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1900, September 8: Coghlan’s Coffin

Born in 1841, Charles Francis Coghlan was raised and educated in both Paris, France, and London, England... and despite his parents' hope that he would become a lawyer, he had an interest and natural talent for both writing and acting. His first appearance upon stage in a minor role was at the age of 19 in 1860; by 1862, he was playing the lead roles.

Coghlan as OrlandoCoghlan as Orlando in Shakespeare's "As You Like It," ca. 1876. [Larger version here]

        Over the next 37 years, Charles Coghlan became well renowned for his acting talent on tours throughout Europe and North America. He eventually bought a farm on Prince Edward Island in Canada, and retired -- twice. Each time the call of the stage coaxed him back out for just one more set of performances. It was during the second such tour in 1899, when Coghlan was portraying the part of Clarence in "The Royal Box" at various theaters in the US, that his career finally came to an end. The actor became ill sometime just after an October performance in Houston, Texas; and as the group moved on to the next venue at Galveston, Coghlan's health took a distinct turn for the worse... he died on November 27.

        He was given a beautiful metal coffin, and temporarily interred at a local cemetery to await his ultimate fate, which was being disputed. Some of his family wanted to send him back to Prince Edward Island to be buried near his farm; some of his family wanted him to be cremated and buried in France or London. Because Coghlan was essentially famous, the argument over who had rights to his remains carried on for nearly a year, until Mother Nature decided the matter for everyone on September 8, 1900, when Galveston was nearly destroyed by a hurricane. The hurricane was responsible for between 6,000 to 12,000 deaths; and it also greatly destroyed the graveyard, washing many caskets out to sea... including the casket of Charles Coghlan. A desperate search for Coghlan's coffin began, as friends and family stretched their resources to find clues.

        The most spectacular answer to the location of the missing coffin was notably publicized by cartoonist Robert Ripley in 1927 in his famous Ripley's Believe It Or Not! comic strip. Ripley asserted that Charles Coghlan's wandering coffin did eventually turn up again, and in a surprising place: years after the hurricane, the metal coffin of Charles Coghlan -- apparently airtight enough to float -- was washed ashore on Prince Edward Island, not far from his home! The coffin had traveled on ocean currents around the southern end of South America and up the north coast of two continents to reach the actor's home island... Believe It or Not!

        Yeah... if only the real story was that simple. Oh, well.

Not.

        Robert Ripley had become famous not just because of the amazing nature of the short stories his comic strip told, but because of his claim that each and every one was true... a fact that Ripley always backed up by stating that anyone who cared to challenge one of his amazing facts could always write to him and he would show them proof any story was true. But "true" is a relative word; often, Ripley's form of proof was simply to show that someone else had asserted the story as true. If that person was mistaken or lying, it was hardly Ripley's fault, right?

        Now don't get me wrong here -- I am, and always will be, a big fan of Robert Ripley and his original comic strips and books; but in the case of Coghlan's coffin, it must be noted Ripley took someone else's word for the story he reported. His claimed sources to prove that Coghlan's coffin floated all the way home were two books by other people involved in the world of the theater at the time that Coghlan died, though only one of the two actually mentions this legend.

        Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson [1853-1937] was an English actor and theater manager who published his memoirs -- A Player Under Three Reigns -- in 1925. Forbes-Robertson had been a personal friend of Coghlan, and in his book he speaks briefly of the fate of Coghlan's coffin:

"Shortly after his burial there a great storm came up from the Gulf which swept his [Coghlan's] coffin with others into the sea. The Gulf Stream bore him round Florida, up the coast about fifteen hundred miles to Prince Edward Island, and he came ashore not far from his home."

Ripley's other reported source is another memoir, The Days I Knew, by actress Lillie Langtry [1853-1929] and also published in 1925... though there is no good reason he included it. Here's what she tells us about Charles Coghlan:

"He died and was buried at Galveston, Texas, but his remains were not allowed to rest in peace, for the tidal wave that later demolished that town invaded the cemetery and swept many of the coffins (including that of Charles Coghlan) out to sea, which singular happening to his remains was predicted for him by a crystal-gazer while he was still a young man!"

So Langtry doesn't mention the fate of the coffin in any way, but does add a note of the supernatural to the tale... and may have been included by Ripley so he could at least pretend he had more than just one source for the story.

        Forbes-Robertson's story of the fate of Coghlan's coffin, while romantic, didn't happen for two reasons. First, the ocean currents from the Gulf of Mexico would have carried Coghlan's coffin -- assuming it could float -- up towards Iceland and Greenland, not down around South America. Secondly, Charles Coghlan is not interred anywhere on Prince Edward Island and for one simple reason: no one has found the coffin yet.

A Strange Fate

        It's perfectly true that Charles Coghlan's casket was sucked out to sea by that hurricane in 1900... but from there, the story gets very odd indeed. In trying to confirm or disprove Ripley's account of the coffin's fate, I discovered a very remarkable series of reports regarding the actor's remains... here's the brief list.

  • On September 27, 1900, it was reported that Coghlan's casket was found sixteen miles north of Galveston, near the town of La Marque; the undertaker who first placed the casket in the vault in Galveston was on his way to La Marque to identify the remains.
  • On January 22, 1904, it was reported that a metallic casket believed to belong to Coghlan had been found on the beach near Galveston.
  • On January 19, 1907, it was reported that Coghlan's metal coffin had been found almost buried in a marsh, hidden by weeds about nine miles from Galveston.
  • In 1909, a memoir written by Squire and Marie Effie Bancroft, theater actors and managers, stated that Coghlan's coffin had been found floating on the ocean "some time afterwards" of the hurricane, and been reburied... keeping in mind it hadn't been buried before.
  • In April 1918, Lillie Langtry first made the claim that a "crystal-gazer" had foreseen the fate of Coghlan's remains when he was a young man, a claim she repeated in her memoirs later.
  • In a June, 1922, article about Rose Coghlan, Charles Coghlan's sister who was also an actress, it is stated that the iron coffin of her brother was never recovered.

        And then, of course, in 1925 Forbes-Robertson told the story of the coffin traveling back to Prince Edward Island, followed in 1927 by Robert Ripley making the story famous.

        When the hurricane struck Galveston, a lot of coffins were washed out to sea; it seems likely that the various discoveries of "Coghlan's casket" were, if not false, just other caskets washed away in the disaster. Once a mistake was noted, no newspaper would waste much time correcting an earlier article.

        What's more remarkable is that people were still actively hoping to find the actor's coffin at least nine years after it had been lost; and there were still enough people concerned about it twenty-five years later that a going rumor existed about the coffin floating home.

        No grave is marked for Charles Coghlan in either Galveston or on Prince Edward Island. In a time that predated television, movies, and even radio as entertainment sources, traveling theater troupes were the way stories were told and shared; and Charles Coghlan was as famous an actor then as any Hollywood or internet personality now. When Coghlan's body vanished, those that knew and loved him -- both personally and as a favorite actor -- were left with no closure. Truthfully, the continued need of the public for answers regarding the fate of the actor's remains is probably more a testament to Coghlan's skills than any mere tomb or monument ever would be.