Witnesses on board the ships testified later that over two hundred Newfoundlanders “gathered on the beach and demanded that the seines be taken up, giving a pretext that it was unlawful to fish on the Sabbath.” This crowd then began, the Gloucester shipowner John Pew attested in a petition to the Treasury, “a war-like demonstration.” They overpowered the crews, tore up Pew’s seines, and liberated all the herring. Afterwards, the islanders made what one captain called a “jubilant demonstration” on the shore, “firing guns, blowing horns, and shouting, as if celebrating a victory.”
The British observers saw these events differently. The law prohibited fishing on Sundays, so Newfoundlanders could not have worked no matter what their religious beliefs, and understandably they did not want to see blasphemers make off with all the herring. Even so, the situation had been peaceful, the British foreign secretary explained to his American counterpart, until an American captain pulled out his revolver. What everyone agreed was that by Monday morning, January 7th, the herring had slipped away.
The events that day—which U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes called an “outrage upon American fishermen”—set London and Washington at odds for years and scuttled attempts to negotiate a new fisheries treaty. In 1887, in retaliation for years of piscine slights, Congress even granted the president power to eject British and Canadian vessels from U.S. waters. The British eventually paid millions to the Gloucester fishermen in compensation for the fish Pew and others claimed had been lost.
But the memory of injustice lingered, and the Gloucester residents gathered on the customhouse steps on New Year’s Eve, 1894, were not happy to see the Treasury poking into their business. Byrne came to Gloucester to confront the town’s customs collector, William Pew—the son of the merchant whose nets had been wrecked—who refused to cooperate with his inquiries. The special agent accused Pew, a fellow Treasury officer, of being in league with the smugglers, and two neutral customs officials were called in to arbitrate. In this impromptu court, half a dozen captains admitted to paying Newfoundlanders by the hour, the barrel, or the shipload. In his defense, Pew supplied affidavits claiming that the 30 million herring he had waved through customs were taken directly from the water by Gloucester’s fishermen. Byrne had just as many saying they were frozen on the beaches by Newfoundlanders.
Each side accused the other of conspiring with nefarious outsiders. People in Gloucester, a town whose fortune was always precarious, saw Byrne and the Treasury as stooges of Big Herring in New York and Boston, set up to drive their fishermen out of business. Pew himself, whom the town considered a “doughty champion of the fisheries,” even accused Byrne of being manipulated by a Canadian secret agent, who allegedly disguised himself as the correspondent for the Associated Press while working for the fishing interests of Newfoundland. Papers in the big cities, meanwhile, portrayed a corrupt “fish combine” in Gloucester whose method was to cast aspersions on the Gilded Age deep state.