By Michael Schreiber
The words “lost at sea” are the most melancholy, and often the most mysterious, inscriptions on gravestones at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) church in Philadelphia. In those cases, the stones are merely markers for a person who never came home and never saw their loved ones again. Their lives were cut off suddenly as the victims of a disaster somewhere across the ocean, and their bones lie there still.
Two hundred years later, it is generally difficult to research exactly what happened to such people, since there are no official death or burial records to refer to. The researcher has to try to develop the story out of materials such as shipping reports in newspapers of the period, crew lists submitted to the Philadelphia port authorities, and perhaps occasional letters or documents stored away in an archive.
The gravestones at Gloria Dei tell us, for example, of Capt. James and Josephine Stewart, husband and wife, who lost their lives together at sea, supposedly in September 1856. James Stewart was the son of Carpenters’ Hall caretakers James and Sarah Stewart.
I have tried to investigate where James Jr.’s and Josephine’s fatal event took place, but it took days of searching before a few clues popped up. I found mention of a Capt. James Stewart living in New Orleans in 1855, and a man of the same name commanding the schooner Ellen between Baltimore, Richmond, New Orleans, and Havana in 1855 and ’56.
Records of ship departures in the newspapers mention that the schooner Ellen left New Orleans on Aug. 8, 1856, bound for Matanzas, Cuba, and carrying a cargo of lard, coal, and empty barrels. With Capt. Stewart were his wife, children, and niece, along with a crew of 15. When the Ellen left New Orleans, people there were still unaware that a hurricane had been mounting force in the Gulf and heading quickly for Louisiana. But the Ellen sailed straight into it.
At around 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, Aug. 10th, the storm crashed into Last Island, a barrier island on the Louisiana coast that today is mostly underwater. In 1856, a village stood on the island, which was a favorite beach resort for vacationers, including many from New Orleans high society, along with their slaves. On this occasion, the owner of the Ocean House Hotel had brought in a cotillion band from New Orleans, and guests danced, gambled, and partied late into Saturday night. We can imagine that many of them slept late that Sunday, and were surprised at breakfast time to see that a squall seemed to be brewing off the coast. The squall quickly became a gale, and then a raging hurricane, which lashed the island with 150 miles per hour winds.
At first, the winds whipped in from the bay side, from the north, and people on the island moved toward the Gulf shore to escape the flooding water. Then the wind shifted and towering waves battered the island from the Gulf itself. By 4 in the afternoon, water from the bay had met the surf coming in from the Gulf, and the low-lying island was virtually covered with water. The two-story hotel collapsed, crushing entire families beneath its timbers
About 160 people sheltered in the ferry boat that had been grounded on the bay side of the island —while others tried to hang onto floating driftwood to save their lives. Others held onto the poles of a carousel, which revolved crazily in the wind. A few people managed to crawl their way inside a lighthouse that was still standing.
The hurricane battered the area at full strength for an entire day and night. High winds, huge waves, and floating debris demolished every one of the island’s buildings. After the storm had moved inland, practically every sign of the village had been erased; even the foundations of buildings were covered by several feet of sand. At least 198 people were killed on the island, and probably many more if you include the uncounted Black slaves, plus dozens more in ships that foundered in the Gulf and the bay.
One survivor recalled that in the aftermath of the hurricane, as he made his way back to the village, “The jeweled and lily hand of a woman was seen protruding from the sand, and pointing toward Heaven; farther, peered out from the ground, as if looking up to us, the regular features of a beautiful girl who had, no doubt, but a few hours before, blushed at the praise of her own loveliness, and again, the dead bodies of husband and wife, so relatively placed as to show that constant until death did them part; the one had struggled to save the other.”
Ten days later, a boat discovered the remains of the schooner Ellen sticking out of the sand of Last Island. Part of her stern was visible, but all hands, plus Captain James Stewart and his family, were presumed lost. It seems highly likely that they include the James and Josephine Stewart who are memorialized in Gloria Dei churchyard, although more investigation needs to be done.