By Thomas A. Bergbauer, Retired Courier-Post Editor
The sinking of the M & E Henderson off the coast of North Carolina on Nov. 30, 1879 had been one of South Jersey's most famous mysteries and tales.
There is certainly great mystery and confusion about this ship. Clippings in the Courier-Post library report that the ship was Camden-owned while other sources say the ship was out of Philadelphia. Researchers at the Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Society says the ship was owned by a Captain E. A. Cranmer, Captain Price; Cain and Winsmore, ship chandlers, and others at the time of the wreck. But this information did not mention the schooner's base.
But one thing is certain, the three-masted schooner went to it watery grave off Kitty Hawk Beach on a brilliant moonlit night on calm seas.
The ship, along with its captain, two mates, a cook and three deck hands, went down just a few days after taking on a cargo of phosphate at Bull River in South Carolina. But not all of the crew was lost. The three deck hands were found later that day. Not too long after the sinking the sea gave up the faceless body of its captain, which had washed up on a North Carolina beach. The fact that the three deck hands survived gave rise to suspicion.
Records of the ship are as vague as the tragic incident that sent the ship to the bottom of the ocean. According to a story written in the Courier-Post on Dec. 20, 1929, the 347-ton schooner was launched at a Dennis Township shipyard around 1840. Some records also show that after close examination of some of the remains of the ship it must have been at least 40 years old. However, according to the Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Society, the schooner was built in 1864 on Great Egg Harbor at Hezekiah Godfrey's shipyard in Tuckahoe. A society researcher states that Godfrey's shipyard was active at this time, and the Tuckahoe River flows into the Great Egg Harbor, so this is likely the same ship. Also a search of the “Annual List of Merchant Vessels of the United States” did not have the ship listed or the name and location of its owners. The value of the schooner at the time of the sinking was $7,000. But according to the Atlantic Heritage Center in Somers Point, Zephaniah Steelman built the Henderson in 1863 in Pleasant Mills near Tuckerton, not Tuckahoe.
According to information taken during the investigation into the sinking, beach patrolman Leonidas Tillett from the US Life Saving Service (a forerunner of the Coast Guard) on Pea Island had been patrolling a section of the North Carolina coast near North Point and returned to the life saving station shortly before 5 a.m. After starting a fire in the stove and waking the crew's cook, he then went to the station's tower and using a telescope he saw at some distance in the bright moonlight the figure of a man crawling along the sands.
At first he thought it was a fisherman, but noticed that he was not wearing a hat and began to believe it might be a castaway. Tillett woke the crew of the life saving station and then headed down the beach to encounter the man. It turned out that the man was a sailor. Soaking wet and delirious Tillett heard him whisper “Captain drowned—masts gone” before lapsing into unconsciousness.
After carrying the survivor to the life station, Tillett, along with George C. Daniels, the keeper and members of the crew hurried back to the beach to continue their search. A mile and a half south of the station they came across pieces of wreckage and saw a mass of debris floating on the water about 300 yards off shore, which they assumed, marked the grave of the Henderson. They continued their search for bodies, and other signs of wreckage.
At New Inlet, the crew met a group of fisherman who reported that they rescued a sailor after finding him floating in the channel. The fishermen said they took the sailor to their camp on Jack's Shoal, a small island at the back of the inlet. As Daniels and his crew headed for the fishermen's camp across the inlet they saw what appeared to be a figure seated on a mound of wreckage gazing out to sea. It tuned out that the figure was another sailor unconscious and barely breathing. He was taken to the lifesaving station and revived.
Meanwhile, as the lifesaving crew nursed the three survivors back to health with warm blankets and hot coffee, the body of Captain Silas Swain, master of the Henderson was carried ashore on the flood tide. Rescuers were horrified by the ghostly discovery that the body lacked face and scalp and that the head was only a gleaming, polished skull with every shred of flesh removed. Identification was made from the vessel's papers and other documents found in Swain's pockets. Later another body washed ashore which could not be identified and was buried by Daniels in a little plot next to the station.
Names of the ship's company were unknown, except for the captain, to the alleged Camden owners. The records show that the survivors appeared to be Spanish mulatto, speaking very little English. They identified themselves as Abram Annight, Samuel Manilla and Sanders Manilla. An investigation pointed out that since the captain and most of the mates had perished at once, it was believed, especially by the owners, that the surviving seamen may have murdered the officers and then ran the vessel ashore. This strong suspicion of mutiny and murder caused the arrest of the sailors who were held for more than a year in a Baltimore jail. They finally gained their freedom when no evidence of criminality was discovered.
The manner in which the Camden vessel was lost remains a mystery to this day. She had been sighted at sunset a day earlier sailing along the coast in a northerly direction and had attracted attention because of its extreme closeness to the shoreline.
Members of the special investigation committee believe that the schooner had grounded on a bar just about the time the surfman completed his patrol. It was ascertained that the ship immediately broke up. Even though there was no heavy surf it was thought that old and decaying hull timbers could have given way to the weight of phosphate rock.
The sinking of the M & E Henderson off the coast of North Carolina on Nov. 30, 1879 had been one of South Jersey';s most famous mysteries and tales.
The motive for the murder is supposed to have been robbery, as the captain had collected $400 at Savanna.
They took the body out of the water and reported to the station.
The arrested men have neither confessed nor denied the charge. They have been identified as belonging to the crew of the schooner.
The United States authorities deemed the case one that should be investigated, hence the arrest of the accused shortly after their arrival here from Norfolk.