Just after midnight on Feb. 20, 1856, the first mate of the packet ship John Rutledge began scratching out quick log entries.
“Midnight, light winds and the ship making very little headway through ice.”
It had been a punishing crossing from Liverpool. Storm after storm pounded the Rutledge since it left the protection of the Irish coast for the open Atlantic. For days at the time, the hatches to the steerage compartments were shut. More than 120 emigrants – mostly Irish — existed in a hellish twilight of swaying whale oil candles, the sour stench of vomit and the taut grip of fear.
“4, morning, the same,” wrote the first mate.
The John Rutledge, bound for New York, was now caught in the vise of the North Atlantic’s Iceberg Alley, the dangerous corridor off Newfoundland for bergs and other floes carried south from Greenland’s glaciers. Many veteran mariners said early 1856 had the worst ice they had seen in generations, with towering bergs and smaller, but still fearsome, fragments known curiously as growlers.
“8, steady breeze, and the ship making more headway. Passed some very large ice-bergs. At 9, the I ….”
The log ends there. The first mate never wrote another word.
Tragedy at Sea
Stories of sea tragedies and sea rescues were a staple of mid-19th century New England. Rarely, however, did both intertwine with such drama during that of the horrible winter of 1856 in the North Atlantic.
In the span of eight weeks in early 1856, four major vessels went down – the John Rutledge, the steamship Pacific and two clipper ships, the Driver and the Ocean Queen. All told, more than 830 were lost in the North Atlantic in 1856 before March was out.
Among the dead were two Cape Cod captains. Alexander Kelley (sometimes wrongly spelled Kelly) of the John Rutledge was on his first run in command of the ship on a return trip from Europe. On the steamer Pacific was the famed Capt. Asa Eldridge of Yarmouth Port, who achieved celebrity status at the helm of the yacht of uber-tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt and guests on a European cruise in 1853.
Only a young deckhand, Thomas W. Nye, of Fairhaven, Mass., survived.
The Nye Family
I first came across the story of Nye and the John Rutledge at a shipwreck exhibit in Centerville on Cape Cod, the hometown of the ship’s captain, Kelley. I soon learned, as the research into my book on the John Rutledge disaster took shape, that there was a much larger story to tell about those tragic months in 1856 and the questions about the 22-year-old Nye.
What was Nye doing as common seaman on a packet ship in the first place? He could have had the pick of any cushy shipboard job.
The Nye family was among the gentry in the seafaring pecking order of New Bedford and Fairhaven at the time. A fleet of whaling ships flew under the blue Nye flag. Nyes were merchant captains, diplomatic envoys in China, abolitionists and industrial innovators. They even owned a lubricant factory that still operates in Fairhaven.
The family traces its roots to 17th-century Sandwich on Cape Cod with its own glorious lore. That includes the renowned Capt. Ezra Nye, who was presented with the gold chronometer by Queen Victoria for helping save the crew of a foundering British bark, the Jessie Stephens, in 1852. The Cape Cod Nyes also would remember for generations the lucky whaler Peleg Nye, who was snatched in the mouth of harpooned sperm whale and lived to tell the tale, earning him the nickname “the Jonah of Cape Cod.”
The John Rutledge
For reasons he kept to himself, Thomas W. Nye signed on with the John Rutledge out of New York for one of its regular roundtrip runs to Liverpool. The sail to England was fast – a 21-day run with a favorable wind. By mid-January, however, word began to reach Liverpool from arriving ships of intense ice in the shipping lanes about 350 miles southeast of Newfoundland.
Capt. Kelley kept to his schedule. On Jan. 16, the Rutledge headed down the Mersey toward open sea with 26 crew, 123 passengers in steerage and one cabin passenger, a Philadelphia merchant.
The only apparent concession to the risks at hand was Kelley’s appeal to his wife, the former Irene Snow of Falmouth. Mass., to remain behind in Liverpool. The plan was for the Rutledge to return in May, and they could sail back to New York together in more pleasant weather.
