< What Happened to the Naronic?

The Mystery of the SS Naronic  updated 11/06

by Mark M. Nichol


Identical in appearance to her sister ship Bovic, (pictured above) Naronic's disappearance remains a mystery to this day.


On May, 26 1892, Harland and Wolff Shipbuilders plc launched White Star Line's newest addition to the fleet; the 470 ft long Naronic. She had twin coal fired reciprocating engines and a service speed of 13 knots. Naronic had a duel function, she was basically built in the usual style of a refrigerated cargo vessel, but additional passenger accommodations were added to  meet increased demand on non-New York routes.

On July 15, 1892, Naronic made her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York. She made five more voyages after this without incident. At 6:00 AM on February 11, 1893, Naronic departed Alexandra Dock, Liverpool, bound for New York under the command of 20 year White Star Line veteran William Roberts. On this particular voyage Naronic was carrying 74 persons, including 14 cattlemen, 10 horse tenders, and 50 crew members. She was loaded with 3,600 tons of general cargo, and over 1,000 tons of coal. After dropping her pilot at Point Lynas, Wales, she was never heard from again.

Unfortunately Naronic was not fitted with a radio and was unable to send out a distress call. In 1893 there were no capabilities for extensive air and sea searches as would occur today. In fact there was no extensive search conducted at all, outside of the White Star Liner Teutonic having reported that she took a bit more Southerly course to New York after it was realized that Naronic was overdue to see if she could spot any wreckage. Initially the agent for the White Star Line offices in New York, Maitland Kersey, announced that the White Star Line was presuming Naronic had struck an iceberg. This was later to be refuted.



Then the mystery begins. On March 3, 1893, twenty days after her Liverpool departure, a bottle washes up on the shores of Bay Ridge, New York Bay. A man named William Clare spotted an old yellow bottle stamped John Hagg 113th St NY, NY on its bottom. He noticed a piece of paper inside that turned out to be a torn page from a book. Scribbled on the page were the words:

 "Feb. 19, 1893- Naronic sinking. All hands praying. God have mercy on us."   The message was signed "L. Winsel. Could this "L. Winsel" have been John L. Watson, crew member?

Clare gave the bottle to a Bay Ridge police captain named Kenny (of the 18th precinct) and never heard about it again.


On March 30, 1893, at a summer resort at Ocean View Virginia, a night watchman named William Johnson found a champagne bottle on the beach that had several corks tied around its neck. A message inside read:

 "3:10 AM Feb.19. SS Naronic at sea. To who picks this up: report when you find this to our agents if not heard of before, that our ship is sinking fast beneath the waves. It's such a storm that we can never live in the small boats. One boat has already gone with her human cargo below. God let all of us live through this. We were stuck by an iceberg in a blinding snowstorm and floated two hours. Now it's 3:20 AM by my watch and the great ship is dead level with the sea. Report to the agents at Broadway, New New York, M. Kersey & Company. Goodby all."

The message is signed, "John Olsen, Cattleman."  There is no Olsen on the passenger or crew list list. The closest names to "John Olsen" would be John Watson and John O'Hara, both Cattlemen.


In June, 1893 a boatman in the Irish channel found a bottle bobbing up down in the water against the bank. A message found in the bottle read:

"Stuck iceberg: sinking fast: Naronic


The message is simply signed: "Young" There is no" Young" on the passenger or crew list.


On September 18, 1893 the London Times (named The Times in 1893) reported a 4th bottle found floating in the Mersey River. Written on two thin slips of wool were the words:

 "All hands lost; Naronic; No time to say more....T"


The message ended or was signed "T" The Closest match here is William Tobin, Cattleman or Christopher Tesch, crew member.

Wreckage Found?

Photo (left) is a re-creation of boat description

In the early morning hours of March 4, 1893 the Sivewright - Bacon Line steamer, Coventry, enroute from Newport News, Va. to the UK, reported that she had passed an upside-down lifeboat in the water with the name Naronic on it at 40.0 N, 47.37 W. The next day (March 5) Coventry again reports passing another empty Naronic lifeboat. This boat was apparently floating upright, half full of water, but in pretty good condition. It's mast and sail were floating nearby attached by a line to the lifeboat as if it were being used as a sea anchor.

On March 18, 1893 the British steamer, Chicago reported passing a "spar" in the water that appeared to be a topmast from a ship. The captain reported spotting this at 43.38 N - 40.10 W... close to where Naronic would have been. One can't help but wonder why the SS Chicago didn't stop and pick this "spar" up and bring it in for identification, unless maybe the captain had not yet heard of Naronic's disappearance and didn't see cause for concern.

The Investigation Findings: No Messages in Bottles -  No Icebergs

St. George's Hall, Liverpool

Shortly after Naronic's mysterious disappearance, the British Board of Trade convened at St. Georges Hall in Liverpool to hold an inquiry regarding the loss of Naronic. Naronic's stowage plans and cargo manifest were reviewed. Both the Board of Trade and White Star's owners basically ruled out load shift in high seas as being the probable cause for the ship to founder. Naronic's tug pilot, William Davis, was summoned to appear at the inquiry and stated that Naronic did depart Alexandra Dock in rough seas, but appeared to be handling well when he last saw her at his drop off point.

The captain of the White Star Liner Runic told a Liverpool newspaper reporter that it was possible that one of Naronic's engines could have malfunctioned resulting in a piston being shot down through her hull that would in-turn result in her sinking almost immediately.

The only problem with that theory and the "sinking immediately" business is the fact that Naronic obviously managed to launch 3 boats, and if you are a believer in the bottle messages, John Olsen, Cattleman, one of the mysterious message writers, stated "we've floated for 2 hours."

The Board further refuted the legitimacy of the message bottles due to the fact that the names signed to the messages did not match any names on Naronic's passenger and crew roster. At least two names did not; L. Winsel and John Olsen (messages 2 and 1)  There is no mention of "- Young" and the 4th message had no signature at all.

 The Board went on to say that it was doubtful that Naronic had struck an iceberg due to the time of year, the location of her lifeboats, and the fact that no other ships had reported ice in that vicinity within a 90 mile radius. 

After researching some New York City newspapers of the day, the author discovered this wasn't exactly true.

On March 3, 1893, the British steamship Healthfield arrived in New York having departed from Hamburg. Her captain reported that his late arrival in New York was due to navigating through heavy ice fields at 48.40 N - 40.00 W. That would be about 400 miles east of St. John's, Newfoundland, an area very close to where Naronic would have been steaming through. 

Two days later, March 5, 1893, the British steamer Hummel arrived in NYC having departed from Bremen. Her skipper reported ice fields and small bergs at 47.50 N - 40.10 W; same general vicinity.

So why didn't the Board of Trade research this or hear of these reports? Maybe because it was just locally reported in New York?

It's difficult to understand why the Board of Trade would entirely dismiss 4 separate messages in bottles? Two in the US and one 2 in the UK. No one dismissed a message in a bottle found after the Collins Line steamer Pacific sailing from Liverpool for New York sank in 1856. (286 lives lost) And that was just one message, not four messages.

The Pacific's message read:

 "On board Pacific from Liverpool to N.Y. - Ship going down. Confusion on board - Icebergs around us on every side. I know I cannot escape..."

Its interesting to point out (considering that the position of the lifeboats would be close to Naronic's sinking position) that this location is only 90 miles from where Titanic struck an iceberg.


The Messages

Let's examine the bottles and messages for a moment. If the reader were to assume that the messages were hoaxes, then you would have to wonder about the motivation behind the prankster(s) doing this. Why go to all of the trouble of conducting an elaborate hoax at four separate locations, two of them over 150 miles apart from each other and the other two almost 3,000 miles away on the other side of the Atlantic. And, what's the likelihood of there being 4 separate pranksters all conducting the same hoax with the same vessel?

Assuming that the prankster(s) truly wanted the public to believe that an iceberg was the cause of Naronic's fate, why would they sign false or incorrect names to the messages? Why sign a name at all? They would have to know that officials would match the names to a passenger list. On the subject of passengers lists, it should be pointed out that shipping lines at the turn of the century were not known for their accuracy with passenger and crew lists. One can see this by looking at all of the inaccuracies in Titanic's passenger and crew lists uncovered through the years by researchers. (over 33 major errors)

If this were in fact a series of hoaxes, the prankster(s) paid excellent attention to realistic detail by putting one message on wool clothing, and another on the torn page from a book; just as frantic people would do as a ship was in its final moments. 

