Henry Thoreau and the Wreck of the St. John

By Richard Smith

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Left: A brig is a vessel with two square-rigged masts


ON SUNDAY, October 7, 1849, the Irish brig St. John was shipwrecked off the coast of Massachusetts, near Cohasset. It was a "famine ship" loaded with emigrants from Galway, Ireland, who were escaping the devastation of the potato famine, heading to America, and with some luck and Godís blessing, a new life. This shipwreck, the worst in Cohasset's history, would have an impact on families on both sides of the Atlantic. And, in a strange twist, the wreck would also affect one of Concord's native sons, Henry David Thoreau, and the story of the St. John would become one of his most gripping essays.

[2]     As the brig entered Massachusetts Bay that Sunday morning, it encountered a severe coastal storm. The ship's master, Captain Martin Oliver, dropped anchor two and a half miles off the coast, hoping to ride out the storm. This was common practice for a storm-bound ship, but the St. John's anchors failed to hold. The ship was washed onto a submerged rocky ledge ó known locally as the Grampus Rock ó with devastating results.

[3]     Stuck between the rocks and the pounding surf, the St. John's hull was quickly torn apart, and terror-stricken emigrants were just as quickly washed into the roiling sea. In a panic, the St. Johnís crew began to cut away masts and sails in a desperate attempt to lighten the ship and loosen her from her predicament, but their work had no effect; the ship remained stuck fast on the rocks. Within an hour the hull was in pieces, and parts of the ship ó as well as the bodies of her passengers ó started to wash up on the beaches of Cohasset. In all, 99 persons died when the St. John went down. There were some survivors, including Captain Oliver, but these numbered only about twenty. Many of the victims were from the counties of Galway and Clare, and the loss of life affected many. In fact, whole families were wiped out; emigrant Patrick McSweeney was drowned while trying to save his wife and nine children; none survived.

[4]     Two days later, on October 9, 1849 Henry Thoreau and his friend, the poet Ellery Channing, left Concord for an excursion to Cape Cod. This was to be Thoreau's first visit to the Cape. Having been "accustomed to ... excursions to the Ponds within Concord," Thoreau now decided to "extend [his] excursions to the sea-shore in order to get a better view than [he] had yet had of the ocean."

[5]     In Boston, Henry and Ellery saw handbills saying "Death! 145 lives lost at Cohasset!" This was the latest news about the St. John. The prospect of seeing a shipwreck would be a novel experience to the two landlubbing Concordians. It was something they just couldn't pass up. Thoreau and Channing immediately decided to go to the Cape by way of Cohasset.

[6]     When they arrived in Cohasset, Thoreau noted that the sea was "still breaking violently on the rocks." And the small town itself was still in a state of confusion. Thoreau would later write movingly about the sights and sounds he and Channing saw all around them. Hundreds of people had now come to Cohasset, a strange mixture of the victim's relatives, curious on-lookers, scavengers and, oddly, even "sports-men in their hunting jackets." All were drawn to the small town because of the St. John disaster. On their way to the beach, Thoreau and Channing passed a graveyard. Thoreau ominously noted a "large hole, like a cellar, freshly dug there." The two friends also passed several wagons coming away from the beach, each loaded with three large, roughly made boxes. "We did not need to ask what was in them" Thoreau later wrote.

[7]     They saw more of these huge boxes a little later, set on a hillside near the water. There were dozens of bodies lying on the shore, and Thoreau saw the "marble feet and matted heads" all around him with "wide-open and staring eyes." He took note of "one livid, swollen, and mangled body of a drowned girl," an emigrant who was, in all likelihood, coming to America to find work as a maid or a cook. At this stage, only two days after the wreck, only 27 or 28 bodies had been recovered; there were many more to come in the days ahead. Yet, Thoreau noticed "no signs of grief", only "a sober despatch [sic] of business which was affecting."

