Newspaper Reports on de Villeroi's Submarine
Never, since the first flush of the news of the bombardment of Fort Sumter, has there been an excitement in the city equal to that which was caused in the upper wards this morning, by the capture of a mysterious vessel which was said to be an infernal machine, which was to be used for all sorts of treasonable purposes, including the trifling pastime of scuttling and blowing up Government men-of-war.
For a few days past the police have had their attention directed to the movements, not of a "long, low, black schooner;" but of an iron submarine boat, to which very extraordinary abilities and infernal propensities were attributed. The Harbor Police, under the direction of Lieutenant Benjamin Edgar, were directed to be especially spry, and they kept their optics wide open for the mysterious stranger. Yesterday afternoon they stumbled upon a queer contrivance which lay at the lower end of Smith's Island, and proved to be the submarine monster of which they were in search. Externally it had the appearance of a section of boiler about twenty feet long, with tapered ends, presenting the shape and appearance of an enormous cigar with a boiler iron wrapper, and for all the world like Winan's celebrated steamer in respect to shape. The after end was furnished with a propeller, which had a contrivance for protecting it from damage from coming in contact with external objects. The forward end was sharkish in appearance, and the shark idea was carried out in other respects, as only the ridge of the back was above water, while the tail and snout were submerged. Near the forward end was a hatchway or "man-hole," through which egress and ingress were obtained. This whole was covered with a heavy iron flap, which was made air tight, and which was secured in its place by numerous powerful screws and hooks. Two tiers of glass bull's eyes along each side of the submarine monster, completed its external features, afforded light to the inside, and gave it a particular wide awake appearance.
But its Angus eyes did not avail to save it from capture. About twelve o'clock last night the harbor policemen saw a skiff loaded with pig lead move off from South street wharf, in charge of two young men, and they paid a visit to the submarine ship, in which a portion of the same description of lead had already been placed. The submarines with their skiff and lead were seized and brought to the city, and at about two o'clock this morning their iron pet was towed to town and moored at Noble street wharf.
The news of the capture soon flew around, and by little after daylight, the rush of people to the spot commenced. All sorts of stories were aloft, and thousands upon thousands gathered at the wharves, scaled the neighboring board piles, and importuned the amphibious policemen, who had the monster in charge, for permission to board her and see how she looked inside. But "no admission" was the rule, and the interior remained invisible to the millions.
The harbor men very courteously offered us a peep inside. After dropping from a high wharf into a skiff and then jumping a few feet, we found ourselves upon the back of the iron mystery. After much unscrewing and unhooking, the top of the man-hole was lifted off, and divesting ourselves of coat and hat, we squeezed into the machine, under the gaze of a curious and admiring multitude of about five thousand people.
We suddenly found ourselves squatting inside of a cigar-shaped iron vessel, about four feet in diameter. There was a crank for the purpose of operating the propeller already described, apparatus for steering, rods, connecting with fins outside, which could be moved at pleasure, and which had something to do with steadying and sinking the craft. There was a large reel of wire which might be intended for galvanic purposes, pumps, brass faucets, pigs of ballast lead, and numerous other things, which might be intended for either infernal or humane purposes for aught we know. The interior was abundantly lighted by means of the double tier of bull's eyes we have described.
By making inquiry in proper quarters, we learned the history of the machine. It seems that it is the invention of a Frenchman named De Villeroi. The cash for building it is said to have been furnished by a relative of the late Stephen Girard. It was constructed in this city about two years ago, and since that time it has been lying at New Castle, Marcus Hook, and Rancocas. It has been tried frequently at those points, and marvelous stories are told of the facility with which it can be sunk beneath the waters, again raised to the surface, and propelled and steered ether beneath the surface or upon it. After visiting the submarine affair, we had an interview at the Central Station. They gave their names as Alexander Rodes, a Frenchman, aged 30, and Henry Kriner, an American, aged 19. In reply to our questions, they told us that the vessel was intended for all submarine purposes. It had been under water for three hours at a time, and could be moved about at pleasure. The persons in it could leave it while under water, as though it was a diving bell. They manufacture, while under water, they said, the supply of air needed for respiration.
They informed us that the vessel had been lying at Rancocas for five months past, and that they brought it away from there on Tuesday last, their object being to test it at the Navy Yard here, for the purpose of obtaining a patent for it. They stated that M. de Villeroi had got permission from the officers of the yard to make the trial. Upon the other hand, we hear from the police, that the authorities at the yard know nothing of the machine, and that no such arrangement has been made. The business will be properly investigated, and if the submarine craft is bound upon any errand that is not friendly to the Union, it will not be likely to reach its destination very speedily. Under any circumstances, its appearance in the river at this time, and its capture, have created an extraordinary excitement.
