The name Jacob August Riis is an obscure one today, known only perhaps to scholars of American journalism and photography. He was a Danish-American journalist, and he lived from 1849 to May 26, 1914. He produced excellent work in his day; his photographs of the New York slums were influential in helping promote social reforms that eased the lives of the urban poor. His 1890 volume How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among The Tenements Of New York constitutes an important record of the squalid conditions of the Gilded Age’s downtrodden.
Yet these matters, however interesting they may be, are not our current concern. What interests us at this moment are long-forgotten tales of maritime mystery and disaster. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have stumbled upon one such weird tale in an issue from volume 52 of The Century Magazine, published in 1896. It is a story recounted by Jacob Riis, and it involves the haunting memory of two nautical paintings he remembered at his house in Denmark as a boy. Riis calls his story “a strange, unspoken tale that wove itself into my childhood, to be lost in the lapse of years, and again to reappear so strangely, with its old mystery, that I have not since been able to shake off the belief that it all had some meaning, some purpose, which I was to serve.”
Riis was born in the Danish town of Ribe, which he says was once the “seat of kings.” In the summer of 1893, Riis decided to return to his ancestral town to visit his family and reacquaint himself with conditions there. But he had another motive as well. He wanted to find two old paintings that had haunted his dreams as a child:
They used to hang in the boys’ room when I was one of the boys, thirty years before. They were old then, and the worm-eaten frames were dropping off; but their very age added to the regard in which we held them as rare works of art. They dealt, evidently, with the same subject: an old-time, full-rigged ship, carrying the Danish flag, in a rough sea; a wreck in the foreground. In one picture a boat, steered by an officer in a red coat, is seen approaching the wreck, upon the bowsprit of which sits a man, lashed to the spar, imploring aid. In the other the man has been taken off, and the Danish ship is under sail again, the wreck sinking. One of its two masts has fallen. That they told a story was apparent, but what that story was there was nothing to show. On neither painting was there title or name of the artist.
These paintings had always held a morbid fascination for Riis. They are dark and vaguely unsettling images, and someone had expended great effort in composing them. They had come into his family as a gift, but no one seemed to know anything about the artist or the meaning of the scenes on the antique canvases. Riis was the third of fifteen children, and one can appreciate how his active imagination allowed him to escape the crowded confines of domestic life. During dark and stormy nights as a boy, as he lay in bed listening to the rain lash against the windows and roof tiles crash to the cobblestones below, he would sometimes rise from bed and light “a candle at the peat-fire for company.” At such times, while he shuddered at each peal of lightning and thunder outside, flickering shadows would play across the ominous paintings, bringing to his young mind images of boiling seas and doomed ships.
These were the old paintings that the adult Riis wanted to locate. At his father’s house one day, he climbed into the attic to see if he could find them. He eventually found an old box, partially eaten by rats, that contained what he sought. The paintings were more or less intact; and as he inspected them, the dark memories of his childhood percolated to the surface of his consciousness. He took the paintings to his father and asked him to recall how he came into possession of them.
But all his father could tell him was that the old paintings had been given to him around fifty years ago by the pastor of a neighboring county church. This pastor was long dead, but his son still lived; the son was “the dean of the Dom,” and Riis, ever the journalist, sought him out to see what he might know. The dean’s family had resided locally for over three hundred years, and Riis felt confident that he could help in tracing the origins of the gloomy paintings. This dean, whose name was Pastor Koch, remembered the paintings, but did not know how long they had been in the family, or what their subject was.
Here, it seemed, Riis’s investigation had reached a dead end. But it was not so. A short while later, while scrutinizing the canvases with a magnifying glass, he noticed something that looked like a piece of fabric attached to repair one of them. As he looked more closely, however, he could see very faint cursive writing on the patch. After a great deal of labor, he was able to decipher the writing; it turned out to be a short description of the scene depicted on the canvases. The inscription read as follows:
View of wreck seen in the Spanish Sea, Januarii [sic] 7, 1788, by the entire crew of the Royal Danish East India Company’s ship Princess Charlotte Amalia. It was an American brig, on which sat a man lashed to the bowsprit, and was rescued by the said Danish ship; they had been ten men in all, commanded by Captain Sutling, from Baldemore [sic], in North America, bound for Lorient, in France, with 75 hogsheads of tobacco and some staves; wrecked Januarii 7, and had since preserfed [sic] life by means of tobacco…The said sailor’s name was Dinnes Martin, who went with an American from Cape Bonae Spei [Cape of Good Hope].
Drawn by the master of same
This was what appeared on the piece of fabric attached to the back of one of the paintings. Riis could see that there was a name signed below the inscription; it was nearly invisible, but when he applied certain chemicals, the letters flashed before his eyes. The name was either Simon or Limon. Riis had finally succeeded in learning something about the source of his childhood nightmares, but he had not been able to answer the fundamental questions: what was the name of the wrecked ship? Who was Dinnes (presumably Dennis) Martin? And what had happened to him? Riis was greatly irritated by the ancient writer’s failure to provide the complete details: “It seemed strange that in an account so succinct, written by a sailor, the one thing that of all should interest him—the name of the wrecked vessel, which he must have known from the rescued man—should have been omitted.”
