My beloved Erie may be the shallowest of the five, but with about a quarter of the total shipwrecks to her name, she is just as rich in myth as her brethren.
When I was a young kid, a friend’s mom told me a tale about how a local nursery came to be because of the less-than-honorable entrepreneurial spirit of a pair of brothers who got the money they needed to buy the land by pilfering the dead bodies of shipwrecked immigrants, many of whom had drowned because the coin sewn into their clothing dragged them into the cold, dark depths.
I don’t recall the name of the brothers or that of the nursery or the ship that sank, but the story always stuck with me. In my mind, I picture two twenty-somethings slinking along the beach, their Boilerman caps pulled down low on their brows, their frames thin and hungry, kerchiefs up about their noses to block out the smell as they strip the bodies of their valuables. They move quickly, one ruthless, the other nervous, popping up now and again to make sure no one else was about to witness their thievery.
Did these men exist? Was the story true? It didn’t seem so because no one else had ever heard of it.
And then I stumbled on the story of the G.P. Griffith.
In June of 1850, this streamer caught fire on its way from Fairport
With record keeping being what it was back then and with much of the paperwork lost to fire, the exact death toll is difficult to verify, as is the manner of their death. Some versions claim that many of the people drowned because the money they carried on their persons, either in money belts or in their clothing, weighted them down, making the half-mile swim impossible. Other histories say they drowned because they could not swim, that only one person was found with money in her clothing.
But was that because the money was already gone? Had two shadows already crept from body to body, checking pockets and seams for gold and pennies? Or was that one woman’s demise the spark for dramatic rumor?
Like most historic events, time has shrouded the truth, and both imagination and interpretation have colored it in. I doubt we’ll ever know for certain. I’m not even sure that the G.P. Griffith’s tragic story was the basis for the tale I heard as a wide-eyed child, but it’s fun to think that childhood urban legends may be more than just tales.