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Commodore

(The Commodore which sank off the coast of New Smyrna Beach, Florida.)

(This is a continuation of my previous blog post. Click to read “Stephen Crane’s Life before His Shipwreck on Daytona Beach.” The source of both blog pieces is a play that I wrote years ago, which relies heavily on R. W. Stallman’s book, Stephen Crane, a Biography.)

(If you “hover” your mouse over the blue links, it will tell you what the link would take you to–for instance, a photo, an article, a video interview, etc.)

On New Year’s Eve 1896, Stephen Crane was finally aboard the Commodore which was beginning its fifth attempt to transport munitions to Cuban insurrectionists fighting to overthrow the military junta.  Only 14 months earlier the ship had been impounded, and many U. S. Revenue Cutter ships had been patrolling Florida’s coast to interdict those breaking America’s “neutrality laws,” but Crane’s adventure was finally underway, hidden in the dark hours and the dark waters of the St. Johns River, leaving Jacksonville, Florida, for the open sea.

The Commodore drew 9 feet of water which meant it dare not veer from the deep channel, and it was 21 feet wide, fairly narrow, but still a large ship which had been built in 1882, and as local historical re-enactor John F. Mann says in his one-man show about the Commodore, the ship could outrun cutters with its 12 knots, even though it was a 178-ton ship, 122 feet long, and as R. W. Stallman reports in his biography of Stephen Crane, Captain Edward Murphy said, “The Commodore was a fine boat. She carried her load like a cork and breasted the waves like a duck.” But the fog was so heavy off Commodore’s Point two miles from  Jacksonville that the ship’s bow sliced its way onto a sandbar, and only at daybreak could the revenue cutter Boutwell break it away and tow it toward the Atlantic.

After the Commodore was well out to sea, Chief Engineer Redigan was told that water was flooding the engine room and that the pumps had failed so buckets were being used. In desperation as deepening water sloshed through the innards of the ship, the captain ordered oil and even alcohol to be added to the furnace with the coal to fuel the Commodore more speedily the final 18 miles to Mosquito Inlet (called Ponce Inlet today).

There was talk of lowering lifeboats, and the First Mate Frank Grain urged them to fire a signal rocket. Later reports said there was panic and another said that one of the crew emerged from below deck with dynamite, saying they’d have to blow up the ship, but the captain guardedly snatched the explosive and then slugged him, shouting, “Lie there, you cowardly dog!”

One man knelt before Captain Murphy’s feet and prayed to be thrown overboard. Then one of the several Cubans aboard ship attempted without orders to take a boat, but Crane punched the man violently, and according to Stallman, for this and other actions, Crane was praised by the ship’s cook who later said, “The newspaper feller was a nervy man. He didn’t know what fear was”; and the captain said, “That man Crane is the spunkiest fellow out.”

When Crane’s new shoes caused him to slip on deck, he tossed them overboard, and soon the first lifeboat was lowered. Then, as Stallman reports, several men (Crane, the oilerman Billy Higgins, two African-American stokers, and First Mate Grain) tried to lower another lifeboat, but Crane later said, “I am willing to swear [it] weighed as much as a Broadway cable-car.”

One crewman, as Stallman says, attempted to save himself and angered the captain who cursed that he was “done up in life-preservers until he looked like a feather bed.”

The winter seas rocked the Commodore side to side so much that the yardarms (the outer tips of the square sail) nearly sank into the waves with each roll of the ship.

Twelve Cubans with their baggage piled into the first boat, but another Cuban, Major Baz, dutifully remained aboard ship for another half-hour. Meanwhile the second boat, loaded with all the other Cubans, floated near the Commodore to assist, but the first boat had already separated, attempting to make the 15 miles to shore through the violent seas.

Captain Murphy ordered everyone left on ship to enter the last lifeboat, and seven got in; but three men, including Crane, stayed with the captain, so they crowded into a tiny but heavy dinghy of thick wood, an open boat only about 10 feet long, barely large enough for the four men to ride out the storm.

Crane entered first, bracing the oar against the rocking Commodore, as the others dropped into the dinghy that bounced beside the ship. Stallman notes that Captain Murphy reported to the newspaper later that the seas were “as high as I have ever seen them hereabouts. They rolled in on us, threatening to dash us against the sinking [Commodore], and we expected every moment to be overthrown.”

Then the boat with seven men returned to the ship to retrieve something, but the ship crashed against the lifeboat, causing it to founder, and all seven men had to scramble back aboard the sinking Commodore and stood there helpless.  Over the frigid waves the captain shouted for them to make rafts, but when it came time to jump down onto the rocking rafts, the men stood silently (others said the men were “screaming with fear”).

Three men jumped successfully onto the rafts, but the First Mate, without a lifebelt, lifted his arms and intentionally plunged into the sea to his death, leaving three last men alone on the sinking Commodore, unwilling to risk jumping to a raft. Crane later wrote that one “had his arms folded and was leaning against the deckhouse.” The others just stood, resigned to death.

