(Author’s note: the following story is a fiction, but the basic facts are true.)
It was the Titanic disaster of its day. Hundreds drowned. It caused a scandal in nineteenth century America. It was reported that no women or children survived. As for the men who did survive, many of them were crew members not passengers. New York society was outraged. Hungry for details and lurid anecdotes about the disaster, the tragedy fueled one of the first newspaper wars in the city. Yet, the story of the sinking of the S.S. Arctic has been lost to the tides of time. I only discovered it by accident, and what a dark tale it was. In the process, I discovered something, and someone, that would alter the story. And my life as well.
It all started when I decided to take a break from my Toronto routine and spend a week in Manhattan. My AirBnB host had posted a list of things to do on the fridge door of the small apartment. One of the places highlighted was Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. I had never heard of it. That night I sat down at the kitchen table and searched Green-Wood on my laptop. One of the comments on TripAdvisor called it “the most beautiful cemetery in the US”. Apparently, many famous people were buried among the half a million graves. A wonderful collection of mausoleums and marble statues was promised, as well as a peaceful walk through history along the quiet wooded paths of the four hundred acre site. So the next day I dressed comfortably, caught the subway to the 25th Street station and made my way to the cemetery’s main entrance. As I walked through the magnificent gothic arches there was a feeling of entering another world.
I was struck by how quiet and idyllic things were even though this place was in the middle of one of the busiest cities on the planet; gentle hills, plentiful trees, ponds, fountains, and countless gravestones dotted the landscape. At the intersection of Hillock Avenue and Serpentine Path Knoll I came across an unusual spire-like monument surrounded by about seventy tombstones of what appeared to be many generations of one family. I stood there for more than a moment absorbing the somber atmosphere, and wondered about this family. Even during the gilded age it would have been a statement of prestige. I must have appeared more than vaguely moved by the visage for an old woman, who I had not seen approach, suddenly spoke.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” she said.
I was slightly startled. I had not talked to anybody since my arrival. “Yes. It makes you think. One family all buried here,” I answered as I looked at her. “What’s the tall monument in the middle?”
She turned and looked at me. “It’s a memorial to those that drowned in the sinking of the S.S. Arctic. Over three hundred people were lost.”
“Really? When was that?”
“1854. September 27,” she said with authority.
“Tragic,” I replied.
“What was even more tragic was that men got to the lifeboats ahead of everyone else. Women and children first did not mean anything to them. Only one woman survived, and she drifted on a raft.”
“Ouch.” I said nothing further for a few seconds. “Why is the monument here in this family plot?”
“The family was the financial backer of the shipping company. Brown Brothers Banking. They are still in business on Wall Street. Brown Brothers Harriman.” She could see the reference meant nothing to me. “Six members of the family were lost in the sinking. James Brown, the father, channeled his grief into commissioning this monument. His favourite daughter, Millie, was one of those who died. He hoped people would not forget. But they did.” There was a pause as I absorbed this somber information. “Go on. Take a look.”
I walked up to the weather beaten memorial and gazed at the image in the middle. The marble structure had been nibbled away by the wind and rain, but in the center you could clearly see the hull of a paddle steamer sinking. I read the names of the deceased carved on the foundation’s pedestal. I thought about the horror they must have endured. I returned to the old woman and began to ask questions.
“You a journalist?” she asked me.
“Writer,” I replied, “Canadian.”
“Oh. Newfoundland played a big part in the rescue, just like they did when all those planes were diverted there after 9/11. Research the story and you will find out all you need to know,” she responded.
“How come nobody knows about this?”
“Monuments are not like stories. People pass these things every day and see the edifice, but do not linger or look further.”
“I’m as guilty of that as everybody. I’d love to know more about the sinking.”
“Next Wednesday is the anniversary of the tragedy. We can talk then.” With that she turned and walked away. “Be here at noon.”
I continued through Green-Wood, and enjoyed the ambiance. But the story of this doomed ship occupied my thoughts. I spent the night researching on line. The following day I went to the New York Public library and found the two definitive books on the subject. They were invaluable in my research, but the books and articles all mentioned that no women or children were rescued. Was the old lady wrong? She seemed so certain.
True to her word she was at the monument the following Wednesday at the exact time she said. For days my mind had been occupied by the story. I couldn’t wait to meet her again and find out what she knew about the disaster. I also wanted to correct her on the belief that a woman survived. The books I had read were complete and exhausting in their research. Only men survived the sinking of the S.S.Arctic.
