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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking for Unclaimed Bodies

I'm trying to find unclaimed bodies from the Metis shipwreck off Watch Hill, R.I. I have recently received a very interesting lead that I'm following up on. Anyone else know where there are unidentified bodies buried? Or ones that were identified as a shipwreck victim?

Here is my excerpt from  my travel memoir, Mystic Seafarer's Trail, on the Metis
Although Perry was able to save his entire crew when the Revenge struck Watch Hill Reef, some captains traversing this heavily trafficked area have suffered enormous passenger losses. In August 1872, when the steamer Metis left New York toward Providence with 104 passengers, including children, plus 45 crew members, it experienced decreased visibility in a strengthening gale. At approximately 3:45 a.m. on August 30, when it was five miles south of Watch Hill Light, it collided with a schooner. The damage to the hull of the Metis appeared to be minor so it was decided to continue toward Providence.  Within a mile, however, heavy seas further opened the hull and she began to sink fast. When the upper deck broke loose, 30 people managed to ride it toward shore and the rescue boats heading their way. Those below the steamer’s deck went down with the ship. Bodies washed ashore for several weeks on Block Island and the Rhode Island coast.  A framed, spoon-like object made of wood from the Metis, which now lies 130 feet below the surface, can be seen hanging on the wall of the Watch Hill Lighthouse museum.  

Captain Bill Palmer of Wallingford, Conn., owner operator of the charter vessel, Thunderfish, not only takes passengers sport fishing and shark cage diving, but also to explore shipwrecks such as the Metis.  He said, “There’s not much left of the Metis except for the machinery because worms in the water eat the wood. But beneath the sand, lies her cargo. I’ve found china, and friends of mine have found luggage tags made with brass numbers on leather. One friend found a safe with steamship tickets inside.”

I am also looking for information on Mystic-built ships (or under the command of a Mystic captain) that wrecked anywhere in the world. For example, I was thrilled when the Mystic River Historical Society found this article for me on the City of Waco. I revised my Mystic Seafarer's Trail book to include an interview with the diver who explored the wreck.

Excerpt from Mystic Seafarer's Trail regarding the City of Waco:

More than 13,000 souls, many on Mystic’s “Who’s Who” list of 19th century ship builders and sea captains, have been laid to rest at Elm Grove Cemetery. I became particularly interested in the tall obelisk depicting the steamship, City of Waco, which tells how Captain Thomas E. Wolfe died piloting her when it caught fire off the port of Galveston in 1875. He was 44 when his ship erupted into flames and sank. His body was found two miles away. He literally died with his boots on—a dramatic end to a man who led a dramatic life.

Born January 20, 1831, Wolfe’s life of adventure began at age 14 when he went out to sea as a ship’s boy. A year later, he embarked on a whaling voyage to the Indian Ocean for nearly two years. During the California Gold Rush, Wolfe caught gold fever with two Mystic buddies and sailed around Cape Horn to California in 1850. Probably realizing more died of scurvy than found gold, they headed back to Mystic.  

During the Civil War, Captain Wolfe transported supplies from New York to New Orleans. When his ship Texana was captured by Confederates near the mouth of the Mississippi River, it was burned and Wolfe and his crew were taken prisoners. Initially, Wolfe’s letters to his wife Frances from Castle Thunder Prison in Richmond were upbeat because he assumed he would be included in a prisoner exchange. He encouraged her not to worry and to keep their three children comfortable. But as time slipped by, Wolfe revealed his growing despair in this letter dated Dec. 23, 1863:

 Dear Wife,

...The children must have grown very much since I left home it is most nine months. It makes me homesick to look out of my prison window and see little children the age of ourn a playing in the street.

… the hours hang heavy. My former occupation of a sailor may have fitted me somewhat to bare the disappointments and hardships of prison life. it is worse than working to the westward off Cape Horn for one will occasionally gain a little on their course their but here it is the same thing every day…

In the following month he wrote: “If I was home I think I should enjoy the skating…but I see no prospect of getting there very soon…I expect little Emma has forgot her da da.”

 Later transferred to North Carolina’s Salisbury Prison, Wolfe and his fellow prisoners were cold and starving. On the rainy night of December 18, 1864, he made a daring escape with four companions and headed north. During their grueling, 340-mile trek through enemy territory that included the Blue Ridge Mountains, Wolfe faced sleepless nights on the frozen ground, hours hidden under damp fodder, barking dogs, and a companion’s snoring that put them at constant risk of discovery. Although Wolfe could barely limp along as a result of his sprained ankle, he provided some comic relief with stories of his past adventures.

One of the escapees, New York Tribune reporter Albert Richardson, wrote about a 12-mile section of road that crossed a frigid stream 29 times with only foot logs for pedestrians. “Cold and stiff, we discovered that crossing the smooth, icy logs in the darkness was a hazardous feat. Wolfe was particularly lame, and slipped several times into the icy torrent, but managed to flounder out without much delay.”

It was the food, warmth and guidance offered by slaves and Union sympathizers with secret handshakes, plus Wolfe’s knowledge of celestial navigation, that brought them to safety.  Richardson recalled, “We walked about a mile through the dense woods, when Captain Wolfe, who had been all the time declaring that the North Star was on the wrong side of us, convinced our pilot [their temporary guide] that he had mistaken the road, and we retraced our steps to the right thoroughfare.”[i]

Captain Wolfe finally made it back to Mystic on his 34th birthday--January 20, 1865. He recuperated and went back to sea. He lost another vessel, the steamer Loyalist, while on the way to New Orleans, but all hands were saved. However, when the City of Waco caught fire on a stormy night in November 1875, all 56 passengers and crew perished. The New York Times reported the events that began to unfold just after midnight on Nov. 9, 12:30 a.m. A mate from a nearby steamer said the City of Waco “appeared to be one mass of flames...he heard cries of distress from five or six persons in the water. One was the voice of a woman or child clinging to what appeared to be a spar or piece of one of the vessel's masts… but every soul had been washed off of it... "

Only three bodies were recovered—one of them Wolfe’s. It appeared to have burn marks and looked as though he had been trying to cut off his boots. His body was shipped back to Mystic for burial.

[i]  (Richardson, 1865)

If you have any info on unclaimed bodies or Mystic related wrecks, that you are willing to share, please contact me at: 
If you would like to read my travel memoir, which includes more Mystic-related wrecks and sea captains, it's available in Mystic area shops or online: Mystic Seafarer's TrailSecrets behind the 7 Wonders, Titanic's Shoes, Captain Sisson's Gold, and Amelia Earhart's Wedding