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.
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
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
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.
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
"Texas Tales" April
20, 2017 column
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