Monday, November 21, 2011

Women at Sea: The Sinkable Margaret Fuller

If you ask me what office women should fill, I reply: any. …let them be sea captains if you will. I do not doubt that there are women well fitted for such an office.

That is my favorite quote from the writer whose byline was simply “Margaret”. Born Sarah Margaret Fuller in Cambridge, Massachusetts in May of 1810, she would go on to become a shining light in what is now known as the transcendentalist literary movement along with men like Ralph Waldo Emerson who was a close friend. Fuller is also credited with being one of the first women’s rights advocates and has been called an inspiration by later women in the women’s rights movement including Susan B. Anthony. On the flip side, she was vilified as a harpy by others; Nathaniel Hawthorne, it must be admitted perhaps one of America’s most misogynist authors, modeled his Hester Prynne on Fuller. In particular he noted that both women shared “… very peculiar thinking on the whole race of womanhood.” Fuller herself was more impressed with the idea of womanhood than with individual women. She would achieve quite a bit in her short life, but she opined that most women weren’t up to the pursuit of literary greatness.

It is not, however, Fuller’s life with which I am concerned. You can read more about that here or here. This post will focus on her odd and ultimately tragic death at sea on July 19, 1850.

Fuller had gone to Europe in 1846 as the first female foreign correspondent for the New York Tribune. In Britain, she met the then exiled leader of the Italian revolution, Giuseppe Mazzini. Enthralled, in her usual fashion, by the concept of the rebellion, she followed Mazzini when he returned to Italy. There she met the former Marquis Giovanni Angelo Ossoli and the two promptly set up house together in Florence. Though scholarly debate continues to this day as to whether or not Fuller was ever legally the Marquise Ossoli, many biographers tacked her lover’s name onto Fuller’s own (particularly Julia Ward Howe whose work on Fuller is available online). Regardless, the two had a son, Angelo Eugene Philip Ossoli known as Angelino, in September of 1848.

Fuller and Ossoli backed Mazzini’s second bid at rebellion in 1849 but when the Pope returned to Rome from temporary exile in 1850, the couple had to pack up and hastily depart for fear of being jailed and possibly executed. They booked passage aboard the U.S. cargo freighter Elizabeth, bound for New York.

Elizabeth set sail on May 17. She appears to have been overloaded; her hold was packed with heavy Carrara marble in bulk form. The trip was slow and the captain, Seth Hasty, died of a smallpox outbreak aboard ship. Little Angelino also contracted the disease but was recovered by the time Elizabeth sighted the U.S. on July 19.

For reasons unknown, Elizabeth veered off course about 100 yards off Fire Island, New York, cracked her hull on a bar and began to sink immediately. This occurred around three in the morning and pandemonium quickly reigned aboard her. The first mate, who survived the wreck, remembered hurrying Fuller, Ossoli and their son up on deck and to the rail before leaping into the dark water. They did not follow him and he would later state his belief that Fuller wanted them to be left behind to die. Whatever the case, all three of the family members went down with Elizabeth, drowning within sight of land.

The story goes that local people appeared almost immediately on the beach with carts and wheelbarrows. They made no attempt to help those struggling toward land but instead began scavenging for valuables from the wreck. Henry David Thoreau, another close literary friend of Fullers, would journey to Fire Island to look for Fuller’s body. His search was in vain; only Angelino’s body was recovered. He lies buried now at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge under a monument to him and his parents.

The clues point to Fuller actually imagining herself dead at 40. She wrote home early in 1850 that she was “… absurdly fearful and various omens have combined to give me a dark feeling… It seems to me that my future upon earth will soon close… I have a vague expectation of some crisis – I know not what.” If dramatic death was what she hoped for, Fuller could not have engineered a more fitting ending to her “future upon earth”.

Poe said once “Humanity is divided into men, women and Margaret Fuller”. Considering his capacity for observing his fellow humans, we have to imagine that Edgar knew of what he spoke.

Header: Late 19th century engraving of Margaret Fuller


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Wow, that was a tragic ending. She really was ahead of her time, unfortunately. Nice to see that the reputation of New Yorkers hasn't changed much in the past 150 years or so, either...

Pauline said...

Absolutely, all around. "We're just here for the stuff" still applies, I guess.