Friday, April 15, 2016


If you are traveling through historic Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago, you may see a sturdy monument by the side of the road in Section J:

On the front of the stone are three family names: Barry, Culver, Proudfoot – but we are going to look at the circumstances surrounding what is on the back of the stone.

As you can see, it says:

Lost at Sea
On Ville du Havre

Before we look at the accident at sea where 226 souls were lost in only twelve minutes, let’s see what we can find out first about William Barry Culver.

William Barry Culver was born in Chicago on February 17, 1862 to Belden Farrand Culver (1829-1902) and Julia Dalton, nee Barry (1841-1938.)  Both the Culver and Barry families were distinguished families with roots deep in the American soil.

Belden Culver was originally from New York.  After teaching school for a time he came to Chicago and joined his brother Charles in the grain commission business.  He ultimately ended up in the real estate business as did many of his peers.  Belden Culver is descended from Edward Colver (1600-1685) the Puritan who came to America in 1635 with John Winthrop, Jr.

Julia Barry was born in Massachusetts, the daughter of renowned Unitarian clergyman Rev. William Barry, Jr. (1805-1885) and Elizabeth Chadwick, nee Willard (1814-1883).  Julia relocated to Chicago with her parents in the mid-1850s.  Later in life, Rev. William Barry Jr., was instrumental in founding and supporting the Chicago Historical Society.

Belden Culver and Julia Barry were married in Chicago on December 31, 1860.  They were blessed with five children:  William Barry (1862-1873), Julia (1864-1950), Belden Haywood (1867-1874), Bertram (1870-1874), and Agnes Goodwin (1874-1962).

William Barry Culver was only alive for one US Census – the one in 1870.  This census finds the Culvers living in the Town of Lakeview.  The family consists of Belden and Julia, both of who told the census taker that they were twenty-six years old (neither one was), and the children: William, Julia and “Haywood”.  Belden Culver reported that he was a real estate agent, and that he owned land worth $67,000 and $32,000 of personalty.  They also had one live-in servant and a live-in governess for the children. 

In late 1873, 11 year old William Barry Culver sailed to Europe on the steamship Ville du Havre.   The ship left from New York on November 15, 1873 and was due in La Havre, France in about ten days, depending on conditions on the Atlantic.  The Ville du Havre was the most luxurious steamship of its day and, as was common at a time when sailing ships were giving way to steam driven vessels, the Ville du Havre was also rigged to hoist sails. The ship was under the command of a French captain, Marino Surmount (some sources spell the last name "Surmounte"), and had a crew of 173 men.

The Ville du Havre

The Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper from December 2, 1873 gives up a little background on why young Willie Culver was on the Ville du Havre:

Willie Culver, a most promising boy about 12 years of age, son of B. F. Culver, was also lost.  He was crossing the seas in charge of Mrs. Horatio (Anna) Spafford, on his way to Dresden, where for the past three years he has been attending school, under charge of his grandfather, the Rev. Wm. Barry (Jr.), formerly well known in Chicago – once secretary of the Historical Society.

It was said that his grandfather never got over the loss of his namesake, William Barry Culver.  Not long after the death of young Willie, Rev. Barry Jr. left Germany and returned to Chicago for good.

The Rev. William Barry, Jr.

Let’s look at the first-hand accounts of the disaster as reported by the Chicago Daily Tribune on December 2, 1873:


Midnight Collision Between the Ville du Havre 
and the Loch Erne.

In Twelve Minutes the Ville du Havre Sinks with 226 Souls.

Terrible Bereavement of Well-Known Chicago Citizens.

One Father Loses All His Children, 
Another Both Wife and Children.

Nine, the Total Number Chicago Is Known to Have Lost.

Only 87 Saved, Including the Captain and 52 of His Crew.

Boat-Loads of Passingers Crushed by Falling Masts.

The Loch Erne Badly Damaged,
 but Makes Every Effort to Save Life.

Her Rescued Transferred to the Trimountain, 
and Taken to Bristol.

She Puts Back To Queenstown, But Has Not Been Heard From.

No Explanation Given How the Catastrophe Occurred.

List of the Saved -- Description of the Ville du Havre.

The Purser's Account of the Disaster.

