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United States Vs Holmes

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Citations: United States Vs Holmes, 26 F.Cas. 360 (1842)

Date of Judgement: 22/04/1842

Equivalent citations: N/A

Case No: Case No. 15,383.

Case Type: Criminal

Petitioner/Appellant: United States

Defendant/Respondent: Alexander William Holmes

Bench: Hon’ble J. Baldwin

Court: United States Circuit Court

Statutes Referred:

  • Act for the Government and Regulation of Seamen, 1790

Cases referred:

  • U. S. Vs Anon., 21 Fed. 768.
  • Grainger Vs United State, 5 Yerg. 459.


  • The passenger ship William Brown departed from Liverpool for Philadelphia in 1841 with 17 crew members and 65 passengers.
  •  About 250 miles from Newfoundland, he hit an iceberg.
  • The captain, eight other crew members, and one passenger boarded the ship’s jolly boat, and the first mate, all other crew members, and 32 passengers boarded the ship’s longboat.
  • The remaining 31 souls, all passengers, died when the ship quickly sank.
  • The next morning the captain instructed the crew members in the longboat to obey the first mate as the jolly boat and the longboat began to separate.
  • The tall boat was already leaking and overloaded. There was some discussion between the captain and the first mate that the long boat was unlikely to last, given the condition of the long boat, and that it might be necessary to throw some people into the long boat to lighten its load.
  • As the weather worsened, the long boat continued to leak and the founders began to form.
  • Things on the boat became clearly hopeless that night, and the first mate told the crew “Men, you must go to work, or we shall all perish.”
  • The crew began throwing the passengers out of the boat, eventually killing 16 passengers.
  • One passenger, Francis Askin, asked for permission to stay in the boat until the morning until the lot could be pulled out, but crewman Holmes refused and was thrown out.
  • The next morning the boat was spotted by another ship and all the survivors were rescued.
  • Holmes was charged with murder in the high seas for Askin’s death.

Issue Involved:

  • Whether the respondent was guilty of homicide?
  • Whether the self-defence can be a reason of large homicide?

Contention of Appellant:

Counsel: William M. Meredith

  • Prosecutors argued that full and clear information of the danger should have been given to everyone on board and much should have been put in before sacrificing anyone for the safety of the rest.

Contention of Respondent:

Counsel: David Paul Brown

  • In defense of Holmes, Brown argued that in situations of necessity, traditional law ceases to function and gives way instead to natural law, that is the law of self-preservation.
  • Brown argued that the law of self-preservation is no different and is just as compelling as the law of self-defense.
  • Brown appealed directly to the jury: “You sit here, the sworn twelve,.. reposing amidst the comfort and delights of sacred homes to decide upon the impulses and motives of the prisoner at bar,.. launched upon the bosom of the perilous ocean surrounded by a thousand deaths in their most hideous forms, with but one plank between him and destruction.”


  • The defendant was found guilty and sentenced to six months in jail and a $20 fine which is equal to $540 of today.
  • None of the other crewmen were ever brought to trial.

The Defendant was sentenced.

Ratio Decidendi:

  • During the trial, the captain testified that Holmes was a perfect, obedient sailor who followed orders closely, and that he had done bravery to rescue passengers from a sinking ship.
  • “The navy and army chronicles of England record many examples of Bacon’s noble thought: “The duties of life are more than life.” And certainly, in whatever circumstances witnessed, such testimonials will prove a vindication of all that counsel here asserted. But most of these heroic have been on the part of officers, in England especially, men of high associations, and often highly educated. And we are ready to resolve much into the instinct of discipline, and much, perhaps, into the incentive of ambition, seeking the bubble reputation. As soon as it was discovered that the flames could not be controlled, “the captain ordered the helmsman to make for land, then within sight. The man accordingly turned the vessel. The fire having taken near amidships, quickly reached the binnacle. Yet the man kept his post, and his hand was on the wheel. The wreathing flames are long enclosed his, and when every soul had left the ship, his form was still to be seen amidst the flames, his clothes dropping from him, standing like a man of steel, and in performance of his duty, steering the flaming vessel to a headland.”


The most important category of innocuous offenses is attempt, which includes any conduct intended to accomplish a criminal consequence that fails to terminate but to a point beyond the acts of preparation dangerously close to accomplishing the intended harm. goes. In many cases it is difficult to draw the line between mere preparation and effort.

At trial, the court held that self-preservation was not always a defence to murder.

Drafted by: Mumuksha Singh, University of Rajasthan, Five-year Law College.

Edited by: Aashima Kakkar, Associate Editor, Law Insider

Published On: December 25, 2021 at 12:00 IST