The Lake Michigan Shipwreck J.H. Hartzell: the Woman Left Behind
Once again they sent the surf car out to the Hartzell.
By the time they began hauling it back, darkness had fallen, and the ship was nothing more than the barest shimmer in the stormy water. Twelve hours had passed since the Hartzell ran aground, a century when it comes to the rescue of Lake Michigan shipwreck survivors. The efforts had exhausted every rescuer and volunteer. But they pulled harder and faster this time, positive the surf car contained Lydia Dale.
They hauled the surf car ashore and opened the hatch.
The final two sailors came stumbling out. A horrified, confused silence fell on the crowd and their eyes turned to the tattered remnants of the schooner, now virtually invisible. Lydia Dale was still out there, alone, paralyzed with illness and with no one to help her into the surf car. She was a dead woman.
Then the crowd turned on the men, cursing them for their cowardice as sailors, as Americans, and as men. Just before the abuse turned violent, one of the Hartzell’s sailors cried out, “She’d DEAD! She’s already dead. Stiff as a board.”
He explained. The sailors did all they could to help Lydia into the surf car earlier, but when they realized she was dead, they did the only thing they could think of…
They lashed her to the mast.
The crowd quieted, stilled by his words and the haunting image of a woman helplessly tied to the mast of a sinking schooner in a storm. Most didn’t believe the Hartzell’s sailors or the captain, but there was nothing they could do now. They couldn’t even see the schooner in the October darkness, much less get a man across the chopping waves. It was hopeless.
Exhausted and weighed down with failure, the crowd trudged back to their homes, knowing they’d discover out the fate of Lydia Dale in the morning light.
Morning came and rescuers rushed down to the beach, half-hoping the cook had weathered the night. Maybe, just maybe—
In the growing early morning light, they saw the schooner aground in the churning water, but without the foremast. The waves had snapped it off as easily as a twig during the night, taking Lydia Dale, alive or dead, with it. The rescuers and townspeople of Frankfort would never known the cook’s fate or if the crew of the Hartzell had committed an act so cowardly, it edged on cold-blooded murder. The answers had washed away with Lydia Dale’s body.
Seventeen days later, a swollen and decomposed body washed onto the Frankfort beach, and the coroner confirmed it was the body of Lydia Dale. They hurriedly brought it to the coroner’s office for an autopsy. Death by drowning, even two weeks after the fact, can be difficult to determine, but Frankfort’s coroner was an experienced and highly-respected medical doctor, who routinely examined victims of drowning. If anyone could know, he would.
The last act of drowning victims is often the deep inhalation of water (aspirate), an involuntary reflex the conscious mind is helpless to stop, even if it means certain death. This inhalation will saturate the lungs and the bronchi like a sponge.
If Lydia Dale had drowned, then she was alive when the last of the Hartzell’s sailors abandoned her…and alive when the rescuers gave up. Hours later, the coroner confirmed: drowning.
Whatever happened among the Hartzell crew in those dim and dark hours would forever remain a mystery, but the coroner was almost certain that when that mast hit the water, Lydia Dale still drew breath.
A cry went out to catch the cowards of the Hartzell, but they were long gone and would stay gone. They had not technically committed a crime; or at least there was no evidence the crew had committed a crime.
In the end, when pen met paper and the official tale of the Rescue of the Crew of the J.H. Hartzell was told, it would focus on the heroism and cooperation of the rescuers and Frankfort citizens in battling the wintry gales of Lake Michigan to save seven lives.