London, Dec. 1, - The ship Trimountain, from New York, arrived at Cardiff, Wales. Early this morning with the intelligence of a dreadful disaster to the steamship Ville du Havre, which left New York Nov 15, for Havre, in command of Capt. Surmont.  At 2 o’clock on the morning of the 23rd, the Ville du Havre came in collision with the British ship Loch Erne, from London for New York, and sunk shortly after.  Two hundred and twenty-six persons on the Ville du Havre were lost.  The Trimountain saved eighty-seven of the passengers and brought them to Cardiff.


The Ville du Havre was formerly the Napoleon III.  She was altered and enlarged last winter, and came here for the first time as the Ville du Havre on the 9th of April, making the passage from Brest in nine days and Twenty-three hours.  With the exception of the Great Eastern, she was the largest steamer that ever entered this port.  Her dimensions were 490 feet by 48 feet.  Her carrying capacity was 3,500 tons, freight and measurement.  Her main saloon was fitted up with marble wainscoting of three varieties, the upholstery was velvet, and the wood-work was carved in the most unique designs.  Her engines were compound direct-acting, of 3, 200 horse-power, and made in England.

The Collision.

London, Dec. 1 – Later dispatches from Cardiff bring the following additional particulars of the loss of the steamship Ville du Havre:

She was struck amidships by the Loch Erne, and sunk in twelve minutes after the collision.  The Loch Erne immediately lowered her boats, which rendered all the service possible by them.  Fifty-three of the crew were saved, including the Captain, and these go to make up the eighty-seven saved.


Among the passengers saved are ten women.  The saved are as follows:  Capt. Surmont and five other officers, fifty-four of the crew and twenty-seven passengers, named Mary Hunter, Annie Hunter, Helene Mixter, Madeline Mixter, Emile Cook, Rev. N. Weiss, Mrs. H. G. Spafford, James Bishop, Charles Criste, Miss Breedon, Francisco Dado, Hyppolite Valle, R. A. Wittham, Jr., F. Marcounet, Fanny Benninger, Alfred Barbanson, Xavier Pequignot, Mr. Lauriaux, C. Burritt Waite, Cornelia Edhar, Mrs. Marie Bulkley, William R. Swift and his wife, Andrew B. McCreery, Mr. Cramer, Henry Belknap, and Legrand (probably Bangrand).


Among the passengers in the Ville du Havre were the following members of the late Evangelical Alliance returning to their homes:  The Rev. Antonio Corrasco, of Spain; Prof. E. Provier, of Geneva, and the Rev. N. Weiss, Emile Cooke, and Mr. Lorriere, of Paris, Alfred Barbanson, of the Belgian Legation at Washington, was also a passenger.


The survivors of the Ville du Havre reached Bristol today.  They were all saved by the boats of the Loch Erne, and were transferred to the Trimountain, which carried them to Cardiff.  There is great excitement in London over the loss of the vessel.


The ship Loch Erne was so badly damaged by the collision with the steamship Ville du Havre that the persons rescued by her from the wreck requested to be put on the Trimountain.  All were safely transferred, with the exception of three persons who were too badly injured to be removed.  After the collision, the Loch Erne put about for Queenstown, at which port she was due about the 29th ult.  Nothing has yet been heard of her.


London, Dec. 2. – The following additional particulars of the loss of the Ville du Havre have been gathered from the officers and passengers at Cardiff.  The Ville du Havre experienced a thick fog until the 20th.  At the time of the collision the weather was clear, with little wind blowing, but there was a heavy sea.  The captain had just retired, and the second officer was in charge.  The lights on the steamer were all right.  


The Loch Erne struck the steamer amidships, and made a chasm 12 feet deep and from 25 to 30 feet wide.  The exact position of the Ville du Havre at the time was latitude 47 degrees 21 minutes; longitude 35 degrees 41 minutes.


Five minutes after the collision the main and mizzen masts fell across two large boats which were filled with people and ready for launching.  The boats were crushed to pieces and many of the occupants killed and injured.  In the brief interval between the collision and sinking of the steamer the crew were able to launch.


The Loch Erne went a mile before stopping.  She then got out four boats to pick up the people struggling in the water.  Meanwhile, the whaleboat, under command of the Second Lieutenant of the Ville du Havre, picked up one load of those who were clinging to planks, spars, etc., and took them to the Loch Erne.  She returned to the scene and rescued another load.  Capt. Surmont, who remained on deck to the last, was rescued by this boat three-quarters of an hour after the collision.  One of his officers swam a mile to the Loch Erne, and was hauled on board with a rope.  The boats continued to search the waters in the vicinity of the disaster until there was no hope of saving more lives.