More than a month later, on Feb. 19, the John Rutledge entered heavy fog in the treacherous area where the Gulf Stream bushes against the colder Labrador currents. The ice was thick and menacing – just as described in the early report that reached Liverpool before the John Rutledge set sail.
The next day, sometime around 9 a.m., an iceberg – as sharp and gleaming as enamel – gouged a huge hole in the bow just under the waterline. Within hours, it was clear the ship was doomed.
Kelley ordered the John Rutledge abandoned. All five lifeboats made it off. Kelley was in No. 4. The next and last lifeboat held Nye and 12 others – two shipmates, the wife of the first mate and nine steerage passengers, including three children. About 30 others, including the first mate Samuel Atkinson, were left on the deck to perish.
The lifeboats were soon separated in the fog. Nye’s boat had a gallon of water and about six pounds of flour-and-water biscuits, known to soldiers on land as hardtack, and a bottle of brandy that Kelley gave Nye at the last moment.
The provisions were soon gone. Waves washed into the open boat. Sleet beat down.
Then it grew even more ugly. Nye later it later as being on a lifeboat with “lunatics.”
Thirst had driven them to drink seawater. It was now taking its awful toll: delusions, anger, violent mood swings. One man turned on his wife, ripping out her hair in clumps. A crew member bit into the arm of the wife of the first mate.
Some already were dead. The rest would soon follow.
After nine days adrift, only Nye was left on Lifeboat No. 5. Four frozen bodies were cast around him. Nye knew enough not to drink the water even as unbearable thirst took hold. The decision likely saved his life. But he was now too weak to toss over the bodies.
Then, Nye saw a smudge on the horizon. It grew larger and began to take shape. Could it be a ship?
Nye signaled as best he could and praying the makeshift flags – shirts taken from the dead – would be seen.
Someone on the Germania, an American packet sailing from France, cried out. Lifeboat spotted, possible survivor.
At first, the Germania’s first mate, Charles Hervey Townsend from the Connecticut shore, thought it must be a corpse jostled with the waves. Who could survive out there in winter? he thought. Townsend adjusted his spyglass. Wait, he said. That looks like someone is alive.
Nye waved weakly. Townsend waved back.
It was even more astonishing that the Germania was there at all. It may have been the last vessel at those latitudes at the time. Most shipping lines, fearing the ice of 1856, had shifted to a more southerly crossing.
“Saw a boat with a man in to windward,” wrote Townsend in his log. “Hove ship to. Myself and four men went to his relief. Found him to be one of the boys of the ship John Rutledge bound from Liverpool to New York, which was lost in an immense field of ice … He being the only survivor of 13 souls having buried with his own hands 8, there being four others having died in the boat. 2 men + 2 women (consigned the dead to the deep).
“Appalling Catastrophe at Sea,” said the headline in the New York Herald after the Germania reached port on March 24 and Nye’s story was told. Only careful medical attention by Sarah Wood of New Bedford, wife of the Germania’s captain, saved Nye’s feet from gangrene and possible amputation. In the end, Nye lost only two toes.
In 1903, then just a few weeks short of 70, Nye recalled to a reporter how he felt a sense of preternatural calm that leap year morning on Feb. 29, 1856, just before he saw the Germania. The calm, he believed, was his acceptance of death.
“I felt as though the voyage was done,” he said. “Just before noon I sighted a ship advancing from the leeward. I saw her mainsails hove up and the jibs lowered, and then I knew that I was seen and that my deliverance was at hand.”
Once the Germania brought him to shore, he never went back to sea.
Brian Murphy, with his wife Toula Vlahou, co-wrote Adrift: A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic and the One Who Lived, about the John Rutledge disaster. Murphy has three other books. A journalist at the Washington Post, he worked for more than two decades as a correspondent and bureau chief for the Associated Press in Europe and the Middle East.
This story was updated in 2021.