All of the frozen bodies from the ship John Milton wreck would be buried at one time from the little Presbyterian Church in East Hampton on Feb. 28, 1858. “In 1854 the church called Stephen (‘Steven’ alternate spelling used) Mershon as pastor. He was a dynamic and strong-minded minister who dominated the lay leadership of the church, rather than being dominated by them as
his recent predecessors had been. Descended from an old Huguenot family, he graduated from Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary in 1854 and was called immediately to the pastorate of the East Hampton Church,” A Brief History of the First Presbyterian Church of East Hampton, 1648-1998 stated.
The book continued, “Despite criticism from some in Long Island Presbytery that it was improper to bury anonymous persons whose church relationship was unknown, Mershon conducted funerals for all the victims at the church and their bodies were buried in the South Burying Ground. The grateful village gave the ship’s bell, the only relic surviving the hurricane, to the church where it hung in the Session House to summon children to Sunday school for many years.”
Rev. Stephen L. Mershon was the 11th pastor of the church. The reverend, and the organizers of the funeral did not have to look far to secure whaling captains to act as pallbearers! All the neighboring towns were whaling communities!
On February 28th, the twenty-one coffins, “decently draped in black palls,” were brought into the church and placed at the altar. Local villagers, whalemen, mariners, seaman, fisherman, bayman, and captains including their extended families came from the east end’s North and South Fork.
The Presbyterian Church pastor, the Rev. Mershon preached the funeral sermon, and gave a graphic account of the ship John Milton disaster. He stated, “No longer have we any witness to tell their course other than the gale that came with them from the sea upon the land, and from Wednesday afternoon till Saturday we know that they rode upon the wings of the storm enveloped with falling snow.” Most of the recently thawed captain and crew were interred at the north end of the Old Burying Ground in East Hampton!
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 21, 1900 article continued, “The Clergyman then read several affecting letters from the mothers and sweethearts of the dead sailors, which had been found on their persons…” Which letter he read have not been identified.
The locals felt, “…that so unusual and terrible an event should be suitably commemorated,” so money was collected in East Hampton, and the neighboring towns to erect a monument that should tell the story of the ship John Milton.
Local men, who went to sea, their families, and others donated for the stone monument with the inscription written by Rev. Mershon. The marble monument was erected in the north end of the old churchyard.
Later, Capt. Harding’s body was shipped home, and buried in the Village Cemetery, at Vineyard Haven (MA), a section of the town of Tisbury, and the main port of entry to Martha’s Vineyard.
The Barnstable Patriot newspaper, March 2nd reported to the Massachusetts whaling community, “The ship John Milton, Capt. Harding, from the Chincha Islands went ashore at Montauk Point, LI on Saturday, the 20th, during the violent gale which prevailed at that time, and became a total loss. All her officers and crew were lost. Eight dead bodies and the captain’s writing desk had been washed upon the beach at last count.”
The following day, March 3rd, the newspaper mentioned, “The remains of Capt. Harding, of the ship John Milton wrecked on Long Island have been recovered, identified, and taken to New York,”
The Captain’s widow Priscilla (Hopkins) (1805-1903) was the daughter of Isaac Hopkins and Hannah (Rich), of Truro, just south of the northern tip of Cape Cod, a town in Barnstable County, Massachusetts. Unlike many widows, when their husbands are lost at sea, Priscilla had the opportunity to travel to New York to bring the body of the lost Captain home!
The same newspaper on March 9th stated, “The remains of Captain E. Harding, of ship John Milton, accompanied by Mrs. Harding, arrived in New Bedford on the morning of the 6th from New York. A procession of about one hundred shipmasters and merchants was formed at the depot, and escorted the remains through the city to steamer Engle’s Wing, for Holmes’ Holes. Flags were at half-mast on the public buildings and shipping. The occasion was of a solemn character.” Captain Harding’s son Francis was among the nine bodies never found.
The Barnstable Patriot newspaper continued to report on the wreck. Their March 16th issue informed readers that, twenty bodies were recovered, just four somewhat identified: Captain Harding, and three seaman: William Cottrell, brother to the 1st mate; a seaman Luscomb (New Bedford, MA), and William R. Taylor (Westport, CT).
It is believed, William Cottrell and his brother, who was 1st mate were the sons mentioned in a Boston Journal newspaper article. “We hear of a widow residing in East Boston who had two sons on board the ship John Milton, one of whom was the chief mate. Their loss at this time seems peculiarly afflictive, as the widow, within the short period of three years, has been called to mourn the death of her husband – a ship captain – by fever, and the loss of a son who was washed overboard at sea, and now the heart-rending news is received of the death of two other sons by shipwreck, so near their home. She has one son left who is in a foreign land.”
In most newspaper accounts of the wreck, the first name of the seaman Luscomb is not given; however he is believed to be Benjamin Luscomb. He had sailed as a cooper on the bark Jasper (1844), the bark Clarise (1849), and the ship Emma C. Jones (1849).
The 22-year old William R. Taylor (1836-1858) was the son of Edmund Wiley Taylor (1806-1889), and his wife Harriet (Hoyt) (1809-1856).
The last seaman’s body was found buried a foot deep in the melting snow, and sand. Many town people thought other members of the crew would wash ashore, along with Capt. Harding’s son Francis. But, they soon gave up hope!
The Captain’s coat was found on the beach with the left sleeve turned inside out. In one of the pockets a small bag was found containing about $400.00, mainly in gold. Over the years, the image of frozen seaman was not forgotten by Long Island’s east end community!
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 21, 1900 article concluded, “As the morning of Saturday dawned upon them, before that worn and weary son of the sea, Captain Harding, has risen from his stolen slumbers, and as all eyes were straining to catch but a glimpse of the sun, the storm hurried them out of their place. The gallant vessel could skip upon the billows, and with outspread wings fly before the wind, but now the hand that moved in the storm hurled her upon the rocks of our shores. The deed was done. It was but the work of an instant. Masts, spars, sails, officers and crew were all in one confused mass. Oh, what an awful moment! How intense must have been the agony of the survivors. But their agony in time was but momentary, for sudden destruction came upon them. None, none escaped. The ship John Milton was no longer a monarch upon the sea. The ruins of her crown lay in wild confusion at the feet of the throne,” writer, and read at the funeral by Rev. Stephen L. Mershon on Feb. 28, 1858.