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Feature Article: Remember That Shipwreck Story? Here's What Really Happened!

In last month's issue of GenealogyBank News, we ran a "Discoveries" article with the startling headline: "Dead Wife Saves Drowning Husband!" That article told a remarkable story about a dutiful husband, Mr. Walters, who was bringing his wife's body home on a steamboat so that she could "be buried among her relations and friends." And then a terrible accident struck the boat, an explosion that killed almost everyone on board. The husband, too, would have died—except for the eerie fact that his wife's coffin happened to float by while he was struggling in the water, and by clinging to it Walters was able to save himself from drowning.

This incredible story was printed by the Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York), 4 December 1855, page 2.



Yes, a truly incredible story. However, Tom Kemp, GenealogyBank's Director of Genealogy Products, has been searching historical newspapers for nearly 50 years filling in his family tree, and he knows that it's always worthwhile to keep searching, trying to find other newspaper articles to corroborate, expand—and sometimes correct—the information you find in the first article.

Intrigued as he was by this floating coffin story, Tom decided to dig deeper. What he found is even more astonishing, and more tragic, than the story presented in that first newspaper article.

As Tom tells it:

What an amazing newspaper article—and yet it seemed to me something wasn't quite right about this story:
  • When and where was the shipwreck of the steamer Anthony Wayne?
  • Why no first name for the husband?
  • Why no name for the wife?
  • Did steamers travel from Chicago to Philadelphia?
  • Was there more to this story?
Digging deeper into GenealogyBank's historical newspaper archives I found this article, printed by the Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, Ohio), 1 May 1850, page 2, with this attention-grabbing headline: "Awful Calamity. Explosion of the Steamboat Anthony Wayne. Forty Lives Lost!!"



So, the steamer ship exploded on Saturday, April 27, 1850, while en route from Sandusky, Ohio, to Buffalo, New York. The accident happened on Lake Erie, about six or seven miles offshore of Vermillion, Ohio.

I kept researching and found more details—but no names—in this newspaper article, printed by the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 30 April 1850, page 2.



Here was a contemporary account of this horrific ship explosion tragedy, but still not all the details:
  • A gentleman "going east to bury his wife and child"
  • Traveling with "the balance of his family, two small children"
  • Following the explosion, he "launched the coffin" as a makeshift life raft
  • Labored with "a child grasped under each arm with a most desperate struggle"
  • Sadly, he "lost his boy" and was forced to abandon the remains of "his wife and child"
As newspaper reporters dug into this story and more details about the survivors and the deceased were gathered, the Newport Mercury (Newport, Rhode Island), 11 May 1850, page 2, gave more of the story.



This newspaper article has provided us with more details about the survival story:
  • Archer Brackney was the father trying to rescue his family
  • He was from Lafayette, Iowa
  • The coffin contained both corpses of "his wife and child"
  • We learn of his desperate struggle to save his "two living children"
  • Sadly, "his little boy, two years old, was drowned in his arms"
  • He managed to save his little girl, "who was clinging around his neck, crying 'Papa! We shall drown!'"
Researching further in GenealogyBank's newspaper archives, I uncovered more of the real story.

The coroner held an inquest and the results were published in the Sandusky Register (Sandusky, Ohio), 30 April 1850, page 2.



This verified the essentials of the survival story.

Now to dig deeper and see what more details can be found about this shipwreck tragedy and real life story of survival. It's amazing how much information you can find in historical newspaper archives!