Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Tragedy on the Banana River

Georgiana Cemetery, Merritt Island, Brevard County, FL
In the beautiful Georgiana Cemetery on Merritt Island, sits a stone that has puzzled and fascinated Brevard County residents for years. The stone documents the deaths of Myrtle, Mary and Martha Smith three daughters of M.G. & E. Smith who all died on Wednesday June 14, 1916. The fact that all three girls died the same day has led to endless speculation on how they might have met their fate, from the obvious illness to more sinister implications. After searching the microfilm of the two local newspapers of the time and finding no mention of the girls I wrote to the Vital Statistics Department in Jacksonville to obtain copies of Martha and Myrtle's death certificates, they could not find one for Mary. There finally in black in white was the cause of death which was listed as "drowning, caused by storm."  

After finding this out I went back to the newspapers and searched again with no luck, so I put it in a drawer and was at least happy that I knew what had happened to them. A few months ago I received another inquiry about the stone from Faye Roberts in Alabama and I responded with what I knew. When she asked for more details I informed her that despite my best efforts, that was all I had been able to find out. Intrigued she contacted a friend who had access to a database of historic newspapers from throughout the country that we did not have access to. There she found the full and heartbreaking story curiously published in the pages of the New Smyrna News on Friday June 23, 1916.

The paper relates that J.J. (Joseph) Ramsey, his daughter Florence, a son of about 10 years old and three of his grandchildren, the Smith sisters, decided to go from Merritt Island across the Banana River to get to the beach where they planned on camping for a week to play in the surf and hunt turtles. Although "a heavy cyclonic gale was raging," Mr. Ramsey decided to cross to the beach anyway. The boat, an ordinary sized rowboat equipped with a sail, six people, a tent and a month's supply of provisions was overloaded even for good weather. About a mile from the eastern shore a shift of wind tore the sails down to the water capsizing the boat and throwing the occupants into the water. Although Mr. Ramsey got his daughter and the three girls to the side of the boat they were unable to hold on and they were drowned. Mr. Ramsey and his son held on to the boat and when it was driven near the shore they were seen and rescued by William Venty, one of the camping party whom the Ramseys intended to join. Miss Ramsey's body was recovered on Thursday and the little girls on Friday. It was reported that in Miss Ramsey's clinched hand was a lock of hair, proving that she had tried to catch and save at least one of her nieces.

As if the story wasn't tragic enough the author related that the three girls were the only children of M.G. (Martin Gaither) Smith of Rockledge who had lost his wife Elizabeth, their mother, giving birth to the last of the three girls. Thus Mr. Smith was "left alone in his sorrow."

It is still a mystery to me why the local papers did not report on the accident, perhaps it was just too hurtful to Mr. Smith and his father-in-law, who I am sure had a tremendous amount of guilt to live with, but I am glad that after all these years we finally know what happened to the girls. The last line of the article states "The sympathy of the entire community goes out to the bereaved family and especially to Mr. Smith," and even today almost a hundred years later I am sure you will agree with me that it is hard not to feel that way upon hearing the story.