Minnie  Schiffer  —  Capt. John Wilson  —  PS Connaught

Minnie Schiffer Painting

A small sailing ship named the Minnie Schiffer, under the command of 50 year old Capt. John Wilson was nearing the end of the home leg of her first Atlantic crossing. She had a crew of six, four of whom could not speak English. She was carrying a cargo of fruit and wine from Marseille to Boston. She was built by S.N. Dickinson in Somerset, Mass., for the import-export company  Schiffer & Brothers. Built as a schooner, a second deck was later added and she was changed to a Brigantine. She was 108ft. long, with a 26ft. beam (width) and  Weighed aprox. 300 ton. At around midday, on the 7th. October 1860 she spotted distress signals and heavy smoke coming  from a ship in the distance. The ship was the PS Connaught. She was on fire and listing heavy to her starboard side. Capt. Wilson heaved to (stopped forward motion) two hundred yards from the Connaught and began to take passengers from the lifeboats. Due to a lack of lifeboats a rescue would depend on the few lifeboats available making repeated trips to ferry the passengers to the Minnie Schiffer in storm conditions. The situation aboard the Connaught was becoming critical and extremely dangerous. Water and fire was gaining rapidly. Parts of the hull was red hot and began to buckle with the intense heat. Waves were turned into steam as they pummelled the side of the ship. The pitch and caulking on the decks melted and caught fire. The heat from the deck could be felt through the soles of the shoes of the passengers. The transfer proceeded slowly. Only about 200 passengers had been transferred by sunset. Wilson knew that darkness would bring more hazards and that all the passengers could not be saved. He took a gamble and decided to narrow the gap between the two ships and attach a line to speed the rescue. If at any time now an explosion occurred on the Connaught, or a fire ember set fire to the sails of the Minnie Schiffer, both ships and all aboard would be lost. The Minnie Schiffer was about a quarter the length of the Connaught. The top of her mast only reached deck level. The risky manoeuvre paid off. By 9.30pm all the passengers from one of the largest, and most luxurious  liners in the world were safely on board a tiny cargo ship totally unsuitable for the task. Captain Leitch and his First Officer Thomas Connauton were the last to abandon what was now an inferno. The Connaught sank, stern first, at 2am on Monday the 8th. The Minnie Schiffer sailed into Boston on the afternoon of Tue 9th. The passengers were crammed so tightly on deck that some  had to cling to the rigging to find space. She was towing lifeboats from the Connaught filled with additional passengers. At a subsequent enquiry Capt. Leitch was highly commended for his “intrepid coolness” throughout the rescue. The quiet and unassuming Capt. Wilson became an overnight celebrity.  Both he and his crew were hailed as heroes. They were described as being “instruments in the hands of God.” Capt. Wilson received accolades, financial gifts and awards, including “a splendid silver pitcher and salver” with “appropriate inscriptions,” which he cherished afterwards through “thick and thin.” Originally from Baltimore he settled in New-Orleans, the hometown of his wife.  Having no children of their own they adopted and raised several orphans. Much of his career was spent transporting cargo in and around the gulf of Mexico. He went into  “the privateering business” on the side of the confederates during the civil war. Captain John Wilson died on September 20, 1877. He was buried in the Girod Street cemetery, New – Orleans.   In 1957 bodies from the cemetery were exhumed to make way for modernisation. Most of the remains are believed to have been disposed of in a landfill. The rescue of the Connaught is considered to be one of the most courageous, daring and successful rescues in maritime history.