Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Vol. II
by Margaret Fuller Ossoli
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These were her parting words:—

"Florence, May 14, 1850.—I will believe, I shall be welcome with my treasures,—my husband and child. For me, I long so much to see you! Should anything hinder our meeting upon earth, think of your daughter, as one who always wished, at least, to do her duty, and who always cherished you, according as her mind opened to discover excellence.

"Give dear love, too, to my brothers; and first to my eldest, faithful friend! Eugene; a sister's love to Ellen; love to my kind and good aunts, and to my dear cousin. E.,—God bless them!

"I hope we shall be able to pass some time together yet, in this world. But, if God decrees otherwise,—here and HEREAFTER,—my dearest mother,

"Your loving child, MARGARET."


The seventeenth of May, the day of sailing, came, and the Elizabeth lay waiting for her company. Yet, even then, dark presentiments so overshadowed Margaret, that she passed one anxious hour more in hesitation, before she could resolve to go on board. But Captain Hasty was so fine a model of the New England seaman, strong-minded, prompt, calm, decided, courteous; Mrs. Hasty was so refined, gentle, and hospitable; both had already formed so warm an attachment for the little family, in their few interviews at Florence and Leghorn; Celeste Paolini, a young Italian girl, who had engaged to render kindly services to Angelino, was so lady-like and pleasing; their only other fellow-passenger, Mr. Horace Sumner, of Boston, was so obliging and agreeable a friend; and the good ship herself looked so trim, substantial, and cheery, that it seemed weak and wrong to turn back. They embarked; and, for the first few days, all went prosperously, till fear was forgotten. Soft breezes sweep them tranquilly over the smooth bosom of the Mediterranean; Angelino sits among his heaps of toys, or listens to the seraphine, or leans his head with fondling hands upon the white goat, who is now to be his foster-parent, or in the captain's arms moves to and fro, gazing curiously at spars and rigging, or watches with delight the swelling canvass; while, under the constant stars, above the unresting sea, Margaret and Ossoli pace the deck of their small ocean-home, and think of storms left behind,—perhaps of coming tempests.

But now Captain Hasty fell ill with fever, could hardly drag himself from his state-room to give necessary orders, and lay upon the bed or sofa, in fast-increased distress, though glad to bid Nino good-day, to kiss his cheek, and pat his hand. Still, the strong man grew weaker, till he could no longer draw from beneath the pillow his daily friend, the Bible, though his mind was yet clear to follow his wife's voice, as she read aloud the morning and evening chapter. But alas for the brave, stout seaman! alas for the young wife, on almost her first voyage! alas for crew! alas for company! alas for the friends of Margaret! The fever proved to be confluent small-pox, in the most malignant form. The good commander had received his release from earthly duty. The Elizabeth must lose her guardian. With calm con-[Transcriber's note: A word appears to be missing here.] authorities refused permission for any one to land, and directed that the burial should be made at sea. As the news spread through the port, the ships dropped their flags half-mast, and at sunset, towed by the boat of a neighboring frigate, the crew of the Elizabeth bore the body of their late chief, wrapped in the flag of his nation, to its rest in deep water. Golden twilight flooded the western sky, and shadows of high-piled clouds lay purple on the broad Atlantic. In that calm, summer sunset funeral, what eye foresaw the morning of horror, of which it was the sad forerunner?

At Gibraltar, they were detained a week by adverse winds, but, on the 9th of June, set sail again. The second day after, Angelino sickened with the dreadful malady, and soon became so ill, that his life was despaired of. His eyes were closed, his head and face swollen out of shape, his body covered with eruption. Though inexperienced in the disease, the parents wisely treated their boy with cooling drinks, and wet applications to the skin; under their incessant care, the fever abated, and, to their unspeakable joy, he rapidly recovered. Sobered and saddened, they could again hope, and enjoy the beauty of the calm sky and sea. Once more Nino laughs, as he splashes in his morning bath, and playfully prolongs the meal, which the careful father has prepared with his own hand, or, if he has been angered, rests his head upon his mother's breast, while his palm is pressed against her cheek, as, bending down, she sings to him; once more, he sits among his toys, or fondles and plays with the white-haired goat, or walks up and down in the arms of the steward, who has a boy of just his age, at home, now waiting to embrace him; or among the sailors, with whom he is a universal favorite, prattles in baby dialect as he tries to imitate their cry, to work the pumps, and pull the ropes. Ossoli and Sumner, meanwhile, exchange alternate lessons in Italian and English. And Margaret, among her papers, gives the last touches to her book on Italy, or with words of hope and love comforts like a mother the heart-broken widow. Slowly, yet peacefully, pass the long summer days, the mellow moonlit nights; slowly, and with even flight, the good Elizabeth, under gentle airs from the tropics, bears them safely onward. Four thousand miles of ocean lie behind; they are nearly home.


