Edited from "The Human Story of Long Island,"
by Verne Dyson, 1969, Ira J. Friedman, Inc. Port Washington, NY
will never forget Margaret Fuller, the brilliant nineteenth century writer
and feminist leader, who, with her husband and child, perished in a shipwreck
on the South Shore in the mid-year of the century. When the Titanic went
down, most of the women on board were willing to take to life-boats and
be saved, leaving their husbands behind.
"To commemorate Margaret Fuller, Marchioness Ossoli, author, editor, poet, orator, who with her husband, Marquis Ossoli, and their child Angelo, perished by shipwreck off this shore July 19, 1850, in the 41st year of her age. Noble in thought and in character, eloquent of tongue and pen, she was an inspiration to many of her own time and her uplifting influence abides with us. Erected 1901."Most of the histories state that the body of Margaret Fuller was not recovered from the sea, but there is a tradition to the contrary - that the body was recovered and secretly buried at Coney Island.
At the unveiling of the tablet in 1901, Mrs. Julia Daggett, one of the visitors present, recounted that after the relatives of Margaret had left the scene of the wreck, her body was cast ashore and, according to instructions given by the relatives, was to be sent to Horace Greeley, her former employer, to be buried. Mrs. Daggett declared that her father, Captain James Wicks, took the body of the drowned woman to the great New York editor but that he refused to receive it. Captain Wicks then, she said, secretly had it buried at Coney Island. For some strange reason, however, the grave has not been located.
Margaret Fuller's death was a great loss to American letters; she was one of the most influential personalities of her day in American literary circles. She was a precocious child and was forced by her father, Timothy Fuller, an attorney, through an education which impaired her health but gave her a broad knowledge of European literature.
Her first published work was Conversations with Goethe (1839), a translation of another work. It was followed in 1842 by a translation of the Gunderode-Armin correspondence.
A stimulating talker, she established the Boston ladies' conversation classes on social and literary topics. From these discussions grew he~ statement of the feminist position, Women in the Nineteenth Century (1845).
Miss Fuller was one of the transcendentalists and edited their journal, the Dial, for two years. Horace Greeley, attracted by her writings, including Summer on the Lakes in 1843, called her to New York as literary critic of the New York Tribune, from which were published her Papers on Literature and Art (1846).
In 1847, Margaret abruptly left the American literary scene and went to Rome where she married the Marchese Ossoli, a follower of Giuseppe Mazzini, the brilliant Italian patriot and revolutionist. Being an intellectual of the highest order, Mazzini naturally appealed strongly to Margaret and she joined her husband in his revolutionary activities.
Ossoli was a poor man and lack of funds along with a setback in Mazzini's revolutionary plans seem to have induced Margaret and her husband to decide to return to the United States. The shipwreck off Point O'Woods ended these bright plans. It was known that Margaret Fuller had with her on the wrecked vessel the manuscript of a book on the Italian Revolution which she expected to publish. Her friends in Boston made plans to try to recover the manuscript. Henry David Thoreau, the noted author of Walden and other classics, was commissioned to go to the scene of the wreck and try to find the manuscript.
Ralph Waldo Emerson at first thought that he himself would go to Fire Island and try to locate the manuscript and other personal property belonging to Margaret, but he soon decided that Thoreau would be more competent in such an undertaking and induced him to make the journey. Ellery Channing, Margaret's brother-in-law, obtained authorization for Thoreau to act for the family and supplied him with $70 for expense money.
Thoreau arrived on Fire Island five days after the tragic shipwreck had occurred. By that time vandals had stripped the wreck of all baggage and cargo. Thoreau was told that a considerable amount of the loot had gone to Patchogue and he went there and inquired about the manuscript but learned nothing. He returned to the vicinity of the wreck and continued his investigation.
On July 25, 1850, Thoreau wrote to Emerson that he was staying at the home of Smith Oakes, less than a mile from the wreck and was interviewing everyone possible for details.
Thoreau made several rather gruesome discoveries. One of Ossoli's shoes was found on the shore and a coat and several other articles of clothing which supposedly had belonged to members of the lost family. A body, badly mangled by sharks, was washed ashore near the wreck. While there was no positive identification it was supposed to be that of Horace Summer, brother of U.S. Senator Charles Summer of Massachusetts, who was on the Elizabeth with the Ossolis.
Thoreau finally completed his melancholy mission and returned to Boston with pitifully little of importance to report. He read his scant notes to Emerson and a few other friends. No trace of the lost manuscript was ever discovered.