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Cannonball Read #54: The Wreck of the William Brown: A True Tale of Overcrowded Lifeboats and Murder at Sea by Tom Koch

In 1841, the packet ship William Brown, carrying a load of immigrants to the new world, hit an iceberg and sank--mere miles from where the Titanic would sink 71 years later--drowning hundreds and leaving the rest in a death-struggle on the lifeboats. The shocking part is that not a single member of the William Brown's crew perished, and in fact they tossed 14 passengers out of the lifeboats to their deaths for fear of "overcrowding," only to be rescued a day later. The book details both the history of the packet trade, the circumstances that led to the wreck, the wreck itself, and more interestingly, the scramble afterwards by the British and American governments to find a scapegoat to blame who would keep focus off the mutually profitable Irish emigration trade.

The machinations of both governments are nearly as appalling as the actions of the crew members who, in darkness, heaved defenseless passengers out of the lifeboats into the freezing waters of the Atlantic. It's a fascinating book, though it is not nearly as detailed as some other maritime disaster books due to the time period and the fact that the members of the crew and most passengers did not keep diaries or written records. However, Koch has been able to track down many of the legal papers and do an excellent job of covering the trial itself.

On the whole, a decent and interesting book, though nothing particularly spectacular in the genre.

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