"There are blind ways provided, the foredone Heart-weary player in this pageant world Drops out by, letting the main masque defile By the conspicuous portal:—I am through, Just through."


On Thursday, July 18th, at noon, the Elizabeth was off the Jersey coast, somewhere between Cape May and Barnegat; and, as the weather was thick, with a fresh breeze blowing from the east of south, the officer in command, desirous to secure a good offing, stood east-north-east. His purpose was, when daylight showed the highlands of Neversink, to take a pilot, and run before the wind past Sandy Hook. So confident, indeed, was he of safety, that he promised his passengers to land them early in the morning at New York. With this hope, their trunks were packed, the preparations made to greet their friends, the last good-night was spoken, and with grateful hearts Margaret and Ossoli put Nino to rest, for the last time, as they thought, on ship-board,—for the last time, as it was to be, on earth!

By nine o'clock, the breeze rose to a gale, which every hour increased in violence, till at midnight it became a hurricane. Yet, as the Elizabeth was new and strong, and as the commander, trusting to an occasional cast of the lead, assured them that they were not nearing the Jersey coast,—which alone he dreaded,—the passengers remained in their state-rooms, and caught such uneasy sleep as the howling storm and tossing ship permitted. Utterly unconscious, they were, even then, amidst perils, whence only by promptest energy was it possible to escape. Though under close-reefed sails, their vessel was making way far more swiftly than any one on board had dreamed of; and for hours, with the combined force of currents and the tempest, had been driving headlong towards the sand-bars of Long Island. About four o'clock, on Friday morning, July 19th, she struck,—first draggingly, then hard and harder,—on Fire Island beach.

The main and mizzen masts were at once cut away; but the heavy marble in her hold had broken through her bottom, and she bilged. Her bow held fast, her stern swung round, she careened inland, her broadside was bared to the shock of the billows, and the waves made a clear breach over her with every swell. The doom of the poor Elizabeth was sealed now, and no human power could save her. She lay at the mercy of the maddened ocean.

At the first jar, the passengers, knowing but too well its fatal import, sprang from their berths. Then came the cry of "Cut away," followed by the crash of falling timbers, and the thunder of the seas, as they broke across the deck. In a moment more, the cabin skylight was dashed in pieces by the breakers, and the spray, pouring down like a cataract, put out the lights, while the cabin door was wrenched from its fastenings, and the waves swept in and out. One scream, one only, was heard from Margaret's state-room; and Sumner and Mrs. Hasty, meeting in the cabin, clasped hands, with these few but touching words: "We must die." "Let us die calmly, then." "I hope so, Mrs. Hasty." It was in the gray dusk, and amid the awful tumult, that the companions in misfortune met. The side of the cabin to the leeward had already settled under water; and furniture, trunks, and fragments of the skylight were floating to and fro; while the inclined position of the floor made it difficult to stand; and every sea, as it broke over the bulwarks, splashed in through the open roof. The windward cabin-walls, however, still yielded partial shelter, and against it, seated side by side, half leaning backwards, with feet braced upon the long table, they awaited what next should come. At first. Nino, alarmed at the uproar, the darkness, and the rushing water, while shivering with the wet, cried passionately; but soon his mother, wrapping him in such garments as were at hand and folding him to her bosom, sang him to sleep. Celeste too was in an agony of terror, till Ossoli, with soothing words and a long and fervent prayer, restored her to self-control and trust. Then calmly they rested, side by side, exchanging kindly partings and sending messages to friends, if any should survive to be their bearer. Meanwhile, the boats having been swamped or carried away, and the carpenter's tools washed overboard, the crew had retreated to the top-gallant forecastle; but, as the passengers saw and heard nothing of them, they supposed that the officers and crew had deserted the ship, and that they were left alone. Thus passed three hours.

