NEW (20/11/05): See below this article for newly acquired info on Pedersen and Puako

The following is an article from the Cape Town newspaper "The Cape Argus" from around 1934 or 5, recounting events aboard the barquentine "Puako" in August 1918. These events were a prelude to Eric Pearson subsequently being offered command of the vessel for her onward passage to Australia and San Francisco. The article was obviously written as a "human interest" story many years after the event and contains at least two obvious inaccuracies - "Puako" is misnamed "Pueaka" (which I believe is another place name in Hawaii) and Hell-Fire Jack's name was actually Pedersen rather than Petersen.


I wonder how many of the readers of the Argus can remember the amazing exploits of "Hell-Fire" Jack Peterson (sic)? Petersen was a Scandinavian sea captain who gained considerable notoriety in the pages of Strand Magazine as far back as 1906. He was arrested by Mr Larpent in Cape Town in August 1918.

 "'Hell-Fire Jack' is certainly the most interesting man I've had to deal with in the last 30 years," said Mr Larpent, "and his experiences, if put into book form would make astounding and almost unbelievable reading. He was short, thin, and looked more like a Methodist parson than a sailor. In fact I have never seen a man look less like a sailor."

 Petersen was christened "Hell-Fire Jack" in the Strand Magazine owing to an incident when he was in command of a sailing ship. Off San Francisco the ship took fire. The pumps were manned and all hands made a valiant attempt to save the ship. The decks were red-hot and the fire was gaining rapidly, and soon the rigging was ablaze. Petersen stood over the crew with a loaded revolver in each hand, cursing them and swearing at them all the while. In the end he ran the vessel ashore off 'Frisco, and although she was an inferno of fire, all hands were saved.

 But "Hell-Fire" Jack's name was mud in the United States, and he could not pick a crew to sail with him. Sailors avoided him like the plague. They had heard about this raging little fiend.

 In 1918 the sailing vessel Pueaka (sic) made her appearance in South African waters. Her Captain was none other than "Hell-Fire Jack", and his two sons were mates of the ship. The first intimation that all was not right on board came by wireless from the officer of a transport 50 miles north of Robben Island. He reported a mutiny on the Pueaka.


Accordingly the Assistant Provost Marshal, an armed guard, Mr Larpent and other officers left Cape Town in the tug Ludwig Wiener to search for the vessel. They found her nearly ashore at Milnerton and boarded her the following morning.

 "Hell-Fire Jack" and his sons were arrested as the result of statements made by different members of the crew and detained in Roelandstreet gaol pending their return to the United States. The crew of the Pueaka were lodged in the Immigration Depot.

One of them died soon after admission from injuries received when hit in the kidneys with a belaying pin by "Hell-Fire Jack". This hell-driver received a long term of imprisonment on his return to the United States, but had he been charged in South Africa it is possible that he would have been found guilty of murder. (and hanged)        

It seems strange that so small a man could terrorise men who could pick him up in one hand. But there is no doubt that "Hell-Fire Jack" struck fear into the hearts of his crew. Mr Larpent attributes Petersen's failure to an attempt at all costs to live up to the sobriquet which was bestowed upon him in the magazines 12 years before. He carried it too far with disastrous consequences to himself and all with whom he came into contact.


In the version of events that Lou Pearson remembers being told by her parents, a number of the crew had been killed or seriously injured by Pedersen and his sons, and yet others had been lost by jumping overboard rather than face "Hell-Fire Jack" in full frenzy.

New: Jack's researches have turned up a couple of interesting new sources of information and material. One is Walt Bulski in California who turns out to be the grandson of Capt. Charles E Helms of Oakland, California, with whom Eric and Louie stayed before leaving on their epic journey across the States in the Dodge. Captain Helms succeeded Eric as Master of Puako and Walt has sent some pictures which I'll be putting up elsewhere on the site very soon. Walt in turn led us to Kay Gibson in Maine, who has exhaustively researched the story of Pedersen on Puako and his subsequent trial, and is soon to have a book published entitled "Brutality on Trial: Hellfire Pedersen, Fighting Hansen, and the Seaman's Act of 1915", to be published by University Press of Florida around August 2006 (more details here as they emerge). Kay has given us a lot of good stuff which she has very kindly consented to let me post here. The bare bones of the facts she has uncovered are these:

Puako left Vancouver for Cape Town under command of "Hellfire" Pedersen (the "Jack" seems a subsequent invention) with his two sons as mates and twelve seamen on board. She refers to the voyage as "four violent months.. when  Hell and Hellfire reigned supreme". Of the twelve seaman that left Vancouver, only ten arrived in Cape Town, one of whom subsequently died there of injuries sustained on board. Of the remainder, the carpenter and another were shipped back to the States as witnesses FOR the Pedersens, two opted to sail on with Eric (though one apparently jumped ship in Australia), and the remainder volunteered to return to the States to testify at Pedersen's trial. The "mutiny" referred to in the above article never happened - Apparently Pedersen made that up afterwards (presumably in an attempt to justify his actions).

Ms Gibson tells me her forthcoming book contains a great deal of information about the conditions under which these unfortunate seamen served on passage from Vancouver to the Cape, a voyage one government authority apparently described at the time as: "a story not even Jack London could begin to fabricate". I will post news of the book's publication date when I get it.



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