DEDHAM — The Maritana neared Boston Harbor after its long journey from Liverpool, laden with a cargo of coal, wool, iron, steel, and more than two dozen passengers and crew. It was after midnight on Nov. 3, 1861, and Captain G.W. Williams was in command. The weather was thick and the tide was high as they entered the bay. The ship had been navigating through a disastrous gale. From on board, a man on the lookout spotted Boston Light, a sign of welcome and voyage’s end.
But as soon as the light came into view, so, too, did the froth of waves lashing rocks.
All hands were on deck. Orders came from Williams to tack ship. Before the vessel could change course, it crashed onto the jagged rocks about a mile from the lighthouse.
For hours, the Maritana was pummeled by the unforgiving sea. The waves churned up by the storm delivered incessant jabs amidships. Eventually, the sturdy wooden vessel could no longer endure, according to books about the shipwreck and several varying newspaper accounts from the time.
A gap opened beneath Williams’s feet, as the ship split in half. “Look out for yourselves!” he shouted.
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The demise of the Maritana has been called one of the region’s “most violent shipwrecks,” an event that reportedly claimed the lives of 13 passengers and 11 crew members. But the area’s towering monument to the tragedy was erected some 16 miles inland, near the back of a historic burial ground in Dedham.
“What is it doing there?” reader Brian Keaney wondered. The town’s Old Village Cemetery, where the marker bearing Williams’s name is found, doesn’t offer sweeping views of the Atlantic or the harbor islands.
Our journey to connect the dots between a suburban town and a deadly shipwreck meant navigating through folklore about a cursed artifact and wading into New England’s maritime history.
First, the Maritana.
It was “a fine vessel,” reported The Boston Pilot, six days after the storm, “991 tons, built at Quincy, Mass., and owned in Providence.”
Every great ship needs a figurehead, the decoration placed at its bow, and the Maritana was no exception. When it was built in 1857, the ship’s owner, Suchet Mauran II, took interest in a carving of a woman, maritime historian and Massachusetts native Edward Rowe Snow wrote in his book, “Storms and Shipwrecks of New England.”
While noted for its beauty, the figurehead had a checkered past. The carving had been salvaged first from a commandeered French warship, and then, later, a ship built in Maine that wrecked off New England.
But the figurehead’s time on the Maritana was largely uneventful, Snow said — until the ship set sail from Liverpool in September 1861.
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In the early morning hours of Nov. 3, the ship — stocked with goods and passengers — finally approached Boston Harbor.
Around 12:45 a.m., the journey unraveled, however, when breakers were spotted around the same time as the lighthouse.
“Captain Williams ordered the helm hard up,” one newspaper wrote, “and a minute later the ship struck, head on,” at Egg Rock, also known as Shag Rocks.
The sea broke constantly over the vessel, “which lifted and hung among the rocks amidships.”
The masts were cut away at 3 a.m., reports said. Boats on the davits were “crushed to atoms,” The Boston Pilot recalled. The crew’s attempts to reach safety were futile.
“The ship, being a very strong one, held together until morning,” The Boston Pilot wrote.
Around 8 a.m., it finally began to break in two.
“At the moment the vessel parted, Capt. Williams was standing on the quarterdeck,” the Transcript reported. “He went down between the broken fragments, which closing suddenly caught the Captain by the head and crushed it in a frightful manner.”
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In all, about two dozen people died. Some were lost to the ocean, while the bodies of others, including Williams, washed ashore.
Around a dozen people survived. They were brought to safety by a rescue operation launched from Hull, according to “Storms and Shipwrecks in Boston Bay, and The Record of Life Savers of Hull.”
The New York Times reported that “not a vestige of the ship remained.”
That is, except for its figurehead, which was recovered unscathed. Alleged to be cursed, it was passed from owner to owner until it eventually found a home.
“No ship’s captain wanted her,” the Bostonian Society, a nonprofit and steward of the Old State House and its collections wrote in a blog post.
In 1908, the figurehead was given to the Bostonian Society, which put it on display. It’s said that a fire in 1921 started near the carving.
“She was sold and placed in a shop on Lincoln’s Wharf . . . the wharf promptly caught on fire and burned!” the society said in the blog post.
Again, it survived.
The figurehead is no longer on display but remains in the museum’s collections.
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So what’s left of the Maritana’s memory? There is another link, bearing us back to the past: the lichen-encrusted monument of a ship’s broken mast.
Some archives list Williams as “of Providence.” But a small blurb in a Nov. 8, 1861, edition of the Boston Post told a different story. It was an announcement about his funeral.
“The obsequies of the late Capt. G. W. Williams of the ill-fated ship Maritana . . . took place from the residence of his family,” it said, “in Dedham.”
“The remains,” it read, “were interred in the cemetery in that town.”
To learn more about Williams’s grave marker, we contacted Joan Pagliuca, a Dedham Historical Society board member. She met us at Old Village Cemetery, where a large tree towers over the four-sided marker, guarded by a shin-high border.
“To find the story of his ship is just an incredible story. Especially the headlines — ‘The worst shipwreck ever in Boston Harbor,’” Pagliuca said. “And here he is; he’s here in our little town cemetery.”
The monument resembles a shattered mast wrapped by a torn rope. On one side of its plinth is a message in memory of the Maritana and Williams, “Who Perished In Boston Harbor Nov. 3, 1861, On The Homeward Passage.”
A replica of the ship is carved in the stone. It is depicted approaching what’s probably Boston Light. If you get close enough, you can see the details of its sails and masts.
Now get down on the ground, on this patch of earth 16 miles from the harbor. There, on the bow, is the faintest silhouette of a figurehead of a woman, staring blankly at the shoreline.