It happened in the middle of a conference call – my cell phone rang in mid- sentence. Usually, I would ignore it until I was through with a conversation but this time, I decided to answer it. Ever since the Wanderer project took off last year, I receive calls from all over the U.S. and they are usually from people with something to say about an ancestor.
This call was a bit of a surprise. Instead of being an African descendant, Mark and I listened as Mr. Kelly explained that John Egbert Farnum, was his great grand uncle. The name rang a bell immediately; Farnum was one of Charlie Lamar’s conspirators!
He went on to explain, “We occasionally spoke about Farnum around the holiday dinner table. “He was a skeleton in our families’ closet.”
It wasn’t always proper table conversation but when stories of their ambiguous ancestor did pop up, their oral history was shared with a warning:
“This doesn’t leave these walls”.
One Thanksgiving, an Aunt remembered Farnum had quite a reputation around New York, frequenting the bar at the St. Nicholas hotel. Throwing back a pint and a half a day of whisky habit, it was just as alarming as his fierce temper. A family story passed down, was that Farnum once entered a bar in uniform and was incensed when another patron refused to give up his seat to him. Farnum resorted to his fists and nearly beat the man to death. Mr. Kelly had no further details and mentioned the newspaper clipping about the affair had long since crumbled.
Kelly told us legend has it, years earlier, Farnum was approached by the infamous Captain Corrie of the Wanderer, in that same bar where Corrie was busy planning the expedition to Africa which schemed on illegally smuggling in Africans along with Lamar and others.”
“Corrie told him that he was looking for a few extra passengers for a luxury cruise to West Africa.” Farnum’s descendant told us. “Whether that’s accurate, I can’t say.”
Apparently no good drinker could refuse such an offer and Farnum rapidly signed up for the trip. Kelly says that one story that has been passed down, is that Farnum had no idea that the Wanderer, sailing under the pennant of the New York Yacht Club, was intent on a slaving expedition.
“By the time the yacht got to Charleston and was fitted out as a slaver, it was too late for Farnum to back out. He thought he’d be killed by Corrie or feared his crewmembers would have him meet an early demise by throwing him overboard. When the Wanderer moored at Jekyll Island with its cargo of captured Africans, Farnum left and headed back north as quickly as he could.”
This was interesting news. According to some accounts, Corrie and his passengers entertained officers of the African Squadron aboard their ship in the mouth of the Congo River. The officers, assigned by the American Navy to intercept slavers headed for the Caribbean, were suspicious of the Wanderer. It was Farnum, who is supposed to have pointed to the luxurious upper fittings of the Wanderer and challenged the officers with a broad smile, “Hardly a slaver, is she?”
It’s most likely he was a very willing part of the conspiracy. It’s been said he earned a nice profit from the expedition but Farnum’s obituary later explained, “This was an episode in his life, he always regretted.” Farnum acted as a witness for the prosecution when Lamar and others were put to trial. The case was a farce and the Federal Government was not able to make its case. Three years later, when the war broke out, Farnum signed up immediately for the Northern Army, which was later described as “a way to make amends.”
Farnum stayed in the military and, contrary to the image fostered by the Wanderer affair, demonstrated bravery and quickly rose through the ranks. According to his family, he suffered nineteen bullet wounds (shot through both thighs) and endured two saber wounds. After his recovery, he joined the regiment again. Farnum later volunteered for action in the Crimean and Mexican wars and made his way through the ranks of the U.S. Army from Corporal to Brigadier General.
I asked a few additional questions and once the calls ended, I thought about those newspaper accounts. It didn’t take long before I had come across the ones described and their stories were even more interesting than Kelly remembered. After the Wanderer incident, the authorities were quickly notified and Farnum, probably well known to the New York law, was found at his favorite watering hole – the same hotel bar where Corrie had found him. Farnum, when greeted by Rynders, the arresting U.S. Marshall, warmly paid for him and his friends to finish their drinks before being marched off to jail. Evidently more than one drink followed. The newspaper reported that Farnum ended up so drunk that the arresting officer had to take Farnum to his own home to sleep it off before taking him to the city jail.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Farnum, Lamar, Corrie and the others did not face proper justice, however, we know now the names, faces and stories of those that were their unfortunate captives. Stories of triumph and sadness, voices that have finally been heard as distant echoes of the past. Despite the injustices given to them, the Wanderer Africans and their descendants not only offer us a uniquely American story of overcoming great hardships but offers us all a path that leads us back in time, while also showing us an inspiring way forward.
~April L. Hynes