Bangoreans were used to reading about shipwrecks, but when they picked up their newspapers Monday morning, Feb. 19, 1912, they were confronted by a shocking story that could have come straight from the pages of Joseph Conrad. The three-masted ship Erne had been disabled at sea in a titanic storm about 1,000 miles east of Boston. Nine surviving crew members were rescued. The vessel had been dismasted and much of the deck swept clean by powerful waves. Her load of lumber was all that kept her afloat, said the newspapers.
What made this disaster more newsworthy to Bangor than the dozens of other shipping catastrophes reported in the newspapers each year was the fact that the captain and his wife were well known in the Queen City. They were missing along with the second mate and a passenger, also men with Maine ties.
The most shocking news of all, however, were the reports that some surviving crew members were suggesting Capt. Temple A. Fickett, his wife, Susie, and the other two men, second mate Frank Cushing, a native of Pembroke, and Robert Hay, a relative of Mrs. Fickett’s from Portland, had abandoned ship in the only remaining lifeboat, while six members of the crew drowned.
The Ficketts owned a farm in Hampden where they lived occasionally or with the captain’s cousin, Oscar Fickett, a Bangor merchant. Susie Fickett had accompanied Temple on many voyages. The captain had a “reputation of being an able and careful navigator.” A big man, he also had a quick temper with high expectations that his men would work hard.
Fickett had made deliveries of coal to Bangor during a previous command. Later, the Harrington native had gone to Europe to take command of the British ship Erne, which was purchased by Boston investors for the Boston to Buenos Aires trade. The 256-foot vessel was carrying a large load of lumber — perhaps too large — both on her deck and in her hold when the disaster occurred.
Fickett’s wife, Susie, a Milbridge native, was known for her sailing ability as well. She had assumed heroic stature during the last trip a few months ago when, while handling the wheel, she was confronted by a mad dog. Picking it up by the throat, she threw it over the side of the ship, while crew members looked on from the rigging.
The Erne left Boston for Argentina on Feb. 1. The storm — described variously as a hurricane or a blizzard — struck suddenly three days later, engulfing the ship in gigantic waves that swept the decks clean of most of the superstructure and the lumber stored there. Some reports suggested the crew had not had enough time to shorten sail, or that the ship had persisted on a foolhardy course before the wind. In various versions of the story, Capt. Fickett or second mate Cushing were blamed for various nautical missteps.
Breaking waves flooded the midsection of the vessel, making it dangerous to try to move from the bow to the stern, in effect cutting the ship in half. Most of the crew was fighting for survival up near the bow, while the four missing persons and the cabin boy, who survived, tried to take shelter near the stern. On Feb. 8, the Erne was found precariously adrift by the British ship Cuban on her way from New Orleans to Liverpool, where she took the survivors.
What actually happened may become “as famous a sea riddle as that of the Mary Celeste,” the famous ghost ship, surmised the Bangor Daily News on Feb. 22. The writer was thoroughly befuddled by the contradictory stories and theories flowing on the wires from Liverpool and Boston and other places where survivors or friends and acquaintances of the Fickett’s were offering contradictory facts and opinions that generated more heat than light. As the weeks went by, these theories emerged in the papers.
Theory 1: Certain crew members claimed the Ficketts, Cushing and Hay abandoned ship in the only lifeboat that hadn’t been washed away in the storm. Mrs. Fickett was badly injured. No crew members had actually seen them leave, although the cabin boy said he had been instructed to prepare charts and a telescope as if for departure. But many dockside theorists said it would have been impossible for the three men to have launched the boat in such rough weather. The idea that a ship’s captain of Fickett’s reputation would have abandoned his ship in a gale was outrageous nonsense, nautical men who knew him claimed.
Theory 2: There had been a mutiny. “I’m afraid they’ve killed him,” Capt. Horace A. Stone of Bangor told the Bangor Daily Commercial on Feb. 20. He had visited Capt. Fickett on his ship a few days before the voyage. Capt. Fickett didn’t get along with First Mate James Elliott of Liverpool. Several sources, including the famous marine artist Worden Wood, who had sailed with the Ficketts on their last voyage, knew all about this feud. Fickett and Elliott had come to blows. Elliott swore he would get even. Elliott’s heavy drinking was identified as the source of the conflict. Crew members must have thrown the Ficketts and their friends overboard or forced them into the lifeboat during the storm. Aside from this feud, however, there seemed to be little evidence of other conflict aboard the Erne.
Theory 3: The simplest explanation was that the Ficketts and the others were washed overboard along with the lifeboat when one of the mountainous waves crashed across the deck. Vague and contradictory reports from various crew members in the days ahead supported this theory or Theory 1, but, of course, never Theory 2.
The Bangor newspapers stopped carrying almost daily stories after March 9, a century ago this month. In April of 1912, a well-written analysis in “The Sea Breeze,” a publication of the Boston Seamans Friend Society, concluded the missing four had been washed overboard. “It was at first supposed that Captain Fickett with his wife, second mate and passenger might have escaped in the partly wrecked lifeboat. But that thought has been dismissed as impossible,” concluded the anonymous writer. The possibility of a mutiny was not even mentioned.
But by midcentury the indefatigable purveyor of marine lore Edward Rowe Snow was attempting to make some sense of the story. He interviewed survivors including the cabin boy. One of Snow’s essays on the Erne appeared in his book “Incredible Mysteries and Legends of the Sea,” copyright 1967. It contained all the theories found in the old Bangor newspapers as well as some far more incredible tales that merely confuse things further. Snow said he couldn’t decide what had really happened. He wrote,“Personally I have yet to form an opinion … you must decide for yourself.”
Until I run across some other evidence, I will place my money on the simplest theory. I suspect the Ficketts, Cushing and Hay died tragically when they were washed overboard. The feud between Fickett and Elliot, the stories told by the cabin boy, the lack of eye witnesses — all combined to provoke the other rumors of mayhem and dereliction of duty.
I will add a note here about the photograph of Capt. and Mrs. Fickett that accompanies this column. I searched for the name Fickett in the Penobscot Marine Museum’s outstanding new online photography database. Up came several photographs of people named Fickett in the Ruth Montgomery collection. They portray a sea captain and his wife with other people. I compared the faces with the photographs published in the Bangor newspapers at the time the Ficketts disappeared. They matched. The photo here dates from younger, happier days when the Fickett’s sailed on a different vessel long before the tragic nightmare aboard the Erne.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.