In the early 1900s many hard-working sailing vessels saw out their days plying the waters between Australia and the islands of the South Pacific. Few, however, would have had such a fascinating history as that of the Norna.
The Norna was built in New York in 1879 as a luxury ocean-going schooner rigged yacht. She was lavishly fitted out and built as a fleet-footed racer. For the next decade or more she held her own in many long-distance ocean races.
Then, in 1895 she was purchased by self-styled “Commander” Nicholas Weaver, purporting to represent a Boston newspaper empire wishing to set up shop in New York. He was, in fact, a brazen conman.
A few years earlier Weaver had fallen foul of the law and only escaped gaol by turning state’s evidence against his partner. He then hustled himself off to the west coast, where he no doubt perfected his craft.
Now back in New York he planned to take the Norna on a round-the-world cruise sending stories to be syndicated to the Sunday newspapers. He found financial backers to cover his expenses for a share of the profits and then sailed for the warm climes of the Caribbean.
There he made himself a favourite among the members of the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club representing himself as the “Acting Commodore” of the prestigious Atlantic Yacht Club.
The good people of Bermuda were not necessarily gullible, nor anyone else he separated from their money.
When someone sails into harbour aboard a 115-foot luxury yacht with a sailing crew of ten plus a cook and steward, they are bound to make an impression. Weaver himself was handsome, self-assured and very charismatic.
He was soon hosting Poker parties on his yacht and proved uncannily successful. He funded his lavish lifestyle by forwarding bills to his backers, passing dud cheques and chalking up credit with local merchants.
Then suddenly one morning, Bermuda awoke to find the Norna had cleared out in the dead of night.
His backers eventually realised they were never going to recoup their money and disbanded. But that did not deter Weaver from continuing his round-the-world cruise.
He visited many ports over the next couple of years where he dazzled the well-heeled with his largesse, while taking them to the cleaners at the Poker table. He did so in North Africa and ports around the Mediterranean always skipping out before debts became due.
At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, in April 1898, the American flagged Norna found herself in hostile waters. However, Weaver, despite his many character flaws, was a superb mariner. Realising his yacht might be seized he set sail at his best speed with the Spanish navy in hot pursuit. Thanks to his skill and the luxury yacht’s fast sailing lines they outpaced the Spaniards and crossed into British waters at Gibraltar. There he repaid their welcome by passing a fraudulent cheque for $5,000 and was soon on his way.
During his travels around Europe Weaver made the acquaintance of a man named Petersen, a fellow grifter. Together, they would prove a formidable team.
Weaver and Pedersen would arrive in a new city independently only to be introduced to one another by someone local, or they would meet by chance as strangers. Regardless of how they met, the result was always the same. They would get a high-stakes Poker game going where one of them would be spectacularly successful.
When Weaver reached Ceylon, present day Sri Lanka, he was introduced to Petersen who just happened to have arrived by steamer. They quickly got to work separating the wealthy from their wealth. The pair repeated the same stunt at Sumatra, Hong Kong, and Yokoyama. At each port they managed to fleece the local gentry and make off before alarm bells rang.
In Yokohama Weaver passed himself off as the commodore of the New York Yacht Club and flew its pennant from his vessel. Weaver and Pedersen befriended each other and enjoyed many Poker parties on the Norna. Then, one morning, the yacht was gone. Pedersen joined the chorus baying for Weaver’s blood, claiming he too was owed a large sum of money. He quickly took passage on the next available steamer.
The Norna made its way to Honolulu where Weaver and Petersen briefly reunited. Weaver then went on to Samoa and then to New Zealand. At Auckland he repeated his well-rehearsed con, though this time without the able assistance of Petersen who had remained in Hawaii.
Weaver racked up considerable debts but before he could make his departure the Norna was seized as surety. Weaver caught the steamer to Sydney vowing to return with the funds to release his yacht. Not surprisingly, he vanished. The yacht was bought by a Sydney merchant and brought across the Tasman in June 1900.
She was stripped of her luxurious fittings, and the cabins removed opening a spacious hold to befit her new working life. The Norna passed through several hands over the next 13 years. She served as a pearling lugger in Torres Strait and traded among the Pacific Islands. She even salvaged copper and other valuables from old shipwrecks far out in the Coral Sea. But, in June 1913 she, herself, was wrecked on Masthead Reef just 50kms northeast of Gladstone Harbour. So ended the Norna’s fascinating and colourful career.
© Copyright Tales from the Quarterdeck / C.J. Ison, 2022.
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2 thoughts on “The Norna and the Conman Commodore”
Fascinating story! Are there any notable sources that you used for this account? Thanks.
Hi Marcus, the main newspaper article is a reprint of a New York Herald story republished in the Launceston Daily Telegraph, 27 Jun 1900, p. 7. I found the same story republished in newspapers across Australia and in the USA. Parts of the story came from other contemporary newspapers from the US, New Zealand and Australia which added to or corroborated the main article. Cheers