The U.S.S. Somers (brig), an experimental schoolship for naval apprentices, sailed from New York on September 13, 1842, Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie in command. The vessel’s course took it first to the west coast of Africa and from there to the West Indies before returning to New York. On November 26, while near St. Thomas, Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort reported to Mackenzie that he had learned of a plot to murder the officers and most of the crew and turn the Somers into a pirate ship. According to Gansevoort’s information, Acting Midshipman Philip Spencer, the son of the Secretary of War, was the ringleader of the conspiracy. On December 1, Mackenzie hanged Spencer, Boatswain’s Mate Samuel Cromwell, and Seaman Elijah Small at the main yardarms on the recommendation of the officer of the Somers who had determined that the three men were guilty of mutiny.
The vessel returned to New York on December 14 and two weeks later the Navy convened a court of inquiry. On January 19, 1843, the court adjourned, exonerating Mackenzie, but Secretary of War John C. Spencer wanted the commander tried in civil court. Instead, Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur prepared charges and specifications against Mackenzie for a court martial. The proceedings began on February 1 and ended on April 1, and Mackenzie was acquitted. At the time, the verdict was controversial, and to this day there is debate over whether the commander acted properly or was guilty of murder.