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The Burning of the Brigantine "Mary Lizzie"
January 1883



The Burning of the Mary Lizzie in 1883

Originally Published by The New York Herald
and reprinted by the Newfoundlander
Feb. 2, 1883


"For nearly a week we were on a floating furnace" said Captain Charles Nichols yesterday. "For nearly a week with the deck timbers scorching under our feet, and never a chance of popping below without suffocation."

He sat in the cabin of the steamship NECKER, just arrived from Bremen by way of Southampton, with one of the men who had suffered with him alongside. These two, with five other men had been taken on board in mid-ocean from a burning vessel which was expected to hold together for two hours after she was abandoned.

"My craft was the brigantine "Mary Lizzie" of St. John's Newfoundland, the captain continued. "She was owned by P. & L. Tessier, of that port, and on the 3rd of January, we left it with a cargo of codfish for Bahia in the Brazils. The weather was fair. We had a fresh breeze from the northwest and made good headway til we were out of sight of land. At eight o'clock next morning the wind hauled around to the southwest and at four o'clock that afternoon it was blowing a gale. We took in double reefs and kept on till the following day. At eight o'clock I called all hands on deck to shorten sail. We clewed up the fore topsail and hauled down the standing jib. The ship was brought to the wind. It was blowing a heavy gale from the northwest and the sea was running high. The men were busy balance reefing the mainsail, when I chanced to look forward. A whiff of smoke caught my eye up toward the bow, and I sent one of the men to see what was the matter. He came running back with his face white as a ghost. "The ship's afire!" he cried, "The forecastle all in a blaze." A lot of us went forward in a hurry, I can tell you. There was a sight for us there."

"The whole of the vessel below deck was in a blaze. The flames rushed up through the forescuttle, and the smoke was creeping up through the timbers. I tried to go below, but we were met with a blast that seemed to come from a furnace, and saw the forecastle under me a mass of fire. We never found out how it occurred. I suppose the lamp must have fallen down, and the oil caught in the bogy. The whole place had sprung into flames in a twinkling. I called all hands forward and we tried to get at the fire. It was no use. The forehatch was filled with flames and no one could get down. We got sail and canvas together and covered the forehatch and ventilating holes, to keep the draught off. The smoke was coming up still, and we could hear the roar of the fire underneath; but it seemed a bit stifled, and we cut small holes in the deck, and I kept heaving buckets of water on them. All hands worked with a will. The men knew their lives were in peril, and they worked in downright earnest."

"The wind was still blowing, and it would go hard with us if it crept through any loophole. We used the canvas to cover everything and made every effort to prevent the fire going aft. We battened down the after companion and skylight and closed up all the vents we could find. It was of no avail, the smoke still kept coming up, and we heard the crackling of the flames as they worked deeper and deeper into the heart of the vessel. There was no escaping the truth. We were aboard a burning vessel - an actual floating furnace - in mid ocean, and we could do nothing to help ourselves. Our lives depended on the speedy appearance of a passing ship. We got out the boats and kept them ready for an emergency, but made up our minds not to take them til the last moment, when every hope was gone. Our spirits were low enough, I can tell you. But there was little time for reflection. Every man was busy. We were safe while the flames could be kept below, but we knew that at any moment they might burn up through the deck timbers, make a vent, and then all was over. It was this we had to fight against, and we had to be at work incessantly to do it. The deck had to be kept ?? watered and day and night through all that dreadful time the men were never spared a moment, but went rushing about with buckets, splashing the water over the canvas and emptying it over the timbers. At the start we got some provisions upon deck from the cabin, and it was lucky we did, for before long it would have been beyond our reach. The mate and I got what clothes we had out of the cabin and they had to serve us all, for the crew had their kits in the forecastle and none of them were able to save a stitch. Poor fellows, they had to suffer a great deal. The weather was bitter cold and sometimes the sea would splash over them, wetting them through and through. Some of them were covered with ice as they handled the buckets and it was hard work for them to keep their feet. No one dared go below and there was no place to snatch a moment's rest. Indeed, that could not be thought of anyway, for there were only eight men all told on board and not a soul could be spared while the fire was liable to break out under us. For three days that unceasing struggle was kept up without a change; no sail to sight, no hope of assistance! Nothing but the swashing of water about the deck, with the smoke coming up and choking us, and wind, and rain beating a good part of the time."

