200 Plus

Lost at Sea, Found on LBI

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Mar 27, 2019

In January 1884, the British barkentine Elmina grounded off LBI, and despite the efforts of several life-saving crews, all hands were lost in the icy surf. Several New York newspapers carried stories criticizing the local citizens for unceremoniously dumping the bodies into shallow graves on the beach and even taking donations from New Yorkers to bury the bodies with dignity. Enraged by the insult, the people of Manahawkin fought back.

The Baptist church minister, the Rev. W.H. Eldridge, wrote the New York Telegram saying, “The printed announcement that ‘there is not a society or persons in the whole length and breadth of the land whose duty it is to see that the body of the shipwrecked sailor receives any better treatment than being tumbled into a half dug grave in the sands wherever the sea happens to cast him up,’ is also untrue. We desire to inform the public that the state or county in which a wreck occurred makes provision for drowned sailors and others. At the regular direction the people direct their coroners, whose duty it is to bury all bodies of persons thrown up from the sea and in case there is no coroner in the town in which the disaster occurs it becomes the Justice of the Peace to finish that duty.”

The paper added a footnote saying, “The dollars contributed by Miss Agnes Herndon, the actress, as a nucleus for contributions for the burial of the drowned crew has been returned to her.”

Rebuked, the New York papers went on to other stories while the people of Manahawkin still had the problem. The July 2, 1884 New Jersey Courier announced, “The body of a man in an advanced state of decomposition was washed ashore on the beach at Mannahawkin on Monday, and was buried by Coroner Courtney. He was apparently about forty years of age, five feet eight inches in height, had auburn hair and was dressed in sailor’s garb. He is thought to be one of the crew of the wrecked bark Elmina, lost with all on board in January last.”

One local man believed the burden of shipwreck victims should be borne by the state, not a few local people. Finally there was action, and in the spring of 1885 the state Legislature passed “An Act for the purchase of ground for the burial of dead bodies thrown upon the shores of this state by shipwreck, WHEREAS, the laws of this state provide for the suitable burial at the public expense of the dead bodies of seamen and other persons thrown upon the shores of coasts of this state by shipwreck; AND WHEREAS, By reason of the great extent and dangerous character of that portion of the coast of this within the boundaries of the county of Ocean many bodies are thrown upon the shore, requiring careful burial with a view to subsequent identification by relatives of friends …”

What would take place?

“…the Governor and comptroller of this state and William A. Crane, of the county of Ocean, be and they are hereby empowered to select within the said county a suitable site for a burial ground for such dead bodies as may be hereafter cast upon the shores or coasts of this state within the boundaries of said county, and to purchase the same and take title therefor to the state of New Jersey; and the ground or site so selected and purchased shall be set apart for the sole uses and purpose afore-said; provided, that the entire cost of the selection and purchase of the said site or ground and suitably enclosing the same shall not exceed the sum of five hundred dollars.”

One of the sites selected was located in the Manahawkin Baptist Cemetery. The act also stated, “That it shall be duty of the coroner who shall bury any body within the ground selected as aforesaid to make out a written statement containing the name of the ship or vessel, the date of the wreck, and the place where the same occurred, together with as full a description of the body as he can give, the time of burial and location of grave, and to record the same in a book for that purpose, and to preserve any letters, writings, coins, medals, keepsakes or other articles, which may serve as aids to the identification of the said body, and to exhibit them to any person seeking to identify relations or friends.”

In May, the Brooklyn Eagle sent a correspondent to visit Manahawkin.

“The coming festival of Decoration Day will be celebrated in this village with unusual ceremony this year. It is proposed to decorate with flowers the graves of those castaways whose bodies have been thrown on the beach by the sea from the many wrecks that take place annually on the dangerous coast between Barnegat Inlet and Little Egg Harbor and the last resting places of those brave men who have lost their lives in striving to rescue others from a watery grave, and whose bodies have afterwards been washed ashore.”

The wreck of the Elmina would change the cemetery.

“The people of the village are noted for their kindness of heart and the true sympathy they exhibit for those who are shipwrecked in their neighborhood. … Ex-Coroner Crane, who has always taken an active interest in the matter, knowing the need of more burial space, set about remedying matters, in which he was willingly assisted by Senator J.F. Cranmer, of Barnegat. A bill was introduced by Mr. Cranmer, in the New Jersey Senate to appropriate $500 for the purchase of additional burial accommodation and passed, and a plot of ground adjoining the present graveyard has been purchased, which will be ready for consecration in a few days.”

In the cemetery today there is one marked grave from the wreck. It goes back to Coroner Luke Courtney’s description of body number five.

“Norwegian: light complexion, very light auburn hair: height five feet seven inches; age about thirty years had work in fine ink on left arm and anchor, cross and heart, surrounded by a wreath.”

Finally, in 1887 the Trenton Times explained why there is one lone headstone.

“A few paces beyond the center of Manahawkin is the ‘old church.’ With the sacred edifice is the churchyard, that ‘God’s Acre,’ where any are sleeping for aye. Down by the lower end of this silent city of the dead are several graves. ’Tis here, that unmarked, yes unknown, are many poor sailor lads who have sailed the main and have come unto this unexpected harbor. For years, when, in the fierce storms on the beaches, the bodies of sailors were washed upon the dunes, the good-folk of this town performed the last sad rites and gave to the unknown a Christian burial. Among them all is a grave of a Scandinavian seaman who, lifeless, was found upon the strand. From the distant Swedish home, a mother sent money for a little monument for her only son, and to-day he rests in a South Jersey hamlet instead of on the Fjord washed hills of his beloved Scandinavia. There is many a romance in real life; there is many a romance of the dead, of the unwept, the unhonored, the unsung dead.”

In 1904, the state would erect an obelisk marking the site of the countless unknowns buried far from home, in a little New Jersey village.

Next Week: 1864.


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