“The American Aginora”


A ship from Limerick to St John's is disabled. Two men drown. The food is lost. The captain has those without wives cast lots. The lot falls to O'Brien; the cook is forced to cut his throat. They drink O'Brien's blood. The next day they are rescued.


The plot is that of "The Banks of Newfoundland" (II) with the rescue too late to save the lottery loser. Note that the _Aginora_ is the rescue ship. As in "The Banks of Newfoundland," the ship planning/practicing human sacrifice is not named.

There are a number of references for the event:

Bourke in _Shipwrecks of the Irish Coast_ v3, p. 123, is writing about songs and ballads, including Ranson, as sources for his information: "The story of the Francis Spaight on 22 November, ... year unknown before 1836, describes cannibalism of the cabin boy Patrick O'Brien and eventual rescue of fourteen of the eighteen survivors by Captain Tillard.."

Northern Shipwrecks Database has the date as November 1836, has "Francis Spaight" sailing from Saint John, New Brunswick, bound to Limerick, Ireland, and the rescuer as "Angeronia." The Bodleian broadsides have the rescue ship as "The Agonary of America."

_Death of a Cabin Boy_ on the Askeaton Step Back in Time site: "Few Limerick people today will have heard of Patrick O'Brien. His name has not entered any of our major works of local history. There is not even a plaque or stone to his memory."

The story is told about O'Brien, about the disaster on December 3, and finally of the decision by the captain, Thomas Gorman, "that one of the crew should be killed to keep the rest alive." After O'Brien was killed "three other crew members were similarly put to death ... and they too were eaten by their ship mates.... The captain of the _Francis Spaight_ was engaged in eating the liver and brains of his cabin boy when rescued. After their return to Limerick, the captain and crew were tried for murder and acquitted... rendered [by their ordeal] ... unable to labour ... during the rest of their lives."

The Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild site has an expurgated text of Captain Gorman's letter to the ship's owner, naming the rescue ship as _Agorona_ and its captain as Jillard. As to the storm, the site, quoting Limerick Times notes "On a reference to Lloyd's List we find that twenty vessels are reported as having foundered on the same night."

The Jack London Ranch Album site has the complete text of _The "Francis Spaight" A True Tale Retold_ by Jack London, a short story from "When God Laughs and Other Stories" (Macmillan, 1911). London's story is closer to the ballad than to the reports. - BS

Historical references

  • Dec 18, 1835 - Patrick O'Brien is killed on Francis Spaight
  • Dec 23, 1835 - The crew is rescued by Agenora. (See Notes)

Cross references

  • cf. "The Ship in Distress" (plot) and references there
  • cf. "The Banks of Newfoundland" (II) (plot)


  • Bodleian, Firth c.12(98), "Loss of the Ship Francis Spede, Dreadful Sufferings of the Crew ("You landsmen and you seamen bold "), J. Scott (Pittenweem), 19C; also Harding B 17(172a), "The Loss of the Francis Spaight"


  1. Ranson, pp. 38-39, "The American Aginora" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Roud #7352
  3. BI, Ran038


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1946 (Ranson); 19C (broadside, Bodleian Harding B 17(172a))
Found in: Ireland