170 years ago, tragedy engulfed two coffin ships; and the local citizens braved the waves to help
BY PETER F. STEVENS
On Memorial Day of this year, a throng of some 600 people gathered at the dedication of a permanent memorial on Deer Island to Irish emigrants who had fled the Great Hunger – An Gorta Mor –but perished of disease and malnutrition at the island’s quarantine station. It is fitting to remember those ill-fated sons and daughter of the “old sod,” and it is equally fitting to recall the tragedy that struck two Boston-bound “coffin ships” 170 years ago this month.
The heartbreaking saga of how catastrophe engulfed desperate Irish immigrants off the Massachusetts shore – even as disaster hit, common humanity trumped nativist prejudice for an all-too-brief moment. – especially resonates in 2019, as America frays along political, nativist, racial, ethnic, and religious seams that mirror those of 1849.
Henry David Thoreau had never seen anything like it. On October 9, 1849, as he wandered the shore at Cohasset, he gaped at the wreckage of the Brig St. John, a Boston-bound merchantman that had set sail from Ireland “laden with emigrants” fleeing the Great Famine. The vessel was one of 60 emigrant ships, or aptly named “coffin ships,” lost at sea or smashed upon crags off America’s eastern coast.
As Thoreau surveyed the scene, he poured into his notebook a torrent of words that captured the gut-wrenching scene: “I saw many marble feet and matted heads as the cloths were raised, and one livid, swollen and mangled body of a drowned girl—who probably had intended to go out to service in some American family. … Sometimes there were two or more children, or a parent and child, in the same box, and on the lid would perhaps be written with red chalk, ‘Bridget such-a-one, and sister’s child.’”
Just two days earlier, the brig, five weeks out of Galway Bay had been hurled by a gale onto the jagged rocks of Grampus Ledge. A second “coffin ship,” the Kathleen, grounded safely nearby on a sand bar.
As the St. John broke in two on the rocks, immigrants and crewmen thrashed in the foaming surf. Eyewitness Elizabeth Lothrop wrote that “no human power could stay the waves,” which pulled the brig “deep into the depths of Hell.”
On the shore, the boatmen of Cohasset – Yankees with little affinity for the Irish – left prejudice on the beach as they tried again and again to launch the town’s lifesaving boats into the crashing surf. Led by Captain Daniel T. Lothrop, a Cohasset “salt,” Elizabeth Lothrop wrote, the rescuers “struggled through the enormous waves for nearly forty-five minutes before reaching the area of the St. John. It was then that they noticed the longboat rowing to shore, with Captain Oliver [of the St. John] and the crew of the ship. The captain made no mention to the lifesavers that passengers had been left behind on the wreck to fend for themselves. Accordingly, the lifeboat proceeded to the Kathleen, the rowers were unaware that numbers of people may yet have been desperately clinging to the remains of the St. John. The magnitude of this tragedy only became apparent after the lifesavers had returned to shore and learned that the emigrants had been left stranded on the wreck.
The rescuers managed to aid only the Kathleen in the end. Most of the St. John’s passengers perished in the towering waves. Over the next few days, 45 bodies washed ashore, and the townspeople buried them in a common grave. An exact total was never possible to ascertain. At least 99 people drowned; 11 survived. In all, up to 145 may have been lost.
Among the most heart-rending stories of the disaster was that of Galwayman Patrick Sweeney and his family. Sweeney, his wife, and their nine children had boarded the vessel in hopes of a new and better life in Boston. As the brig broke apart on the rocks, Patrick could no nothing as his wife and eight of their children vanished in the frothing waves. Clutching his three-year-old daughter, Agnes, he jumped into the water and swam frantically towards the longboat. A massive wave broke across father and daughter. They, too disappeared, their bodies never found.
Adding additional agony to the fate of the Sweeneys and so many of their fellow immigrants and pointing a finger at Captain Oliver, Captain Lothrop would testify that if he had only been told that there were passengers clinging to the brig’s pieces, he might well have been able to rescue some of them.
The tragedy claimed one last victim on the Cohasset shore. An Irishwoman who had rushed to the scene from Boston in hopes that her infant daughter and her sister had survived the shipwreck found their corpses beneath a sheet on the sand. “The infant [was] tightly folded in the sister’s arms,” Elizabeth Lothrop remembered. “The mother died of heartbreak.”
Soon enough, the matter of a proper ceremony for the Catholic dead was raised. As the Ancient Order of Hibernians records note: “It was then that the nearest priest, Father John T. Roddan, of Quincy, was asked to come to Cohasset. It was within a day or two after the storm that Father Roddan blessed the great common grave that held the remains for forty-five emigrants. This, in turn, served as a catalyst for Cohasset Catholics to begin petitioning Boston for a church of their own.”
In 1914, the Order of Hibernians raised a 19-foot Celtic cross near the victims’ common cemetery. Today, on display at the Cohasset Maritime Museum is all that is left of the ill-fated brig: a trunk, a small writing desk, and a piece of one of the ship’s pulleys.
Many of the locals who had witnessed the tragedy and its aftermath could not shake the images. Elizabeth Lothrop would write that “such a set of half-drowned, half-naked…frightened creatures [survivors] my eyes never beheld. . . . This horrible shipwreck and the continual picking up of dead bodies on our beach has so excited my mind that I . . . shall never get over it.”
Today, in 2018, all too many Irish Americans have forgotten or simply do not care about their families’ immigrant ancestors. They were once “the other,” the targets of nativist rage. Still, perhaps there is some historical hope in that long-ago tragedy when Yankee Protestants rowed into the gale, risking their lives to aid desperate, terrified immigrants floundering within sight of America’s “Golden Door.”
On the 170th anniversary of the tragedy, the Irish men, women, and children who perished in the tempest off Cohasset deserve the same remembrance and reflection as their kindred immigrants who never made it off Deer Island.