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Wreck of the St. John

Robert Fraser

Reprinted from Savor of Salt, edited by Jacqueline M. Dormitzer (Town of Cohasset, Mass., 2006), pp. 130-132.

Several articles have been written on the tragic wreck of the Irish “famine ship” St. John. This one by Robert Fraser includes some unusual details, such as the baby girl found alive in the wreckage. Perhaps it’s just lore, but Fraser has a knack for finding sources that provide little-known information. He discovered this intriguing story in an article by Lucy Treat.

The worst shipwreck off Cohasset was [that of] the Irish immigrant brig St. John in 1849. She was one of many bringing people fleeing the great Potato Famine in Ireland to a new life in America. While she is called a brig, a two-masted vessel with square sails on both, an Irish historian claims she was a full-rigged ship, a three-masted vessel with square sails on all, and that she had been built in 1844 at St. John, New Brunswick, and was named for that Canadian port.

Under Captain [Martin] Oliver, the St. John left Galway, Ireland, with 143 persons aboard. As the vessel approached Boston on Sunday morning, October 7, 1849, a storm was raging. The captain realized he would miss the harbor and be wrecked on Nantasket Beach, so the St. John was turned to try for Scituate Harbor. But this was found to be impossible to reach. Then, another brig was seen, anchored inside the unlit iron Minot’s Light. In desperation, the St. John’s anchors were dropped.

Hardly had the anchors grabbed the bottom than the chains snapped. The St. John was driven onto the Grampuses, a group of low-lying rocks some one and one-half miles west of Minot’s Light. The rocks held the ship firmly as the waves battered her to pieces. Most of the Cohasset townspeople were on the shore by now. Boats were launched into the surf to help the drowning Irish, but the waves tossed these boats back. Because the St. John was in such a dangerous position, there was nothing that could be done. The Cohasseters had to stand around helplessly and watch the people drown.

Of those on the St. John, only nine of the crew of sixteen and a total of eleven passengers were saved. And of all those drowned, only forty-five bodies ever washed ashore. They were buried in a trench-like common grave in Central Cemetery; a Catholic priest [Father John T. Roddan] from Quincy officiated. The grave is still unmarked. In 1915 the Ancient Order of Hibernians erected a large stone Celtic cross in this graveyard to the memory of the St. John loss. It is, however, not near the gravesite.

One of those few rescued was twenty-four-year-old Mary Kane, who chose to live in Cohasset. She first married Charles Cole, but he died young. Then in 1868 she married [James] St. John, a Cohasset [widower with four children], in an unusual coincidence of names . . . Mary died in 1917.

Often those rescued from wrecks were brought [to the Lothop House], the first house at Sandy Cove, located between Sandy Beach and Cohasset Harbor. Built in 1738 by William Bailey, it had passed to his son-in-law William Whittington, then to [the latter’s] son-in-law John Jacob Lothrop. The building was used variously as a farmhouse and seaside hotel . . .

John Lothrop and his wife were on the shore when the St. John was wrecked, doing what they could to save lives. And as those who live along shores often do, they were also collecting what useful items washed in. Among the wreckage was a rolled-up mattress, which Lothrop dragged ashore. Cutting it open to inspect for damage, he and his wife were surprised to find a baby girl inside. According to a descendant, the baby was adopted by a family in Norwell. She married another Irish immigrant living in Boston, who became rich dealing in land along Dorchester Bay.

The Lothrop House at Sandy Cove still stands, although greatly changed from 1738, and is now 159 Atlantic Avenue.

From Robert Fraser, “The St. John,” Cohasset Vignettes, privately printed, 1981. Reprinted by permission of the author.