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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Taylor's Submarine Armor

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

As Texas' busiest port, Galveston saw a lot of short-term visitors in the 1840s. One was George W. Taylor, a shady self-promoter with an ordinary name who made his living in an extraordinary way.

Taylor didn't spend much time in Texas and apparently did not come to the attention of the generally alert Galveston News, but he led an interesting life. Wearing what he called "submarine armor," he made his living working under water.

He didn't use his given name and didn't mind at all that newspapers tended to refer to him simply as Captain Taylor. That's because under mysterious if not insidious circumstances, he had assumed the identity of another man named Taylor.

In 1837, North Carolina-born William H. Taylor published a pamphlet called "A New and Alluring Source of Enterprise in the Treasures of the Sea, and the Means of Gathering Them." Soon Taylor sought a patent for a diving suit.

Taylor's "Submarine Armor" was described as a helmet and dress which protected a diver "from the pressure of the water and from danger from fishes, etc., and at the same time give[s] him...free use of his limbs and enable[s] him to be supplied with air..."

That summer, Taylor invited a reporter to test his apparatus in the Hudson River. The journalist survived to write about the experience, but Taylor wanted more ink. In October, he demonstrated his suit in a large wooden vat at Niblo's Garden, a popular New York City venue.

Initially, Taylor intended to attract financial backing for a deep water pearl harvesting venture and diving on treasure-filled shipwrecks in South America. However, by 1838 he was convinced it made more sense to seek investors so he could market his diving suit and do marine salvage work. To do that, he organized the New York Sub-Marine Armor Company.

This is where George Taylor comes in. A New Jersey native who traded in Indian rubber (from which diving hoses were made), he partnered with William Taylor. Though not related, they shared a common interest in profiting off diving. In late 1838, along with several others, the two Taylors went to Florida to salvage shipwrecks.

Not long after they arrived, William Taylor met a mysterious and unpublicized death. But in a way he lived on. By February 1839, now in charge of the business, George Taylor had shed his first name. Even publicly claiming to be a North Carolinian, in essence, George Taylor had become William Taylor. From 1840 to 1845, using his late partner's submarine armor, Taylor the Second did marine salvage work around New York and the Great Lakes.

In December 1845, he invited someone identified in the press only as "F.R." to descend with him and two other gentlemen in a diving bell at the Washington Navy Yard. F.R. described his experience in a letter published by several newspapers.

Not wishing his guests any undue discomfort, after the diving bell reached the bottom, now Captain Taylor sent a note up (F.R. did not say how) and soon one of his assistants descended in submarine armor with a chilled bottle of "very passable" champagne. The underwater party lasted about 20 minutes.

In March 1846, operating from a refitted former slave ship named the Spitfire, Taylor was in New Orleans to salvage the steamboat Doctor Franklin, which had sank off the wharf.

"The divers attract the notice of the curious," the New Orleans Daily Delta reported, "especially the one who wears the Submarine Armor, which probably was never seen worn before in this city."

The newspaper went on to explain the simple business model of the salvors: Taylor and his crew would receive 50 percent "on the amount of everything brought up from the sunken boat." The value of the Doctor Franklin's cargo was estimated as $170,000, then a staggering amount of money.

When the Mexican War broke out that spring, Taylor saw economic opportunity and soon made his way to Texas. The New Orleans Picayune noted that Taylor arrived in Galveston May 21 with "all his sub-marine diving apparatus." The article did not mention it, but the Spitfire also carried large Indian rubber bladders of Taylor's invention, flotation devices he called "camels." These could be used to refloat stranded vessels from sandbars. In addition, he offered underwater demolition skills to clear waterways.

He proceeded from Galveston to Brazos Santiago off Port Isabel to join the flotilla of smaller vessels supporting the Navy's blockade of eastern Mexico's ports. In October, when Commodore Matthew Perry engaged Mexican forces on the Tabasco River, Taylor stood by to use his camels to lift any U.S. vessels that might run aground in the shallow river. Whether he actually did that is not known, but he did use explosives in removing obstructions intended to block U.S. vessels.

Soon Taylor sought a potentially far more lucrative project halfway across the world. He wanted a Navy contract to salvage the U.S. steam frigate Missouri, which had sunk off Gibraltar in 1843. He did receive a modest federal contract for an initial survey of the wreck, but Congress proved slow to move on the full salvage effort.

Taylor then focused on a richer prize, the sunken British man-of-war HMS Hussar. The ship had gone down in 1780 off New York during the Revolutionary War. It carried up to $4 million in gold, payment intended for British troops then battling to prevent American independence.

Unfortunately for Taylor, he never realized either goal. Captain Taylor became ill in the spring of 1850 and died at 43 in Washington, D.C. that April 28. Local newspapers noted his death and accomplishments, but none of the stories mentioned that he may have gotten away with murder.


© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" April 20, 2017 column

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