I have recently acquired a wonderful lot of eight early photographs relating to the wreck of the Steamer Norseman and the Massachusetts Humane Society Rescue of 108 passengers and crew, off Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1899. The S.S. Norseman ran aground in the darkness on Marblehead Neck, next to Tom Moore’s Rock on the early morning of March 27, 1899. All 108 on board were saved using the breeches buoy by the Marblehead Humane Society, Station #10, lifeboat crew, as seen in the photographs.
Upon learning of the wreck, the Humane Society lifeboat crew was quickly assembled by Capt. John M. Giles. The crew dragged their lifeboat to Fort Beach and launched into the surf. The wind was blowing “great guns” and the fog was so thick that it was impossible to distinguish any landmarks. The men pulled more than half across the mouth of the harbor until the light on Point neck was seen like a distant star.
The steamer sounded its whistle at intervals and soon the “boom” of the ship’s signal gun hurried the men even more. The sea was tremendous as the men waited for another signal to guide them in the fog to the wreck. As daylight came on, anxious eyes gained a fleeting glimpse of the steamer aground on the rocks. It was soon clear that the sea was too high to effectively remove the passengers into the lifeboat. As more volunteers arrived, the breeches buoy apparatus was brought to the scene and a line established to the vessel using the station Hunt Gun. Capt. Giles had trained using this apparatus and his exceptional skill proved itself on this morning. The distance was great, but the projectile shot straight over the topmast rigging on the first try, the line unwinding and being caught by the men on board. Within nine minutes from the shot, the breeches buoy landed the first man safely on the beach. Others followed fast, being pulled over two at a time. Soon, all of the passengers and crew were brought ashore, establishing a record, taking off more persons than were ever before rescued by breeches buoy at one time.
In the eighteenth century, large sections of the United States’ eastern coastline were sparsely populated. The crew of any ship running aground could expect very little, if any, help. As maritime trade increased, so did the demand for assistance for those wrecked near the shore. During a strong northeaster, a sailing craft could be driven up on the rocks and sandbars located offshore. Any ship so stranded usually wound be pounded to pieces within a few hours. To make matters worse, few people could survive a 300 yard swim in the 30-40 degree storm-tossed surf. Those few sailors who managed somehow to reach the beach in winter, stood a good chance of perishing from exposure on the largely uninhabited shore. But seafarers had not always been so fortunate.
By the 1780s as shipping increased, and more and more victims succumbed to the sea, an organization based upon the British example was formed in Boston. Known as the Massachusetts Humane Society, this became the first organization in the United States founded to aid shipwrecked mariners and to award citizens for their exertions in the saving of life. Since some victims made it to shore on their own, yet died of exposure, the Massachusetts Humane Society first began to build huts along the coast, known as “Humane Houses.” Volunteers from the Society helped to build such houses along the coast, equipping them with firewood, kindling, lanterns, blankets, and furniture. Starting in Boston Harbor with shelters and food for shipwreck survivors, the Society eventually established outposts on Cape Cod and Nantucket in the early 1800s. Soon too it was recognized that only small boats stood a chance in assisting those who had not made it to the beach, and a better system to provide assistance was still needed. By1807 the Humane Society established the first life-boat station in America at Cohassett, Massachusetts.
The boat stations were small shed-like structures, holding a surfboat and rescue equipment that was to be used by volunteers in case of a wreck. By 1869 ninety-two stations of the MHS lined the Massachusetts coasts. The last station under that organization’s control was functional until at least 1936. In 1848 the federal government finally entered the scene.
William A. Newell, a Congressman from New Jersey, made a vigorous appeal to Congress for $10,000 to provide “surf boats, rockets, carronades and other necessary apparatus for the better preservation of life and property from shipwrecks on the coasts of New Jersey...” The new government stations would be administered by the U.S. Revenue Marine (later called the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service), within the Treasury Department. Soon, they would fall under the emerging U.S. Life Saving Service. The United States Life-Saving Service’s (USLSS) first station to be built under this new legislation was located at Spermaceti Cove, New Jersey, and began service in September 1848. The Life Saving Service quickly proved its usefulness in January 1850 with the wreck Ayrshire, saving all 201 persons aboard. With this proven success, the Life-Saving Service expanded rapidly along the shores of America, and by 1900 more than 270 stations ring the coastline of the United States and the Great Lakes.
Various awards were issued by the Humane Society over the years, both to their volunteers and to local citizens, for “exertions in saving life.” Awards included monetary awards, certificates, bronze, silver and gold life saving medals, silver mugs and cups, and more. Such awards have become most collectible and difficult to find, but are well worth the search.
Some years ago it was said that if you called this organization, a tape recording would come online stating “If you called about a dog or cat, then you have the wrong number.” Today the Massachusetts Humane Society (still different from the animal humane society) still exists, still for their original purpose, and possibly that message can still be heard. The Humane Society continues to issues awards for outstanding acts of lifesaving and their organization is well worth learning more about.
For further reading on the subject of the Massachusetts Humane Society, a number of wonderful references can be found including: Farson, Robert H., Twelve Men Down – Massachusetts Sea Rescues. Yarmouth Port. 2000.
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Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@LighthouseAntiques.net or visit his web site at: www.LighthouseAntiques.net
This story appeared in the
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