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Odd Wisconsin Archive

"Did I do my best?"

Around 2 A.M. on September 8, 1860, the steamship Lady Elgin collided with the schooner Augusta in the waters of Lake Michigan near Waukegan, Illinois. The Lady Elgin was carrying more than 300 passengers and crew on a round-trip sightseeing tour from Milwaukee to Chicago. Its return trip was never completed.

The captain, not realizing how badly the ship was damaged, continued toward Milwaukee in the dark. About a half-hour later, the heavy boilers and steam engine broke through the weakened hull and the ship quickly tore apart.

Most of the passengers and crew died. Only a handful reached the lifeboats. "Just when the Elgin took her final plunge," the captain recalled, "a heavy sea took off the upper works, the cabin floated, and several hundred people got onto this."

But the cabin, too, soon broke up, drowning many passengers and leaving others clutching small pieces of wreckage. Many victims held onto floating debris for long hours in the cold water. Some ultimately reached shore only to be pulled back into the breakers by a fierce undertow.

Seventeen people were saved that night by a Northwestern University student named Edward W. Spencer, who battled the breakers for six hours. An experienced swimmer, he had a rope tied to his body, and time after time swam through the waves to grab exhausted passengers. His associates on the other end of the rope then pulled him and the victim to shore. Finally, having reached the limits of his strength, his body covered with scrapes and bruises, Spencer passed out. He woke up in his room in Evanston where his brother, William, waited on his recovery. Edward's first words were, "Will, did I do my full duty -- did I do my best?"

Although he tried to resume his studies, the physical and emotional toll on Spencer had been severe. Newspapers around the nation praised his deeds but he was never completely comfortable with the attention. The faces and cries of the victims he had not been able to save forever haunted him.

Spencer never completed his education, and it was almost fifty years before he returned to Evanston to talk about the wreck of the Lady Elgin. After his death, his brother described Edward's private torment: "His face would turn ashen pale, and he would fasten his great hungry eyes on me and say, 'Tell me the truth. Did I fail to do my best?'"

:: Posted in Curiosities on May 13, 2010

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