US Coins

Monday Morning Brief for July 4, 2022: A human tragedy

The “Central America” purser’s keys, with his brass name tag, will be included in the California Gold Marketing Group/Holabird Western Americana Collection’s exhibit.

All images courtesy of Holabird Western Americana Collections.

The planned exhibit of artifacts recovered from the shipwreck of the SS Central America helps reinforce that the loss of the ship in an 1857 hurricane was a human tragedy. We lose sight of that fact sometimes in our excitement over the gold coins, gold ingots and other precious metals recovered from the wreckage.

It is difficult to imagine ourselves in the staterooms or on the deck of the Central America as the vessel steamed into the path of an increasingly violent storm. Seasickness, bruises and broken bones — all were experienced by passengers and crew as the storm-tossed ship was subjected to the wrath of the storm. The appearance of additional ships on the scene and the hope of rescue was overcome by the danger of traversing the rough seas in small boats. The more 450 people who could not be rescued faced death in a horrifying manner.

The daguerreotype steel plate depicting a young woman dubbed by the recovery team the “Mona Lisa of the Deep” after it was recovered in 2014 raises questions — Who was she? Was she aboard the ship? Was she the daughter or wife or sister of someone aboard the vessel? What was her fate?

The denim jeans recovered from the shipwreck look like something you could buy off a shelf in your favorite clothes store. The jeans were recovered from the wreck in a trunk that belonged to a survivor, John Dement. What was his life like after he reached safety aboard one of the rescue ships?

The death of every person aboard the vessel affected the lives of many more persons. They had to go through their lives without the man, woman or child who had boarded the Central America with the expectation of a quick and safe journey to New York City.

Some of the books written about the shipwreck attempt to capture the lives of those who died in the hurricane or who were lucky enough to be rescued.

In some ways, the 1857 loss of the Central America was the 19th century’s equivalent of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic — a tragedy that shook the nation, the world, and wrecked the lives of thousands.

Do not forget those stories when you see a piece of the treasure recovered from the ship.
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