Captain Luke Vanaman of Cape May New Jersey was master of the schooner Rachel Vanaman, named after his wife. On a voyage to Mexico in 1869, he suffered a wound which became infected, grew feverish and died at the age of 53. He was buried in Tabasco, and the ship returned to Boston with a load of lumber and a new Captain.
William Sherman Vanaman was 4 at the time of his father’s death, and followed him into life at sea. By the 1890s, he was a merchant Captain. Vanaman’s younger brother John was also a sailor, and was lost at sea in 1894 at the age of 28.
In the same year, Vanaman’s first wife Stella died in Philadelphia at the age of 32, leaving their 5 year old son Charles (1889-1952).
Vanaman was soon back at sea: in January 1895 his crew suffered severe frostbite on the voyage back to Philadelphia.
In 1898, he was in Havana harbor with his schooner the Annie Stevens when the battleship USS Maine exploded and sank on February 15: he and his crew rescued several of the sailors from the waters around the wreckage.
Vanaman married Emma Emerson in Mobile Alabama on June 20, 1899. Emma was born in New Orleans in 1868, and was the daughter of the late Judge Charles Emerson. Four months after the wedding, Emma died unexpectedly at their home in New Jersey on October 23. She was buried in Mobile, and the Captain quickly turned his affections to her younger sister Mary.
In October 1900, Mary Emerson (age 23) and her niece Ella Dubose (age 15) joined Captain Vanaman (age 35) on a voyage to Boston aboard his ship the Myra B Weaver. The Weaver was a 3-masted schooner built in 1889 for the coastal trade, 155 feet long, 35 feet broad and 12.5 feet deep. Her early voyages were to deliver ice from Boston to Key West. Before refrigeration, shipping ice from the north to the tropics was big business: ice from Thoreau’s Walden Pond (and many other New England ponds and lakes) was shipped as far away as India, and made a fortune for the Ice King.
By 1900, Vanaman was the Weaver’s Captain, and commanded her on regular voyages along the Gulf and East coasts.
They stopped in Jacksonville Florida to load 425,000 board feet of lumber. While there, the Captain and Mary were married on October 10, and the ship departed for Boston on October 16.
In early November, a huge storm blew off the coast of New England.
The Weaver sailed through the Vineyard Sound between Massachusetts and Martha’s Vineyard, and on November 8 anchored 6 miles west of Handkerchief Shoal to wait out the storm.
The ship stayed at anchor all day; at nightfall when the storm grew worse Captain Vanaman ordered the crew to lash themselves to the rigging.
Vanaman assisted his bride to the main mast, where she was securely lashed. First Mate John Kearney lifted Ella to the cross trees, where she was lashed, and he remained near her throughout the night.
Early in the morning the lashings to the lumber loaded on the deck broke away, and the seas crashed high up on the masts and reached those lashed to the rigging. The force of the storm finally broke the anchor chains, and the ship began to drift.
Mary grew weaker from exhaustion, exposure and fright, until at 9:00 on the night of the 9th she died, and her body hung in the riggings. The waves soon tore the clothing from the body.
When Vanaman found that his 3rd wife was dead, he climbed to a higher position in the riggings near Kearney and Ella. Ella began to suffer from the effects of the cold, and Kearney cut pieces from the sails and wrapped them about her body. Vanaman also began to show signs of weakness, and was given pieces of sails to wrap about him.
At 3:30 on the morning of the 10th, the schooner struck Handkerchief Shoal, and capsized with her starboard side and masts under water. Kearney was plunged beneath the waves, but was able to get above water and cling to the wreckage. Vanaman and Ella, the steward William Peterson, and seamen Charles Magnussen and John Hejman were drowned.
Kearney, Second Mate Rasmas Olsen, and seamen George Johnson and Axel Oggla held on to the wreckage until the steamer City of Macon came into view at 4:30 in the morning.
The Macon launched a lifeboat, and after nearly two hours rowing in the rough seas it reached a point where it was possible to throw a line to the 4 survivors. The Macon arrived in Boston on the afternoon of the 10th with the survivors, and the city learned of the disaster.
On Sunday November 11, the tugboats Mercury, Zetes and Juno reached the wreck: it had righted itself after the storm because the lumber on deck had washed off. The wreck had a large hole in the hull, and only floated because it was still full of lumber below deck. It was too perilous to go on board until the wreck was tied up to the wharf, so the bodies of Ella and the seamen Magnussen and Hejman were still lashed to the rigging as it was towed into Boston harbor. Thousands of Bostonians saw the dead bodies hanging from the masts, their clothes whipped off by the storm, until they were finally removed.
Ella’s body was returned to Mobile for burial. The bodies of Captain Vanaman and his new bride Mary were not recovered from the ocean, joining the tens of thousands who perished at sea in the age of sail.