Hunting New England Shipwrecks

The Saint John Tragedy

Saint John images
Click on thumbnails for a larger view

rescue2-harpers.JPG (42505 bytes)

saintjohn1-sjo.JPG (31360 bytes)

Old shipwreck illustration
similar to the Saint John
(Author's collection)

 Monument to victims
in Cohasset cemetery
(Steve O'Gara photo)

cohasset-chart1.jpg (71523 bytes)

saintjohn-beeart.JPG (66550 bytes)

Chart of Cohasset Harbor
showing The Grampuses
(Maptech's Mapserver)

Saint John article
from The Boston Daily Bee
(see transcript below)

The immigrant ship Saint John, bound from Galway to Boston, was wrecked at the entrance to Cohasset (MA) Harbor on October 7, 1849, at the height of the Great Irish Famine. Ninety-nine souls died in the incident. Today, a monument to the victims stands by the harbor in Cohasset Central Cemetery. The Saint John tragedy was similar to the fate of many other immigrant ships of the19th Century. An article describing the wreck appeared in The Boston Daily Bee two days after the incident. Below is a transcript of that article.

From - The Boston Daily Bee, October 9, 1849

Awful Shipwreck at Minot's Ledge

About 100 Drowned - Men Women and Children

Br. brig St. John, Capt. Oliver, from Galway (Ireland), Sept. 5th, anchored inside of Minot's Ledge, Saturday night. At about 7 o'clock A. M., on Sunday morning, she dragged her anchors and struck the rocks. The following particulars of her loss, together with that of 99 of her passengers and crew, is gleaned from various persons who witnessed the disaster:

The vessel struck about 7 A. M. yesterday. The scene was witnessed from the Glades House, and is represented to have been terrible. The sea ran mountains high, and as soon as she touched, the waves swept the unfortunate human beings upon her crowded decks by dozens into the sea. The spectators of this awful sight imagined that they could hear the cries of the victims as they were swept away, but as no boat, save the life-boat, could have lived in the gale, it was found impossible to render aid.

The life-boat left Cohasset early in the morning, and went to the aid of the British brig which was in danger at the mouth of the harbor, and carried her to a place of safety. they did not, however visit the wreck, supposing that the long boat which they met going towards the shore, contained all that belonged to her.

When the St. John struck, her small boat was got ready, but was swamped at the side by a large number jumping into her. Shortly after, the long boat broke her fastening, and floated off from the vessel. The Captain and several others swam to and got on board of her, and landed in safety near the Glades House. The second mate, two men and two boys of the crew were drowned.

After the ship struck the rocks, she thumped awhile, but shortly went to pieces, holding together not more that fifty or sixty minutes. Seven women and three men came ashore on pieces of the wreck, alive, but some very much exhausted. Two dead bodies were also taken from pieces of the wreck. 

Early in the forenoon, the news of the wreck began to spread, and in the afternoon, the shore was lined with people, who were active in getting bodies from the surf. Mr. Holmes, a railroad conductor, was busy during the entire day in aiding the living and rescuing the dead bodies from the waves. One man, whose name we did not learn, came near losing his life in rescuing a body from the surf.

Towards nightfall, the bodies began to come ashore, and quite a number were taken from the surf, all, however, dead. Dead bodies would be thrown upon the rocks, but before they could be reached, the sea would carry them back again.

Quite a number of her passengers, especially women and children, were below when she struck, and were probably drowned there, as a hole was almost instantly thumped in her bottom.The long boat that reached the shore in safety contained, in addition to the captain and crew, only one passenger. Of seven first class passengers, who were all lost, were three girls, nieces of the owner of the vessel. Great difficulty was experienced in saving those who came ashore on the pieces of the wreck, on account of the surf, which would throw them upon the rocks and then carry them to sea again. The poor creatures would cling with a death-grasp to the clothes of those who came to rescue them, and were with difficulty made to release their hold, even after having reached a place of safety. One woman saved was very badly bruised upon the rocks, and it was thought lst night that she would die, but she is this morning more comfortable.

It is stated that one passenger, clinging to a piece of the wreck, floated to the rocks, but was so far gone as to be unable to unclench his hand. Finally some one jumped on the fragment, made fast a rope to him, and he was got ashore. His face of a deep purple, his open mouth, fixed teeth, and deathly eyes, formed a sight long to be remembered.

So far only twenty-five dead bodies have been recovered, but the surf which yet runs very high is full of them. Before nightfall many more will doubtless be taken out. The shore is strewn with the baggage of the passengers, all stove to pieces.

Capt. Oliver and his surviving mate reached this city at 12 o'clock. He states that he made Cape Cod Light about 5 o'clock Saturday evening, Scituate Light near 1 o'clock Sunday morning, then stood away to the northward, to clear the land, for about three hours. Then, it being about daylight, he tacked the ship and stood S.S.W. Weather very thick, he came inside of Minot's Light House, and there saw a brig lying at anchor, just inside of breakers, at a place called Hooksett Rock, tried to wear up to the brig, but found he could not fetch up, and threw over both anchors, which dragged. He then cut away her masts, and she drifted on to Grampus Ledge, where she went to pieces.

Previous to breaking up, the jolly boat was hanging by the tackle, alongside, when the stern ringbolt broke and the boat fell into the water. The Captain, second mate and two boys jumped in to get her clear, when about 25 passengers jumped in and swamped her. The twenty-five, together with the second mate and two boys, perished. The captain caught a rope hanging over the quarter, and was drawn on board by the first mate. When the long boat was got clear, a number of passengers jumped over to swim to her, but all perished. The captain, first mate (Mr. Crawford), and seven of the crew swam to and reached the boat.

The names of the drowned are probably unknown to the captain. He reports 120 souls on board, 21 of whom were saved, leaving 99 lost. The following named persons were saved: Austin Kearn, Katharine Flannegan, Betsey Higgins, Mary Kane, Michael Fitzpatrick, Michael Gibbon,Barbary Kennelly, Mary Slatterly, Michael Redding, Honora Cullan, Honora Burke.

Twenty-seven bodies have come ashore, up to 4 o'clock, P. M., yesterday, twenty-one females, three males, and three children. They will be buried today at Cohasset.

The Claire Library, in County Claire, Ireland, has an excellent Website on the Saint John wreck. To go to that site, click here .

For additional information on the Saint John wreck, go to our Saint John data page.

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Copyright 2001 by Dave Clancy
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