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1828: The Unknown Navigator

Robert Dale Owen
Robert Dale Owen, ca. 1840's [Larger version here]

In 1860, Robert Dale Owen -- 1801-1877, a Scottish-born United States Representative who is best known for his efforts in founding the Smithsonian Institution -- published his book Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World, a collection of a number of paranormal events. One of those events, which Owen was personally told by a Captain J.S. Clarke, has become something of a repeating story, though often ascribed the wrong details now. The event, as Owen recounts it, happened thus:

        In the year 1828, Mr. Robert Bruce, born in Torbay, England, was about thirty years of age and was serving as first mate on a barque trading between Liverpool, England, and St. John's in New Brunswick, Canada. On this occasion, the ship was traveling westward, and was about five or six weeks out, near the Eastern portion of the Banks of Newfoundland. He was busy calculating the current longitude and latitude of the ship's position in the main cabin of the ship; and, not satisfied with his numbers, he called the captain over to have a look... only to find the captain was no longer near him, as Bruce had not been paying much attention to anything past his immediate work. Bruce glanced over his shoulder to look for the captain, and saw someone in the nearby state-room, writing on the slate kept for calculations. So he walked over to double-check his numbers with who he assumed was the captain.

        As Bruce reached the open door, the man looked up... it was not the captain, nor was it a man that Bruce had ever seen before. The man stared straight into Bruce's face in complete silence; and something in the look completely unnerved Bruce, who was no coward. Bruce rushed up to the deck in such a state of alarm that the Captain immediately questioned him on the matter.

        Doubting that a stranger could be on board the ship, the Captain went back to the cabin with Bruce, who was refusing to return alone; no one was there... but there was writing on the slate: "STEER TO THE NOR'WEST."

        After some thought on the matter, the Captain had Bruce -- then every member of the crew -- also write "steer to the nor'west" on a slate, comparing each as they went. When no match was found, he ordered a exhaustive search of the ship for possible stowaways... there were none. Given the strangeness of the matter there was only one decision left; as it would only waste a few hours of the ship's schedule, the Captain and first mate Bruce both agreed the barque should steer to the northwest and see what might come of it.

        Around three o'clock, the man on watch reported seeing an iceberg ahead; and shortly after that, he reported seeing a ship next to it. The ship, it turned out, was actually stuck in place on the iceberg, and had been for several weeks... it had been a passenger ship bound for Liverpool, England, from Quebec when it had gotten caught up in the ice. The timing of the rescue was critical, as the crew and passengers of the stranded vessel had almost used all the remaining provisions and water, and were looking at a cold and hungry death.

        As the grateful survivors were brought aboard the barque, Bruce spotted someone in the third boatload that was unmistakably the man who he had seen writing on the Captain's slate; this he mentioned to the Captain and, after the new passengers had food and the barque was back on course again, the Captains of both ships, Bruce, and the unknown man sat down to talk. The man was asked if he could indulge his rescuers by writing "steer to the nor'west" on the back of the Captain's slate; he happily obliged, though with some curiosity. The Captain then turned to theoretically show the slate to Bruce, but really to hide the fact he was turning it over to reveal the original inscription instead... this was then shown to the passenger, who was asked if he was sure it was written right. After a careful inspection, the passenger said he could see nothing wrong with it; and so the Captain and Bruce showed him the second side of the slate, and briefly explained briefly what they had experienced previous to the rescue. Then the Captain asked his new passengers if they could shed any light on the mystery.

        The rescued Captain and the man exchanged knowing glances, then they explained that the man, having been very exhausted, fell into a deep sleep around noon. An hour or so later, he had awoken and told the Captain of the ship that they would all be rescued that very day; the man claimed to have dreamed he was on board a barque, and that he just knew it was going to come rescue everyone. He had described the appearance and rigging of the vessel he had seen... and, sure enough, the description matched the very barque that rescued them, much to the amazement of the stranded crew and passengers.

        Bruce and his Captain stated that had the writing not appeared on the slate, there would have been no reason for them to explore the area the stranded ship had been in. Stranger still, although everything about the ship seemed familiar to the man -- who was quite sure he had never physically seen it before -- he had no memory of writing on the slate. All he had gathered from the 'dream' was that the ship he saw was coming to the rescue, but he was in no way sure why he felt that way upon thinking back.

         It was decided by the four men that they had experienced the 'special interposition of Providence' to save the stranded crew and passengers from a grisly fate indeed.

Did It Happen?

        This may be a tricky question to answer, in this case. First off, there is no further statement on the account after Owen's book; everything I can find is either a repetition of his story, or the same story with new names and details added to make it look like a different story.

        Owen himself received the story from a Captain J.S. Clarke of the schooner 'Julia Hallock', who claimed to have heard the story directly from Robert Bruce himself. Clarke said he had worked alongside Bruce for seventeen months in 1836-1837, which is when he heard about the occurrence; he had not seen Bruce since that time, but had heard he had become the master of the brig 'Comet'... the Comet had since been lost at sea, and Clarke didn't know if Bruce was still alive or not. Clarke characterized Bruce as a truthful and straightforward man, and said of the event: "He always spoke of the circumstance in terms of reverence, as of an incident that seemed to bring him nearer to God and to another world. I'd stake my life upon it that he told no lie.

        Owen then admitted that the two biggest issues with the account is that he doesn't have the story from an actual witness -- rather a friend of the witness -- and that it had been a good thirty years since the occurrence. While it was possible that inaccuracies had slipped into the story, Owen still felt that Capt. Clarke was telling the truth of the matter as he had heard it for the Captain was willing to let his name be attached to this telling of the story. Owen also felt that the details of the story were born out by the fact that he had collected other accounts of bi-location -- the occurrence of a person being in two places at the same time -- and that the details of Clarke's story followed the overall details of these other accounts that Owen had heard.

        So Owen didn't check the details of the story or storyteller; he simply accepted it since it sounded plausible to him.

Details, Details...

        Going backwards in time previous to Owen's publication of Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World in 1860, I found no earlier report of the event... so if it happened, Owen was the first to record it as far as I can tell. So I checked the details I had: 1828, iceberg, Robert Bruce, Captain J.S. Clarke, and the ships 'Comet' and 'Julia Hallock.' And I found almost nothing.

        I can't confirm there was ever a ship called the "Julia Hallock." There was a clipper named 'Comet,' but it never had a captain named Bruce, and was still in service in 1860. The only two ships that encountered icebergs in 1828 that I can find record of are not what we're looking for either. The first was the 'Enterprise,' trapped and crushed in ice in the Davis Straights around June 20, 1828; the crew escaped on three other ships that were also trapped by the ice, but that survived the encounter. The second ship was the 'Superb,' and it was abandoned on April 23, two days after hitting an iceberg; by the time her life boat was picked up, only two men were still alive (cannibalism was involved in that).

        Other than Owen's book, I can find no further mention of Captain J.S. Clarke or first mate Robert Bruce... but, strangely, there was a ship called the 'Robert Bruce' that ran ashore on May 25, 1828, at Sunderland, County Durham, and that sank after she was re-floated.

        So the unfortunate conclusion at the moment is that the whole account is a False Lead, a story that simply never happened, with blame squarely on Owen's shoulders. If further information is found that can back the story up, I'll be thrilled to note it... but I'm not holding my breath.