“Do you believe everything you read?” she asked when I mentioned what I had discovered. Her tone was like that of a teacher to pupil.
“No, but these writers did their homework,” I replied, sure of myself. “When they write that only men survived I believe them.”
“Well, they are wrong. I know that as a fact.” She turned away and lowered her head ignoring my intrusive nature.
I was suddenly reminded that this was a solemn occasion and I should respect her silence. We both stood there. The old lady had her eyes closed as if in prayer. I stared at the monument as if that would help release its mystery and story.
The S.S. Arctic was the pride of the Collins shipping line. Its president was Edward Collins. With financial help from the Brown Brothers the New York based company expanded. It was officially known as the “New York and Liverpool United States Mail Steamship Company” after being granted the contract to carry US mail to the UK. It was an attempt by US politicians to break the hold of the British owned Cunard line which, up to that point, not only carried US mail but had a near stranglehold on trans-Atlantic passenger traffic. Collins built four magnificent and luxurious side-wheel steamers: Atlantic, Pacific, Baltic, and Arctic. They were almost twice the size of the Cunard ships, more luxurious, and faster, particularly the Arctic. At almost three thousand tons she dominated other ships when she docked at Liverpool harbor. With her luxurious cabins, drawing rooms, and salons she was the class of her day, and in 1852, under the guidance of her captain, James Luce, she became the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic west to east: 9 days, 17 hours, and 12 minutes. She rightly earned the title Clipper of the Sea.
The cost of a first class cabin was $125, which is about $3,500 in today’s money. The expensive ticket didn’t just give you the most luxurious surroundings of any ship that crossed the Atlantic, but put you in the company of some of the most important and prestigious members of American and European society. The two hundred and fifty passengers on board that fateful trip included James Brown’s son and two daughters, his son in law, and two grandchildren. Also on board was the French Duke de Grammont, the English explorer and artist Frederick Catherwood (who introduced the western world to Mayan culture), the wife of the owner Edward Collins and their two teenage children, plus many members of New York’s high society. Captain Luce had also brought along his handicapped son, eleven year old Willie, for a special treat.
The ship left Liverpool September 20th 1854. Seven days later, while steaming through fog, she collided with the iron-hulled ship French vessel Vesta, fifty miles south of Cape Race, Newfoundland. Captain Luce initially thought that it was the Vesta that was in trouble rather than his own wooden hull colossus. He dispatched one of the six lifeboats to see how he could assist with what he presumed to be an imminent disaster. But he soon realized it was the Arctic that was in trouble and he steamed off as quickly as possible in the hope of reaching the shores of Newfoundland and safety. They didn’t make it. The ship started to sink. With only five lifeboats left for the approximate four hundred passengers and crew panic set in. The crew, who were among the highest paid and most experienced on American ships, secured their places on the small boats before the passengers. The Arctic sank quickly. Two of the lifeboats made it to Broad Cove, Newfoundland where they were looked after by the local inhabitants. Some individuals were saved by passing ships. Some survived, such as Captain Luce, on the debris of the paddle steamer. One lucky man survived by taking refuge in a basket on top of a makeshift raft. Due to the limited communication available at the time it took two weeks for the news to reach New York. Once all the details were known there was public outrage. Over three hundred had drowned. They included the six members of the Brown family, Mrs. Collins and her two children, Captain Luce’s son Willie, Frederick Catherwood, and many members of New York society. Eighty five survived: sixty one crew and twenty four male passengers. New York society was outraged at the cowardly behavior of the crew as well as saddened by the death of so many of their friends. The city’s business elite entered an extended period of mourning. Citizens were anxious for any news of the sinking and the Herald Tribune and The New York Times were dominated by updates. It was so intense that it resulted in one of the first news “wars” in an effort to scoop the competitor. There were all kinds of side-bar stories. A Shakespeare first folio, being shipped back to New York by collector Aldon Griswold, was lost. Diamonds, to the value of $150,000 (over $4 million in today’s money), was supposedly being carried by one passenger who drowned with his wealth. In the wake of the tragedy shipping rules were changed, but only slightly. The maritime law of having enough lifeboats to accommodate all ship’s passengers was not put in place for over fifty years, after another great tragedy: that of the Titanic. For years the belief that no woman survived the disaster was repeated in books and articles about the tragedy. But, as I was soon to find out, that was not correct.
After a moment of silence the old woman opened her eyes. “Come with me.” She turned around and began a slow walk towards the cemetery exit. I followed.
