The Nancy Hanks. From book Shipwrecks of Florida
1922 add for the silent film Reported Missing
Star of the film Reported Missing, Owen Moore, aboard the Nancy Hanks. Credit: Wikimedia
Launching the Nancy Hanks in 1917. Described as ready to be a submarine blockade runner.
Photo of the Nancy Hanks burning
© 2023 by Anchorexplorations.com. Proudly created with Wix.com
The NANCY HANKS – “Miami’s Ghost Ship”
by Steven Danforth Singer
The wreck of the Nancy Hanks was included in my book Shipwrecks of Florida, but only recently did I come across a number of articles with tales of her being haunted, jinxed, etc., which got me curious. As I’ve said before, many shipwrecks have a story to tell, and the Nancy Hanks was no exception.
The four-masted schooner Nancy Hanks was built at Thomaston, Maine in 1917, by George A. Gilchrest, at the Dunn-Elliot Yard, the same builder of the Army Corps dredge Cumberland, whose remains now rest offshore Fort Lauderdale. She was a beautiful looking schooner of 944 gross tons, and measured 189.1’ in length of keel x 36.8’ in breadth of beam x 17.1’ in depth of hold, and had a carrying capacity of around 2,000 tons. She went aground off Miami in January of 1926, was rescued and beached off Fisher Island, auctioned off soon after, and everything of value was eventually removed and sold, including one mast that was salvaged and used to support the light at the Bayfront Park Amphitheater. Her hulk remained abandoned until 1929, when she burned to the waterline under mysterious circumstances and soon broke up. During that time, she became known as “Miami’s Ghost Ship.”
She was launched May 23,1917. WWI was raging, and Maine shipbuilding suddenly had a resurgence. The Nancy Hanks was the first schooner built at that shipyard in 15 years. She was built for a cost of $110,000 for the Mc Questen Bros. of Boston, for use in the lumber trade, but was sold while still on the stocks to Mr. Amos Carver of New York for $150,000 and a nice profit. By June, she was already booked for a maiden voyage to South Africa carrying a general cargo, and booked for a return trip with palm oil for a total of $250,000. Newspapers reported: “The freight is the largest ever paid to a sailing vessel for a similar voyage.” Soon after her launching, newspapers all over the country included a photo of her being launched, along with other photos not related to her but pertaining to WWI and of a Japanese warship returning the body of the US ambassador at San Francisco. The statement regarding the schooner’s photo read: “The new four-masted-schooner Nancy Hanks being launched at Thomaston, Me.; she will be a submarine blockade runner.” As German submarines were sinking many vessels at this time, including schooners, the quote definitely fits her intended purpose.
The 7/14/1918 Boston Globe mentions the schooner, or should I say her mascot. She had just docked in Boston from a trip from Africa with a large green parrot aboard which was attracting quite a crowd: “The parrot had finished breakfast and mounted on the rail, where it began to sing a deep-sea chantey.” A sailor blew cigarette smoke towards the bird, which immediately started berating the sailor in what can only be described as very colorful language, calling him all sorts of unmentionable names to the great amusement of all around. It then flew at the sailor seemingly to attack, but : “alighted on a stick the man was carrying and continued its verbal attack.” Also stated the schooner was there to load one million feet of lumber for South Africa.
Another interesting fact is that during the year 1922, the Nancy Hanks was chartered to be used for filming the shipwreck sequences for the silent movie “Reported Missing.” Unfortunately, no copies of this film are known to still exist, but some lines (printed on screen during the silent era) were reported in newspaper reviews back in 1922, one line read: “Shangheid on the eve of his wedding this blushing bridegroom is China-bound on the schooner Nancy Hanks.” A comedy drama, it also included scenes of speedboat racing and airplane stunts. The schooner and the cast of the movie set sail out into the Atlantic for two weeks to shoot some very realistic shipwreck scenes. Director Henry Lehrman wanted it as realistic as possible, and had the captain sail far out to sea. They actually sailed into a real storm, ran low on food after the first week, and many of the cast suffered from sea-sickness, but all survived. The star of the movie, Owen Moore, mentioning the still popular book “Two Years Before the Mast” stated: “Two days before the mast was enough for me, but they made me spend two weeks on a schooner in ‘Reported Missing.’ Never Again!” The cast stated: “staging shipwreck scenes, was the hardest work they ever had. The realism was terrific.” Another line from the movie printed in a review describing the storm at sea read: “The night was dark lak one black cat. And the wind blew, blew, blew. Blimey she blew a hurricane. An’ then she blew some more.” Luckily, I found a 1922 review with that line, as later in this story, its importance will become apparent.
