Monday, October 30, 2006

Harry Van Stack and the Convict Ship Success

It was 43 years ago this month that the writer Harry Van Stack died in Sandusky. Born in South Africa, he was a world-traveller, and made his name by writing about his journeys in newspaper columns and in books. He wrote a column for the Sandusky Register from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s.

His longest "journey" was aboard the prison ship Success, where, from the 1920s to the 1940s, he frequently spent time travelling throughout North America, presenting lectures about the ship and its history and legends. According to one of those legends, the Success was built in Burma in 1790, and was used to transport convicts from England to the newly-settled land of Australia. Although it was in fact built in Burma, the real story is that the Success did not come into existence until 1840. All available evidence indicates that the ship was actually built in 1840 as a merchant ship sailing the Indian Ocean; from 1847 to 1852, it transported emigrants from England to Australia. In 1852 the Australian government purchased it for use as a prison, and later for ammunition storage. The Australian government used it for these purposes probably until the mid-1880s. (It was not used to transport English convicts to Australia, as some legends claim.)

Alexander Phillips purchased the ship in 1890 and soon began using it for travelling exhibitions, presenting exhibits and lectures on crime and punishment. (This is probably when the fictitious stories became popular.) The cells of the ship were opened for viewing and various articles of punishment were displayed on the decks -- only some of which might have been actually used on the ship during its prison days. For example, the "iron maiden," displayed on the ship, certainly was not used as a means of punishment in 19th-century Australia, and is possibly simply an artifact of legend.

In 1943 the ship sank while moored in Sandusky. In 1945 it was refloated and towed to Port Clinton, where the then-owner lived. This owner (along with vandals) began stripping the ship for its valuable items. After long neglect, the Success burned to the water line in July 1946, in a fire of mysterious circumstances. Perhaps fate directed this result because, with the demise of the Success near Sandusky, Harry Van Stack also ended his journey and settled in Sandusky for the remainder of his life.

The Sandusky Library Archives Research Center holds materials relating to the ship Success during the time it was a travelling exhibit site, including books and pamphlets on the history (both real and invented) of the ship, souvenir catalogs, announcement brochures, and a set of roughly 75 photographs taken by Harry Van Stack during a voyage from Portland, Maine to Chicago for the 1933 World's Fair. Additionally, the library owns a collection of Harry Van Stack's writings and papers, including many of his newspaper columns and personal correspondence. Unfortunately, Blogger has once again refused to cooperate and allow image of some of these artifacts to be posted with this entry. If you are interested in researching any of these materials (or others) at the library, feel free to contact us or just stop in.

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