Cupids Historical Society remembers the Water Witch tragedy

Terry Roberts
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New monument to victims unveiled during ceremony

As Joyce Quelch stood atop Horrid Gulch near Pouch Cove recently, she couldn't help but imagine the drama that unfolded there some 138 years ago.

As Joyce Quelch stood atop Horrid Gulch near Pouch Cove recently, she couldn't help but imagine the drama that unfolded there some 138 years ago.

After travelling from her hometown in Lincoln, Massachusetts, Joyce was drawn to the spot where her great-grandfather, Samuel Percy Spracklin of Cupids, barely escaped death when the ill-fated schooner Water Witch foundered on the rocks, some 180 metres below, during a blinding snowstorm on Nov. 29, 1875.

"I needed to see it. It was amazing," Joyce stated. "It truly has the right name and it’s hard to imagine that people were in there."

Joyce had travelled to her ancestral homeland to attend a ceremony commemorating the loss of the Water Witch and 12 of her 25 crew and passengers, pay tribute to the lucky survivors and the heroic efforts of the people of Pouch Cove.

The moving ceremony took place at Cupids United Church on a chilly Sunday, Dec. 8, and included the unveiling of a new monument dedicated to the memory of those who died. It was all done under the stewardship of the Cupids Historical Society.

When it was all over, Joyce had a chance to address the several dozen people who took part in the ceremony, including about a dozen other descendents of those onboard the Water Witch during that fateful voyage from St. John's to the vessel's homeport in Cupids.

Joyce arrived in Cupids just as the church bell was tolling, minutes prior to the start of the ceremony, beginning a powerful reconnection with relatives she had never met.

"I now have new-found relatives in New… found … land," she noted afterwards, during a meet-and-greet at the Cupids Legacy Centre.

A heavy price

The Water Witch disaster had a shocking impact on the community of Cupids, and most notably the Spracklin family. Of the 12 who died, six were members of the Spracklin family (see fact box), including Samuel Percy Spracklin's wife of four years, Elizabeth A. Spracklin (Wells), and his brother, Moses Robert Spracklin.

Samuel's brother and fellow survivor, William E. Spracklin, also lost his wife, Malvania Cave, in the disaster.

Seventeen years later, Samuel Percy Spracklin married Louisa Courage of Harbour Grace, and like many at the time, they are thought to have relocated to Massachusetts.

Joyce Quelch had often heard her late mother, Lillian Adelle Spracklin, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 91, talk about the Water Witch. Lillian's father was Fred Spracklin, who was the son of Water Witch survivor Samuel Percy Spracklin.

"From that union, that's why I'm here," Joyce explained.

Meanwhile, the ship's captain, 50-year-old Samuel Spracklin, is said to have scaled the cliffs of Horrid Gulch with two others and summoned help from residents of nearby Pouch Cove, with names such as Eli Langmead and Alfred Moores being given special mention for their roles in the rescue effort.

"No praise can escape the merits of the Pouch Cove people in the saving of these people, and the care and tenderness they received," said Norma Bonnell, who told the story of the Water Witch sinking during the ceremony.

An outpouring of support

Cupids received national and international attention in 2010, on the 400th anniversary of the founding of what is considered the oldest English settlement in Canada.

Not long after the hype from those celebrations died down, members of the Cupids Historical Society decided that more should be done to commemorate the loss of the Water Witch.

An exhibit is on display at the Cupids Legacy Centre, and an annual remembrance ceremony is held in Pouch Cove. However, of the nine victims buried — three others were interred elsewhere — in the nearby cemetery, only three have headstones.

According to research, the nine victims were buried in a mass grave behind the church, and only families with the financial wherewithal were able to erect permanent grave markers.

Members of the society felt this was an injustice worth correcting, and formed a special Water Witch committee to oversee the project. After many months of intense research, the committee launched a fundraising campaign recently, with hopes of raising $10,000 to purchase a proper monument for all the victims.