At length, about seven, as there were signs that the cabin would soon break up, and any death seemed preferable to that of being crushed among the ruins, Mrs. Hasty made her way to the door, and, looking out at intervals between the seas as they swept across the vessel amidships, saw some one standing by the foremast. His face was toward the shore. She screamed and beckoned, but her voice was lost amid the roar of the wind and breakers, and her gestures were unnoticed. Soon, however, Davis, the mate, through the door of the forecastle caught sight of her, and, at once comprehending the danger, summoned the men to go to the rescue. At first none dared to risk with him the perilous attempt; but, cool and resolute, he set forth by himself, and now holding to the bulwarks, now stooping as the waves combed over, he succeeded in reaching the cabin. Two sailors, emboldened by his example, followed. Preparations were instantly made to conduct the passengers to the forecastle, which, as being more strongly built and lying further up the sands, was the least exposed part of the ship. Mrs. Hasty volunteered to go the first. With one hand clasped by Davis, while with the other each grasped the rail, they started, a sailor moving close behind. But hardly had they taken three steps, when a sea broke loose her hold, and swept her into the hatch-way. "Let me go," she cried, "your life is important to all on board." But cheerily, and with a smile,[B] he answered, "Not quite yet;" and, seizing in his teeth her long hair, as it floated past him, he caught with both hands at some near support, and, aided by the seaman, set her once again upon her feet. A few moments more of struggle brought them safely through. In turn, each of the passengers was helped thus laboriously across the deck, though, as the broken rail and cordage had at one place fallen in the way, the passage was dangerous and difficult in the extreme. Angelino was borne in a canvas bag, slung round the neck of a sailor. Within the forecastle, which was comparatively dry and sheltered, they now seated themselves, and, wrapped in the loose overcoats of the seamen, regained some warmth. Three times more, however, the mate made his way to the cabin; once, to save her late husband's watch, for Mrs. Hasty; again for some doubloons, money-drafts, and rings in Margaret's desk; and, finally, to procure a bottle of wine and a drum of figs for their refreshment. It was after his last return, that Margaret said to Mrs. Hasty, "There still remains what, if I live, will be of more value to me than anything," referring, probably, to her manuscript on Italy; but it seemed too selfish to ask their brave preserver to run the risk again.

There was opportunity now to learn their situation, and to discuss the chances of escape. At the distance of only a few hundred yards, appeared the shore,—a lonely waste of sand-hills, so far as could be seen through the spray and driving rain. But men had been early observed, gazing at the wreck, and, later, a wagon had been drawn upon the beach. There was no sign of a life-boat, however, or of any attempt at rescue; and, about nine o'clock, it was determined that some one should try to land by swimming, and, if possible, get help. Though it seemed almost sure death to trust one's self to the surf, a sailor, with a life-preserver, jumped overboard, and, notwithstanding a current drifting him to leeward, was seen to reach the shore. A second, with the aid of a spar, followed in safety; and Sumner, encouraged by their success, sprang over also; but, either struck by some piece of the wreck, or unable to combat with the waves, he sank. Another hour or more passed by; but though persons were busy gathering into carts whatever spoil was stranded, no life-boat yet appeared; and, after much deliberation, the plan was proposed,—and, as it was then understood, agreed to,—that the passengers should attempt to land, each seated upon a plank, and grasping handles of rope, while a sailor swam behind. Here, too, Mrs. Hasty was the first to venture, under the guard of Davis. Once and again, during their passage, the plank was rolled wholly over, and once and again was righted, with its bearer, by the dauntless steersman; and when, at length, tossed by the surf upon the sands, the half-drowned woman still holding, as in a death-struggle, to the ropes, was about to be swept back by the undertow, he caught her in his arms, and, with the assistance of a bystander, placed her high upon the beach. Thus twice in one day had he perilled his own life to save that of the widow of his captain, and even over that dismal tragedy his devotedness casts one gleam of light.