The men on the rafts begged to be towed, and this was begun, but the dinghy began to fill with water, so they had to release the rope so they could bail; and then on second try at towing, a man on the raft suddenly began to pull the rope “hand over hand,” and according to Crane, “He had turned into a demon. He was wild–wild as a tiger. He was crouched on this raft and ready to spring” which would have capsized the tiny dinghy, so they had to release the rope again, but the men in the dinghy rowed around the raft, hoping to try yet again, but the small boat barely six inches above water was nearly swamped by each wave, and they finally had to leave the men on the rafts to the mercy of the currents and likely death. Later the cook Charles Montgomery who was with Crane in the dinghy said the men on the raft let out “heart-rending cries.”

The first of the Cubans’ lifeboats beached the next day, Saturday, January 2, near the Mosquito Inlet lighthouse, but the stormy seas and current swept the dinghy along for nearly 30 hours, and sharks threatened at times.

On Saturday afternoon Crane and the others in the dinghy spotted people along the shore and tied a towel to an oar to wave it, and they fired a pistol, but the shore was a half-mile away where they could see two men, one on a bicycle. Stallman writes that one of them, a Daytonan named Fred Niver, was interviewed 64 years later in 1961, and he said, “Sure, we saw them, but we didn’t know they were in trouble.”

The men struggled for their lives through the night, and as the sun rose on Sunday morning, the dinghy neared the area where Daytona’s Main Street pier is today, and the seas continued to threaten the tiny boat as their strength ebbed from lack of food and water, so the Captain whose broken arm was useless for rowing or swimming decided that they must attempt to make it through the high waves to shore, knowing that the dangerous surf and the heavy boat could kill them; and as the boat neared the shore, the waves lifted the boat on end as if into the air and tossed the men before it so that one of them was thrown directly beneath the boat which smashed his head into the sand. Crane, fearing the weight of his $700 of Spanish gold in his moneybelt, stripped it off, never to be found.

A young Daytonan, John Kitchell, who operated a little ferry and managed a boatyard on the Halifax River near Main Street happened to be on the beach that day, and Stallman says Captain Murphy said Kitchell “stripped to the skin” (an exposure not even permitted in summer). He was described as being “naked as a tree in winter” when he plunged into the cold January surf and dragged out Montgomery who did not know how to swim, then the captain, and finally, Stephen Crane.  Billy Higgins the young oilerman, the best swimmer of them all, lay stretched on the shore–the only one dead.

The Captain and Montgomery were taken to Surf Crest cottage, a house at the edge of the dunes (long since torn down), but Stephen Crane spent that Sunday night at the yellow house, Lilian Place, Lawrence Thompson’s home, that still overlooks the Halifax River just to the northeast of the Orange Avenue bridge. Stallman notes that Crane later sent the Thompsons an autographed copy of The Red Badge of Courage, but when Stallman telephoned the Thompsons’ granddaughter, Pat Bennett, she told him she’d never seen it and that the family must have given it away.

Higgins was buried in Pinewood Cemetery, but his relatives later had him reburied in Salem, Massachusetts.

As Stallman explains, Crane telegraphed his newspaper in New York, “I am unable to write a thing yet, but will later.” Within days he wrote a dramatic newspaper account of the shipwreck, and later he wrote what became the classic American naturalist short story that is still taught in schools today across the United States–“The Open Boat.”

Crane was still only 25 years old when he was met on Monday by Cora who had hurried from Jacksonville to his side, and Crane left Daytona by the first train back to Jacksonville with Cora who later called herself Cora Crane.  His tuberculosis worsened, but he went as a reporter to cover the Greco-Turkish War (1897), as did Cora, and then Crane reported the Spanish-American War in Cuba (1898) before eventually moving with Cora to England where he died in 1900. Then after his death Cora returned to Jacksonville, attempted to earn money as a writer, and eventually opened another house of ill repute, but her death came unexpectedly in 1910 as she helped push a car stuck in sand; and although she was never married to Crane, her marble stone in Jacksonville’s Evergreen Cemetery reads: “Cora E. Crane.” No doubt her memory was captured many years earlier in what one Jacksonville mother whispered to her children: “Don’t you dare speak to that woman.”

In January 1897 Crane spent only one night in Daytona. Three and a half years later he was dead.

(Click here to read Stephen Crane’s 7 Jan. 1897 New York Press story of the shipwreck.

(Click here to read a history of Daytona’s Main Street Pier.)

(To learn more about Crane’s shipwreck you can read his fictionalization, the short story “The Open Boat.” To learn more about the Commodore you will want to call Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse to ask when John Mann will perform his one-man play as Captain Murphy. To learn more about where Crane spent his night in Daytona you will want to visit the historic house called Lilian Place.)

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