Amongst the Dead at the Cemetery - Two Who Died in a Shipwreck in Nova Scotia

William Hamilton Merritt and his sister, Miss Mary Rodman Merritt are interred in Section B, Lot 42, Graves 4 and 5. They were residents of Poughkeepsie, NY. In that same location is a monument in memory of two sisters, Mary Louise Scrymser wife of William Henry Merritt and Annie Scrymser who were lost at sea and whose bodies were not recovered. They lost their lives aboard the S. S. ATLANTIC of the White Star Line during her 19th voyage on Saturday, April 1, 1873.

The investigation into the accident began at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Saturday, April 5, 1873, and continued for several weeks. The work of recovering the dead, cargo and valuables has been carried on by fishermen and divers of Marr's Island. Each day bodies are raised via the grappling-irons until more than 250 had been interred ashore. Most were placed in coffins provided by officials at Halifax, and the bodies not recognized or taken away by friends repose in the Nova Scotia burying-grounds.

When the bodies of all the deceased were first brought ashore, their examination and identification were loosely conducted. In many cases money was taken off their persons. Several men from New York who were looking for deceased friends protested against this. Divers went out to the wreck in boats and dove looking for casualties. They reported that the water was clear and every object easy to see. The following is a description of the interior of the hull as seen by a diver.

"The air from above, which is furnished through the rubber tube, comes with a hissing sound, producing a strange feeling. I shudder at the thought of being immersed so deeply, and how slight an accident would insure instant destruction. All around the objects looked weird-like, the glasses in the casque magnifying the already bloated forms into twice their size. The waters are very cold, and a chilly feeling creeps over me at first, but as I proceed it wears away, and I enter upon the task I have undertaken with more nerve than I fancied I possessed. The immense hull lies down on the port side, which is broken in several places from contact with the reef. Fish were swimming around, eagerly devouring the particles of food which are to be picked up. Picking my way toward the hull, I catch hold of a rope and scramble up the deck. The place where I have descended is where the ship parted, and a sectional view of the hull and cargo is obtained. The forward hatch is open, and I peer down the hold." And it goes on.

The Atlantic was built by the firm Harland and Wolff in Belfast in 1870. It was the second ship built for the new White Star Line. She had a steam engine producing 600 horsepower driving a single propeller with four masts rigged for sail. She sailed for New York on her maiden voyage on June 8, 1871. She weighed 3,707 tons, and traveled a speed of 14.5 knots.
Today, most of the ship lies fragmented under 40-60 feet of water. Artifacts from several salvage operations can be found displayed at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic at Halifax, and at the SS Atlantic Heritage Park and Interpretation Center at Terence Bay, Nova Scotia. A monument of the wreck is found at the mass grave in the Terence Bay Anglican Cemetery. A smaller monument marks a second mass grave at the local Catholic cemetery.

At the time, this was the worst maritime disaster for Canada in the 19th century. It is said 546 out of the total 975 on board perished. It is incredible that of those, two are buried at the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery while two more are memorialized there, in the same plot.

It is important to note that this is NOT the William Hamilton Merritt (1793-1862) who was a founder of the Welland Canal , born at Bedford, Westchester County, NY. However, that William H. Merritt did die in 1862 aboard a ship near Cornwall, Ontario, Canada and is buried at the Victoria Lawn Cemetery at St. Catherine's, Ontario, Canada. More ironically, that William H. Merritt's son was the late Thomas Rodman Merritt, a member of the Canadian House of Commons, who shared the same middle name as the Mary Merritt interred at Poughkeepsie. [Genealogical note: The Rodmans were a wealthy industrialist family with strong connections in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area and were Quaker as were the Merritt ancestors.] 

And in answer to an unasked question……The Titanic was a White Star Line ship.

 

 

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