The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio


July 8, 2012

‘Perfectly fearless’

Laughing Jimmy Owen of Geneva faced life’s greatest storms with a smile and a dance


Good fortune

To this day, the Smith has not been found. Debris from the ship began to come ashore about two days after she was last seen. There were several oars with her name stenciled upon them, as well as cabin doors and pieces of wood painted white. And bodies, two bodies.

The first was found two weeks after the Smith went missing. It was that of Henry R. Haskin, second cook. Cooks were often the first to don their survival gear when the situation looked hopeless. His body was found about 50 miles west of Whitefish Point.

Six months passed, and the badly decomposed body of engineer John Gallagher was discovered at Michipicoten Island. An engraved watch and papers in his pocket provided identification.

In June 1914 a fisherman found a bottle with a note inside, addressed to the Hawgood Company. The worn, water-soaked, partially illegible note stated that the Smith had broken into two parts at the number 5 hatch while 12 miles east of Marquette. A badly blurred “O” could be discerned at the bottom of the note, suggesting Owen had jotted down the details in an effort to provide the ship’s owners with information the insurer would want to know. Most historians consider the note bogus, however, because it was dated Nov. 12, at least two days after the Smith steamed into the stormy night.

As for appeasing the Hawgoods, that was unnecessary. The company successfully collected the $335,000 insurance payment.

The ship’s other 23 crew members, including Laughing Jimmy Owen, never came ashore. Unless, that is, as Frederick Stonehouse, author of “Went Missing” suggests, their bodies were buried in the sand along the south shore of Lake Superior. The Big Blow of November 1913 was so violent, it literally changed the geography of the shore, filling in what had been swamps and bayous with sand and debris.

Amid this tragedy, there was a bit of good news. Second mate James Burke of Cleveland decided to jump ship at Marquette on account of pneumonia. He’d had enough of storms, the maniacal laughter of a fearless captain and the painful congestion in his lungs. From Marquette he began the long journey home over blizzard-struck land and lake. The news of his death preceded him; after all, he was a crew member, and so it was assumed ...

Burke’s wife saw the announcement of her husband’s death in the newspapers and traveled to Ashtabula for the comfort of her sisters, Mrs. T.A. Findley and Miss Mary Adamson, on Nov. 15, a Saturday.

Meanwhile, James Burke was making his way from Marquette to Ashtabula. He arrived in the harbor the evening of Nov. 15 and took a street car to the uptown area, where he would catch the first west-bound passenger to Cleveland. His trek through the city took him past the Adamson Hotel, where his wife was bawling out her eyes.

At Our Mother of Sorrows Church, prayers were raised for Burke’s soul the following morning. And it was about that time a telegram arrived from Cleveland, announcing to his wife that he was waiting for her at home.

There were at least two other instances of what some may call divine intervention, or at the very least, pure luck, in connection with this disaster.  Roy Kelley, a Smithport, Pa., resident was supposed to be aboard the Henry Smith when she sailed for Lake Superior. But on Nov. 7, Kelley got off the ship at Cleveland and started hiking toward Ashtabula Harbor.

Also blessed were Mr. and Mrs. F.O. Brown, who had planned to take the Smith back to Cleveland after visiting friends in Marquette. But Owen, who was known for being a congenial host to guests aboard his vessel, this time neglected to invite them. Or did he have a premonition?

In the little bakery shop on Detroit Avenue, where Jimmy’s sister Margaret Doran sold her fancy coconut cookies, she refused to see her brother as anything but brave.

“They say he went into this storm as he did into others, and I’m sure he was never freightened a moment at the end,” she told a reporter.

Others said Owen had suffered a mental breakdown or fortified himself with alcohol in order to satisfy the Hawgood’s insatiable taste for profits. Some of the men who’d been in port that day swore that Owen required the assistance of two dark, swarthy men to help him onto the ship that Sunday afternoon; Dancing Jimmy Smith could barely stand, let alone dance, they laughed.

Whatever his condition, it is Jimmy was just trying to redeem his reputation as a reliable, profitable captain for the Hawgoods. And as Cleveland dug out from the worst November blizzard in misery, Mrs. Jimmy Owen continued to pass her time in the Hawgood office, awaiting the news that both the Smith and its captain had weathered the storm and was just off Cleveland harbor, ready to deliver its load.

The news, the ship, never arrived. And she returned to Geneva the widow of Dancin’, Laughing Jimmy Owen.

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