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Friday, March 20, 2009

A Hoax In A Bottle . . . I Wonder?

Marietta Guertler stopped by my house the other day with some cardboard boxes full of all deeds and other documents (wills, agreements, old store ledgers, surveys, etc.) from the offices of Samuel Downs, a surveyor from Tuckerton, and Levi French, a lawyer and Burlington County Clerk, etc. from New Gretna.  Marietta's grandfather, Maja Mathis, acquired the documents at an estate sale many years ago. The dates of the documents span about 100 years, running from the early 1800s to about 1900. Most were from the Tuckerton, Little Egg Harbor, and Bass River area and contain the names of the most prominent New Gretna families including the Mathises, Allens, Frenches, Cramers, Sooys, McKeens, Adams, and Leeks. I'm like a kid in a candy shop going through them and am grateful to Marietta for donating them to our local history group.

Marietta Guertler's grandfather, Maja Mathis, taught school in the one room Mathistown School House and had a farm on the West bank of Job's Creek. He eventually became Superintendent of Schools in Florence, N.J. His interest in history saved the treasure trove of documents I now have the pleasure of looking through. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Mathis Guertler, Maja's daughter and Marietta's mother.)

A November 4, 1874 letter from Samuel Downs to the Post Master in Baltimore particularly caught my attention and peaked my curiosity.

Seems, the following note was found Sunday October 18, 1874, in a quart bottle, on the meadows near Hatfields Anchoring at New Inlet, also called Little Egg Harbour Inlet.

Octr 13th 1874


O Pittying friends – here we are sinking beyond the deep off Little Egg Harbour trying to make the Inlet to save our schr and crew. We are steering for Hatfields light where our hopes was to get in. I report our Schr [schooner] Julia A of Baltimore 75 tons Capt John Curtas of Baltimore loaded with Brick.


Mate, Levi Nelson  .  .  .  Benjamin Tower, Cook. Myself leaving a Dear Wife & Seven children. Every man on board married - Bidding my family farewell with the hopes God to protect them. Oh, very Heavenly Father forgive us all. Our yawl boat has gone, blowing a gale N. West. Our Schr is Sinking fast 4 miles from land. Farewell. May we meet on a happier land - Oh a sailors life.


                                                                                     Capt John Curtas of Baltimore

Samuel Downs was shown the note shortly after it was found. He copied the message and sent it to the Postmaster of Baltimore with the following compassionate note of his own:

The original letter was copied by Miss Hatfield and then sent to Wm. P. Haywood of West Creek, Ocean County, N.J. to be published in the Toms River Courier of Ocean County. And not seeing it there – this copy was shown to me this morning which I now send to you for the benefit of all concerned, hoping that you will be interested and make such use of it as the dictates of humanity and Christian obligation may suggest for the friends and relatives of all concerned.


                                                                                     Very Respectfully

                                                                                     Saml S. Downs

Samuel’s letter was quickly returned to him by A.W. Denison, the Baltimore Postmaster, with the following short note written at the bottom of the original letter.


Respectfully returned – No such vessel registered from this port.


                                                                                     A.W. Denison




Next to Postmaster Denison’s terse comment, Samuel Downs wrote  .  .   . “Appears to be a hoax, Nov. 1874.” He must have placed it in his files, where it remained, packed away, until I began looking through Marietta's cardboard boxes. It's almost as if that event, which happened 115 years ago, suddenly reappeared into my life, today. Can anyone say "Twilight Zone"?

As a history buff, I'm also a romantic when it comes to the past. Something inside me believes that desperate note from so long ago is, in fact, authentic. I can't help thinking that the Baltimore Postmaster had more important things to do and didn't look into the matter too thoroughly. I'm not an expert on nautical history, but there must be some way that we can check the authenticity of that note. Any suggestions out there?

By the way, am I the only historical romantic. Any Blog readers believe that the note may be genuine?

Pete S

PS- Ship wrecks were a part of life in our area in the 1800's. Click below, and go to page 8, to read about one of the most tragic when a New Gretna father, Burrows M. French, and his son, Winfield, died in 1878.


  1. I'm still looking for the marriage record for Elihu Ward Sears (New Gretna) and Lena F. Allen (Tuckerton) who were married May 14, 1905 at Wading River according to "The Leek Family of Southern New Jersey" by Helen Leek Mack. The record never made it to Trenton's Archives for some reason. I wonder if the record might be among the clerk records you just obtained?

  2. John,

    Haven't come across anything that would help you on Elihu Ward Sears marriage record, but will contact you if I stumble across something in the future.


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