‘Mad’ Jack Morgan — California’s forgotten pirate
By JAMES BARLETT
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS-PRESS
In the last days of 1937, “Mad” Jack Morgan captured headlines across America, and everyone wanted to know everything about California’s very own pirate, mutineer and maritime murderer.
He “blazed the bloodiest yachting trail in Southern California history,” said the Los Angeles Times when it was reported that Morgan had met his death in exactly the way everyone might have imagined: he was attacked by his prisoners and thrown overboard to be eaten by sharks.
The rip-roaring tale of terror had begun on the serene waters around Santa Catalina Island, some 20 miles or so off the coast of Los Angeles, when 45-year-old Morgan chartered the 58-foot former racing schooner Aafje from Santa Barbara hotel owner Dwight L. Faulding.
Morgan hired Faulding as skipper, and said he was planning a two-day pleasure cruise with his pregnant 17-year-old wife Lillian. Also on the trip was Faulding’s fiancée Gertrude Turner and her 8-year-old son Robert, plus Faulding’s long-term crew employee Robert Horne. Former high school football star George Spernak, 19, and 21-year-old nurse Elsie Berdan, who was to look after Lillian, rounded out the ocean-going party.
They set sail on Dec. 20 from Long Beach, and it wasn’t until they were several days overdue that Berdan’s sister raised the alarm. She told police that Elsie had been kidnapped by Morgan, and this allegation bought the FBI into the case.
On Dec. 30, it was reported that a naval plane had spotted the letters SOS on the sail of the Aafje, which was 180 miles south of Long Beach or, in some reports, “drifting 300 miles off the coast of Mexico.”
Coast Guard cutter Perseus was dispatched, and the crew found the Aafje’s mainsail broken and the engine out of fuel. They began towing the blood-stained vessel back to Long Beach, and an FBI agent took a motorboat to meet the “yacht of death.”
The passengers were hungry and shaken, but otherwise unhurt – and both Faulding and Jack Morgan were missing. What had happened?
On New Year’s Eve, the public learned the sensational truth.
Just off Catalina, Faulding and Morgan got into an argument and Morgan shot his captain in the shoulder. Wincing in pain, Faulding tried to cool things down, saying: “Be a good fellow and put that gun away. We’re all out for a good time.”
Unsurprisingly, he then went to get his .38, but when Morgan appeared on the stairs above him, he opened fire. Morgan shot back five times, hitting Faulding in the heart and killing him instantly.
Morgan ordered Faulding’s body weighted with an anchor and thrown overboard, closed the yacht’s hatches, and locked the passengers in their cabins. Over the next few days, he roughed up the men, withheld food, and grandly assumed the role of captain. He talked of his wild plans to head for the South Seas, raiding ports for supplies en route.
On Christmas Eve, the swashbuckling Spernak and Horne saw their chance for freedom, and attacked Morgan. Horne beat him with a wooden marlin spike, and then the pair threw him over the side too, probably not caring that sharks would be attracted by his bleeding injuries.
Whether Morgan was alive when he hit the water was never revealed, but the “Mad Pirate” was now deep in Davy Jones’ Locker, and Spernak and Horne were arrested as soon as they set foot back on land. Waiting in the crowd were members of the Faulding family, who had expected to collect Dwight’s body for burial; they left in tears.
Lillian Morgan, her head bandaged, was held as a material witness too, and a grand jury was assembled.
Charged with murder on the high seas, the two young men were going to plead self-defense and remanded overnight in the County Jail, but no one thought the case would even come to trial, especially when nurse Elsie told reporters that Morgan was “the cruelest man I ever knew.”
She also said that Lillian had tried to restrain her husband, but he treated her “inhumanely,” forcing her to hold everyone at gunpoint when he wanted to sleep, and threatening to kill her if she refused. Elsie added that Morgan made “improper advances to her, bordering on the erotic.”
Spernak and Horne had led the attempt to sail back to Long Beach, and were duly unanimously freed by the grand jury – as was Lillian Morgan.
Tall and handsome with a pencil mustache, Morgan had a colorful past. Born in Nicaragua to French and German parents as Jean Dee Barnette, he had come twith them to California as a child and ran away to sea soon after. He worked on vessels around the world – when he wasn’t spending years behind bars.
He had convictions for sexual assault, burglary and petty theft, and had only been released from San Quentin Prison earlier in 1937, soon after which he and Lillian had eloped from New Orleans. Lillian’s father had not heard from her since that day – until now.
Time magazine wrote a detailed summary of events, and the Los Angeles Times wondered if Morgan was related to the infamous Sir Henry Morgan, who terrorized the Spanish Main in the 17th Century (and inspired the famous rum).
Intrigued by its dark past, actor Errol Flynn, famous for playing a pirate called Captain Blood, was rumored to have considered buying the abandoned Aafje, but instead screenwriter John Taintor Foote (“The Story of Seabiscuit”) was seemingly the last owner.
The yacht’s tragic story never made it to the big screen.
Maybe it spent years in development, or perhaps the glamour of the illegal casino boats the following year overshadowed it. A month after the eight-day “battle” between the SS Rex and the police in Santa Monica Bay, World War II broke out in Europe, and that more or less ensured the terrible story of “Mad” Jack Morgan sailed quietly into history.
Originally from London, James Bartlett is the author of the “Gourmet Ghosts” alternative guides to crime, ghost stories and the history of bars, restaurants and hotels in Los Angeles. As a travel and lifestyle journalist he writes for the Los Angeles Times, BBC, Westways, American Way, Hemispheres, ALTA California, Atlas Obscura and others. His upcoming true crime book, “The Alaskan Blonde, examines a sensational 1950s murder and sex scandal that began in Alaska, and ended with a suicide in Hollywood. Read more at www.gourmetghosts.com or @thealaskanblonde and @gourmetghosts.