[8]     As they walked along the beach, they were surrounded by the debris of the wreck: a manís clothes on a rock, a womanís scarf, a gown, a straw bonnet, even the St. Johnís mast, broken into several pieces. A little later Thoreau and Channing saw the first mate, Henry Comerford, Jr., who had survived the wreck along with the captain. Thoreau described Comerford as a "slim-looking youth" who "seemed a little excited." Later, the two Concordians spoke with another survivor, a "sober looking man," and Thoreau tried to ask him some questions about the wreck but, not surprisingly, the man "seemed unwilling to talk about" the disaster, and wandered off.

[9]     Thoreau and Channing stayed in Cohasset overnight, then continued their holiday down to the Cape the next day. But the town of Cohasset would continue to live with the St. John disaster for some time. The few souls who survived the wreck were put into various homes in Cohasset to recuperate, including the Cohasset almshouse. A young Cohasset girl, Elizabeth Lothrop, lived near Sandy Cove and had witnessed the wreck from start to finish. Some of the half-drowned survivors were put in her home and soon clean sheets, blankets and boiling water were also brought to the house, ready for the survivorsí use and comfort.

[10]    A week later a funeral service was held for some of the victims, conducted by Unitarian minister Joseph Osgood. Here the Cohasset connection with Henry Thoreau continues. Osgood was married to Ellen Sewell, the woman that Thoreau had proposed to in 1840! Thoreau had remained close to Ellen, as well as her husband, but it is not known if he visited the Osgoods on this trip or not. A second funeral was held after Osgood's, this one a Catholic Mass for the Irish victims. In all, 45 emigrants were buried, all unidentified, in a mass grave in Cohasset's cemetery. Today that grave is marked by a 20-foot-high Celtic cross, placed there in 1914 by the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

[11]    Thoreau's recollections of the wreck were published a few years later under the title The Shipwreck in the June, 1855 issue of Putnam's Magazine. Three years after Thoreau's death in 1862, the piece would be re-printed as Chapter One in his book Cape Cod. It is one of Thoreau's more captivating ó and horrific ó pieces. Yet he coldly wrote that the wreck and its aftermath of death and destruction was "not so impressive a scene as [he] might have expected." He continued: "I sympathized rather with the winds and waves, as if to toss and mangle these poor human bodies was the order of the day. If this was the law of Nature, why waste any time in awe or pity?Ē

[12]    This was not callousness on Thoreau's part. A true Transcendentalist, he believed that, while "their empty hulks" were washed ashore, in reality they had gone to a better place, that they had "emigrated to a newer world." So why mourn them dead, when they were better off then those who had survived? And after all, isnít death just another part of Nature?

[13]    The people of Cohasset, however, did not feel the same. For many days after the wreck debris and bodies continued to wash up on the shore near Cohasset. It was a wreck the town would never really forget. For some of the townís citizens, the wreck of the St. John would affect them their entire lives; the young Elizabeth Lothrop was one of them. She would later write in her journal that she feared her life would never be as "happy and carefree" as she had been before she witnessed the tragedy. She said that there was a "profound sadness" that seemed to never leave her.

[14]    There are still reminders of the wreck in Cohasset. A small maritime museum in town houses a scale model of the St. John and there are artifacts from the wreck as well, including an immigrantís steamer that was washed up on shore that fateful day. Seeing that trunk makes the disaster seem all too real, and, in some ways, all too recent.

[15]    And, of course, Thoreauís observations on the St. John disaster are in Cape Cod. This alone has kept the St. John in the public eye for these many years. If Thoreau and Channing hadnít been so curious, the wreck would have been lost to history, just one more maritime disaster among the hundreds that have occurred along the coast of Massachusetts.

[16]    Today, over 150 years later, residents of Ireland continue to visit Cohasset and pay their respects at the mass grave marked by the large stone Celtic cross. Some of the visitors are from the counties of Galway and Clare in western Ireland, some from the island of Lettermullen and Galway, and many are actually descendents of the St. John victims. To them, as well as to the residents of Cohasset, the wreck of the St. John will never be forgotten.


More from Ireland: Clare County Library's The Shipwreck of the St. John


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