The schooner did have a few mishaps during her career. It was reported in Feb. 1920 that the Nancy Hanks had put into Barbados during a voyage from Newport News to Bordeaux, leaking and with loss of some sails (another just says loss of sails). In July of 1920, a Belfast, ME. paper reported that Capt. Frank Whittier (who first captain of the schooner) had sailed to Bordeaux to bring back the vessel. No idea who captained her to Bordeaux, or if rumors of crews leaving the ship due to it being jinxed had anything to do with this particular voyage. In 1921, on a voyage from New York for Brunswick, GA, she collided with the steamer Fort Morgan in a heavy fog, and suffered serious damage requiring her to put into Norfolk for repairs. In 1923, Capt. Raynor was badly bruised at Tampa while loading the schooner with lumber and R/R ties, but he continued on with her. On June 27th, 1924, she left Philadelphia loaded with coal for Galveston, but due to unfavorable winds was about 17 days overdue when she did arrive, but a Galveston News article focused more on her superb seamanship. The header in the Galveston News read: "Disdaining Tugs, Schooner Makes Dock Under Sail," and that she "gladdened the hearts of old-timers along the water front yesterday by coming superbly into port and docking at Pier 41 without the use of a tug." Between Dec.1924 and Jan. 1925, she had a distressing voyage from Tampa bound for Wilmington. Soon after leaving Tampa loaded with phosphate rock, she started to leak during a storm and had to put into Key West where a repair was made. After she left Key West she encountered another storm, began to leak again, and had to put into Charleston for further repairs. I didn’t read anything about being jinxed or crews leaving, etc., and can only say that she had some occasional bad luck, as many vessels did, but also many successful voyages.
It was on Jan.10, 1926 that her end was sealed, and soon began all the ghost stories. She had arrived off Miami from Jacksonville with a load of lumber for the Sterling Lumber Co. of Miami consigned to the Coral Gables Lumber & Supply Company. The first report from Miami on the next day simply said the schooner went aground on a high spot of the reef off Government Cut during some rainy weather, and her captain, F.A. Brown stated he: “lost his bearings in the drizzling rain that was falling when he arrived about noon, and took a short cut across the reef to where several ships were anchored.” On the 12th a report said she was “disabled after having been thrown against the reef by the waves.” On the 14th, the ghost stories start with a story of how the City Dockmaster had been involved with saving the schooner, and that John Wilkes Booth’s ghost has haunted the schooner. The story of the wreck now gets even more intense: “the Nancy Hanks staggered through a squall outside Government Cut Sunday, pitched through blinding volleys of stinging rain and went aground.” A bit more dramatic from the reports a couple days before. It went on to say that the schooner’s two boats were smashed during the storm and that the tug Director’s boat was also smashed, and how the Dockmaster managed to get onto the schooner and help guide her into port, where the schooner was then tied up at the Fisher Docks. Earlier reports had said that the two port pilots, Captains Le Cain and Swanson (one on the schooner and one on the Director) are who guided the tug and the schooner inside, and where they “beached” the schooner at Fisher Island. I can’t see a reason why the Dockmaster would have been involved, and it was interesting that the same paper mentioned the dockmaster getting fired (no explanation why) three months later. A story about Biscayne Bay in August of 1926, while also mentioning the ghost of John W. Booth haunting the schooner, said: “She piled up on a bar off Miami Beach in a driving rain one morning. There were fourteen feet of water in her hold. She was sinking fast; hammering to pieces.” From what I’ve read, here’s what I think actually happened. The schooner arrived around noon during some rainy weather but nothing serious, attempted to cross the reef where other ships were anchored, got stuck, lost her rudder, and damaged her bottom causing a serious leak (and likely would have sunk without help), eventually got off with the help of the two tugs (the Director which had gotten through the reef and got a tow line on the schooner, and the Peerless which got a line on the schooner’s stern), was helped inside the cut by the two pilots, and was then “beached” off Fisher Island.
The next day, the owner of the Director filed a $37,000 libel against the schooner as he stated it wouldn’t have survived much longer without his help due to the bottom leaking, and the owners of the Peerless also filed a libel action for $20,000 for their role in saving the schooner. On 1/11,1926, the Nancy Hanks was taken into custody by the deputy U.S. Marshall due to the legal actions against her. On May 19th, 1926, the schooner and all her cargo and materials were auctioned off. A 7/23/1926 report said the schooner was now resting on the bottom, and the lumber was being salvaged from her hold.
The schooner sustained no damage during the Sept. 1926 hurricane which devastated parts of Miami and wrecked numerous vessels there, but a much less severe storm listed her over to one side the next month. I found adds for the sale of equipment and materials from the schooner in the papers up through 1928. By 1929 just about anything of value had been removed (legally & illegally) and sold off. I’m sure many locals had gone aboard the vessel over the years, and it was even mentioned that someone may have lived on it for a while. A $25 reward was posted in the local paper in 1927, for “information leading to the arrest and conviction of parties removing property from the schooner Nancy Hanks.”
There the schooner lay on a silt bank off the west end of Fisher Island until she was burned to the waterline on 10/9/1929. There were speculations about how the fire started. Arson, ghosts, etc. One article printed the next day hinted that C.H.”Pop” Nesle was involved. A well-known “former prohibition agent, rum runner, hi-jacker, filibuster, and one of the most colorful figures in Florida east coast and Bahama waters.” It seems he had lent a pump during the salvage of the Nancy Hanks back in 1926, and he never got it back. He had issued a libel against the salvage company it was lent to, but was jailed in the Bahamas soon after and was unable to pursue his case. It was said he boarded the schooner a couple of hours before she burned looking for his pump. One would think the pump was long gone as anything of value was removed years before. Nothing was proven, but Pop’s life story was quite interesting.
More ghost stories were printed soon after the fire including a “black cat” story told by a local captain who claimed he sailed the Nancy Hanks years before (I could find no mention of him as captain of the schooner). Long story short, he said a large black cat with glowing eyes suddenly appeared on the schooner during a voyage to Africa. A storm immediately engulfed the vessel which she barely survived. Later on, the cat was seen again and another storm battered the ship. When seen again most all the crew caught the “fever” and then again when seen, another storm surrounded the ship until the ghostly cat was swept overboard and the seas subsided. Another paper’s version had the crew capturing the cat during a storm and throwing it overboard, immediately calming the seas. Remember the line from the film "Reported Missing" I mentioned previously regarding the “black cat”? Pretty sure this local captain was playing a prank, and was re-telling his version of the story from that film, which he most likely had seen. Surprisingly, all the ghost and jinxed stories between 1926 and 1929 about the schooner never mentioned the Nancy Hanks and her role in that film, and I presume that fact was likely only known about by a few.
It was also reported that a local resident said he saw a ghostly apparition wandering the flaming deck of the schooner as she burned, or more likely having heard all the local ghost stories, his mind was playing tricks. And what about John Wilkes Booth’s ghost having haunted the schooner. I see it mentioned a number of times after she wrecked in 1926, but nothing specific except that Booth's ghost haunted it because the schooner was named after President Lincoln’s mother (though not confirmed-maybe another woman named Nancy Hanks?). Some trivia: both actors Tom Hanks and George Clooney are distant relatives of Nancy Hanks.
Then there were the stories of Nancy Hank’s last voyage in 1926. One article describing her arriving at Miami read: “Muttering of mutiny they cast anchor near Fisher’s Island and a majority left the ship immediately.” It went on to say it was jinxed from the beginning of the voyage as a crewman murdered an officer and the captain was washed overboard and lost. Reports of the fire were picked up by papers elsewhere such as this report from the Oct. 24, 1929 Southwest Times of Pulaski, Va. which read: “Pushing slowly through the entrance to the Miami harbor, the schooner fell prey to the vicious winds of the hurricane and was beached in shallow waters.” As the September 1926 hurricane at Miami was national news, I can see where this discrepancy came from and is the same article about the ghostly black cat being thrown overboard. As for the murder on board and the captain being washed overboard, these were obviously placed there to embellish the haunted ship story. No mention of any mutinies, murders, or captain’s drowning mentioned after the initial grounding. The Miami Daily News of 8/16/26, did mention that the original captain on that last voyage was put ashore at Jacksonville due to illness, and was replaced by another captain, which likely was the Capt. Brown mentioned.
Fisher Island is now private, and only the rich and famous live there, it being one of, if not, the wealthiest zip codes in America. There are no roads to it, and you can only visit if invited. I’m sure remnants of the schooner still lie offshore of the island. If the Nancy Hanks’s logbook is still around, it may have more interesting tales to tell. Was she haunted? I’ll let the readers decide.
Source besides ones mentioned above: Lloyd’s Register; Merchant Vessels of the U.S.; Lewiston Daily Sun, 5/17/1917; Bangor Daily News, 5/25/1917; Jess County News, 6/9/1917; Independent Record, 6/29/2017; Logansport Evening Press, 5/14/1922; Galveston Daily News, 8/23/1924; Charlotte Observer, 1/8/1925; Miami Herald, 1/11-12/1926, 10/9-10/1929; Miami Daily News, 1/14/1926, 8/15/1926, 10/9-10/1929; Tampa Tribune, 5/15/1926; Penobscot Marine Museum.