Ephemera is generally understood as bits of paper originally meant to be transitory, but that have nevertheless become collectible. Collage artists are fond of ephemera. So are historical novelists. Give me a stack of bills, ticket stubs, used envelopes, menus, newspaper advertisements, postcards, labels, instruction pamphlets and birthday cards from the 1880s and I’m busy for days. To get a sense of the kind of material out there, have a look at the eBay category Ephemera 1800-1899.
Most ephemera is unimportant in the greater scheme of things, but every once in awhile you run across something breathtaking. I was looking at 19th century prescriptions and pharmacy labels when I found this handwritten cablegram dated 1873 in the Library of Congress American Memory collection.
The Western Union Telegraph Company.
To [Horatio Gates] Spafford
159 LaSalle St. Chicago [law office of H. G. Spafford].
Received at Chicago, Ill., Dec. 2d, 5:40 AM, 1873.
“Saved alone what shall I do. Mrs Goodwin Children Willie Culver lost go with Lorriaux until answer reply . . . Paris. Spafford.”-
The Library of Congress provided more detail of the tragedy:
Mrs. Anna Spafford was writing to her husband, a lawyer in Chicago, to notify him that the Ville du Havre had sunk, and she alone of their party had survived. Lost were her friend Mrs. Daniel Goodwin, the Spafford daughters Annie, Maggie, Bessie, and Tanetta, and a neighbor boy called Willie Culver. Mrs. Spafford had gone with Reverend Lorriaux (a French minister and a fellow survivor of shipwreck) to Paris, where she waited for instructions on what to do.
Wikipedia provides more information about the shipwreck and the Spafford family, which I excerpt and summarize:
On 15 November 1873, the Ville du Havre sailed from New York with 313 passengers and crew on board. A week into the voyage to France she collided with the iron clipper Loch Earn at about 2 am on Saturday, 22 November. At the time of the collision, Ville du Havre was proceeding under both steam and sail at about 12 knots.
The passengers were roused from sleep by the collision. Most went on deck to learn that the ship was sinking rapidly, broken almost in half. Then, in the panic and chaos, the passengers found that the lifeboats had recently been painted and they were now stuck fast to the deck. Finally a few of them were yanked loose, and passengers fought desperately to be one of the few travelers to board those rescue boats. The main and mizzen masts collapsed, smashing two of the life boats and killing several people. It took 12 minutes for the ship to sink.
61 passengers and 26 of the crew were saved and taken on board the Loch Earn, while 226 passengers and crew perished. The Loch Earn, herself in danger of sinking, was subsequently rescued by the American cargo ship, Tremountain and all Ville du Havre passengers and crew were transferred to that ship. The Loch Earn, with its bow smashed in, commenced to sink as the bulkheads gave way, so she was abandoned at sea by her crew and sank shortly afterwards.
Although Horatio Spafford was not a passenger on board the Ville du Havre, his wife (Anna) and four daughters were. At the last moment Horatio was detained by real estate business, so Anna and the girls went on ahead for Paris. Anna was picked up unconscious, floating on a plank of wood, by the crew of the Loch Earn.
Nine days after the shipwreck Anna landed in Wales and cabled Horatio, Saved alone. What shall I do? Horatio immediately left Chicago to bring his wife home. On the Atlantic crossing, the captain of his ship called Horatio to his cabin to tell him that they were passing over the spot where his four daughters had died. He wrote to Rachel, his wife’s half-sister, “On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs”. Horatio later wrote the famous hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” commemorating his daughters.
So that short, terse cablegram provides a door to a much larger, heartbreaking story. It just so happens that there is a shipwreck in the beginning of Where the Light Enters (do not panic, nobody you know was on the ship that sunk). The temptation, when I come across something like this telegram, is to revisit the whole section of the novel to see if I can make it any more factually accurate. What does it means that the Ville du Havre was proceeding under both steam and sail at about 12 knots?
But I will not pursue it. That’s my firm intention: to leave the matter of ships that sailed under sail and steam at the same time in the bin of unanswered questions. Because it’s not important. Nope. Makes no difference to me or my story.
On the other hand, I will tuck this all away for consideration at a later date.
Edited to add this Youtube Video of the hymn written by Horatio Spafford. I am not at all religious, but this piece of music is very moving, given the history.