Many of the survivors were immersed two hours, and were almost lifeless when rescued.  The ship Trimountain sighted the Loch Erne at 8 a.m., six hours after the sinking of the steamer, and received the survivors, as before reported.  The saved speak in the highest terms of Capt. Urquhart, her commander.  There were six stowaways on board the Ville du Havre.


Later accounts make the date of the collision the 22nd instead of the 23rd ult.  A vessel which arrived at Bristol reports speaking her with ten survivors of the Ville du Havre on board.


[New York Tribune Cable Special.]
London, Dec. 1. – The purser of the steamship Ville di Havre gives the following account of the disaster: The steamer was struck on the starboard side.  The mainmast and rigging were carried away.  The long boat was not crushed on deck, but after being lowered the mizzenmast fell upon it and killed nearly all the occupants.  The mainmast fell after the mizzen, toppling over on deck, and killing many persons.  In a few minutes the ship began to sink amidst great disorder and panic terror.


And beyond description.  The air was rent with shrieks, but some were heard saying calmly, “As we must die, let us die nobly.”  The water rushed into the boat with incredible velocity.  I undressed myself, and, with a companion, jumped overboard and


Then half a mile distant.  As I left I heard the ship cracking, and looking back saw her go down with one plunge forward. For a moment the shrieks were terrible, then all was silent.  It was the silence of death.  The captain remained on the bridge of the Ville du Havre during the whole, and went down with the ship.  He was picked up an hour afterward.  All the officers who were rescued were saved in a similar manner except the First Lieutenant, whom the Captain sent to the Loch Erne to see if she was in a sinking condition or if she were able to receive the passengers of the Ville du Havre.  I swam half-an-hour, and finally reached the Loch Erne, but missed the rope thrown to me.  I remained in the water another quarter-of-an-hour, but was eventually rescued by the Loch Erne.

Among the passengers on the deck of the Ville du Havre was a French gentleman of


He comforted many by his words.  A priest asked, “Are you a Roman Catholic?” “Yes,” was the answer.  “Repent then,” said the priest, “and I forgive your sins.” With these last words the priest sank in the waves.  The penitent was saved.  The boats crossed and recrossed the scene of the disaster.


Until 10 a. m.  Further efforts were then abandoned as hopeless.  The survivors remained on the Loch Erne until 9 p. m., when they were transported to the Trimountain.


On Saturday morning, Nov. 22, being in latitude 47 deg. 23 min., longitude 25 deg,m 20 min., we sighted a vessel on our weather bow, with her bowsprit gone and sails flying.  We hove to, and saw a signal of distress flung out.  Coming nearer, the ship p[roved to be the Loch Erne, eight days out of London, for New York.  Coming alongside, the captain asked me to receive the survivors of the Ville du Havre, which had been sunk by the Loch Erne at 2 o’clock that morning.  After consultation, it was deemed advisable to transfer all the rescued people but one French clergyman,


Another of the party was left to take care of him.  The survivors were crowded into the small cabin in a pitiable state.  They were heart-broken, ill-clad, and destitute, but amid their grief they expressed their gratitude to the Captain and crew of the Loch Erne for


I supplied them with all the clothing which could possibly be spared on my ship, and with other requisites.  Nevertheless, some were almost naked, and others were badly injured by fragments of the wreck coming in violent contact with them.  After receiving all on board the Trimountain, I decided to cruise about the scene of the wreck.  Search was continued until nearly dark that night, but we saw only two casks floating, and the search was finally relinquished, and we proceeded on our voyage to Bristol.  I intended to land in Queenstown, but a favorable wind enabled us to reach Cardiff.  The survivors attached no blame to the officers of the Loch Erne for the catastrophe, but say they did everything possible to prevent the sacrifice of life.


In her bows.  Her bowsprit was clean gone, and a great hole was cut above the water line.  The passengers of the Ville du Havre say that Capt. Surmont, during many days of fog, took every precaution, and was constantly on the bridge of the steamer.  No one explains how the collision occurred.


The Tribune’s correspondent says: “Men, women, and children, seized with terror, rushed on deck with their night-clothing, and all was confusion.  The Loch Erne’s bow had cut a fissure in the deck of the Ville du Havre twelve feet in depth, and the iron plating of her side was crushed in for a distance of 30 feet.  Most of the passengers were too terrified to try to save themselves.  Many prayed, and many laid down with the calmness of utter despair.  Some, hearing the water pour into the ship, never quitted their state-rooms.