“What’s your name?” I asked as I quickly came alongside.
“You can call me Julia,” she replied as she hobbled along the path. “And yours?”
“Tom,” I answered. “Nice to meet you, Julia. Where are we going?”
“To my apartment for tea.”
“Can I ask are you connected to the Brown family?”
“Enough questions. All in due time.”
We caught a taxi to her modest Brooklyn apartment. A rickety elevator took us to the third floor. Her home was a musty one bedroom place that overlooked the street. “I can amuse myself by watching the people pass by,” she said as I pulled back the net curtain and looked out. “Make yourself comfortable,” she added as she disappeared into her bedroom. She returned with a scrap book and opened it to a particular page.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Read it,” she said as she pointed to a news cutting taped to the page. “I’ll put the kettle on.”
The clipping was from a small town newspaper dated January 24 1919. It recorded the passing of local resident Mary Green at eighty-five years of age. Not only did the obituary list all that she had done for the local community of Forestburgh, New York as the wife of a prominent man, teacher at the local primary school, and all-round energetic individual, but it mentioned her story as a survivor of the S.S.Arctic. According to the news story she had been an English immigrant who followed her sweetheart to the new world. He drowned, but she survived by clinging to wreckage until she was picked up by a passing ship. Once in New York “the distinguished families entertained and feted her” and “got her a job and going with the family in which she was employed”. This was extraordinary. None of the books on the maritime tragedy mentioned this fact.
“How do you take your tea?” Julia called from the kitchen. “Milk and sugar?”
“Yes. That’s good,” I replied.
Julia returned with two mugs, and placed mine on the old wooden coffee table in front of the couch where I was seated. She took her place in the armchair by the side.
I asked “Who was Mary Green?”
“My great grandmother.”
“But why has nobody reported or corrected the books on the sinking of the ship and her survival?”
“It’s so long ago. Nobody cares. Who has ever even heard of the S.S. Arctic? Had you till this week?”
I had to agree with her. But it seemed an injustice. The next hour we chatted about her family and the general state of the world. Julia wanted to know about my work and life in Canada. There was not too much to tell. Just a struggling writer, I told her. I asked about her background and she gave me the details of a life full of ups and downs. She never married and the rest of her siblings had since passed. Nothing remarkable in her ninety years, she said, except this story of her great grandmother passed down through the generations. I could tell she enjoyed the company. As I went to leave she asked for my business card and I left it on the coffee table. I returned to Toronto a few days later. The memory of Julia stayed for a week or two, but was forgotten when I was offered a publishing contract for my second book on pop culture. I was more than thrilled for the new deal and concentrated on finishing the work. The S.S. Arctic sunk to the bottom of my creative imagination.
A year later I received an over-sized business envelope. Inside was a typed letter from a Monticello lawyer, and, encased in plastic protective sheeting, were two ancient looking handwritten pages. The legal letter informed me that Julia had died, but she had left instructions that the pages enclosed with this letter were to be sent to me. I was taken aback by this sudden recollection of meeting this woman. I sat down at my desk and withdrew the papers from their protective covering. Atop the first page was the name Mary Green. The date: September 27 1904. The beautiful black ink handwriting stated that “here on the fiftieth anniversary of the sinking of the S.S.Arctic, I, Mary Green, want to make an accurate account of my experience and survival of that tragedy.” And this is what she wrote:
It was September 1854. I was Mary Delaney then, engaged to my sweetheart Alexander Cooper. We were both twenty. He was from a distinguished family in Sullivan County, New York. His father had been a general and was now a judge. Alex, as he liked to be addressed, had been sent to England to finish his education. I had been studying to be a teacher at the college of Preceptors in Bloomsbury Square. Our paths crossed one day, completely by accident, at the nearby British Museum at the celebrations for the opening the institutions new forecourt. It was as if the goddess Moira herself had a hand in our fated meeting. Alex was impressed that I, a woman, was training to be a teacher. I was impressed with his manners, his education, and his standing in life. He told me about “the new world”: America. I was entranced. We conversed for hours as we wandered around the museum paying little heed to the astounding exhibits. Soon we were seeing more of each other, and before long he asked me to marry him and travel to New York. London was a dreadful place to be at the time. There was the cholera epidemic. Thousands had died. Soldiers were leaving everyday for war in the Crimea and the war with Russia. With my parents blessing, I agreed. That September he booked two first class tickets for us on the S.S. Arctic, the grandest ship of its time. We traveled by rail to Liverpool. The docks were crowded with ships from all corners of the Empire. Gypsies and barrow boys lined the wharfs selling their wares to those who came and went along the busy waterfront. We located the beautiful Arctic tied up at the new Huskisson dock on the north side. It looked impressive with its huge paddle wheel, tall masts, and chimney. It was bigger than any other ship in the harbor. We were able to accommodate ourselves in our luxury individual quarters a day before she sailed. This gave us the opportunity to familiarize ourselves with the ship and its many splendid amenities. We even had the new invention of radiators in our state rooms. That was a novelty, and a welcome addition. The following day we steamed out of Liverpool and away from England. I never saw my homeland again. The journey was a delight. We met the Browns. Their father had financed the building of the ship. Captain Luce entertained us with his stories of a life on the open seas. I felt sad for his handicapped son Willie, but the child did not complain about his lot in life. The other passengers were some of the best American society had to offer. Never had I been in such esteemed company. The menu was as delicious as anything they might serve Queen Victoria. I think we dined six times a day. What a pleasure! We played parlor games in the salon, and engaged in informed conversation. The journey across the Atlantic was as comfortable and entertaining as it could possibly be. Captain Luce informed us that we were making good time and it should take no longer than ten days.
