A scribbled note sealed in a bottle and tossed into the capricious waves was the only hope some shipwrecked sailors had of letting their sad fate be known. Occasionally, such messages did make it to shore. Sometimes they turned up many miles away and many years later but the closure they brought to loved ones was almost always appreciated.
Old newspapers are full of poignant message-in-a-bottle stories. The first Minot Ledge Light, off Cohasset, Mass., was a barrel-shaped structure held high above the waves on iron stilts. When one by one those spider-like legs snapped during the great nor’easter of 1851, lighthouse assistants Joseph Antoine and Joseph Wilson tossed their bottled good-byes into the sea that would soon swallow them up.
United States Navy Collier, USS Cyclops, mysteriously disappeared between Barbados and Baltimore, Md. in March of 1918. No trace of the vessel or her crew were ever found. Theories have been floated ever since that she succumbed to the mysterious forces of the Bermuda Triangle or that she sank suddenly in a ferocious storm. A message in a bottle purporting to be from the USS Cyclops washed ashore at Baltimore in August 1918. It said, “Captured by German submarine off coast of Virginia our ship Cyclops. John Ramann Chicago, Ill.” Another message in a bottle supposedly written by one of the engineers of the Cyclops appeared northeast of Cape Lookout Lighthouse near Beaufort, N.C. in 1922. This note stated that a German submarine was close by, that all hands had been ordered on board the U-boat and that the ship was to be torpedoed.
In November 1922 a message in a bottle was thrown into the surf by the crew of the schooner Lizzie D Small ashore off New Bedford, Mass. The bottle was found by Frank Columbia of Westport Point. He organized a search party and the shipwrecked crew was rescued after having been exposed to the elements and starvation for four days.
A misleading message in a bottle could occasionally provide an alibi for those who wished to disappear for one reason or another. Such was the case in 1894 when a corked bottle was found on Old Orchard Beach. A scrap of paper in the neck of the bottle had been torn from a notebook. On one side of the paper the words “Henry Schambier, Merchant of Medicine, Lewiston, Me.,” were imprinted with a rubber stamp. On the other side of the paper the following words were handwritten, “Dr. Hudson of Manchester, NH and Dr. Schambier of Lewiston, ME, lost at sea while fishing Monday Oct. 8.”
An investigative reporter from the Boston Daily Globe traveled to Lewiston to find the poor Dr. Schambier’s next of kin. There he spoke to Henry’s sister, a Mrs. Eugene Rimfret. Last she knew, the 25 year old traveling cough medicine salesman had been living in Biddeford. Though Mrs Rimfret knew Henry to be fond of fishing she hadn’t heard from him in months and could offer very little additional information about his habits.
On Oct. 26, another item appeared in the Boston Daily Globe. Dr. Henry Schambier, previously thought to be at the bottom of the ocean, is alive and well and peddling his Menthol cough drops in the peaceful little village of Kennebunk.” Diligent investigation by the reporter had revealed that Schambier had skipped out on his bill at hotels in Saco and Biddeford.
The proprietor at one of the hotels remembered that Henry and his companion did go fishing quite often while he was a guest. On Oct. 15, a full week after they had supposedly drowned but before the story appeared in the paper, a man called at the hotel and said that Dr Schambier, who was stopping in Kennebunk, had sent for his clothes. That same day, the dandy young doctor was seen in Saco.
A later update in the Globe read, “The rubber stamp that made the impression on the piece of paper found in the bottle was discovered in Dr. Schambier’s Kennebunk room today, as was the note book from which the scrap was torn.”
Much to the public embarrassment of Henry’s sister in Lewiston, all of his clothing and belongings were confiscated and divided up to satisfy irate hotel proprietors in coastal York County.