The Wreck of the Glenesslin: Insurance Fraud or Intoxication?

In October of 1913, on a clear day without a trace of bad weather, a large clipper ship called the Glenesslin ran straight into the base of Neahkahnie Mountain on the Oregon Coast. This stretch of coastline had long had a reputation as being a graveyard for ships (and their crews) because it is so rugged. So, it was no surprise that the wreck occurred here. What was strange was the fact that the mountain could have easily been avoided, given the weather conditions. In addition, all 21 men onboard managed to safely escape.

The valuable ship was a total loss, though, and people soon began demanding answers.

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At first, people began to point the finger at the leaders of the crew. The captain and second mate were accused of being drunk on the job. Nowadays, this is a crime that would result in jail time and monetary penalties. While punishments for such behavior were somewhat lighter back then, many were still shocked that the accused men only received temporary job suspensions.

Some began to wonder if the Glenesslin had been intentionally wrecked, possibly to collect insurance. There were several reasons for this. First of all, there were eyewitnesses to the shipwreck. Some who watched the entire incident wondered why, if the crew had to ground the ship in an emergency, they did not head for the sandy beaches that were nearby and easily reachable on such a nice day. Many eyewitnesses could swear to the fact that it looked as though the ship was steered directly into the rocks, with no attempt to veer away and avoid them.

Though most of the witnesses later testified in hearings and interviews that the men were indeed drunk when they appeared onshore, there were some evidence inconsistent with that fact. For example, all the men escaped without injury and with all their personal belongings carefully collected. All the men were also fully dressed, which seems odd for a group of drunken sailors. It looked as though they had been fully prepared for impact when the wreck occurred.

Also suspect was the fact that this supposed cargo ship was carrying no cargo at the time of the wreck. In cases of insurance fraud, it would be common to make sure no valuable cargo was onboard. The fact that sailing vessels were becoming obsolete by this time would have been a good reason to wreck it on purpose, since the owner would get more money from an insurance settlement than they would by selling it.

Legal hearings were held to determine the cause of the accident, and it was officially determined that intoxication caused the shipwreck. The insurance company paid out $30,000, which was a lot of money in 1913, and the case did not return to court. But questions still remain today as to whether or not this was a massive case of insurance fraud.

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