Westerly Journeys






The Panama Massacre - The Watermelon Riot

by Marilou West Ficklin, © 2006

On April 15, 1856 a riot erupted near the Panama Railroad Depot between native fruit vendors and passengers from the Steamship Illinois and stranded "Filibusters," passengers from the Steamship Cortes. Before it was over at least twenty passengers were killed. Many of them were unidentified steerage passengers from the Illinois. Damage to the depot, track, hotels and stores was extensive. The number of native victims was not reported but according to Spanish-language newspapers fifteen perished.

The surviving passengers from the SS Illinois sailed the next day to San Francisco on the steamer, John L. Stephens. The ship carried 1,138 passengers (see link to list above). The identities of 782 steerage passengers were not published.

In the aftermath of the riot, local authorities took testimony from fruit vendors, victims and local police. U.S. State Department sent a representative to take testimony from local residents, hotel owners and rail officials. The San Francisco newspapers published unofficial testimony of rail and ship passengers.

The State Department official concluded that the fruit vendors had pre-meditated the riot and were solely to blame for the massacre and destruction. Representatives of the native fruit vendors claimed that the stranded Filibusters had incited the riot out of frustration because they had been thwarted in their mission to join General Walker in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Several prominent San Franciscans provided alternate eye-witness accounts to newspapers. They suggested that both sides bore blame. One of the Filibusters boasted that he and 20-25 companions had shot at the natives both from the hotels and from the depot but his testimony, published in the California Daily Chronicle was ignored in the government report.

Detailed Account

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The victims of the riot included local residents of Panama, and rail passengers crossing the Isthmus to connect to steamers bound for the U.S. Some passengers from New York had arrived at the Atlantic port on the steamship Illinois on April 15, 1856 and had come by rail to the Pacific port that same afternoon. They were stranded for several hours due to a low tide that prevented the sailing of a ferry boat which would take them to the waiting Pacific steamer, John L. Stephens.

Some passengers from San Francisco had arrived at Panama, unexpectedly, the previous week, having been diverted from their planned destination in Nicaragua. Some of these were Filibusters, recruits of the American General William Walker who had conquered Nicaragua and was attempting to invade Costa Rica as well. These passengers were still stranded in Panama on April 15.

The following casualty lists are taken from various newspapers.

Sacramento Daily Union, 5 May 1856, 1:3:

Mortally wounded

G.O. Field, residence not known
Mrs. Graves, Wayne Street; Jersey City
A. Lauteson, Strong, Maine
Pat J. O'Neil, Cortes passenger
N. Pribble, Harriet County, OH
Rev. John Selwood, SC--missionary to Oregon, Episcopal Church (survived)
Master____Selwood, NY
Robert Marks, railroad hand
George Beatty, , Philadelphhia (has sister on board)
Moses Lewis, MI (in charge of J.N. Thompson, Esq., Santa Clara, CA

Wounded who will probably recover--now on board J.L. Stephens

J.N. Thompson
Master Ernest, Sacrmento City, a child three years old
Cathrine Phillips, Philadelphia
Catherine Kelly, Boston, MA
Joseph M. Parker, Bangor, Maine
Milton D. Beale, res. unknown
Isaac B. Purdy, NY
Oscar B. Waller, NH
Thomas Teague, Eng.
John D. Harvey, NY
James Ewing, OH
Peter Stout, res. unknown
Beckus "colored servant" of Mr. Greathouse
and others left behind in Panama

San Francisco Chronicle, 2 May 1856:

Killed and wounded

Mr. Thompson, gent. wounded
Miss Phillips, hand shattered
Mr. Parker, cut in head and shot
Joseph Stokes, killed
Mr. DuBois, foreign res. of Panama, killed
American consuls's secty, wounded
Mr. Fenner, RI (left behind with wife and family, destitute)

San Francisco Herald 2 May 1856, 2:1:


Robert Marks, Panama Railroad employee
George Beatty, Philadelphia
Martin Selwood, nephew of Rev. John Selwood
Thomas Lyon, aged 22, Roxbury, MA
Stokes, Cortes, filibuster

Wounded and left in Panama:

G.O. Field, Jersey City
A. Lauteason,Srong Maine
Patrick J. O'Neil, Cortes passenger
Nathaniel Preble, Harriet Co. OH
Rev. John Selwood, probably dead [survived]
A.W. Fenner, Providence RI

Wounded--on J.L Stephens:

Miss Phillips, Philadelphia shot in hand
Catharine Kelly, Boston, MA, shot in neck
Jos. M. Parker, Bangor, Maine
J.N. Thompson, Santa Clara, shot in thigh
Milton D. Beale, shot in arm
Isaac B. Purdy, Cold spring, NY
Chas. Ernest, 3 years old
Oscar V. Walker, 14 years old, Nashua, NH, cut in head
James Ewing, Hancock co. OH
John D. Haravey, Berkshire, NY Thomas Teague, Truro, Cornwall Co., Eng, shot in breast
Peter Stour
John Sharper, Portsmouth, NH
Henry Paxton, Oneida Co. NY
___Backus, servant of Mr. Greathouse


Moses Lewis, Van Buren Co. MI

Names of known Filibusters:

Joseph Stokes
Patrick O'Neil
Capt. Waters

Names of active American participants in shooting etc.:

Joseph Stokes
Patrick O'Neil
Jack Oliver

Names of active Panamanians participants in shooting etc.

Jose Luna
Miguel Habrahan

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All the above is taken from copyrighted articles by Marilou West Ficklin, "The Watermelon Riot, Panama 1856 © 2004; "George Gordon and the Watermelon Riot, 1856; © 2005; and "Fessendin Otis and Riot at Panama, 1856"; © 2006.