The convict ship Success

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Imagine the cruelty of being trapped on a prison ship to Australia, your sadistic captors torturing you on the rack or lashing you with the cat o’ nine tails as undulating seas heave and pitch. The convict vessel Success was one such ship of horrors… Step Right Up! Pay a fee, and you too can see the show!

Screen grab from “Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco,” digitized by Library of Congress

If all this sounds a little bit like a huckster trying to get you into a circus sideshow, then you’re right. It is!

Built in 1840 (not 1790) the Success had many lives, first as a shipping vessel serving British India and then as a passenger ship ferrying immigrants (not convicts) to Australia. During one trip to Australia the Success arrived right at the peak of the Australian gold rush and her crew deserted to strike it rich. Without mariners the ship was left moored near Melbourne, Australia, where it became a prison hulk and later a stores ship.

Much later, in 1890, some enterprising individuals bought the ship and refurbished it into a traveling museum albeit a highly embellished one. More myth than fact, the Success was a spectacle. By recasting the past as more brutal than it really was, the Success gave 20th Century tourists the opportunity tell stories about themselves. How they were the civilized ones and how progress had made the modern world a better place.

Currently the library cataloging team is at work on the museum’s collection of photo negatives belonging to Edward Hungerford. These photos, numbering well into the thousands, document the globetrotting photographer’s many adventures to Europe and across the United States from about 1908-1938.

Recently we came across the Success in her traveling museum days. Here she is docked in the Ohio River near Louisville, Kentucky, in 1917.

The Mariners’ Museum Library. Edward Hungerford Photograph collection, 02438

The Success‘ storied career as a shipping vessel, passenger ship, convict ship, storehouse, and traveling-museum-cum-sideshow attraction came to an end in 1946 when she caught fire and burned to the waterline in Lake Erie near Cleveland.

More on the Success

In the video below, the silent film stars Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mable Normand star in a short film dating to 1915 where they visit the Success at the San Francisco World’s Fair. In this segment they tour the ship and are titillated by its many “horrors.”

Recently a Masters student at East Carolina University, Kathryn Cooper, completed a thesis on the Success. It is a material culture study in their Maritime Studies program about the ship’s days as a traveling museum. ECU has made the work available here. Cooper finds that the torture devices Fatty Arbuckle and Mable Normand view are more accurately dated to the Spanish Inquisition.

Our cataloging work at The Mariners’ Museum is made possible by a ‘hidden collections’ grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources.

2 thoughts on “The convict ship Success”

  1. i am a maritime historian and a post card collector. the “convict” ship” Success (actually a barkentine) was active right at the height of the post card collecting craze. There are dozens of post cards of the vessel and her various torture devices. Look for them the next time you got to a paper and post card sale.

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