Shadows of … the Sea Disaster of the (19th) Century

Lea Wait, here.  Maggie Summer, the protagonist in my Shadows Antique Print Mysteries, calls her antique print business “Shadows,” because, as she explains, “old prints are reflections of what our ancestors chose to record of the world they knew. When we look at an antique print today we can almost see through their eyes, at shadows of a distant past.” 

Antique prints to me are like  mysteries. I love discovering “the story behind the story.”  Who was the artist? Why did he or she draw that subject, in that way? Why were those subjects popular … or not? In some cases … what WERE those subjects?shadows weeding_edited-1

At the head of every chapter in my antique print mysteries I post a catalog entry for a real antique print.  Sometimes the print is a clue to the killer.  Sometimes it’s a clue to what will come next in the plot. Sometimes it’s like a sidebar, just adding a bit to the theme of the book.  It all depends. 

Shadows on a Cape Cod Summer, which will be published April 7, and can be pre-ordered now, opens with Maggie arriving on Cape Cod to help her best friend, Gussie, prepare for her wedding. While waiting for Gussie to return home, Maggie takes a walk on the beach … and finds a body.

The print I chose for the beginning of chapter 1 is an engraving by Winslow Homer printed in Harper’s Weekly, a weekly New York newspaper, on April 26, 1873.  Homer was not then the famous oil painter he was soon to become. He was “our special artist” for Harper’s. In the days

Winslow Homer's "The Wreck of the 'Atlantic' - Cast Up By the Sea"

Winslow Homer’s “The Wreck of the ‘Atlantic’ – Cast Up By the Sea”

before cameras, artists provided visuals for newspapers, and Homer’s The Wreck of the Atlantic: Cast Up By The Sea was an illustration of a news story. 

Today, when we think of major sea disasters, we think first of the Titanic. which struck an iceberg and went down in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, taking 1502 people with her. But almost 40 years earlier there had been another North Atlantic disaster, ironically, of a ship also owned, as the Titanic was, by the White Star Line. 

The RMS Atlantic’s route was Liverpool to New York City.  It ran into rocks off the coast of Nova Scotia and sank. Although residents of nearby fishing villages tried to rescue passengers, 535 people drowned, including every woman and child on board. 

Homer’s drawing was a tribute to those who had perished. In later years, when he lived in Prouts Neck, Maine, and often painted the rocks and surf of the North Atlantic, he was said to talk of the horrors of the Atlantic disaster.

Currier & Ives - "The Wreck of the 'Atlantic'"

Currier & Ives – “The Wreck of the ‘Atlantic'”

The Atlantic went down on April 1, 1873.  Within days Currier & Ives, many of whose “prints for the American people” reflected disasters such as fires, floods, and battles, rushed a lithograph into print to meet the public’s demand for information about the disaster.  It shows the ship on its way down, with people in the sea and in lifeboats, has details of the disaster printed beneath the picture, and was rushed into print so quickly that it reports that “562 lives were lost, of 952 persons on board.”  Actually, not quite that many lives were lost: some men had made it to shore and not been counted until several days after the ship had gone down.

In a world in which we sit in front of our television sets and expect the details of events within minutes of their occurring, complete with pictures, sound, bodies, and blood — it is sometimes good to remember that in the not too distant past, it was days, or even weeks, before details of a tragedy could be verified and shared with the public. Looking at the two prints of that 19th century sea disaster, it is hard to argue that knowing the details a day or two earlier would have made a difference.

We remember the Titanic, because of the hubris of the architect and the engineer; because of the fame of the passengers; and because of the number of people lost. But the two prints on this page have made sure that we will not forget the 562, many of them women and children, who died on the Atlantic. They’ve left their shadow on history.


2 Responses

  1. Nice post. Now I’m going to think of all those prints as news flashes. Seriously–ballads were used to report news too, even earlier than C&I.

    • Absolutely, Sheila! Nursery rhymes were sometimes political statements or commentary, too … today we have blogs! (And somettimes rap music.) May the beat go on! The people’s culture finds a way ….

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