Remembering the Water Witch tragedy
Cupids Historical Society unveils new monument to victims, survivors
A special sub-committee of the Cupids Historical Society hosted a ceremony on Dec. 8 to officially unveil a monument to the victims of Water Witch disaster, which took place on Nov. 29, 1875. Twelve of the 25 crew and passengers onboard the schooner died in the tragedy, which occurred during a storm in a gulch near Pouch Cove. For comprehensive coverage of this emotional and well-planned event,
As Joyce Quelch stood atop Horrid Gulch near Pouch Cove last week, she couldn’t help but imagine the drama that unfolded there some 138 years ago.
After travelling from her hometown in Lincoln, Massachusetts, Joyce was drawn to the spot where her great-grandfather, Samuel Percy Spracklin of Cupids, barely escaped death when the ill-fated schooner Water Witch foundered on the rocks, some 180 metres below, during a blinding snowstorm on Nov. 29, 1875.
“I needed to see it. It was amazing,” Joyce stated. “It truly has the right name and it’s hard to imagine that people were in there.”
Joyce had travelled to her ancestral homeland to attend a ceremony commemorating the loss of the Water Witch and 12 of her 25 crew and passengers, pay tribute to the lucky survivors and the heroic efforts of the people of Pouch Cove.
The moving ceremony took place at Cupids United Church on a chilly Sunday, Dec. 8, and included the unveiling of a new monument dedicated to the memory of those who died. It was all done under the stewardship of the Cupids Historical Society.
When it was all over, Joyce had a chance to address the several dozen people who took part in the ceremony, including about a dozen other descendents of those onboard the Water Witch during that fateful voyage from St. John’s to the vessel’s homeport in Cupids.
Joyce arrived in Cupids just as the church bell was tolling, minutes prior to the start of the ceremony, beginning a powerful reconnection with relatives she had never met.
“I now have new-found relatives in New… found … land,” she noted afterwards, during a meet-and-greet at the Cupids Legacy Centre.
A heavy price
The Water Witch disaster had a shocking impact on the community of Cupids, and most notably the Spracklin family. Of the 12 who died, six were members of the Spracklin family (see fact box), including Samuel Percy Spracklin’s wife of four years, Elizabeth A. Spracklin (Wells), and his brother, Moses Robert Spracklin.
Samuel’s brother and fellow survivor, William E. Spracklin, also lost his wife, Malvania Cave, in the disaster.
Seventeen years later, Samuel Percy Spracklin married Louisa Courage of Harbour Grace, and like many at the time, they are thought to have relocated to Massachusetts.
Joyce Quelch had often heard her late mother, Lillian Adelle Spracklin, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 91, talk about the Water Witch. Lillian’s father was Fred Spracklin, who was the son of Water Witch survivor Samuel Percy Spracklin.
“From that union, that’s why I’m here,” Joyce explained.
Meanwhile, the ship’s captain, 50year-old Samuel Spracklin, is said to have scaled the cliffs of Horrid Gulch with two others and summoned help from residents of nearby Pouch Cove, with names such as Eli Langmead and Alfred Moores being given special mention for their roles in the rescue effort.
“No praise can escape the merits of the Pouch Cove people in the saving of these people, and the care and tenderness they received,” said Norma Bonnell, who told the story of the Water Witch sinking during the ceremony.
An outpouring of support
Cupids received national and international attention in 2010, on the 400th anniversary of the founding of what is considered the oldest English settlement in Canada.
Not long after the hype from those celebrations died down, members of the Cupids Historical Society decided that more should be done to commemorate the loss of the Water Witch.
An exhibit is on display at the Cupids Legacy Centre, and an annual remembrance ceremony is held in Pouch Cove. However, of the nine victims buried — three others were interred elsewhere — in the nearby cemetery, only three have headstones.
According to research, the nine victims were buried in a mass grave behind the church, and only families with the financial wherewithal were able to erect permanent grave markers.
Members of the society felt this was an injustice worth correcting, and formed a special Water Witch committee to oversee the project. After many months of intense research, the committee launched a fundraising campaign recently, with hopes of raising $10,000 to purchase a proper monument for all the victims.
After just three months, the money was in place, thanks to contributions from descendants, businesses and individuals in this province, Ontario and Massachusetts, and on Dec. 8, the impressive monument was unveiled.
It prominently features the names of all 12 victims, including all four of the females onboard that day.
Thousands of mourners
Last week’s ceremony took place in the same church — Cupids United — as the funeral service for nine Water Witch victims on Dec. 6, 1875. It was said to be arguably the most significant funeral service in the town’s long history, and was the firstever service held in the new church, which was barely completed in the fall of 1875.
It’s thought that “thousands” of mourners gathered for the service, with the minister, Rev. Charles Lavender, preaching from atop the front steps of the building.
“This church is forever linked to the Water Witch, since most of the victims were members of this congregation,” said Ross Dawe, who chairs the church’s board of directors.
For those on hand last week, the significance of the event was very emotional, with one presenter moved to tears, and various accounts revealing the scope of the tragedy and its impacts on families and their communities.
“The disaster was followed by horror, shock and confusion,” said St. John’s resident Judy Foote, the greatgranddaughter of another Water Witch survivor, James Henry Wells.
James, just 16 at the time, was the last person to be rescued from the gulch, having clung to the rocks all night.
Judy Foote began researching her family history three decades ago, and developed a great interest in the disaster.
Amid the tragedy, she said there was an outpouring of kindness, with the equivalent of what she estimates to be up to $42,000 in today’s dollars donated to a disaster relief fund for those impacted.
She said the disaster also forever linked the communities of Cupids and Pouch Cove, and is now woven into the cultural heritage of both towns.
A climb to safety
Dale Russell Fitzpatrick, who chairs the Water Witch committee, said standing in the church, nearly 138 years to the day from the date of the mass funeral, gave her cold-shivers.
She made special mention of the tenacity, strength and sheer courage shown by the survivors and rescuers, noting there were no helicopters or specialized rescue teams available in those days.
She also challenged those who might suggest the captain should have stayed with the ship, as is tradition.
“If he hadn’t scaled those cliffs …,” she said, suggesting the loss of life may have been greater.
More than a dozen descendants of those aboard the Water Witch when it foundered on the rocks near Pouch Cove in late November 1875 were on hand for the unveiling of a new monument in Cupids on Sunday, Dec. 8. Pictured here are: Front (l-r) — Judy Foote, Gertrude Foote, Joyce Lake, Nellie Whelan, Ruth Whelan-Baker, Betty Whelan-Burt, Joyce Quelch, Rev. Bernice Spracklin, Norma Bonnell, Bernie Pickett (Pouch Cove Heritage), Sue Gruchy (Pouch Cove Heritage) and Gail Everson (Pouch Cove Heritage); back — Vern Whelan, Frank Wells, Roy Noseworthy (descendant of Pouch Cove rescuer), Nellie Noseworthy (Pouch Cove) and Cupids Mayor Harold Akerman. Akerman is also president of the Cupids Historical Society.
Members of the Cupids Historical Society’s Water Witch Committee had the honour of unveiling the new monument. Taking part in the unveiling were, from left, Harold Akerman, president of the society and mayor of the Town of Cupids; Roy Dawe, member of the Water Witch committee; Dale Russell Fitzpatrick, chair of the Water Witch committee; Peter Laracy, general manager of the Cupids Legacy Centre and member of the Water Witch committee; and Rev. Bernice Spracklin.
There are no known photographs of the Water Witch. This model, which is on display at the Cupids Legacy Centre, was made by David Arscott.
In appreciation for her efforts, members of the Water Witch committee president committee chair Dale Russell Fitzpatrick with a bouquet of flowers. Picturd here are, from left, Harold Akerman, Dale Russell Fitzpatrick, Ross Dawe and Peter Laracy.