After just three months, the money was in place, thanks to contributions from descendants, businesses and individuals in this province, Ontario and Massachusetts, and on Dec. 8, the impressive monument was unveiled.

It prominently features the names of all 12 victims, including all four of the females onboard that day.

Thousands of mourners

Last week's ceremony took place in the same church — Cupids United — as the funeral service for nine Water Witch victims on Dec. 6, 1875. It was said to be arguably the most significant funeral service in the town's long history, and was the first-ever service held in the new church, which was barely completed in the fall of 1875. 

It's thought that "thousands" of mourners gathered for the service, with the minister, Rev. Charles Lavender, preaching from atop the front steps of the building.

"This church is forever linked to the Water Witch, since most of the victims were members of this congregation," said Ross Dawe, who chairs the church's board of directors.

For those on hand last week, the significance of the event was very emotional, with one presenter moved to tears, and various accounts revealing the scope of the tragedy and its impacts on families and their communities.

"The disaster was followed by horror, shock and confusion," said St. John's resident Judy Foote, the great-granddaughter of another Water Witch survivor, James Henry Wells.

James, just 16 at the time, was the last person to be rescued from the gulch, having clung to the rocks all night.

Judy Foote began researching her family history three decades ago, and developed a great interest in the disaster.

Amid the tragedy, she said there was an outpouring of kindness, with the equivalent of what she estimates to be up to $42,000 in today's dollars donated to a disaster relief fund for those impacted.

She said the disaster also forever linked the communities of Cupids and Pouch Cove, and is now woven into the cultural heritage of both towns.

A climb to safety

Dale Russell Fitzpatrick, who chairs the Water Witch committee, said standing in the church, nearly 138 years to the day from the date of the mass funeral, gave her cold-shivers.

She made special mention of the tenacity, strength and sheer courage shown by the survivors and rescuers, noting there were no helicopters or specialized rescue teams available in those days.

She also challenged those who might suggest the captain should have stayed with the ship, as is tradition.

"If he hadn't scaled those cliffs …," she said, suggesting the loss of life may have been greater.

editor@cbncompass.ca

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About the Water Witch:

• A 62-ton, 69-foot two-masted schooner;

• homeported in Cupids;

• Built in Trinity Bay in 1869;

• Owned by a St. John's shipping company;

• Captained by Samuel Spracklin, who was born in Brigus;

• Lost during a mighty blizzard on Nov. 29, 1875 on the rocks near Pouch Cove.

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The 12 victims of the Water Witch tragedy:

• Joanna Croke — born in Marysvale or Cupids; age unknown; unmarried; burial place unknown; survived by her mother; family declined money from relief fund;

• Elias Ford — born 1833; age 42 at time of death; married for 20 years to Mary Charlotte Spracklin; buried Dec. 6, 1875 in Cupids; left behind a wife and eight children; family received 50 pounds from relief fund;

• George Ivimey — born 1833; age 42 at time of death; married to a woman named Ann (maiden name unknown); buried Dec. 6, 1875 in Cupids; survived by wife and four children; two brothers survived the disaster; family received 30 pounds from relief fund;

• Malvania Spracklin — born 1853; age 22 at time of death; married for six months to survivor William Edward Spracklin; buried Dec. 6, 1875 in Cupids; maiden name was Cave; family received no money from relief fund;

• Elizabeth Anne Spracklin — born 1852; age 23 at time of death; married to survivor Samuel Percy Spracklin; buried Dec. 6, 1875 in Cupids; maiden name was Wells; family received no money from relief fund;

• Jonathan Spracklin — born 1843; age 32 at time of death; married for seven years to Patience Mugford; buried Dec. 6, 1875 in Cupids; survived by wife and two children; family received 20 pounds from relief fund;

• Mose Robert Spracklin — born 1849; age 26 at time of death (graveyard headstone says 27); unmarried; buried Dec. 6, 1875 in Cupids; son of ship's captain; family received no money from relief fund;