Now came Margaret's turn. But she steadily refused to be separated from Ossoli and Angelo. On a raft with them, she would have boldly encountered the surf, but alone she would not go. Probably, she had appeared to assent to the plan for escaping upon planks, with the view of inducing Mrs. Hasty to trust herself to the care of the best man on board; very possibly, also, she had never learned the result of their attempt, as, seated within the forecastle, she could not see the beach. She knew, too, that if a life-boat could be sent, Davis was one who would neglect no effort to expedite its coming. While she was yet declining all persuasions, word was given from the deck, that the life-boat had finally appeared. For a moment, the news lighted up again the flickering fire of hope. They might yet be saved,—be saved together! Alas! to the experienced eyes of the sailors it too soon became evident that there was no attempt to launch or man her. The last chance of aid from shore, then, was gone utterly. They must rely on their own strength, or perish. And if ever they were to escape, the time had come; for, at noon, the storm had somewhat lulled; but already the tide had turned, and it was plain that the wreck could not hold together through another flood. In this emergency, the commanding officer, who until now had remained at his post, once more appealed to Margaret to try to escape,—urging that the ship would inevitably break up soon; that it was mere suicide to remain longer; that he did not feel free to sacrifice the lives of the crew, or to throw away his own; finally, that he would himself take Angelo, and that sailors should go with Celeste, Ossoli, and herself. But, as before, Margaret decisively declared that she would not be parted from her husband or her child. The order was then given to "save themselves," and all but four of the crew jumped over, several of whom, together with the commander, reached shore alive, though severely bruised and wounded by the drifting fragments. There is a sad consolation in believing that, if Margaret judged it to be impossible that the three should escape, she in all probability was right. It required a most rare, combination of courage, promptness and persistency, to do what Davis had done for Mrs. Hasty. We may not conjecture the crowd of thoughts which influenced the lovers, the parents, in this awful crisis; but doubtless one wish was ever uppermost,—that, God willing, the last hour might come for ALL, if it must come for one.

It was now past three o'clock, and as, with the rising tide, the gale swelled once more to its former violence, the remnants of the barque fast yielded to the resistless waves. The cabin went by the board, the after-parts broke up, and the stem settled out of sight. Soon, too, the forecastle was filled with water, and the helpless little band were driven to the deck, where they clustered round the foremast. Presently, even this frail support was loosened from the hull, and rose and fell with every billow. It was plain to all that the final moment drew swiftly nigh. Of the four seamen who still stood by the passengers, three were as efficient as any among the crew of the Elizabeth. These were the steward, carpenter, and cook. The fourth was an old sailor, who, broken down by hardships and sickness, was going home to die. These men were once again persuading Margaret, Ossoli and Celeste to try the planks, which they held ready in the lee of the ship, and the steward, by whom Nino was so much beloved, had just taken the little fellow in his arms, with the pledge that he would save him or die, when a sea struck the forecastle, and the foremast fell, carrying with it the deck, and all upon it. The steward and Angelino were washed upon the beach, both dead, though warm, some twenty minutes after. The cook and carpenter were thrown far upon the foremast, and saved themselves by swimming. Celeste and Ossoli caught for a moment by the rigging, but the next wave swallowed them up. Margaret sank at once. When last seen, she had been seated at the foot of the foremast, still clad in her white night-dress, with her hair fallen loose upon her shoulders. It was over,—that twelve hours' communion, face to face, with Death! It was over! and the prayer was granted, "that Ossoli, Angelo, and I, may go together, and that the anguish may be brief!"

