A cenotaph, last words, and crowdfunding

675px-Rufus_Wheeler_Peckham_cenotaph.jpgRufus Wheeler Peckham (the first) was born in Rensselaerville (to Peleg “One G Short of a Pirate” Peckham and his wife, Desire) in 1809, and raised in Cooperstown. He graduated from Union College and then studied law, was admitted to the bar at 21, and eventually became district attorney of Albany County. Following that, he served a term in the House of Representatives, then returned to private practice. He was a justice of the New York State Supreme Court (ironically, the lowest state court) from 1861 to 1869, then became an associate justice of the Court of Appeals (the highest state court) in 1870, where he remained until his death in 1873.

In that year, his health reportedly failing, Rufus and his second wife (a mere 21 years his junior, by the way), set off on a journey to France in hopes of improving his health. They did so aboard the Ville du Havre, a formerly paddle-wheeled, now propellered, steamship that also sported sails, and was only a few years old when it was refitted, lengthened (yes, lengthened), and had an extra mast bolted on. Early in 1873, it resumed its previous Havre – Brest – New York service (all this from Wikipedia.) Health-wise, the Peckhams picked the wrong ship.

At two in the morning on November 22, 1873, the Ville du Havre, carrying 313 passengers and crew, collided with an iron clipper called the Loch Earn. It didn’t turn out well. The Havre crossed Loch Earn’s bow and broke nearly in two. The captain reassured passengers that all was well, which was patently not true. It was found that some of the lifeboats had been painted fast to the deck; even had they not been, there were only enough to carry 250 people. Only two boats were reported to have launched. Panic ensued. The ship sank inside of 12 minutes. Through the efforts of the captain of the Loch Earn, 61 passengers and 26 crew were rescued. The rest, including Rufus Wheeler Peckham and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Foote Peckham, perished.

I don’t find who reported Peckham’s last words, and it’s unlikely in the brief time there was that anyone survived to recall him saying them, but perhaps they were just as his cenotaph in Albany Rural Cemetery (pictured above, and sourced from this Wikipedia contributor) reports: “Wife, we have to die. Let us die bravely.”

The New York Times reported them differently just a few weeks after the tragedy, on Dec. 23, 1873. “All accounts agree in describing the courage and resignation of the passengers as wonderful. The women knelt and prayed upon the deck or clung together in a last embrace, calmly awaiting the awful change. The clergymen on board, Catholic and Protestant, went from group to group, administering the comforts of religion. Numerous touching incidents are related to show the serenity with which most of the passengers faced their doom. Judge Peckham admonished those about him, ‘since they must die, to die bravely.'”

That sounds like a lot to happen in the space of twelve minutes, but at the same time the Times reported two men having time to struggle to free cork life-preservers, “stored, as usual, in places where they were almost sure to be inaccessible when needed . . . Probably not one in ten of the passengers knew where to look for a life-preserver . . . Many, it is quite likely, did not even know a life-preserver when they saw it, and evidently when they did would have been unable to make use of those so securely lashed on deck.”

Interestingly, another Capital District resident was also on the Ville du Havre, lived to tell the tale, and helped reverse the fortunes of his rescuer. In 1876, the Albany Journal reported that LeGrand C. Cramer of Troy

was among the passengers on the ill-fated vessel, in company with an aunt. He went down with the vessel, but being a good swimmer kept his head above water for half an hour or more, when he struck against a spar. An hour later he was picked up by one of the boats of the Loch Earn, and transferred later to the sailing vessel Tri Mountain, which took off the Loch Earn’s passengers just in time to save them [as the Loch Earn also sank]. Capt. Urquhart, of the Tri Mountain, did everything in his power for the rescued, and in the end charged only a moderate salvage. This displeased the two person, who, with Capt. Urquhart, owned the vessel, and they sold the boat at auction, as agreed upon in case of dissatisfaction. This threw the captain out of command, and left him without means adequate to get another. Mr. Cramer learned of the matter, resolved that the rescued should reward the generous rescuer, and soon had $15,000 on a subscription list. The result was that Capt. Urquhart bought an interest in the ship Isaac Webb, and is now running between New-York and London.

So crowdfunding isn’t so new.


Thanks to Paul Nance for hepping us to the fact that prominent Troy attorney Horatio Gates Spafford was sending his wife and four daughters to a holiday in England on the Ville du Havre; only his wife survived. A tragedy of that scale wouldn’t move me to music, but I wasn’t Horatio Gates Spafford, who throughout his life expressed a certain religious zeal, and composed a hymn called “It Is Well With My Soul” while crossing the ocean over the spot where the Havre sank.

A much more detailed biography of Rufus Wheeler Peckham can be found here. More on Horatio Gates Spafford at Wikipedia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *