The Body of Captain Ward Comes Ashore

The Minneapolis Journal, 23 Feb. 1901

It was the inscription on Capt. William Charles Ward’s simple grave marker at Raleigh’s Oakwood Cemetery that caught my attention:

Went Down With His Ship
City Of Rio De Janeiro
San Francisco Bay

Months later and many miles away from the cemetery, I wish I’d taken the time to photograph the tombstones surrounding William’s, something that I normally do but that particular day I was with company and unable to do my normal haunting.
Before diving into the events of February 22, 1901, I’ll share with you a little bit of William’s background, pieced together largely from newspaper clippings from the time of his ship’s sinking and when his headless body was found months after the disaster.
He was born in 1856 to Thomas and Ann Ward in England and later made his home in Raleigh, based on testimony from his cousin William Ward Blackburn at the 1902 Coroner’s Inquest. William had two brothers, (C.E. Ward and John Ward) and at least two sisters.
My apologies for the shadows.
By the age of 38 William had been the Captain of the City of Rio de Janeiro for close to four years. He had friends in wealthy social circles and a fiancee, Lena Jackson. The two met in 1892 when Lena was a passenger on another ship commanded by William during a return trip from China. Their engagement was a lengthy one, lasting for nine years.The couple put off their nuptials until the Captain could secure a job on dry land in Honolulu, something which tragically never happened, if you haven’t already guessed that.
William Ward’s image is seen here in the San Francisco Call, 23 Feb. 1901
The City of Rio de Janeiro was an iron-hulled, steam-powered vessel that traveled from San Francisco to ports in Hong Kong, Hawaii, and Japan carrying passengers, mail, and various other types of cargo such as tin, hemp, and sugar. After the wreck there were rumors that the Rio de Janeiro went down with millions in gold and silver, but those items weren’t listed on the ship’s manifest and the riches were probably just wishful thinking on the part of would-be treasure-hunters.
On the morning of February 22, 1901, the Rio de Janeiro returned from Hong Kong, a voyage that began on January 19. There were over 200 people on board (I found numbers ranging from 201 to 227), including a crew of 84 Chinese people (only two who spoke English) and the family of Rounsevelle Wildman, U.S. Consul General to Hong Kong. Pilot Frederick Jordan joined the crew the day before to advise Captain Ward how to best navigate the treacherous San Francisco Bay, which was plagued by dense fog and rocky waters.
San Francisco Call, 25 Feb. 1901
Around 4:00 a.m., Jordan gave the order to raise the anchor despite the thick fog and low visibility. The ship crept slowly towards Point Bonita until 5:40 when it met a jagged reef. Captain Ward remained calm and continued to give orders during the initial moments after the hull’s length had been compromised. Once it was apparent that there was no saving the Rio, he gave orders to lower the lifeboats. Within fifteen minutes of the collision the ship’s bow plummeted into the water, with only a few lifeboats safely in the water. There was a mad scramble to man the other boats at that time, causing some of them to sink due to overcrowding. Physical altercations broke out over life jackets. It was a scene of great chaos: boilers exploding, power going out, screaming, fighting, and panic at every turn as the vessel took on more and more water.
Around 130 people died in the bay that morning, including Rounsevelle Wildman, who was en route to President McKinley’s inauguration. His family was also believed to have perished. Frederick Jordan was rescued and for a short time following the tragedy tried to shift the blame to Captain Ward. William was found to not be responsible for the disaster, since Jordan was in charge of the ship at the time the ill-fated order was given to head for shore.
As for Captain Ward, he’d always said that he’d go down with his ship if ever faced with the dilemma of a sinking vessel. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser published the following of William in March 1901: “He told one friend that if he saw his ship lost and there was notheing more for him to do he would go into his cabin and blow out his brains. This friend thinks that if the sea ever gives up its dead it will be found that Captain Ward kept his word. Others say that he did not have time to carry out such a threat, as the ship went down soon after he was seen to enter his cabin.
The last time anyone saw William was when he entered his stateroom and shut the door.
Two days after the disaster, Lena took to her bed in a darkened room in her home, “prostrated” and “on the verge of hysteria” over her betrothed’s fate. Initially she refused to believe that William was dead, carefully reading the newspapers for a glimmer of hope that he’d been rescued and even wandering the beach, hoping that he’d turn up alive.
I wondered what happened to Lena in the months after the sinking of the Rio and I learned that she married a former boyfriend, James Bennett, on June 15, 1901. Lena and James were lovers when she was “hardly more than a school girl” but after an argument the two parted ways. James entered into a relationship with another woman, a relationship which ended when James attacked the woman with a knife under the notion that she’d betrayed him. At the same time he “turned the weapon on himself” but both survived their injuries.
When James, a marine engineer, learned of Ward’s death aboard the Rio, he was one of the first to offer Lena a shoulder on which to cry and the two rekindled their romance.
Getting back to the subject of Captain Ward, in the weeks immediately after the disaster his brothers went to San Francisco during recovery efforts in case William’s body was found. A March article in the San Francisco Call stated that a local woman requested that his remains be interred in California if they were recovered and at that time, C.E. Ward was willing to oblige. The identity of that woman wasn’t printed, but it’s possible that it was Lena.
The ocean deposited the bodies of crew members of passengers along the shore near Fort Point for years following the disaster. On July 12, 1902 a headless, severely decomposed body was found near Fort Baker. “The head of the corpse was entirely eaten away by the action of the water and decomposition. Only a few strips of flesh clung to the bones of the legs and arms. The trunk remained practically intact, but, from the appearance of the body, it is believed by those who viewed it that it had been in the water for more than a year without being exposed to the air.” A shirt, pants, shoes, and a watch clothed the remains. Numbers on the watch  would later point to its identification as Captain Ward.
While in the morgue a mysterious woman asked to see the corpse, claiming that she was an “intimate” friend of Ward’s and that she could identify him if she could view his hand. When the coroner told her that there were no hands to see, she left.
Once the remains were officially declared as William Ward the Masons, the Masters’ and Pilots’ Association of San Francisco, and a man representing the Ward family all wanted to claim the body and take charge of the burial. The brothers won the battle and after a stop at a San Francisco undertaker’s shop, Ward was shipped via train in a “massive casket”  to Raleigh, North Carolina.
San Francisco Call, 24 Feb. 1901
The Maui News, 9 Mar. 1901
San Francisco Call, 9 Mar. 1901
San Francisco Call, 15 Mar. 1901
Excerpt from the Pacific Commercial Advertiser  4 March 1901
Los Angeles Herald, 13 July 1902
San Francisco Call, 13 July 1902
San Francisco Call, 15 July 1902
San Francisco Call, 16 July 1902
  Excerpt from the Pacific Commercial Advertiser 21 July 1902
The Washington Times 13 July 1902
The Hawaiian Star, 11 July 1901
Additional Sources:

The Maritime Heritage Project

*Originally posted in May 2014

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