Friday, January 6, 2012

St. Catharis ~ 16 April 1891

They say you can still see the bloodstains on the floor of the old Chicamacomico Station for many of the bodies recovered from the surf following the wreck of the Strathairly were badly cut and bruised from striking pieces of wreckage. Others will say the bloodstains are from the 90 crewmen reported lost on the St. Catharis. But the plain truth is there was no such wreck ... the whole story is the result of a series of coincidences, misrepresentations and misunderstandings.

In 1892 the following notation was included in a listing of ship losses for the year 1891: "British ship St. Catharis wrecked off Caroline Islands, April 16." In more recent years the World Almanac and Book of Facts, in listing marine disasters included: "April 16 (1891) British ship St. Catharis wrecked off Carolina Island."

Somewhere along the line, the letter "e" on the end of "Caroline" seems to have been supplanted by an "a", likely through typographical error. This doesn't account for the widespread story that the St. Catharis was wrecked at the exact point of Chicamacomico and that 90 seamen are buried there. The origin of this is the following published statement: "Close by the station (Chicamacomico) is the burial mound of British seamen drowned in the wreck of the St. Catharis, Apr. 16, 1891, in which 90 lives were lost." (North Carolina, A Guide to the Old North State, Federal Writers' Project, WPA, Chapel Hill, 1939, page 300.)

This statement has been sited as the authentic basis for more recent reprints of the St. Catharis story. But there is no mention of such a wreck in the official reports of the United States Life-saving Service; neither is any mention found in contemporary publications. Though there are folks living on the outer banks who say they remember their parents telling about the terrible wreck of the St. Catharis, two men, both living in the area at the time of the wreck, said there was no such wreck there.

Probable reasons for the unfounded stories of the wreck of the St. Catharis ...
  • Within a month's time two large ships were lost.
  • Both were British ships
  • The St. Catharis was lost off the Caroline Islands in the Pacific and the Strathairly was lost on one of the islands off the North Carolina coast.
  • The loss of the St. Catharis was mentioned in listings of great ship losses at that time.
  • The listing was reprinted many years later, and the letter "e" on the end of the word "Caroline" was somehow changed to "a".
  • A WPA writer, coming across the mention of loss "off Carolina Island" checks with local residents of the islands off the Carolina coast. They remember hearing of a large vessel wrecked in the spring of 1891 ... a British craft ... a number of people drowned ... and, yes, the name was something like St. Catharis.
Thus, through a combination of errors and stories handed down from deceased ancestors, people began to accept as fact the published statements that the British ship St. Catharis was wrecked at Chicamacomico on April 16, 1891, killing 90 people who were laid out on the floor of the old Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station until the floor was covered with blood. but in reality, the St. Catharis sank thousands of miles away from the NC Coast!

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