• Priscella Spracklin — born 1856; age 19 at time of death; marital status unknown; buried Dec. 6, 1875 in Cupids; family received no money from relief fund;

• William Spracklin — unknown date of birth, age at death, marital status or burial information; survived by a wife and five children; family received 35 pounds from relief fund;

• Solomon Taylor — born 1819; age 56 at time of death; married for 28 years to Mary Ann Webber; buried Dec. 6, 1875 in Cupids; survived by wife and six children; family received 50 pounds from relief fund;

• Richard Webber — born 1846; age 29 at time of death; married for three years to Susanna Penny; buried Dec. 6, 1875 in Cupids; survived by a wife and two children; family received 30 pounds from relief fund;

• Samuel Wells — born 1833; age 42 at time of death; married for five years to first wife Elizabeth Andrews (she died in 1864), and 11 years to second wife Marry Hussey; buried Dec. 7, 1875 in Salmon Cove, South River; survived by his second wife and two children; family received 20 pounds from relief fund.

Source: Cupids Historial Society

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The 13 survivors of the Water Witch tragedy:

• Richard Ford — age 40; married to Mary A. Hoyles; died at age 58 in 1893;

• Thomas Ivimey — age 27; married two years later to Elizabeth Spracklin; died in 1924 at the age of 75; some references to last name spelled "Ivany;"

• Henry Ivimey — age 34; married for two years (1868-1870) to Elizabeth A. Noseworthy, and four years (1871-1875) to Rebecca Jane Hoyles; died in 1916 at the age of 75; brother George perished in the wreck;

• George Thomas Noseworthy — age 23; married to a woman named Fannie (maiden name unknown); died in February 1920; gave a vivid survivor's account to a newspaper;

• Samuel Rowe — age unknown; married for 18 years to Eliza Ann Edwards, and later to Rachel Rowe; died 1886 in Labrador;

• Henry William Spracklin — age 37; marital status unknown; died 1905 in Cupids;

• Capt. Samuel Spracklin — age 50; born 1825 in Brigus; married for 30 years to Charlotte Mercer; died in 1901; scaled the cliffs of Horrid Gulch to summon help from residents of nearby Pouch Cove;

• Samuel Percy Spracklin — age 24; born 1851 in Cupids; wife of four years Elizabeth A. Wells perished in Water Witch disaster; married Louisa Courage (Harbour Grace) 17 years later; died in 1930 in Everett, Massachusetts; his great-granddaughter attended memorial ceremony;

• Thomas Spracklin — age 25; born 1850 in Cupids; married a women named Cecily (maiden name unknown); died 1908 in Cupids at age 58;

• William E. Spracklin — age 29; born 1846 in Cupids; wife of six months Malvania Cave perished in Water Witch disaster; married Elizabeth Harriet LeDrew 11 years later; details of death unknown, but likely resided in Ontario;

• George Wells — no information available;

• James Henry Wells — age 16; born 1859 in Salmon Cove, South River; marital status unknown; details of death unknown; was last survivor to be rescued; his great-granddaughter attended memorial service;

• William Wells — age 41; born 1834 in Salmon Cove, South River; married for eight years to Patience Green; died in 1908.

Source: Cupids Historical Society

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  • Marion (furlong) Jelloe
    January 14, 2014 - 11:57

    account of the Water Witch tragedy was extremely interesting., My family is from Pouch Cove mother Jane Strugnell, father Philip from Shoe Cove. I vaguely remember stories about the Water Witch. I live in Chelmsford Ma and people who live so close to me were able to attend the ceremony. Must have been exciting to be there

  • Dale Russell FitzPatrick
    December 14, 2013 - 14:31

    In the descendants photo, 3rd from left should read Joyce Lake, not Joy Blake. Thank you for this wonderful article and supporting our endeavours at the Historical Society in Cupids, birthplace of English Canada!