While sailing west on the Elizabeth, Captain Hasty contracted smallpox and died before the vessel was through the Strait of Gibraltar. After a week-long quarantine the ship continued its journey under the command of Henry Bangs who had been first mate to Captain Hasty. On the 19 of July, 1850, the Elizabeth ran aground off the shore of Fire Island, New York. Despite being within sight of land, the extreme winds and swelling waves made it impossible for Margaret, Giovanni, and Nino to swim safely to shore. All three perished in the wreck, alongside Fuller’s manuscript of the Italian Revolution.
When news of the disaster reached New England, Ralph Waldo Emerson sent Henry David Thoreau to the site of the wreck to recover all he could of Margaret Fuller’s writings while Emerson remained home to begin writing what would be his portion of Fuller’s memoir. Emerson wrote a letter to Marcus Spring regarding his decision:
My dear Sir,
The morning papers add no syllable to the fatal paragraphs of last night concerning Margaret Fuller; no contradiction and no explination. At first I thought I would go myself and see if I could help in the inquiries at the wrecking ground, and act for the friends. But I have prevailed on my friend, Mr Henry D. Thoreau, to go for me and all the friends. Mr Thoreau is the most competent person that could be selected; and in the dispersion of the Fuller family, and our uncertainty how to communicate with them, he is authorized by Mr Ellery Channing to act for them all.
I fear the chances of recovering manuscript and other property, after five or six days, are small, and diminishing every hour. Yet Margaret would have every record of her history for the last three or four years; and whatever is found by anyone would easily be yielded up to a diligent seeker. Mr Thoreau is prepared to spend a number of days in this object, if necessary, and you must give him any guidance or help you can. If his money does not hold out, I shall gladly pay any drafts he may make on you in my name. And I shall cordially unite with you in any expense that this painful calamity shall make necessary.
The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson 1845-1859, Volume 8. Edited by Eleanore M. Tilton. Columbia University Press, 1991. pp. 254-255.
Thoreau searched the shoreline and a neighboring village for anything that may have washed ashore but was disappointed by his findings. He was able to recover some of Margaret’s jewelry, empty trunks of varying sizes, her portable desk, a few articles of clothing, and Giovanni’s guardsman’s coat which he kept a button from. The only papers to be recovered from the wreck some of Margaret’s letters and a slender journal she had kept in the early months of 1849 before the siege of Rome had begun.
Thoreau addressed a letter to Emerson on July 25, 1850, summarizing the details he had gathered about the Elizabeth’s and the events that followed. For the full letter, see The Correspondence of Thoreau (1850, pp. 262-263).
Years later, Thoreau recalled his time on Fire Island while writing Cape Cod:
Once also it was my business to go in search of relics of a human body, mangled by sharks, which had been cast up a week after the wreck, having got the direction from a lighthouse: I should find it a mile or two distant over the sand, a dozen rods from the water, covered with a cloth, by a stick stuck up. I expected that I must look very narrowly to find so small an object, but the sandy beach, half a mile wide, and stretching farther than the eye could reach, was so perfectly smooth and bare, and the mirage toward the sea so magnifying, that when I was half a mile distant the insignificant sliver which marked the spot looked like a bleached spar, and the relics were so conspicuous as if they lay in state on that sandy plain, or a generation had labored to pile up their cairn there. Close at hand they were simply some bones with a little flesh adhering to them, in fact only a slight inequality in the sweep of the shore. There was nothing at all remarkable about them, and they were singularly inoffensive both to the sense and the imagination. But as I stood there they grew more and more imposing. They were alone with the beach and they sea, whose hollow roar seemed addressed to them, and I was impressed as if there was an understanding between them and the ocean which necessarily left me out, with my sniveling sympathies. That dead body had taken possession of the shore, and reigned over it as no living one could, in the name of a certain majesty which belonged to it.
(Cape Cod, The Beach Again, pp. 107-108)