The Loss and Remembrance of Margaret Fuller

While sailing west on the Elizabeth, Captain Hasty contracted smallpox and died before the vessel was through the Straight 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 19 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. 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. Thoreau wrote two letters about his unsuccessful time at Fire Island, and included a later reflection of his expedition in Cape Cod:

Once also it was my business to go in search of the relics of a human body, mangled by sharks, which had just been cast up, a week after a 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 [ . . . ] There was nothing at all remarkable about them, and they were singularly inoffensive both to the senses and the imagination. But as I stood there they grew more and more imposing . . . (pp. 107-108)

The only papers to be recovered from the wreck were Margaret’s letters from two friends, Mazzini and Mickiewcz, her correspondence with Giovanni, and a slender journal she had kept in the early months of 1849 before the siege of Rome had begun. The bodies of Margaret, Giovanni, and Nino were never recovered or identified.