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A wandering
legend...


From the Buffalo Evening News, Saturday Magazine, July 16, 1927, p. 9

 

A Wandering Legend of Lake Erie: John Maynard

 

By

Frederick J. Shepard

 

 

Many a school boy and school girl has recited to an applauding audience the lines beginning:

 

 

'Twas on Lake Erie's broad expanse
      One bright midsummer day,
The gallant steamer "Ocean Queen"
      Swept proudly on her way.
Bright faces clustered on the deck
      Or, leaning o'er the side,
Watched carelessly the feathery foam
      That flecked the rippling tide.

 

The poet goes on to tell how the steamer caught fire and how the wheelsman, by name John Maynard, brought her safely to shore, preserving the lives of the passengers by sacrificing his own.  The verses, under such various titles as "John Maynard," "The Pilot," etc., can be found in No. 5 of the "Hundred Choice Selections," No. 1 of the "Best Selections," "Five Minute Recitations," and other oratorical collections, a prose version of the same dramatic story, as John B. Gough used to recite it in his really popular temperance addresses, being equally available.

 

Though the verses sometimes appear over the name of Kate Weaver, they are included in the collected poems of Horatio Alger, Jr. and were, as his sister thought, contributed to the New York Ledger about 1862.  But the hero's fame is by no means confined to our own country, there being a popular German version of the tale by Theodor Fontane, seemingly based on Alger's lines, for it begins:

 

John Maynard! "Wer ist John Maynard?"
"John Maynard war unser Steuermann,
der Aushielt, bis er das Ufer gewann,
er hat uns gerettet, er trgt die Kron',
er starb fr uns, unsere Liebe sein Lohn.
John Maynard. John Maynard."

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But while Alger is somewhat indefinite regarding the exact location of the catastrophe, beyond the fact that the steamer was on her way from Detroit to Buffalo, the German poet not only changes her name to the Swallow but makes the fire break out on board "Noch zehn minuten bis Buffalo," when only ten minutes from Buffalo!

 

The local school authorities once received an appeal from some German functionary regarding the legend's origin, on which they were unable to throw much light, and the family of Ferdinand Rebhan, watchmaker in Ellicott square recently got from friends in the old country the program of a concert by the Gesangverein Oberlind in Thuringia, March 27, 1927, on which occasion the singing of the John Maynard chorus must have been the leading feature of the spring festival, for the entire song was printed on its back, the sender adding the information that at a previous concert a prize had been awarded to this song.

 

The original version of the legend seems to have been the product of an English visitor to the region contributed to some as yet unidentified periodical.  Its foreign birth being proved by a reference to the Buffalo government pier as the "quay," an allusion to a "blue peter," which on the ocean is the name given to a small flag that indicates a vessel is about to sail, and the intimation that the ill fated steamer got under way from an anchorage, instead of from a wharf, as an orthodox Buffalo steamboat would have done.

 

In this prose narrative, the name assigned to her is the Jersey, which rivals Ocean Queen in its inapplicability to a Great Lakes boat.  The article, with no clue to its source, appeared in the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, of September 12, 1845, under its probably original and unquestionably English title of "The Helmsman of Lake Erie" and was reprinted in the forgotten Buffalo magazine, the Western Literary Messenger of October 4, 1845.  Unfortunately that particular issue of the Messenger is missing from the Grosvenor library's file, and but a part of the Commercial Advertiser's file of 1845 is owned by the public library, so that the article can be consulted only at the Buffalo Historical society.  One cannot help suspecting that it may have come from the pen of Charles Dickens, who had visited the neighborhood in 1842 and may have here picked up its suggestion; at any rate there is an indication of his literary style.

 

It seems to be reasonably certain that the legend, while it owes much first to the lively imagination of the English author and second to the literary skill of Alger, is based upon the burning of the passenger boat Erie off Silver Creek while on her way from Buffalo on the night of August 9, 1841, for at the inquest the next day in this city her master, Captain Titus, had no doubt the wheelsman, Luther Fuller, perished, for he had been directed to keep the burning steamer headed for the American shore, and he was always a resolute man about obeying orders.  As a matter of fact, Fuller clung to the wheel with blistered face and singed clothing until further effort was rendered useless by the burning of the rope which connected wheel and rudder.  The last man to leave the ship, he crawled to the windward rail, slid down a lanyard to a fender, which he detached with his knife, and was ultimately picked up, though the name appeared in the long list of the dead of whom there were 249, according to the historian of Erie county, Pa., many of them emigrants from Holland on their way to Michigan.  The mother of a present day prominent lawyer of Syracuse, Frederick S. Wicks, was said at the time to have been the only woman first-class passenger saved.

 

After this display of real heroism by the wheelsman it is painful to have to add that he died a drunkard and, according to report, a former convicted counterfeiter, in the Erie county, Pa., almhouse, under the name of James Rafferty, November 22, 1900, at the age of 87!  There is no question of his identity, for in 1912 Andrew Blila, treasurer of the Erie Historical society , who had been a call boy on the burned steamer and who had also known Fuller in his youth as the son of a Harbor Creek tavern keeper, was authority for the statement that in his almshouse days, the one time hero was in the habit of visiting him to negotiate a loan of ten cents for a drink.  Blila knew him only as Fuller, and the Commercial Advertiser in an editorial reference of 1845 to the Erie catastrophe called him McBride: the alleged criminal record may explain this confusion of names.

 

There can be little question that John Hay's sprightly Pike county ballad, telling how Jim Bludso of the Prairie Belle vowed when his steamboat caught fire that he'd "hold her nozzle agin the bank till the last galoot's ashore," was suggested, consciously or unconsciously, by the tale of John Maynard, the scene of sacrifice to duty being transferred from a Lake Erie wheelhouse to a Mississippi river engine room.  To be sure a carping critic has found difficulty in reconciling the statement that Bludso "never-knowed how to lie." with

 

He weren't no saint,—them engineers    

    Is all pretty much alike,—  

One wife in Natchez-under-the-Hill    

   And another one here, in Pike;

 

but the actual devotion of Luther Fuller on board the burning Erie is almost as unreconcilable with his shady after career.

 

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