A few days back, I received an email from historian and writer Eric Wiberg, asking for assistance in locating living family members of Isaac Roberts, a Bahamian cook who drowned in 1923.
Here’s what we know about the circumstances of Isaac’s death. Does anyone recognize his name, or the tale below from their own family history?
On April 29, 1923, a massive storm deluged the U.S. east coast with torrential rains and powerful winds.That night, seven ships in the area were wrecked, including the Thelma Phoebe, owned by Roland T. Symonette of Nassau.
According to a report in the Hartford Courant, the Thelma Phoebe was about fifteen miles off of Montauk, NY when a giant wave snapped her rudder. Unable to control their floundering vessel, her crew of eight spent a terrifying night being tossed about in the dark.
Just after daybreak on April 30, the Thelma Phoebe struck rocks off the south coast of Fishers Island, NY and began taking on water. The ship’s cook, Isaac Roberts, grabbed a mattress and dove into the angry water, presumably in an attempt to reach shore. Within seconds, however, he was swallowed up and carried under by the massive waves.
Harold Johnson, the ship’s captain, decided that drastic action was needed to save his remaining crew. Tying one end of a long rope to the Thelma Phoebe’s mast, he slipped over the side of the boat and into the roiling sea. He dragged the waterlogged rope behind him as he fought the waves and struggled to shore.
Upon reaching the beach, Captain Johnson secured the other end of the rope, enabling the six stranded crew members to pull themselves, hand-over-hand, to safety.
With Isaac Roberts missing and presumed drowned, and the rest of the Thelma Phoebe’s crew safe ashore, attention turned to the ship’s cargo — 2,400 cases of Scotch and Rye whiskey, valued at about $250,000 (an estimated $3.5 million in today’s dollars.)
At the time, it was widely speculated that the vessel’s destination had been “Rum Row,” a stretch of ocean near Sandy Hook, NJ where smuggled liquor was offloaded onto small, shallow-draft boats during Prohibition.
Documents aboard the vessel, however, indicated that the Thelma Phoebe had left Nassau – which was, at that time, a British port – bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, another British port.
Unable to prove that the Thelma Phoebe was in fact a rum runner, or that her cargo was contraband destined for the U.S., the American government could neither lay charges nor seize the salvaged liquor.
Two days after the wreck of the Thelma Phoebe, Isaac Roberts’ body was discovered in the seaweed along the south shore of Fishers Island. By agreement of Captain Johnson and local authorities, he was buried in a local cemetery.
Shortly thereafter, Captain Johnson and his remaining crew returned to Nassau. The approximately 850 cases of whiskey that had been successfully salvaged were returned to their rightful owner, Kenneth Kelly of Nassau.
And for nearly a hundred years, Isaac Roberts lay in an unmarked grave in Fishers Island’s St. John’s Episcopal Church cemetery.
Earlier this month, Eric Wiberg, assisted by local residents, located the exact site of the grave. And the island’s Henry L. Ferguson Museum would like to install a headstone in Isaac’s memory.
Before they do, however, they’d like to find any of his living family members.
We know Isaac was Afro-Bahamian, the only black member of the crew. And since the Thelma Phoebe, her captain and other six crew members were based in Nassau, we assume Isaac was as well.
I’m hoping someone reading this article might recognize this story and help us locate Isaac’s living family members and/or learn more about him.
If you have any information, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. (And please feel free to share this piece with anyone who might be able to assist.)