War by Southern sympathizers in San Francisco. I have availed myself of several of them in crafting this post. None of them focus particularly on Gideon Jones, the whisky man.