That fateful day it was exceedingly foggy. We had stayed in our rooms except during breakfast. At approximately noon, we experienced a colossal crash. I was in thrown to the ground. Alex was thrust against the wall. I regained my standing while Alex went on deck to find out what was happening. I looked out of the porthole but whatever it was that had occurred it was on the other side of the ship. I could see nothing but the fog. There was a tremendous amount of shouting and screaming. The wait for my loved one’s return seemed to take forever. When he did return it was not with good news. The Arctic had collided with another ship. But the captain assured us that it was the other vessel that was in danger not ours. We were relieved. Things calmed down and we heard the captain order one of the six lifeboats to be dispatched to help the stricken ship in whatever way they could. Alex and I went on deck and watched the boat, with a small crew, row their way through rough Atlantic waters. The mood on the Arctic was one of helpfulness and our thoughts were with those we thought was in danger of disappearing before our very eyes. But then we heard a shout: “We are sinking!” and we were all suddenly alarmed. It was us that were in trouble. The captain ordered the ship to start steaming away from what we thought was a doomed vessel. This was an outrage under maritime law, but we soon realized that it was the pertinent thing to do. Panic set in. The crew scrabbled for the lifeboats, so did many of the men. We rushed to the salon where our new friends the Browns with their small children were huddled. Captain Luce came to our party and said that space had been reserved for us on the last lifeboat at the rear of the ship. We gathered a few belongings and made our way there. But by the time we located the boat the ropes had been cut and we could see the men row away as fast as they could to be lost in the fog. The next moments were a horrendous blur. People were running around looking for anyway to save themselves. The lower class passengers had stormed on deck and fights broke out. Men jumped over the railings crashing into the few boats still alongside. I remember few details from that terrible time. One of the crew fired a small cannon at intervals signaling the disaster in the hope there might be ships in the area to provide rescue. But, alas, it was not to be.
I awoke aboard a floating piece of the deck. I was wet, cold, and alone. Wreckage and the bodies of the dead surrounded me in the water. The ship was gone. I could see no life boats. I called for help but none came. I thought I was going to die. Maybe I wanted to, but I hoped that my Alexander had somehow survived this tragedy. Darkness fell like a shroud. Just as I felt all was lost a passing ship spotted me and I was rescued. I recounted the series of events to the Captain. He was on his way to St. John’s and he could deliver me there. I had no money or possessions, but the kind people of that port aided me. I was truly grateful for their generosity. One captain of a sloop was journeying to New York and offered to take me there. I had nowhere else to go. I hoped my Alex had survived the disaster. When I arrived, many weeks after the sinking, the city was still in mourning. I learned that Alex had drowned as had so many, including members of the Brown family. For days the good people of New York looked after me, eventually finding me a home and employment in Forestburgh. I never forgot Alex, and the life we had intended, but I found a new love in my new country. And I learned to be thankful the chance that Fate had given me. Maybe one day ship owners will make sure there are enough lifeboats for all the passengers on board. That way the world will not have to experience a maritime tragedy similar to that of the S.S.Arctic.
The letter was signed Mary Green. It was an incredible story that had been overlooked. I knew what I had to do.