"On Saturday, the 6th of the month, I noticed signs of a great danger forward. The ship was getting very weak there. I supposed she was fairly gutted and all the ceiling and timbers were burned. There was no telling whether she would break up or not. To guard against it we had to cut the two anchors adrift from the bow and let them go. This eased her for the time and we went on with our work. We did not hear the flames crackling any more, but the smoke still kept rising, sometimes in a dense volume. It filled our throats but we were too much occupied to mind it and toiled on without rest and with very little food. On Monday, the 8th, a strong gale blew from the southwest. The rain came down in torrents and a heavy sea tossed us about and seemed likely to smash the vessel to pieces. To lighten her we cut away the foretopgallant masts, the royal mast and the jibboom. The Mary Lizzie was now little more than a hulk without anchor, with little timber standing, at the mercy of the winds and with a blazing fire shut up in her. It was no wonder some of us, began to sink under the excitement and suffering, and came near losing our senses. The smoke, too, always coming up about us, always frightening us with a scare of fire here or there, wherever it was thickest, seemed to have gone to our brains and crazed us. I was the first to feel it. I had made shift to creep into the cabin on Sunday morning. It was think with smoke and I could not endure it long. I tried to go on deck and was going up the hatch when the place got dark and I fell down senseless. They carried me up on deck, but it was a quarter of an hour before I recovered. From that time the men were all more or less prostrated in the same way, I remember four who had severe attacks. They were William Lipscomb, the cook; the mate, Daniel Kane, and two seamen, John Thompson and John Adams. They were working on deck when it came upon them. Their faces would get as white as a sheet, and in a jiffy, they would be on the deck working in a fit. It was dreadful to see them rolling about there, raving like madmen, and looking the picture of death. It was the smoke and the work and the exhaustion did it. All we could do for them is to hold them down and keep putting cold water in their mouths and rubbing their foreheads with it. I suppose the thick smoke was the chief cause of the trouble, and we battened down the companion and secured all the hatches for good, and from that time no one was allowed to leave the deck."

"Our little provisions were giving out now. We had been able to bring up only what we could readily look after in the first instance, and it would not hold out long. The men looked like ghosts and were barely able to trudge about and keep the decks wet. Two of them - Liscomb and Thompson - were frost bitten and all were suffering severely from exposure. On the morning of Wednesday last the smoke was coming through the timbers from stem to stern. The water began to steam where it fell upon the decks. It was hot under foot and we could feel that the fire had traversed the vessel, burned up all the inside and would soon break out. We looked to boats and dreaded the moment we would have to take to them on the open sea and in such bitter weather. We were all exhausted. Some of the men, after their hard fight, were for giving up. It was two hours after mid-day and we all believed the vessel could not stand two hours longer. The fire even then was rushing to the cabin and it would soon be all over. It was just then, in our worst extremity, that help came. The Neckar hove in sight. We hoisted the ensign upside down and ran up underneath it the pennant and square flag, C and N, to show we were in distress and wanted assistance. The steamer saw us and lay on our weather bow till we launched our boats and went out to her. We were taken on board and treated by the captain with the greatest kindness. The smoke was rolling up from the Mary Lizzie and the fire was beginning to break out. Our rescue had been timely. In ten minutes we lost sight of her in the thick weather."

Captain Nichols and his men were well cared for aboard the Bremen steamer and they had fairly recovered from their sufferings when they reached port yesterday. They will seek assistance from the British Counsul.




The original article can be found at:

Captain Charles Nicholls is buried with his wife Catherine in Belvedere Cemetery in St. John's. He died in St. John's, August 29, 1937.

Nicholls Charles, Capt 1851-1937, born Dublin Ireland
Catherine Feb 7, 1912, aged 60

His death record is listed at:

Page contributed by Geoff Martin (2016 08)

Page Last Updated August 27, 2016 (Craig Peterman)

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