* * * * *

A passage from the journal of a friend of Margaret, whom the news of the wreck drew at once to the scene, shall close this mournful story:—

"The hull of the Elizabeth, with the foremast still bound to it by cordage, lies so near the shore, that it seems as if a dozen oar-strokes would carry a boat alongside. And as one looks at it glittering in the sunshine, and rocking gently in the swell, it is hard to feel reconciled to our loss. Seven resolute men might have saved every soul on board. I know how different was the prospect on that awful morning, when the most violent gale that had visited our coast for years, drove the billows up to the very foot of the sand-hills, and when the sea in foaming torrents swept across the beach into the bay behind. Yet I cannot but reluctantly declare my judgment, that this terrible tragedy is to be attributed, so far as human agency is looked at, to our wretched system, or no-system, of life-boats. The life-boat at Fire Island light-house, three miles distant only, was not brought to the beach till between twelve and one o'clock, more than eight hours after the Elizabeth was stranded, and more than six hours after the wreck could easily have been seen. When the life-boat did finally come, the beachmen could not be persuaded to launch or man her. And even the mortar, by which a rope could and should have been thrown on board, was not once fired. A single lesson like this might certainly suffice to teach the government, insurance companies, and humane societies, the urgent need, that to every life-boat should be attached ORGANIZED CREWS, stimulated to do their work faithfully, by ample pay for actual service, generous salvage-fees for cargoes and persons, and a pension to surviving friends where life is lost. * * *

"No trace has yet been found of Margaret's manuscript on Italy, though the denials of the wreckers as to having seen it, are not in the least to be depended on. For, greedy after richer spoil, they might well have overlooked a mass of written paper; and, even had they kept it, they would be slow to give up what would so clearly prove their participation in the heartless robbery, that is now exciting such universal horror and indignation. Possibly it was washed away before reaching the shore, as several of the trunks, it is said, were open and empty, when thrown upon the beach. But it is sad to think, that very possibly the brutal hands of pirates may have tossed to the winds, or scattered on the sands, pages so rich with experience and life. The only papers of value saved, were the love-letters of Margaret and Ossoli.[C]

"It is a touching coincidence, that the only one of Margaret's treasures which reached the shore, was the lifeless form of Angelino. When the body, stripped of every rag by the waves, was rescued from the surf, a sailor took it reverently in his arms, and, wrapping it in his neckcloth, bore it to the nearest house. There, when washed, and dressed in a child's frock, found in Margaret's trunk, it was laid upon a bed; and as the rescued seamen gathered round their late playfellow and pet, there were few dry eyes in the circle. Several of them mourned for Nino, as if he had been their own; and even the callous wreckers were softened, for the moment, by a sight so full of pathetic beauty. The next day, borne upon their shoulders in a chest, which one of the sailors gave for a coffin, it was buried in a hollow among the sand heaps. As I stood beside the lonely little mound, it seemed that never was seen a more affecting type of orphanage. Around, wiry and stiff, were scanty spires of beach-grass; near by, dwarf-cedars, blown flat by wintry winds, stood like grim guardians; only at the grave-head a stunted wild-rose, wilted and scraggy, was struggling for existence. Thoughts came of the desolate childhood of many a little one in this hard world; and there was joy in the assurance, that Angelo was neither motherless nor fatherless, and that Margaret and her husband were not childless in that New World, which so suddenly they had entered together.

"To-morrow, Margaret's mother, sister, and brothers will remove Nino's body to New England."

* * * * *

Was this, then, thy welcome home? A howling hurricane, the pitiless sea, wreck on a sand-bar, an idle life-boat, beach-pirates, and not one friend! In those twelve hours of agony, did the last scene appear but as the fitting close for a life of storms, where no safe haven was ever in reach; where thy richest treasures were so often stranded; where even the dearest and nearest seemed always too far off, or just too late, to help.

Ah, no! not so. The clouds were gloomy on the waters, truly; but their tops were golden in the sun. It was in the Father's House that welcome awaited thee.

"Glory to God! to God! he saith, Knowledge by suffering entereth, And Life is perfected by Death."

[Footnote A: The following account is as accurate, even in minute details, as conversation with several of the survivors enabled me to make it.—W.H.C.]

[Footnote B: Mrs. Hasty's own words while describing the incident.]

[Footnote C: The letters from which extracts were quoted in the previous chapter.]


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