Letter of Bayard Taylor.

From: At Home and Abroad, or Things and Thoughts in Europe (1856)
Author: Margaret Fuller Ossoli
Published: and Company 1856 Boston


Fire Island Tuesday, July 23.


  I reached the house of Mr. Smith Oakes, about one mile from the spot where the Elizabeth was wrecked, at three o’clock this morning. The boat in which I set out last night from Babylon, to cross the bay, was seven hours making the passage. On landing among the sand-hills, Mr. Oakes admitted me into his house, and gave me a place of rest for the remaining two or three hours of the night.

  This morning I visited the wreck, traversed the beach for some extent on both sides, and collected all the particulars that are now likely to be obtained, relative to the closing scenes of this terrible disaster. The sand is strewn for a distance of three or four mile’s with fragments of planks, spars, boxes and the merchandise with which the vessel was laden. With the exception of a piece of her broadside, which floated to the shore intact all the timbers have been so chopped and broken by the sea, that scarcely a stick of ten foot in length can be found. In front of the wreck these fragments are piled up along high-water mark to the height of several feet, while further in among the sand-hills are scattered casks of almonds stove in, and their contents mixed with the sand, sacks of juniper-berries, oil-flasks, &c. About half the hull remains under water, not more than fifty yards from the shore. The spars and rigging belonging to the foremast, with part of the mast itself, are still attached to the ruins, surging over them at every swell. Mr. Jonathan Smith, the agent of the underwriters, intended to have the surf-boat launched this morning, for the purpose of cutting away the rigging and ascertaining how the wreck lies; but the sea is still too high.

  From what I can learn, the loss of the Elizabeth is mainly to be attributed to the inexperience of the mate, Mr. H. P. Bangs, who acted as captain after leaving Gibraltar. By his own statement, he supposed he was somewhere between Cape May and Barnegat, on Thursday evening. The vessel was consequently running northward, and struck head on. At the second thump, a hole was broken in her side, the seas poured through and over her, and she began going to pieces. This happened at ten minutes before four o’clock. The passengers were roused from their sleep by the shock, and hurried out of the cabin in their night-clothes, to take refuge on the forecastle, which was the least exposed part of the vessel. They succeeded with great difficulty; Mrs. Hasty, the widow of the late captain, fell into a hatchway, from which she was dragged by a sailor who seized her by the hair.

  The swells increased continually, and the danger of the vessel giving way induced several of the sailors to commit themselves to the waves. Previous to this they divested themselves of their clothes, which they tied to pieces of planks and sent ashore. These were immediately seized upon by the beach pirates, and never afterward recovered. The carpenter cut loose some planks and spars, and upon one of these Madame Ossoli was advised to trust herself, the captain promising to go in advance, with her boy. She refused, saying that she had no wish to live without the child, and would not, at that hour, give the care of it to another. Mrs. Hasty then took hold of a plank, in company with the second mate, Mr. Davis, through whose assistance she landed safely, though terribly bruised by the floating timber. The captain clung to a hatch, and was washed ashore insensible, where he was resuscitated by the efforts of Mr. Oakes and several others, who were by this time collected on the beach. Most of the men were entirely destitute of clothing, and some, who were exhausted and ready to let go their hold, were saved by the islanders, who went into the surf with lines about their waists, and caught them.

  The young Italian girl, Celesta Pardena, who was bound for New York, where she had already lived in the family of Henry Peters Gray, the artist, was at first greatly alarmed, and uttered the most, piercing screams. By the exertions of the Ossolis she was quieted, and apparently resigned to her fate. The passengers reconciled themselves to the idea of death. At the proposal of the Marquis Ossoli some time was spent in prayer, after which all sat down calmly to await the parting of the vessel. The Marchioness Ossoli was entreated by the sailors to leave the vessel, or at least to trust her child lo them, but she steadily refused.

  Early in the morning some men had been sent to the lighthouse for the life-boat which is kept there. Although this is but two miles distant, the boat did not arrive till about one o’clock, by which time the gale had so increased, and the swells were so high and terrific, that it was impossible to make any use of it. A mortar was also brought for the purpose of firing a line over the vessel, to stretch a hawser between it and the shore. The mortar was stationed on the lee of a hillock, about a hundred and fifty rod, from the wreck, that the powder might be kept dry. It was fired five times, but failed to carry a line more than half the necessary distance. Just before the forecastle sunk, the remaining sailors determined to leave.

  The steward, with whom the child had always been a great favorite, took it almost by main force, and plunged with it into the sea; neither reached the shore alive. The Marquis Ossoli was soon afterwards washed away, but his wife remained in ignorance of his fate. The cook, who was the last person that reached the shore alive, said that the last words he heard her speak were: “I see nothing but death before me,—I shall never reach the shore.” It was between two and three o’clock in the afternoon, and after lingering for about ten hours, exposed to the mountainous surf that swept over the vessel, with the contemplation of death constantly forced upon her mind, she was finally overwhelmed as the foremast fell. It is supposed that her body and that of her husband are still buried under the ruins of the vessel. Mr. Horace Sumner, who jumped overboard early in the morning, was never seen afterwards.

  The dead bodies that were washed on shore were terribly bruised and mangled. That of the young Italian girl was enclosed in a rough box, and buried in the sand, together with those of the sailors. Mrs. Hasty had by this time found a place of shelter at Mr. Oakes’s house, and at her request the body of the boy, Angelo Eugene Ossoli, was carried thither, and kept for a day previous to interment. The sailors, who had all formed a strong attachment to him during the voyage, wept like children when they saw him, There was some difficulty in finding a coffin when the time of burial came, whereupon they took one of their chests, knocked out the tills, laid the body carefully inside, locked and nailed down the lid. He was buried in a little nook between two of the sand-hills, some distance from the sea.

  The same afternoon a trunk belonging to the Marchioness D’Ossoli came to shore, and was fortunately secured before the pirates had an opportunity of purloining it. Mrs. Hasty informs me that it contained several large packages of manuscripts, which she dried carefully by the fire. I have therefore a strong hope that the work on Italy will be entirely recovered. In a pile of soaked papers near the door, I found files of the Democratic Pacifique and Il Nazionale of Florence, as well as several of Mazzini’s pamphlets, which I have preserved.

  An attempt will probably be made to-morrow to reach the wreck with the surf-boat. Judging from its position and the known depth of the water, I should think the recovery, not only of the bodies, if they are still remaining there, but also of Powers’s statue and the blocks of rough Carrara, quite practicable, if there should be a sufficiency of still weather. There are about a hundred and fifty tons of marble under the ruins. The paintings, belonging to Mr. Aspinwall, which were washed ashore in boxes, and might have been saved had any one been on the spot to care for them, are for the most part utterly destroyed. Those which were least injured by the sea-water were cut from the frames and carried off by the pirates; the frames were broken in pieces, and scattered along the beach. This morning I found several shreds of canvas, evidently more than a century old, half buried in the sand. All the silk, Leghorn braid, hats, wool, oil, almonds, and other articles contained in the vessel, were carried off as soon as they came to land. On Sunday there were nearly a thousand persons here, from all parts of the coast between Rockaway and Montauk, and more than half of them were engaged in secreting and carrying off everything that seemed to be of value.

  The two bodies found yesterday were those of sailors. All have now come to land but those of the Ossolis and Horace Sumner. If not found in the wreck, they will be cast ashore to the westward of this, as the current has set in that direction since the gale.

Yours, &c.

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