Among the survivors was one lady whose husband and four children had perished in the sea,  Three young ladies lost their father and mother.  One young man lost his father, mother, and sister, and another gentleman lost his sister, whom he was taking to France for her health.  Mrs. Spafford, of Chicago, lost three children and nurse.  She sank with the vessel, but floated again, and was picked up.


The Ville du Havre is insured in London for GBP 90,000.    

As the article mentioned, Mrs. Spafford, the traveling companion of Willie Culver lost her three daughters and their nurse, in addition to Willie, who had been placed under her charge for the trip.

We can learn a little more about the last few minutes of Willie Culver's life from Anna Spafford's own remembrance of that horrible night:***

It was the 21st of November, and after dinner Anna Spafford and the nanny, Nicolet, put the children to bed before rejoining the other passengers in the saloon.  Later in the evening Anna Spafford and Pastor Weiss went up on deck for some fresh air and to admire the stars. The air was clear and invigorating.  There was no moon.  Anna Spafford admired the view, despite the fact that her enjoyment was somewhat tainted by the absence of her husband whom she missed; this was the first time they had been apart for such a long time.  Pastor Weiss and Anna Spafford bid one another goodnight and retired to their cabins.

At about two o'clock in the morning the Ville du Havre was shaken by two thunderous reports followed by loud screams.  The engines stopped and the ship came to a standstill. The corridors filled with frightened half-dressed passengers shouting to one another, but their questions remained unanswered. Anna Spafford and Nicolet hurriedly pulled on their dressing gowns and quickly got the children up and into their clothes.  With little Tanetta in her arms, Anna Spafford was one of the first to reach the upper deck.

In the water, a few hundred meters from the Ville du Havre lay the cause of the commotion; a large ironclad sailing ship, the British vessel Loch Erne.  Like two huge wounded beasts the Ville du Havre and the Loch Erne lay in a sea foaming with the force of the collision.  On the deck of the Ville du Havre Captain Surmount was shouting out orders to his crew and to the frightened passengers.  On the quarterdeck, officers and sailors struggled to release the lifeboats.  In most cases this turned out to be impossible; the handsome looking vessel had just been painted and the lifeboats were stuck to the hull.  The same applied to the davits - these too were stuck fast to the ship's railings with paint.  The crew shouted out that there was nothing to worry about, that everyone should remain calm, but the passengers were rushing senselessly about on deck in their flimsy attire.  Everyone was struggling to climb aboard the few lifeboats they had managed to release.  The deck was a bedlam of curses, shouts and hysterical screams.  People fell to their knees and began to pray.

Anna Spafford stood with Tanetta in her arms.  The eldest daughter, Annie, could see that she was heavy for her and leant her shoulder into her mother to lend some support.  The two other children, Maggie and Bessie, pressed themselves to their mother. Nicolet and Willie Culver were there too, and Pastor Lorriaux kept an eye on the little group. Pastor Weiss ran back down to his cabin and returned with coats and shawls for the children.

Anna Spafford and her little group stood alongside one of the released lifeboats, but terrified passengers forced their way past, pushing the little group aside.  At that very moment a shudder went through the ship; the screams became more urgent and the confusion increased. Pastor Weiss thought that there were too many people crowded onto their side of the ship and he began to shout that they must quickly make their way over to the other side.  At that moment the mainmast snapped and fell, pulling the mizzenmast down with it.  The released lifeboat was catapulted overboard, carrying with it all the passengers who had managed to fight their way onto it.

Things now began to happen very quickly.  The Ville du Havre tilted sharply to starboard and began to sink.  Anna knew that the end was near, but she was not afraid of dying, and thought only that it would be a comfort for her husband to know that she and the children perished together.  There was a moment of silence on board as the deck slowly slid down into the sea.  Little Maggie held onto Pastor Weiss' hand. She looked up at him.  "Pray!" she said.  "God help us," replied the priest. Another loud crash was then heard as the bow broke away from the rest of the ship and sank.

Maggie, who up until this moment had been terrified out of her wits, now let go of the pastor's hand and walked calmly over to her mother, who still held little Tanetta in her arms.  Annie continued to lend her support, while seven year old Bessie clung, pale and silent, to her knee.  Nicolet and two of the French priests were there too.  Maggie turned up her dark eyes to look at her mother, saying; "Mother, God will look after us."  And Annie said: "Do not be afraid.  The sea is His, and He created it."

