Under the command of Captain George Harris, the ship departed from Liverpool on March 18, 1841 for Philadelphia with 17 seamen and 65 passengers, mostly poor Scottish and Irish emigrants. At about 10:00 p.m. on the night of April 19, the William Brown struck an iceberg 250 miles (400 km) southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland and sank.
The captain, second mate, 7 sailors and one lucky passenger appropriated for themselves the better of the only two lifeboats. (This was known as a jolly boat, having a sail and a fairly deep draft.) They were picked up 6 days later by a French fishing vessel. Although everyone in the jolly boat had suffered from frostbite, they had all survived.
The other craft, a long boat, which could be propelled only by oars, was left for the remainder of the crew and as many of the passengers as could fit into her; this number came to 9 crew and 32 passengers.
These figures indicate that about 31 passengers, many of them children, were left behind. As they stood on deck, "shrieking and calling on the captain to take them off his boat", first mate Francis Rhodes's benediction for them was realistic: "Poor souls! You’re only going down just before us." At about 11:20 p.m., less than two hours after the William Brown encountered the ice, an "eerie silence" fell, and the ship sank.
Before the two boats parted ways to increase their chances of being found, Captain Harris placed the first mate, Francis Rhodes, in charge of the crowded, leaking longboat. At about 10:00 p.m., 24 hours after the sinking, the wind picked up, sending water over the longboat's gunwales, and it began to rain heavily. The first mate shouted, "This . . . won't do. Help me, God. Men, go to work.” When the crewmen did nothing, he stated, "Men, you must go to work, or we shall all perish.” This time, his henchmen stirred and the killing began. All of the male passengers, except for two married men and a young boy had been sacrificed, while all of the crewmen remained aboard:
- The first death was that of James Riley. When he was told to stand up, he called out, asking several of the women to intercede for him. They tried, one of them moaning, "Good God, are they going to drown the man?"
- The second fellow to follow him may have been George Duffy, who entreated them to let him live for the sake of his wife and three children who were on shore.
- James MacAvoy asked for five minutes to say his prayers and prepare himself for death. This was granted him and, when his time was up he rose, buttoned his coat, intoned, "Lord be merciful to me, a sinner," and jumped into the ocean.
- Frank Askins refused to accept his fate with similar resignation. He resisted with such determination that his attacker, Alexander Holmes, had his shirt torn in the struggle and had to shout for assistance. Realizing he could not win against so many, he tried to appeal to reason, sweetened with a bribe: "I'll not go out," he told Holmes. "You know I wrought well all the time. I'll work like a man till morning, and do what I can to keep the boat clear of water; I have five sovereigns, and I'll give it for my life till morning, and when morning comes if God does not help us we will cast lots, and I'll go out like a man if it is my turn." "I don't want your money, Frank, " Holmes replied, and threw him into the sea.
- While Askins was still in the boat, his two sisters begged for his life. The younger of them offered to die in his stead. What is more, she declared that if he was thrown into the ocean, she wished to share his fate. Thus it was that both sisters were drowned also. The younger one, Mary, seems to have jumped in voluntarily, but the other did not. Her name was Ellen and she did not want to go over the side. She pleaded that she not be thrown into the cold sea because she had no cloak. She was promptly given one, which would not have kept her warm long ... rather it would have weighed her down, pulling her under sooner.
- The deaths of the Askins siblings seem to have touched Holmes, who tried to put an end to the killing. The other murderers ignored him. James Black was seized and his wife insisted she would die with him. Black asked that she be allowed to do this. They were given a reprieve when Francis Rhodes ordered they be left alone.
- Another man was also permitted to live because his wife was with him. This clemency was not extended to men with families to support at home, to uncles whose nieces were in the boat, to the sole guardian of an orphaned girl or to the last surviving member of a family of 15. After pleading their cases, they all went in. Some struggled and some did not; at least one more jumped in unassisted, but they all went in.
- After dawn, two men who had been hidden by the women were discovered. The murderers cursed this duplicity and went back to work.
For a time, the Crescent was trapped in the ice, but eventually, on May 12, she arrived at Le Havre, France. Both British and American consuls investigated the matter and took statements. Some of the passengers, including the men who had been allowed to live, actually spoke favorably of Holmes and the others and affirmed the necessity of what they had done. Despite the furor in England and the U.S over the incident, the authorities in both countries decided no prosecution was warranted.
But some other of the passengers were less charitable. When they reached Philadelphia in mid-July, they told stories that excited emotions in the Irish community there, its members believing that Irish Catholics had been left behind on the William Brown or sacrificed at sea, while Scottish Protestants had lived unmolested until rescued.
Holmes was the only crewman to be found in the city, so he was the only one charged. He was accused of murdering Frank Askin. The trial lasted more than a week, beginning on April 13, 1842 and concluding on April 23. A grand jury refused to indict him on that charge, so it was reduced to manslaughter. In the case of United States v. Holmes, the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to six months in jail and a $20 fine. None of the other crewmen were ever brought to trial including Captain George L. Harris who, after all, had done nothing that violated the law.