“Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast”: The fate of the S.S. President. And wine!

mysterious tales president header

It’s time for some more light summertime literary adventures…and some wine to go with it! This is the second article in my ongoing series “live blogging” one of my summer reading books, Edward Rowe Snow’s adventure- and mystery-filled 1962 volume Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast. My first installment dealt with the long-enduring mystery of Dighton Rock, an unusual boulder in Massachusetts covered with petroglyphs. Tonight’s installment features a double mystery: first, what happened to the passenger steamer SS President, which vanished after leaving New York in March 1841, and second, where can I find the wine that RockinRed Blog author Michelle Williams, who’s feeding me wine suggestions this summer, thought would be fun to sample while reading this very interesting chapter? As it turns out, the answer to neither mystery is particularly clear!

Edward Rowe Snow, amateur New England coastal historian and armchair adventurer, opens Chapter 5 of Mysterious Tales with a brief description of the President, which was last seen leaving New York for Liverpool on March 11, 1841, and then immediately launches into two discoveries more than a century later. Sometime presumably in the early 1950s a man named Alden B. Carpenter found a mysterious book hidden in a barn in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The book, whose author is unknown (I love this literary trope!), describes a fantastic tale of what happened to the President. A few years later, John Blake of Hull, Massachusetts–Snow even gives his address–was exploring the shore near his property when he found a 7-foot-long plank floating in the surf, with faint letters painted on it reading PRESIDE. Snow tells us that “experts” examined the plank and determined it dated from between 1820 and 1860. How it was bobbing around out there for 110 years and only then happened to wash up on shore is anyone’s guess, but given how flotsam works in the real world, it’s not nearly as far-fetched as it may sound at first blush.

president gale

No one was there to see the President go down, but this 19th century artist’s conception is probably pretty accurate.

After dropping these two factoids on us, Snow launches into the backstory of the President. Once the world’s largest ship, it was a very early entrant into the sweepstakes of the transatlantic steamship trade, with every luxury afforded its wealthy passengers. On the final voyage they included London actor Tyrone Power, the great-grandfather of the guy who starred in Billy Wilder’s film Witness for the Prosecution. The President sailed on March 11, 1841, and promptly dropped off the face of the Earth. A violent gale struck New England the next day. To modern observers (and to Snow himself, apparently) it seems obvious that the President was wrecked in the storm. But that would be much too pat for a book on famous mysteries. Snow details how a waiting game got going in England with the press, the line’s owners and even Queen Victoria becoming increasingly more anxious for news on the ship, which by early April was long overdue, and how they were all punk’d and trolled by a series of vicious hoaxes, false reports of sightings and downright fabrications by popular newspapers who kept reporting that the President had been seen here, or there, or had had engine trouble and was delayed, or something. Each of these hoaxes went viral, at least by 1841 standards, but after a few months passed it was obvious the ship wasn’t coming back, and she was written off as lost with all 121 hands aboard.

Snow finally returns to the discoveries in Massachusetts, starting with the manuscript from the West Pittsfield barn. This is where the real adventure of the chapter is, because the manuscript, at least as Snow describes it, is a great story but completely unbelievable. In the anonymously written tale, the captain of the President alters course to try to catch up with a boat they see on the horizon. (Why he would do this, adding time to a transatlantic voyage his passengers paid for, is unexplained). Two firemen aboard the ship are incensed and try to make up for the delay by running the engines hotter and faster. They go too far and the boiler blows up. But wait! The ship doesn’t sink! Although half her passengers are dead, the President limps along, only to be captured by a pirate schooner named (get ready for this) the Dragon’s Tail. The pirates take the ship’s surviving passengers, now only seven left, to a secret island in the Pacific called Dragondome. Eventually only one survivor, an officer, escapes from Dragondome, with a pretty Native American wife no less, but he’s recaptured and the wife commits suicide. The violins on the soundtrack swell…fade out.

boneshaker zinfandel

The wine, suggested by Michelle to pair with this chapter, that I was looking for: Boneshaker Zinfandel.

This story is utter rubbish and Snow, although maintaining a pretense of “allow[ing] the reader to decide whether it is fact or fiction,” seems to scoff at it. But hey, tales of swashbucklers, shipwrecks and pirates are why we’re reading this book in the first place, right? Snow evidently thought the plank found in Hull proved the President went down off the New England coast. He’s probably right, but 50 years after he published the book, nothing more of the ship has been found.