Capture of a Submarine Boat
Philadelphia, Friday, May 17, 1861.
an excitement was created in the upper part of the city this morning by the
seizure of a submarine boat, the invention of De Villeroi, a Frenchman. Four men
were found aboard. Villeroi says he was about taking it to the Navy-yard to
test, but the officers of the yard disclaim any knowledge of him. The boat was
constructed some time since for raising wrecks and other submarine work, but was
never put in active use. It is cigar-shaped and made of iron; 30 feet long. It
supplies its own air an will be useful in running under a fleet.
We give this week engravings of an aquatic monster which recently caused no small degree of excitement among the very unexcitable citizens of this regularly sober Quaker City. Our neighbors of the Inquirer well say, that “never since the Battle of the Kegs has the river front of Philadelphia been the scene of such peculiar excitement.”
At an early hour in the morning rumors spread like wildfire among the inflammable population crowding our wharves, that a monster, half aquatic, half ærial, and wholly incomprehensible, had been captured by the Harbor Police, and had been safely chained at the foot of the Noble street pier.
Forthwith the pier became the centre of attraction. The crowd increased hourly, the spectators flocking to see the amphibious and ambiguous creature. All sorts of speculations were freely indulged in as to the uses and purposes of the lengthy iron circular continuance, all tending, however, to the belief that it was designed to aid and assist Jeff Davis in the benevolent occupation of transferring Federal vessels of war into flying morsels of wood and iron, i.e., blowing them u, while every one concurred in the opinion that it was “very like a whale.”
The monster itself, on a close inspection, proved to be a submarine propeller, invented by Monsieur De Villeroi, a French gentleman who has devoted many years to experiments in this direction. The hull was built about two years ago, at the machine works of Neall, Matthews & More, on Bush Hill, and at that time was reputed to be under the joint ownership of its inventor and Mr. Girard, a connection of the benefactor, and one of the claimants to his vast estates. In its unfinished condition it attracted the attention of the Hon. Wm H. Witte, who induced its removal to the Penn Iron Works of Reaney, Neafie & Co., where it was supplied with a propelling apparatus.
It is made of 3/8-inch boiler iron, shaped like a segar [sic: cigar], sharp at both ends, and about forty feet long by five in diameter, and is propelled by a screw, worked by hand, from the inside. On the top is a copper basin-shaped lid, which has glasses for the men to see out, and large enough for a man’s head. It covers the entrance. Seven men are required to work the boat. The inside is partially filled with air pumps, force pumps, &c.
It is submerged by pumping water into the lower compartment, and it is claimed can be kept under for twenty-four hours, and propelled five miles an hour. It has been down for a period of one hour and thirteen minutes. It is intended for scuttling or blowing up vessels, and report says the inventor was offered one million of dollars for it by the Russian Government, to destroy the Allied fleet during the Crimean War, but, being a good Frenchman, he declined.
The machine has attracted the attention of a number of parties at different times, who imagined they discovered in the invention a speculation which would yield a handsome return for any outlay. Mr. Martin F. Thomas, an estimable citizen, invested capital in the project some time since, with a view of finding a means to cleanse the Great Eastern during her first visit to this country. A proposition to this effect was submitted to the Directors and the attempt would no doubt have resulted successfully, had they not preferred an English “gridironing” to an American scraping process.
Since that time, the submarine vessel has for divers[e] reasons been stationed in sundry places. Of these were Marcus Hook, New castle, and Delanco on the Rancocas. A number of experiments were tried, with a view of adopting it to recovering goods from wrecks, and examining the bottoms of rivers, but from all that we can gather, the machine has proved, so far, an utter failure for all practical purposes.
The first information that the police had of the appearance of the vessel opposite our city, was that it was, about midnight, taking in a quantity of pig lead, which was to be used as ballast, in some experiments which were contemplated. At the time of its seizure, it was under the charge of a young Frenchman, named Alexander Rhodes, and Henry Kriner, an American, who were arrested. They stated that the machine was to be taken to the Navy Yard to be examined by Government officers to ascertain whether it could be made serviceable in naval operations. Its movements and this intention have not been kept a secret, and at any other time than the present, no excitement would have been created by its appearance.
The views which we present are of the interior and exterior. They will convey to our readers a better idea of the novelty than any written description. Its seizure was very necessary—for it might be, in dangerous hands, a dangerous customer, if it is what it claims to be—and even if at present a failure, keen wits might perhaps convert it into a success. The blockading fleet will of course keep a watch for such ugly customers.
To be notified when the
NMLHA Alligator site is updated, please send an email to: