From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 41, No. 1, February 2005
One of the worst disasters in the waters off Cape Cod took place on January 18, 1884 during a terrible winter storm. At 3:43 a.m. the Gay Head Lighthouse keeper on Martha’s Vineyard sounded the alarm. The City of Columbus, a 275-foot luxury steamship bound for Savannah from Boston, had crashed onto the shoals of Devil’s Bridge beneath the cliffs of Gay Head. Braving the fearsome storm, Wampanoag men with the Massachusetts Humane Society – a precursor of the U.S. Coast Guard – launched a rescue. Again and again, the men went into the icy waters – rowing lifeboats out to the wreck. They were able to save 29 of the 132 people on board, but only 22 survived. Most of the victims had been swept from the decks by the towering waves or were drowned in their cabins. The few people who survived had climbed into the riggings and clung there in the freezing temperatures until they were rescued hours later.
Among the victims was Elizabeth R. Beach, 36, the only daughter of Rev. Nathaniel Beach, pastor of the North Mansfield [now Storrs] Congregational Church. The Willimantic Chronicle of January 23, 1884 reported that her body was returned to Mansfield by train and was laid in state at the First Baptist Church. “Miss Beach …had become widely known both in this country and France by her labors in behalf of the now famous McAll mission [a Baptist mission founded in Paris]. It was in making known that cause to the Christian ladies of America that Miss Beach lost her health some four years ago. She had previously been connected with the mission itself in Paris, and it was her hope to return hither.”
Elizabeth Beach was moving to St. Augustine, Florida when she met her fate aboard the City of Columbus. “She sailed with joyous anticipations,” expecting that the warmer climate would aid in her convalescence, but alas, it was not to be so. Her obituary continues, “Miss Beach was the mover in that great work in this country which has recently taken form in the ‘American McAll Association.’ Her Christian devotion, her genius, her rare personal grace, find their monument in that association. Her memory will be revered as long as the McAll mission exists or is remembered. She gave her life for the cause she loved.”
The story does not end here. In February of 1884, the family of Elizabeth Beach filed lawsuits against the Boston & Savannah Steam-Ship Company, owner of the City of Columbus. There were actually two lawsuits – one brought by her father, Rev. Nathaniel Beach and another by an aunt and niece who were her dependants. The suits sought compensation for the loss of Elizabeth Beach’s life and her property.
Shortly thereafter the steam-ship company filed a counter-suit, seeking protection under the maritime limited liability act of 1851. According to this law, the owners “shall not be liable beyond their interest in the ship and freight pending” for the acts of the master or crew done “without their privity or knowledge.” The intent of this law was to encourage the shipping industry and to protect the owners who invested in such a risky business.
The Beach family’s lawsuits claimed that the disaster was “caused by negligence on the part of those employed by the steam-ship company in managing the ship, and by inefficiency in the discipline of the officers and crew, and that no proper measures were taken to save the passengers.” The libel further alleged that “after the vessel struck, said Elizabeth R. Beach suffered great mental and bodily pain upon the vessel, and was afterwards washed into the sea, and drowned; that the value of her clothing and baggage lost was $150; and that by virtue of the premises, and under the general admiralty jurisdiction of the United States, the libelants were entitled to recover $50,000, and by virtue of the statute of Massachusetts, $5,000.”
In other litigation, the ship’s captain was found responsible for the accident. He had gone to bed leaving a second mate in command of the vessel who was unlicensed to pilot in those waters. The steam-ship company claimed that it had no knowledge of nor responsibility for the action of the captain and the crew. It thus alleged that its liability was limited to the value of the ship and its cargo (a total loss). It further stated that any insurance money it had received had gone to pay its freight vendors and the bank that owned the ship’s mortgage. No insurance funds remained to compensate the families of the victims.
The case (BUTLER v. BOSTON & S. S. S. CO., 130 U.S. 527) was finally settled in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1889. The court ruled that the evidence was not sufficient to prove “knowledge or privity” of the shipping company and it upheld the 1851 maritime act of limited liability. The Beach family’s claims were dismissed. It was an important decision that would be cited in several other cases involving maritime disasters.
The maritime law of limited liability was once again called into question following the sinking of the Titanic on April 14, 1912. At that time, it became the focus of a U.S. Senate inquiry. Senator Isidor Raynor led the call for change: “Mr. President, we must change the admiralty and navigation laws of this country. They consist of an incongruous collection of antiquated statutes which should be repealed and reenacted so as to meet the necessities of ocean intercourse of the present day. This is surely one lesson that has been taught us by this dreadful calamity…. The doctrine of “knowledge or privity of the owner” should be swept from the statute book, and [it] should not be necessary in order to hold the owners to a full responsibility to prove that the negligence occurred with the privity or knowledge of the owners. There is no reason why owners of ships should not be responsible for the negligence of the crew in the same way that railroad corporations are held responsible for the negligence of their employees. The whole subject is largely in our own hands. We should, without delay, pass a system of laws that, in my judgment, would be sufficient to avoid a repetition of this heart-rending disaster.”
In 1916, White Star, owner of the Titanic, agreed to pay $664,000 to the American claimants, in return for a release from future claims and a stipulation that White Star was not negligent. The compensation was shockingly little by today’s standards, but it signaled a shift in legal thought. The Titanic disaster hastened change to an antiquated law that had brought injustice to the Beaches and many other families of victims.