Now, the second mystery. My friend Michelle Williams, who writes the great RockinRed wine blog, suggested a California Zinfandel called Boneshaker would go well with the bold, audacious and mysterious fun of this book and this chapter. Here are her notes on this wine:

Boneshaker 2012 Zinfandel: This Lodi Zinfandel was crafted of 88% Zinfandel and 12% Cabernet Sauvignon. It poured a deep rich garnet with purple and black highlights into the glass. It poured a deep rich garnet with purple and black highlights into the glass. After resting open for an hour the Boneshaker Zin intoxicated the nose with rich aromas of dark ripe berries, dark chocolate, espresso, wet tobacco leaves, leather, baking spices and vanilla. This was a voluptuous wine; yet it was well-structured with a round acidity and surprisingly restrained tannins. SRP $18.

mysterious tales zin

The wine I found: Leese-Fitch California Zinfandel, 2012. A bit grassy tasting, but that was actually good!

I was really enthusiastic to taste this wine…but finding it was like trying to find the President itself! I live in Oregon, where our wine imports are a little haphazard compared to the rest of the country, and the closest I could get was a wine shop that said they could order it–but not in time for this article. While I admit I didn’t find it bobbing in the surf, another bit of flotsam (figuratively speaking) did come to me in a little wine shop. Leese-Fitch Zinfandel, 2012, made by The Other Guys Wines of Napa, California, proved a pretty surprising bottle. It was very flavorful, as Zins should be, but the adjective that comes to my mind quickest is “grassy.” Maybe not the best fit to drink while devouring a salty sea story, but I enjoyed it just the same!

I’m not sure what’s next from this book, but I’m not done reading it, and will bring you another mysterious tale soon enough. Keep enjoying your summer!

The header image is not the cover of any real edition of Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast. I created it myself from public domain images. The wine photos were taken by Michelle Williams (Boneshaker) and me (Leese-Fitch). All other images are in the public domain.
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8 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on ROCKIN RED BLOG and commented:
    Hopefully you have already purchased your copy of “The Winds of War and a delicious glass of Cantina Zaccagnini Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. In addition to war and romance, mysteries are great summer reads! Check out Sean Munger’s latest installment of his Live-Blogging Summer Reading with “Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast” and a delicious glass of Zinfandel!

  2. Nothing like a maritime mystery and a glass of Zin. I am always happy to read a mystery novel and of course a glass of wine is my pleasure anytime. Grassy, hmmmm….. but you say in a good way it sounds interesting, like the book.

  3. The picture of the doomed steamer is an old lithograph picture by Currier and Ives that was accompanied by a comment that it was based on what some witnesses saw of the ship, near the Nantucket shoals. Theoretically then “The President” would be found there (that is if the ship’s remains are still extant at all – it was a wooden ship, and except in low saline seas and harbors (like that of Stockholm, where the 17th Century warship “Vasa” was found and raised in the 1950s virtually in tact) most wooden shipwrecks are gone by the end of a century due to worms eating the wooden frame. However, the wreck of the “Central America” (sunk in a hurricane in 1857 off the Carolina coast) was found somewhat intact – as was it’s treasure.

    So it would seem from that and the floating board with the letters on it that Snow writes of the answer seems to be, the steamship “President” sank in a storm off New England, most likely near Nantucket shoals off Massachusetts. Or is it the solution? I have been curious about this since I was a kid and first heard of the disappearance of the ship when I saw a picture of the lithograph in a book of Currier & Ives prints (a black and white picture – they had two varieties of their lithographs, and the ones in color were the expensive ones). I decided to check out the story twenty years ago by writing to Clive Cussler, the writer and underwater archeologist. In the wake of the rediscovery of the Titanic by Dr. Robert Ballard, I wondered if a similar expedition might find some trace of the President near Nantucket Shoals.

    So I wrote him my suggestion, based on the lithograph that the missing steamer was there. Cussler was kind enough to write a response to my letter. Dated April 6, 1995, Cussler wrote the following:

    “Dear Jeffrey,

    The President, as you know, vanished without a trace. From what I’ve read on the loss, the ship probably struck an iceberg as did the Titanic. There is no genuine record of it being seen near Nantucket Shoals.

    All the best,

    Clive Cussler”

    The letter is from his post office box in Arizona, and he uses his own postal stamps (having an arrangement with the post office to do that). But his response certainly ended my interest in Nantucket Shoals.

    There were many who found the disappearance something of an ill omen. The President vanished in March 1841 on what was it’s third voyage. That month the new ninth President of the United States was sworn in. That was General William Henry Harrison – who would be dead within a month.

    One final minor point. The commander of The President on her last voyage was a “Lt. Roberts”, who apparently had a reputation as an Atlantic skipper for his day reminiscent of that of Captain Edward Smith of the Titanic in his day. He may, somehow, have ended up mentioned in a way in a movie, but as “Lt. Roberts” was not an uncommon name it may be a coincidence. In 1937 the British made an interesting sea adventure film, “Rulers of the Sea”, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Will Fyffe, and George Bancroft, about the first steamships to cross the Atlantic. The ship that makes the voyage (it is not the Savannah nor the Royal William) is commanded by a man named Roberts. I don’t know if someone did a bit of research while doing the screenplay or not.

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