John Reilly survives a shipwreck but breaks his heart

(Note: For the full story on John Reilly’s life, click here.)

On June 11, 1880, John Reilly boarded the steamer SS Narragansett, which was traveling from New York City to Providence. He’d later achieve fame first as a slugging first baseman and then as a lithographer, but at the time he was a 21-year-old Cincinnati Reds rookie struggling to hit above his weight. His teammates were already in Providence, playing a series of games against the Grays – Reilly’s absence for the first game in the series was apparently excused but not explained.

As the steamer cruised to its destination, Reilly did what any aspiring artist would do – he sat on the deck, took out his sketch book and made several drawings, all of which he put in his portfolio. When it got too dark to draw, he went down to his cabin, put the portfolio under his pillow and went to sleep. At 11:00 that night he was knocked out of his bed and to the floor by a loud crash. The Narragansett had collided with its sister ship, the SS Stonington. The Stonington was damaged but was able to get to land with no casualties – one of its passengers was Charles Guiteau, who later came to believe that he survived so that he could (and did) assassinate President James Garfield.

The Narragansett, though, had a large hole smashed into its side. As water rushed into the ship, the lights all went out and a gas meter exploded, starting a fire. Many of the passengers were asleep in their rooms when the accident occurred, and more than 50 people drowned or burned in the wreck.

Reilly, though, was able to get to his feet and spotted the staircase up to the deck before the lights went out. The Boston Globe takes up the rest of his story.

“He rushed for the stairs, and luckily found them on the first attempt. No one went up the stairs before he did, and not a soul of the large company below followed him. He first went to the railing to see what was up, and hearing parties on the hurricane deck crying for help, he climbed up a post and was hauled upon the deck. He assisted in cutting a boat loose, but before he could help get it into the water he slipped in the then-inclined deck and fell into the water on the opposite side of the steamer.

An illustration of the wreck of the SS Narragensett. Public domain, image found at

“When he came to the surface he saw an iron ladder hanging from the ship’s side, and, grasping the lower round, he pulled himself up and went into the saloon. The ship was settling fast, and he thought it was time to be looking after life preservers. A number of women were there crying for life preservers and, after a while, he discovered the needful articles stored on shelves, high up on the cabin’s side. He pulled a quantity of them down and helped the women to put them on.

“Fire was spreading fast, and everyone was moving towards the rail to get off into the water. Just before he started out a woman, whose two children were locked in a stateroom and who were burned to death, came to him and besought him in piteous tones to save her darlings. If they were saved she cared not whether her life was lost or not. [Note: This was probably Mrs. Frederick Stillson of Atlanta, who was with her two children and brother-in-law. She and her brother-in-law were separated but saved; her children, ages 7 months old and 17 months old, died.]

Reilly went to the woman’s cabin and tried to kick the door down, but he couldn’t move it. He couldn’t find an axe to smash the door down either. Eventually he realized he had to leave or be burned to death himself. The Globe continued:

“While he was going toward the stairs leading to the deck he saw a young man whose face bore signs of insanity, so wild was his state, deliberately draw a revolver, cock it, and placing it to his right ear, fired and fell dead to the floor. The occurrence, which under any other circumstances, would have been a great shock to him, made no impression on his mind. In fact, everyone stepped over the body of the suicide without giving it any more thought than they would a fallen log.”

Reilly and the rest of the survivors struggled to get the lifeboats loose, as they didn’t know how to do it. No officers or deckhands were around to help them, so the passengers were on their own. Reilly himself jumped overboard, still dressed in his nightclothes and clinging to a wooden plank and his life preserver for dear life. He drifted far from the boat, and it’s not known just how long he spent in the water – an hour or two at least, according to reports. He was finally located by the City of New York, one of the rescue boats, and dropped off back at the New York harbor. He stayed on that dock, soaked and without any possessions, for hours until some locals helped connect him with a friend in town so he could resume his trip to Providence.

That’s not where the story ends. In 1882, the Globe reported that Reilly’s brother received a package from a Connecticut address months after the wreck. The brother, who lived in Louisville, traveled to Reilly’s residence and presented him with his old portfolio – mildewed and water-damaged, but basically intact. There was also a letter in the package from a woman identified by the Globe only as Miss Lamb of Noank, Conn. She explained that she lived near where the shipwreck occurred and found the battered portfolio floating by the shore. The only address inside was the brother’s Louisville home, and she sent it there, unaware of the fate of the artist.

“The letter was written in a pretty female hand and couched in language which bespoke the writer to be well educated and refined. Gallant John answered the young lady, writing her his thanks, and said many nice things, such as a young man of John’s age can write when the recipient is a mysterious girl,” noted the newspaper.

Miss Lamb wrote that she was tempted to keep the portfolio as a memento before parting with it, so Reilly sent her the least damaged of all the drawings inside it as a thank-you. It happened to be a sketch of a ladies’ training school in Worcester, Mass. The school was close to the local ballpark, and Reilly drew it during a road trip. Miss Lamb wrote back, wondering if the two knew each other, because she recognized the school in the sketch – it was her old school.

The two kicked off a lengthy mail correspondence, which came to an unexpected end when one of Miss Lamb’s letters ended up in the hands of an acquaintance of Reilly’s instead of her intended recipient. He put the letter in his coat pocket, intending to give it to Reilly, but he forgot and put the coat aside with the changing of the seasons. When he got the coat back out and rediscovered the letter, months had passed. Reilly was understandably upset but opted not to write her and attempt to explain his silence.

That’s where the story ends, unfortunately. Reilly, who lived to the age of 78, apparently never married. If he and the mysterious Miss Lamb ever met, it was never mentioned in the newspapers. Maybe during his long life he ventured up to Noank to find her. Or maybe in his extensive catalog of artwork, there is an unidentified beautiful woman, who looks like she has fine handwriting and a good education, standing by a riverbank with a waterlogged portfolio in her hands.

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