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Drowned at sea…twice?

English School (19th century), Shipwrecked off the coast Indistinctly signed and dated 1872 / public domain

Plenty of people throughout history have faked their death in order to get out from under debt or a bad romance. But writing an elaborate letter about being lost at sea, stuffing it in a bottle, tossing it into the ocean, then hoping someone finds it? Seems like a dicey way to announce your demise.

‘A Mystery of the Sea,’ announced the Daily Republican [Wilmington, DE] on page 1 of its August 20, 1884 edition. The paper goes on to explain that a Captain Murray of the schooner ‘Amy Schoolcraft’ found a corked bottle floating off Cape Henry, VA containing several letters, “one of which was addressed to a lady of this city.”

“This will let you know,” began the letter to her, “that we were run into last night, June 20, by a large ocean steamer. The steamer tore away our forerigging, bowsprit, etc, and as soon as the bowsprit went both masts went with it. The steamer never stopped, but kept on her course. We judge we were about thirty miles southeast of Fenwick Island lighthouse, or 100 miles east of Cape May Point. The captain got excited and said the only thing to save us was to take to the boat and start for the shore. There was a heavy sea and the wind northwest.

“So he and the crew lowered the boat. I told the captain that our chances were as good in the three masted schooner as in a row boat. So he and the crew started for shore and left me here. I am sure they will never reach there unless they are picked up by another vessel. I am here all alone and the only chance I have now is to be picked up by some steamer and towed in. I have plenty of victuals to last me quite a while, and the vessel is leaking very little. I have all hopes and do not fear of being lost unless the vessel gets to leaking more than it does now.

“P.S. The finder of this bottle with note in it will please send it to Wilmington, Delaware. By doing so, you will confer a favor on one who is in great distress, all alone on the schooner ‘William Hazel,’ bound from Baltimore to Wilmington, Delaware.

George T. Nicholson”

“The other letter,” continued the Daily Republican, “was to Nicholson’s father, and is to the same effect.” Why wasn’t the second letter addressed to both parents? Nicholson’s mother Elizabeth had died three years prior to this incident.

“George T. Nicholson was well known in this city, where he was engaged in the commission business at No. 423 King St. until last February, when he relinquished it to enter the wholesale commission house of Pattison & Company, in Baltimore.”

And yes, the Wilmington City Directory of 1883 confirms he’s a partner in ‘Nicholson & Ball’, a local grocer. 

Escaping a bad romance? Internet Archive
Escaping a bad romance? Internet Archive

“Shortly after removing to Baltimore,” continues the news article, “Nicholson was injured by an accident, and before he had fully recovered from that was seized with the rheumatism, and was sick for some time. When he became well enough to get out, his physician recommended him to take a short sea voyage, and as he wished to return to this city he secured passage on the schooner ‘William Hazel’, bound from Baltimore to this port, and sailed from that city about the middle of June. After that, nothing was heard of him by his friends until they received the mysterious letters.

“His father and other friends think that he is drowned, and are greatly distressed, but there are some of his acquaintances who seem to think that the whole affair is a canard.” 

A canard, eh? 

“This story is a hoax,” responded Frank A. Pattison of Pattison & Co the following day in the Baltimore Sun. “I received a letter from Nicholson less than one week ago, from Richmond, VA.” Pattison told the Sun that Nicholson never was employed by his firm. “I can’t conceive why he ever concocted such a story. You can take it for granted, however, that it is bogus from beginning to end.”

“No such wreck as the one reported has been heard of, and no such vessel as the ‘William Hazel’ is in the shipping lists,” concluded the Baltimore Sun. Why, we wonder, didn’t the newspaper seek out George Nicholson himself for comment? He’s not on public record anywhere during 1884. He doesn’t ever come forward to explain the situation. But why would he be in touch with Pattison at all if he was on the run?

A George T. Nicholson turns up for the first time in Baltimore’s 1885 ‘Register of the Corporation Officers of Baltimore City’ as an assistant clerk of Lexington Market, and appears in the ‘Baltimore City Directories’ of 1886, 1887, 1888, 1889 in that same job capacity. 

The story gets muddy here, because there’s another George T. Nicholson living in Baltimore in that same period of time. THAT Nicholson was listed in the 1880 census as a bartender. Could Nicholson #2 have switched jobs and become the clerk at Lexington Market? Sure. The 1890 census might have helped clarify that better…except that it was pretty much completely destroyed in two separate fires. 

In 1890 one of the Georges applies for a building permit with Baltimore’s Inspector of Buildings to add a shed to his property. Nicholson #2 dies in 1892. And then things get weird a second time.

A February 15, 1894 news item from the Delaware Gazette and State Journal coincidentally matches a lot of the story plot of the 1884 “lost at sea” story. Here’s the 1894 piece:

“Baltimore, MD Feb 10 1894: The schooner ‘Samuel H. Walker’ sailed out of Baltimore December 15th bound for Weymouth, near Fall River, Mass, and since then nothing whatsoever has been heard of the vessel. All hope for her safety has been abandoned and she has been given up for lost.

Escaping debt problems?  Internet Archive
Escaping debt problems? Internet Archive

“The Walker was commanded by Captain George T. Nicholson, whose home is at Wilmington, Delaware. She carried, beside her captain, a crew of nine men. Not a single trace of the vessel or crew has been found.

“The passage to Fall River is ordinarily made in a week. The vessel was laden with 931 tons of coal. The Walker was owned by S. H. Walker of Taunton, Mass.”

The article ends with the following disclaimer from the paper’s editor:

“(The Samuel H. Walker is not known in this city, nor does the name of Captain George T. Nicholson appear in the city directory. The statement that he resided in Wilmington, Del. is evidently a  mistake —Ed. E.E.)”

George T. Nicholson, ladies and gentlemen. George T. Nicholson.

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