Riis realized that he had done all he could do in Denmark. So he packed up the paintings and went back to America, determined to comb through archival records and old ship-registers. He wrote to the shipping authorities of the city of Baltimore, and asked if they had any records of a Captain Sutling that had sailed for Lorient in 1787 or 1788. But the city could find nothing; he was told that records in the 1780s were not scrupulously kept, and that an old fire had destroyed much of what had survived from the period. Riis made other inquiries to authorities in Washington D.C., and even Lloyd’s of London; but he was told that without the name of the ship, nothing could be done. Attempts to search for a “Captain Sutling” also came to nothing.
Finally, desperate for help from any quarter, Riis decided to return to Denmark and make a public appeal for help by writing a brief account of his investigation in a local newspaper. This effort bore fruit. Within a week after publishing his story, Riis was contacted by a Danish government archivist who just happened to be compiling the collected records of the nation’s maritime trading companies of the eighteenth century. The archivist actually had the logbook of the Princess Charlotte Amalia, the ship that had rescued Dennis Martin. The ship was part of the Royal Asiatic (i.e., East India) Company’s fleet of commercial vessels. An entry in the logbook for January 7, 1788 stated that the following occurred “between Junloe and Porto Pray”:
At eight o’clock sighted mast of a ship in southeast, about four miles away, but could see nothing of the hull. Saw what looked like efforts to signal, and signs of life on board, and braced away S.E. and E.S.E. down to the wreck, to see if there was anybody to save…The hull was under water. A living man sat yet on the bowsprit. Hove to, and sent out the small boat in charge of mate, Helsting, to take off the man. He boarded it, and reported that it was the brig Navigator, from Baldemode [Baltimore], in North America, Captain Suitzing, with a cargo of seventy-five hogsheads of tobacco, and some staves, consigned to Laurent, in France…Of the crew of ten only the one man, Danis Market, was saved. He had sat on the bowsprit four days, without food or drink.
The logbook described how the Navigator’s tiller had broken in a storm. Unable to steer itself, the ship then capsized. The logbook spelled the name of the Navigator’s captain as “Soete” instead of Sutling, so we cannot be sure of his name’s true identity. But what happened to the rescued man, Dennis Martin? The Danes took good care of him, and outfitted him with a new suit of clothes. In fact, within a few days of his rescue, and despite his presumed inability to speak Danish, Martin opted to enlist with the crew of the Princess Charlotte Amalia! On April 7, 1788, he left the ship with permission at Cape Town in South Africa.
But there was still no clue as to who had painted the original paintings. None of the four “masters” on the Princess Charlotte Amalia were named “Simon” or “Limon,” or had names that resembled these. As often happens in ancient mysteries, the unearthing of information generates additional questions. What had been the ultimate fate of the seaman Dennis Martin? Did he find some employment and build a life in South Africa? Or did he return home to the United States at some point? Did anyone in Baltimore know, or care, that the Navigator was lost at sea with a sole survivor? Why had no newspaper carried the story? And what happened to the two paintings when Jacob Riis died in 1914?
We should recall that the inscription on the back of the painting read, “The said sailor’s name was Dinnes Martin, who went with an American from Cape Bonae Spei [Cape of Good Hope].” Does this mean that Martin eventually left South Africa? What was his ultimate fate? We will probably never know. Riis even speculates that Martin’s fate has a practical dimension as well: the restoration of long-lost property rights, and the settlement of claims that could be made by the successors-in-interest of the Navigator’s owners.
It was not uncommon in those days for men to move around a great deal, and begin a new life in a strange land. Men who went to sea in the days of sail could expect to be gone for years, and their safe return was never certain. This may be why the Renaissance humanist Giovanni Boccaccio included Odysseus’s wife Penelope in his volume on famous women, De Mulieribus Claris (On Famous Women). He has the highest praise for her virtue and patience, calling her the “most sacred and eternal example of unsullied virtue and wifely honor.” She waited ten years for her husband’s return, adroitly fending off suitors using various ruses.
But Odysseus eventually did resurface; Dennis Martin never did. What purposes we serve in the great mysteries and quests that become entwined with our lives from our childhood years—the philosophical question that tormented Riis—we can never truly know. “Had the old paintings,” Riis wanted to know, “kept their secret for me alone all these years, and why for me?” Just as the brig Navigator slipped below the ocean’s waves in early January 1788, so too has this question, as well as all other inquiries connected to this maritime mystery, become submerged by the grey, impassive waters of time. The implacable lapse of years claims all.
Explore the new translation of Cicero’s On Moral Ends, and see what it has to offer: