Wreck of the Steamship Florizel, The

DESCRIPTION: A chronicle of the tragic wreck of the S.S. Florizel off Renews Rocks where 40 were saved out of 106.
AUTHOR: Words: Joan Endacott; Music: Harvey Freeman (? - these may have been the informants, not the authors)
EARLIEST DATE: 1921 (Greenleaf/Mansfield)
KEYWORDS: wreck sea ship disaster
Feb 23/24, 1918 - Wreck of the Florizel
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (6 citations):
Greenleaf/Mansfield 140, "The Wreck of the Steamship Florizel" (1 text, 1 tune)
Doyle2, p. 31, "The Wreck of the Steamship Florizel" (1 text, 1 tune)
Doyle3, p. 72, "The Wreck of the Steamship Florizel" (1 text, 1 tune)
Doyle4, p. 24, "The Wreck of the Steamship Florizel" (1 text, 1 tune)
Lehr/Best 38, "The Florizel" (1 text, 1 tune)
Blondahl, pp. 84-85, "The Wreck of the Steamship Florizel" (1 text, 1 tune)

Roud #4417
Omar Blondahl, "The Wreck of the Steamship Florizel" (on NFOBlondahl04)
NOTES [4892 words]: An extensive account of this wreck is found in Cassie Brown's A Winter's Tale. Toronto: Doubleday Canada Ltd., 1992. The boat was taking passengers from St. John's to Halifax then on to New York. The authors of the song are from nowhere near the [site of] the incident and the words were written three years after the wreck while the tune was written eleven years after. - SH
This song is item dD35 in Laws's Appendix II.
All the following notes are based on Cassie Brown's book except as noted. (This is not Brown's only writing on the Florizel; she also had two essays on it in BrownWinter. But these add nothing to the story; one is a brief overview and one is "Kitty Cantwell's Story" of the wreck.) Pp. 4-5, describes the Florizel as a ship of some 3000 tonnes (Ryan/Drake, p. 37, lists her as 1980.22 net tons, which refers to her carrying capacity as opposed to overall capacity), 305 feet long and having a beam of 42 feet. She was built in 1909 by Charles Connell & Co. of Glasgow; she had the distinction of being the first sealing steamer fitted with wireless equipment (Ryan/Drake, p. 37).
She was named for the character in Shakespeare'sA Winter's Tale,; Bowring's, the line which owned her, usually named their ships after Shakespearean characters (e.g. Cordelia, Desdemona, Hamlet, Juliet, Ophelia, Othello, Prospero, Romeo, Stephano; O'Neill, p. 961). Although only about a decade old at the time of her loss, her design was conservative; she used the old triple expansion engines rather than the newer turbines. Brown says that she was designed as a passenger liner, with room for about 180 passengers in addition to her crew -- but in the spring she went off passenger duties to become a sealer. (Her work as a sealer is briefly mentioned in the song "Captains and Ships"; O'Neill, p. 961, says that the "broke records at the seal fishery under commend of the legendary Captain Abram Kean"; on one trip, the Florizel under Kean took 43,000 seal hides. For Kean, see "Captain Abram Kean") The rest of the year, she usually sailed between New York, Halifax, and St. John's. Her top speed was apparently between eleven and twelve knots (p. 34).
Her final trip, from St. John's, came after a very difficult voyage north in which there had been a smallpox epidemic on board. (Yes, people knew about smallpox vaccination, but there were apparently anti-vaxxer imbeciles in 1918 just as there are a century later.) This caused a delay in her final voyage; it also caused a number of passengers to cancel (pp. 6-7). Nine crew members (mostly waiters and stewards) were left behind on her final voyage because of the epidemic; one of them was Harvey Freeman (called "Harry Freeman" in the note on page 6 of Brown), who supplied the tune collected by Greenleaf and Mansfield.
It is unlikely that many veteran sailors were afraid, however; John Shannon Munn, the Managing Director of the Red Cross Line that owned the ship (as well as a senior director of Bowring's, the shipping/insurance family business that owned the Red Cross Line; Keir, p. 241), was one of those who sailed on the Florizel (p. 16). And her captain, William Martin, was regarded as a careful man and a good navigator (p. 7).
The ship itself had been given a deck gun to try to protect her from German submarines (the Florizel never encountered them, but her much larger sister the Stephano had been sunk in 1916; p. 35). This cost her a lifeboat (p. 36), which just possibly might have mattered.
The crew had sufficient warning that a storm was coming. It had been working its way up the Atlantic coast for several days, It hadn't been particularly severe, as winter gales go, but it was already bringing heavy swells to Newfoundland when the Florizel started her voyage (pp. 14-15). She ended up delaying her departure three and a half hours, but that was all (p. 17).
Unfortunately, the east coast of Newfoundland was not easy to navigate. There were three lighthouses between Cape Spear near St. John's and Cape Race in the south, plus the two at the capes themselves, but the three lighthouses on the coast were not very bright or easily spotted (p. 22); at no time did the crew of the Florizel get a clear sighting. And her final voyage was made in icy seas (so-called "sish ice," putting a few inches of ice fragments atop the sea), making it impossible to use the log to measure her speed (p. 35). And, for some reason, the ship didn't seem able to make her full speed on that night -- both the captain and the watch officer thought she was going about eight knots, eventually falling to perhaps six. But they didn't know! (p. 41). When they tried to fix their course by taking bearings on a lighthouse, they couldn't see it (pp. 48-49).
Most skippers, in this situation, would have headed away from the shore lest the ocean currents -- which ran toward shore at a fairly high speed and could drive the ship in the same direction -- affect her course. Instead, Captain Martin chose to steam less than two miles off-shore (p. 40). If I understand the numbers in Brown, if the currents were high, they could take the ship toward shore at about a half a mile per hour faster than if the current was at normal speed. In other words, if Captain Martin's dead reckoning were wrong, he might hit the shore as soon as four hours after he set his course based on "normal" currents.
To his credit, Captain Martin took soundings about once an hour from about 10:00 p.m. to midnight (pp. 50fff.) But the ship was still moving slowly, and he doesn't seem to have tried to find out why (pp. 56, 63, 66). The soundings seemed to indicate that he was on course (p. 56) -- but, because the depth in that area was nearly constant, they didn't really mean much. By midnight, the wind was up to 33 miles per hour at St. John's, and increasing (p. 62); by 2:00, it was a major storm (p. 63). But Captain Martin was so sure she was safely away from shore that he stopped taking soundings after midnight, and apparently made little attempt to watch for land (p. 67).
Well before dawn, the ship started taking on water as portholes started to leak and some glass started to break (pp. 70, 74-75). Books and furnishings were breaking loose and making life very uncomfortable aboard. This by itself did not endanger the ship, but it probably made everyone more irritable and less able to react to conditions. At 4:30, there was a major problem with the cargo in one hold (p. 77, although Brown isn't really clear about whether it shifted or the hold flooded); in any case, this didn't affect Captain Martin's actions.
After hours of rough weather, Captain Martin apparently estimated his position and gave the order that, at 4:00 a.m., the ship should start to steer more to the west (p. 71). Around 4:40, a sounding which Martin did not order (and which was done in a way that made the reading unofficial) made the sea depth 45 fathoms -- shallower than expected on his course; meanwhile, the ship seemed to be moving faster. Martin thought he knew where he was: by the Ballard Bank, almost due east of Cape Race. That meant it was possible to turn west to head south of Newfoundland -- a move which, if nothing else, would reduce the rolling of the ship. Captain Martin so ordered (pp. 78-79).
Martin's navigation was way off. He was somewhat west and far to the north of where he thought he was -- about twelve miles north of Cape Race rather than level with it. Having finally gotten speed up to nine knots, Captain Martin drove his ship aground on Horn Head Reef. And, not realizing what he had done, he quickly ordered full speed astern (p. 83). It didn't get her off the rocks. But if by some chance he hadn't broken the ship's back already, that did it. The Florizel was wrecked. Probably the only thing that kept her from sinking on the spot was the fact that she was on the rocks; she had a bad list to starboard (p. 95) and the water was coming in fast. With one end fixed, the waves were flexing the other end (p. 102).
The map on p. x of Brown shows the Florizel starting out from St. John's to sail south of Newfoundland. But somewhere around Cape Broyle, she turned in closer to shore to avoid Bantam Bank (an undersea rise that could not sink the ship but could produce unpleasant swells; p. 57) -- and, somewhere south of the Ferryland lightbouse, went turned even more to the west and crashed into Renews Rocks between Renews on the north and Cappahayden on the south.
With the ship flooding, the passengers had no choice but to make for the boat deck. Some were washed away (often the moment they reached the deck); some made it -- but were not dressed for the bitter cold and the icy water (pp. 102-103). Nor could much be done about rigging lifelines or the like; they too had been washed away (pp. 106-107).
Captain Martin ordered everyone into the lifeboats (p. 84) -- but, of course, they were in the middle of a storm. Although not far from land, the boats might well be lost if they tried to leave the ship (p. 94). But the ship wasn't safe either; there was water rising in the engine room (p. 89). She had a radio, and could send an S.O.S. (indeed, the radio operator started sending it almost at once; p. 88) -- but where was she? When the radiomen started calling, Captain Martin claimed they were near Cape Race (p. 116); he still hadn't figured out his error. It probably wouldn't have helped if he'd had it right; with only battery power for an auxiliary radio set, the radio went dead after a few minutes, probably because the aerial failed.
The ship's whistle began to sound soon after her wreck, and the people of Cappahayden apparently became aware of the wreck almost instantly. But they had no boats able to brave the weather (pp. 108-109); people brought their dories to the coast, but when one tried to put out, the weather overturned it at once (p. 201). Meanwhile, the Florizel was filling fast; some of those aboard apparently could not make it to the boat deck.
The Florizel's own boats were quickly washed away or destroyed; as those aboard were trying to get them down, a wave crashed some of the portside boats off their davits and into the starboard boats. Several people were washed overboard in the process (p. 113). Then the power went out, silencing the whistle and extinguishing the lights (p. 114).
There was little those on the Florizel could do but huddle on the upper levels and hope for rescue. There wasn't much space; the stern was going under (p. 128). Even the bow was only about eight feet above the water's surface (Keir, p. 242), leaving everything vulnerable to the waves. The boilers later fell out, too (p. 138), leaving even more holes in the hull and destroying the stokehold that had been one of the last refuges. For a while, some took shelter in or near the wheelhouse (p. 145), but then that was washed away (p. 148), taking with it among others the famous Newfoundland captain Joe Kean (Abram Kean's oldest son, who had captained the Florizel on some of her sealing trips) and the line's director John Munn. The only large place left where anyone could take shelter was the tiny wireless room. It was soon full to capacity (p. 144).
It is ironic to note that this fragile contraption, which was added to the ship after it was built; p. 153), stood up to the tempest; it is thought that the shelter of the smokestack saved it. But even the shack was slowly going to pieces in the storm (p. 175). Some time during the day after the wreck, the door was wrenched off, threatening to wash away those inside, but a few men managed to take the room's carpet and nail it across the door. It didn't keep all the water out, but it broke its force (p. 200).
There were a few other survivors in odd nooks and crannies, but not many. One of them was First Officer William James, who, along with passenger Michael S. Sullivan, periodically came out on deck to wave to those on shore so that they knew there were still living people on the wreck (pp. 200-201) -- a risky task, since if a wave hit while the waving man was on deck, he would almost certainly be washed away. But both survived.
Eventually the stern of the ship broke off (p. 177), but the bow was still on the rocks, so it made little difference to the survivors there. Captain Martin was talking about swimming ashore with a line; it was surely impossible, but he evidently wasn't thinking clearly. He was saved by the fact that no lines could be found (pp. 174-175).
Captain Abram Kean, patriarch of the famous Kean family of Newfoundland sailors, the father of Joe Kean, quickly volunteered to take a ship out (pp. 168-169). Only after plans were already being made did they hear that the Florizel was near Cappahayden, not Cape Race (p. 169), which caused some confusion -- few could believe that, if the SOS had come in after 4:30 a.m., the ship was so far north. But the people of Cappahayden could clearly see the Florizel on the rocks; they just couldn't rescue the survivors because of the storm. They were watching from the beach 200 yards away, helpless (p. 174). There was no question about what they were seeing, though -- bodies were washing ashore as dawn came.
Abram Kean was impatient, and wanted to board a rescue train rather than wait for a ship (p. 189) -- only to receive word that his son was dead, then further word that the body wasn't his son's; the result was that he missed the train (pp. 190-191).
It was hard to organize a rescue; the wreck happened early on a Sunday morning, in wartime, in winter. After a four to five inch snowstorm (p. 177), which made it harder to gather crews. As soon as the radio call was heard, people started trying to plan a response (p. 164f.), although they didn't know where the wreck was because of Captain Martin's navigation mistake. There were few ships available, however, plus it took time to gather sailors -- the Terra Nova and the Home didn't have crews available; the Cape Breton didn't have enough cargo aboard as ballast to sail in the conditions (pp. 184-185). The Hawk could have sailed, and her Captain wanted to head out, but there were problems with her owners (p. 184) -- and when those were cleared up, it was realized that she was too heavily loaded; she had to offload coal (p. 191).
The first ship, the Gordon C, set out from St. John's at 11:30 -- two hours after she had been ready to sail, and almost seven hours after the wreck. The Hawk and the Terra Nova, both of which had managed to find sailors who were not part of their regular crews, prepared to set out soon after (p. 192). Then came another incorrect message, saying that the sea was washing over the Florizel and all lives were lost. The first part was perhaps true, the second obviously false. The Hawk was delayed again, until a question could be sent and an answer received to say that, yes, live survivors could be seen on the Florizel (p. 193). So, once again, the Hawk prepared to go -- only to find a pair of stowaways aboard. Some dimwit decided that they had to be put off, so it wasn't until 3:44 -- eleven hours after the wreck -- that the Hawk set out (p. 194). And the seas were still rough and icy enough to slow the rescuers down. The Terra Nova in particular was slow in any case (p. 205).
At 4:00, p.m. a telegraph line was run to the shore at Cappahayden (pp 202-203), which at least meant there would be few incorrect messages after that -- but still there were no rescue boats. Even if the survivors on the Florizel were safe from the storm, how long could the wet survivors, most of whom had lost most of their clothing in the wreck, survive the bitter conditions?
Shortly before dusk, those on shore tried to use a rocket gun to fire lines to the ship. The first two attempts failed, and no further attempts were made (p. 204).
Also at dusk, the Gordon C arrived at the wreck site. The ship came within about 150 yards, saw no signs of life, and backed off (p. 206). The Home arrived around 6:00 p.m., well after dark, and dared not get close because of her larger size. The Gordon C told her there was no sign of life, then headed off to harbor at Fermeuse. The Terra Nova also took shelter, at Renews (p. 207), apparently without getting close. The Home, with John Stone, an official of the Newfoundland government aboard, kept looking. Stone and and a few sailors took a boat to explore (pp. 207-209). In the rough seas, even the boat couldn't get too close; they saw nothing except some lights that might have been reflections from the shore. The Hawk arrived at 9:00, also tried to get close, and also saw nothing (p. 211). But she did sound her whistle (p. 214), which apparently none of the others had done, and that alerted the survivors. At 1:00 a.m., the larger Prospero (which had been at sea rather than in port) arrived, and she was big enough to actually start shining lights, plus she too used her whistle (p. 215). Unfortunately, one of the Prospero's boats capsized repeatedly in the waves, so the other boats found themselves having to rescue the rescuers! (pp. 216-217). But one of the Florizel's radio operator, using a passenger's flashlight, was able to signal that there were still people aboard before the battery died (pp. 218-219). The seas were too rough to rescue anyone at the time -- but, at last, the survivors knew there was help coming, and the ships knew there were people to rescue. And the sea began to quiet during the night, making it safer to move around the wreck. The rescue would begin shortly before dawn; in the meantime, some of the crew started to pull survivors out of the crannies where they had taken refuge (pp. 220-222).
All five rescue ships came back at that time -- but the rocks meant they couldn't get too close; rescue had to be done by boat -- and conditions were still bad enough that they had to keep boats in the water to be prepared to rescue the crews of the other boats! (p. 222). The people on shore also started launching their dories around dawn (p. 223). And a lifeline was finally rigged to the Florizel. But the conditions were such that only one boat could take off survivors at a time, making the process quite slow. Passengers were taken to the Hawk, usually two at a time (p. 224). Eventually an ambitious dory managed to come alongside also, and it rescued about half the people who survived. But three rescuers were into the water in the process, and two of them ended up injured (pp. 225-226); other rescuers also had some trouble, although all survived. The rescue finally ended around 8:00 a.m., or a bit more than 27 hours after the wreck (p. 228).
In all, 44 survivors made it off the Florizel -- 17 passengers and 27 crew (p. 228). The latter included Captain Martin, First Officer William James, and Third Officer Philip Jackman. A total of 94 people -- 61 passengers and 33 crew -- were lost. The relatively high survival rate for the crew does not imply that thy shirked their duty after the wreck -- the last seven men off were all crew, and they included Martin and James were on the very last boat (pp. 227-228). Several, including Jackman, bore permanent injuries (p. 230). The post-mortem found no fault with the crew. It's just that the crew knew how to get around the ship, and most of them were young and healthy. Many passengers got lost or were swept away because they didn't know how to deal with a wreck at sea, or were too young or too old to survive the conditions -- it appears, from the list on pp. 269-270, that every survivor was between the ages of 21 and 45, and only two of the survivors were women.
Joe Kean's father Abram Kean claimed that Joe's funeral was "beyond all doubt the largest ever seen in Newfoundland" (Kean, p. 39); Abram Kean had a very selective memory, so I wouldn't bet on this being true, but no doubt many of those who turned out were honoring all the Florizel's dead, not just Joe Kean. Kean, pp. 44-45, has photos of the mourners marching down the streets of St. John's, and there were indeed many of them -- but the sealing fleet was supposed to sail the next day, so what else were the sealers supposed to do? Protest, and have Abram Kean kick them off his ship?
Naturally there was an inquiry -- and a very high-powered one, with a future Newfoundland Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker of Parliament, and Attorney General involved, as well as several naval officers (p. 237). (The sarcastic part of me, thinking of the way other inquiries into wrecks went, can't help but think that it was typical of the British style in these things: High-powered, thorough, and unwilling or unable to deal with the actual issues.) It began less than two weeks after the wreck, on March 5. Captain Martin was questioned for six days. All of the other crew members were questioned as well, and twelve of the seventeen surviving passengers (pp. 237-238). It was quickly established that the Germans were not at fault; the ship had simply not been where she expected to be (p. 238). Martin was eventually forced to admit that he had felt the ship was slow, but he had not asked the engineers why (p. 239), and he turned out not to know much about how the motors worked (p. 240).
There was some inconsistency in the officers' testimony about exactly what happened (Brown, p. 243, thinks one of them lied, based on things that came out later, but in this case it could just be bad memory). None of the three (Martin, James, and Jackman) could explain why the ship was so slow (though, as we shall see, Jackman had a clue). The surviving engineers testified that the engine had been working well, but they couldn't explain the slow speed either (pp. 243-244). A narrative started to emerge of Chief Engineer John Reader for some reason slowing the engine (pp. 244-247), but no one knew why. Martin was asked why he hadn't asked Reader what was going on. His only real answer was that he trusted Reader (p. 247). That ended that line of questioning, with no real answer.
On the other hand, slow speed alone didn't explain Martin's navigation failure. He hadn't known his ship's speed, but he had suspected the ship was running slow. He couldn't see the lighthouses. Yet he put out no extra lookouts and didn't slow down or take regular soundings after midnight. The court determined what he should have found if he had taken more soundings (pp. 247-248), and concluded that it would have given him at least some warning that he was approaching land.
The court also looked at the rescue. Why did it take so long for rescuers to set out? (p. 248). Given that there was a war on, surely someone should have been on call for rescue! But this was a side issue. The court did say that Newfoundland needed better lighthouses, and lifesaving stations, but the new lights were not installed until 1953 and 1964, and the stations still weren't in place when Brown wrote her book in 1976 (p. 256).
Having heard all the testimony, the court's navigation expert concluded that Captain Martin had no reason to be so confident about his location or his course, and that he had at least some warning (from the way the ship rolled) that he was approaching land. Although the court admitted that the exact details of what went wrong would likely never be known, and that the crew had done their duty in the wreck (p. 256), Captain Martin had failed. Once he made his course change, he should have slowed down and taken more soundings. "For this lack of caution, I submit he may be held to blame," the expert concluded (p. 252). "I am of the opinion that the master [Martin] was in default in not verifying his position by sounding before changing his course from south-southwest at 4:00 a.m.; or if he could not have done so before changing course, in not reducing his speed and verifying his position by constantly sounding after changing. In this case, if no other means of fixing his position were available, he could have waited until daylight, if necessary, to ascertain his position.... The casualty is attributable to the master's default in not taking these precautions" (p. 255).
Brown claims they "threw the book" at Martin, but given that his errors had killed 94 people and permanently injured several others, I'd say he got off remarkably lightly: his Master's certificate was taken away for 21 months -- but he was allowed an interim Chief Mate's certificate (p. 255). In other words, he was demoted one notch, for 21 months. He left Newfoundland for New York, but was allowed to return to sea. He was reticent about his history, on at least one occasion saying he knew what happened but never telling his sons that he had even been wrecked (p. 259).
It is possible that the mystery of the slow engine was eventually resolved; this slightly reduces Captain Martin's guilt in one regard -- but increases it in another. Third Officer Jackman, on that fatal night, had been told by Chief Engineer Reader that Reader had deliberately slowed the engine slightly so that he could visit his family in Halifax (p. 260). Jackman did not tell Captain Martin, and did not tell the court; only much later did his guilt induce him to reveal the story.
But why hadn't he told Captain Martin? Admittedly Jackman was in an uncomfortable situation, because Reader hadn't wanted Martin to know. But Jackman could have told Martin that Reader had slowed the engine without telling him WHY. Jackman did not do so. The reason is that he was was -- to be blunt -- afraid of Martin (p. 261). A captain whose officers are afraid of him is not a good master, so if Martin wasn't to blame for the slow engines, he was to blame for not hearing about it!
The loss of the Florizel, following the loss of her bigger sister Stephano to a German torpedo, all but ruined the Red Cross Line (Keir, p. 243; 330-331). Bowring's, the owners, lost nineteen ships in World War I; they were able to bear the loss and buy new ships, and reconstitute the line, but much of the rest of their fleet had to be reorganized and they dropped some of their services (Keir, p. 343).
Bowring Park in St. John's, although founded in 1911 in honor of the centenary of Bowring Brothers (Keir, p. 398), was promptly modified to include a memorial to Betsy Munn, the daughter of John Munn who died in the disaster (O'Neill, p. 962; there is a picture of her, and of a statue of Peter Pan erected in her honor, facing p. 133 of Brown), although by the looks of the park, it's mostly an amusement part now (it was turned over to the city of St. John's in 1921; Kier, p. 399) and its sad back story (which also memorializes Newfoundlanders lost in the Great War, some of whom went to Britain on the Florizel) largely forgotten (O'Neill, pp. 961-962).
There is a photo of the Florizel working as a sealer on p. 37 of Ryan/Drake. Kean, p. 60, has a photo of her on the rocks with another ship in the background; based on her rig, it appears the other ship is the Terra Nova. Brown, facing p. 132, has a photo of the Florizel transporting troops in 1914, and below it a photo of her on the rocks. On the following pages are two photos apparently of her being shipped, plus many of those who were aboard her (including Captain Martin). BrownWinter, p. 71, has a different picture of Martin; p. 72 shows the Florizel in the ice; p. 76 shows the wreck.
It should be noted that Brown's account is now rather dated and sometimes needs to be updated. For example, she describes the child "Clarence B. Moulton" as a "deaf mute" (p. 15). Based on her description of his behavior, I think it more likely that he was a non-verbal autistic boy.
It appears all versions of this song ultimately go back to the Greenleaf/Mansfield edition. Doyle got it from them, and Lehr found the text in one or another edition of Doyle and set her own tune. The accuracy of the Greenfield/Mansfield text is not perfect, but it's not bad by folk music standards. The song contains the details:
The Florizel was "Harmed up by Renews": The wreck was on Renews Rock
"A blinding snowstorm": The snow was primarily on the land, not the water, but there was snow, and of course the storm was very real indeed
"Saturday night at eight o'clock the steamer left the pier"": It was indeed a Saturday night, and only a little before 8:00 p.m.
"With every indication a storm was drawing near": Forecasts, news from the south, and the barometer all implied a storm
"With Captain Martin on the bridge": Correct
"Woth one hundred and thirty passengers": The Florizel didn't have that many passengers on this trip, but it could carry more than that. She had had a large number of passengers cancel at the last minute; had they sailed with her, the number would not be far wrong. And if you count crew as well as passengers, the total on board was 140 -- not far from 130.
"Some rushed the deck, being scarcely clad... The sea soon washed them off her deck": Both true; most of the passengers rushed to the deck in their pajamas or whatever they were wearing, and a very large number were swept away by waves.
"And only forty lives were saved out of one hundred six"... "And ninety-four their precious lives that evening left on shore": This is the one real error (it should be 44 were saved out of 140), but it's not far off by folk music standards. - RBW
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