The sea was now washing over the quarterdeck and, like a chasm, it yawned open up to swallow the crumpled shell of the Ville du Havre. The little group fell together into the water - along with all the others crowded onto the deck.  Below deck, inside the ship, there were many who were trapped and unable to do anything to save themselves.  All slid into the sea which was several kilometers deep, in a maelstrom, in a rush of fragments of wreckage and human bodies.

Twelve minutes had passed since the Ville du Havre was struck.

As Anna Spafford was dragged down her little girl was ripped out of her arms.  She made a grab for her but managed only to grasp a hold of her dress, and then the material was jerked out of her hands once again. When she reached out again her hand only brushed the material of a man's corduroy trousers.  Then she lost consciousness.

She awakened to the sound of oars stroking the water.  She was lying in a boat, drenched from head to toe and retching from the sea water. Her long hair was thick with salt and her gown was in shreds. Nobody had to tell her that her children were gone.

She had been lying in the water for an hour.  She went under and then surfaced again, unconscious. At some point a wooden spar slid in under her and this saved her life.  Sailors from the Lochearn managed to recover her from the water while desperately combing the area for survivors.  Shortly afterwards they found Captain Surmount, who had been washed overboard from the bridge of his sinking ship.  Pastor Weiss was already in the little lifeboat, as were Lorriaux and Blanc, and later they found the fourth minister, Pastor Cook.  Nicolet, however, was among those missing.

On board the Loch Erne, Anna Spafford learned that two of her girls, which ones she never learned, had appeared on the surface close to a man whom they had then clung to.  Being a good swimmer, he had told them to hold on tightly to his coat.  But first the smaller child lost her grip, and then the other child sank, just as he was almost within reach of a boat.

Anna did not give up the hope that she would see her children again. Every time a boat with rescued passengers came up alongside the ship she peered down desperately in the hope that she might catch a glimpse of one of her little girls.  Now and then faint cries were heard from the sea, but gradually the voices died away.  No one could survive in the cold water for long.  A slight, but insistent voice was heard.  It came from a little girl who was clinging to a piece of wood.  "I don't want to drown," she shouted.  They managed to pull her up into a boat. She was the only child to survive the wreck of the Ville du Havre.

By four o'clock in the morning the cries for help had ceased and the sea fell silent.  There was only the moaning of the wounded and the weeping of the bereaved to be heard in the clear, starry night. The ocean rose and fell gently.  It had claimed 226 lives (including Anna Spafford's three daughters and their nurse, and Willie Culver) and spared only fifty-seven.

Here is a copy of the telegram Anna Spafford sent home to her husband reporting the loss of their daughters, their nurse and Willie Culver:

"Saved alone - what shall I do - Mrs. Goodwin, children, Willie Culver lost - go with (Pastor) Lorriaux until answer - reply Porclain 64 Rue Aboukir Paris"   Note that the telegram is dated December 2nd - the Ville du Havre sank early in the morning of November 23rd, but ship to shore wireless would not be invented until 1880.  The ships had no way to convey the horrible news to the world until they reached a port - in this case, Cardiff, Wales.

The family was hoping that Willie's body would eventually wash up on shore, as years later many victims of the Titanic would, but alas, no remains of Willie Culver were ever found.  The stone with his name on it at Rosehill is a cenotaph.

And that is the end of the story of young Willie Culver.  There is no record of any memorial service taking place for him in Chicago; perhaps without a body his family did not feel it was appropriate,  In fact when Willie's father Belden Culver died in 1902, his obituary did not even mention his three sons that predeceased him - only his two unmarried daughters.

May William Barry Culver, and all the victims of the Ville du Havre, rest in peace.

***The story of Anna and Horatio Spafford is a fascinating one in and of itself.  After losing their fortune in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and their daughters in the Ville du Havre disaster of 1873, they moved to the Holy City of Jerusalem and founded the American Colony there.  A fascinating account of their lives, before and after the loss of their daughters can be found in Faith and Fate in Jerusalem by Birgitte Rahbek & Mogens Bähncke.  A copy can be found here:   


  1. I just can't imagine ... Such a tragic story.

  2. This is fascinating! I wrote a novel about the Spaffords (I'm in the process of editing it) and Willie is a character in it. This post enlightened me on some facts that I didn't know about him. Thank you!