Now, let's examine the date written on the second message; February 19, 1893. If this were to be a hoax, someone did their homework calculating the date. With Naronic carrying a full load of cargo and passengers, and taking in to consideration her service speed, the area where the lifeboats were found is just about where she should be in the North Atlantic having departed Liverpool eight days before. And, if she did encounter a "blinding snowstorm" and/or rough seas, she would have either stopped her engines or proceeded slowly. If one were to create an elaborate hoax, why put any date or signature on the messages? It's too easy to calculate their validity.

Why would they (the pranksters) want people to think an iceberg was the culprit? Two of the four messages specifically mentioned the word iceberg. Olsen's message even detailed "a blinding snowstorm and (we) struck an iceberg."

The Bottle Skeptics

I (the author) have received several e-mails from readers wishing to share their thoughts on this subject. (Which by the way, is very much welcomed.) Several folks have shown skepticism on the possibility of bottles making their way from the suspected area of Naronic's sinking to the US or the UK having to cross the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream. I began to wonder about this myself, especially in the time frame of the first bottle's appearance, 20 days after Naronic left port. So, I began researching the subject. I remember reading somewhere a few years ago about a man in the state of Main that clamed finding woodwork washing up on a beach that he believed came from Titanic. This was in late May of 1912, some 4 weeks after the sinking. His claim was pretty much "hee-hawed" by the press and the subject was dropped.

Living in North Carolina, as I do, I've always had a fascination with the US Life Saving Service, which of course became the US Coast Guard in 1915. I have visited various websites about the Life Saving Service and purchased a book on the subject. I've even visited what's left of the old boat stations on the North Carolina Outer Banks. I read on several occasions that the Life Saving Service personnel would often find floating debris from shipwrecks that fell prey to foul weather or ran aground on the shallow shoals only to become battered to pieces by the waves. Much of the debris that had washed ashore was positively identified to particular ships that turned out to be discovered (some very recently) way west of the Gulf Stream. This answers the question of the possibility of a bottle making it into shore crossing through the Gulf Stream.

I figured that would take care of 2 of the 4 bottles, but what about the 2 that were discovered on the shores of the UK? Could bottles make it in the other direction (East) and reach the other side of the Atlantic? I came across a website authored by a gentleman named Phil Malone. Phil was "half of a two-man team" as he put it, that was responsible for the maintenance of one of the ROV's used in RMS Titanic Inc.'s August 1998 artifact recovery expedition. Phil participated in an on-board party one evening while on the mission, that he states ended up with a few empty wine bottles and "everyone feeling jolly." The group decided to write messages, put them in corked wine bottles, and toss them overboard to see what would happen.

In Phil's words, "As it turned out, one of these messages washed up on the shore of a tiny island (Great Blasket Island) off the coast of Ireland.  It was discovered on New Years day of 1999."  The gal that found the message eventually mailed back to Phil Malone in Annapolis, Maryland with a note stating that she had found it. So, it is possible for a bottle to make it in the other direction to the UK. Bear in mind,  Naronic's suspected foundering position in only about 90 miles from Titanic's wreck site.

Here's the problem; as you can see from the above example, it took 16 months for Phil Malone's bottle to make it to Ireland. According to the dates, bottle # 3 was discovered 4 months after Naronic's sinking and bottle # 4 was discovered 7 months after the sinking. (in England) Now the question is, could a bottle make it to the shores of England in that short of a period of time?

The Life Boats

More mystery exists with the life boats discovered in the area. Assuming the messages are authentic, we need to examine the second message more closely. Part of the message reads: "...she has floated for two hours, it is now 3.20 in the morning and the deck is level with the sea."  Why were only two lifeboats found? Staying in line with the British Board of Trade's recommendations on life boats at the time (this is the author's guesstimation) Naronic, considering her length and tonnage, should have had anywhere between eight to ten life boats on board.  The second message states "she has floated for two hours." Then why weren't all of her boats deployed, or more found? Titanic took about the same amount of time to sink and even though the boats were only filled to sixty-five percent capacity, she still managed to launch eighteen boats. She wasn't listing according to John Olsen's message, he writes "...the great ship is now level with the sea." (a heavily listing ship makes it almost impossible to launch the boats on the opposite side of the list.)

Looking at this message further we see that the writer mentions: "We can never live in the small boats-one has already sunk." Why did it sink? Were they in rough seas? Could the "blinding snowstorm" mentioned in the message have been the cause of hitting the iceberg and delay the launching of the boats? Assuming this message is accurate, it appears that three boats were launched that we know of. One sank (according to the message's writer), one was found upside-down, and one was found floating right-side-up by the SS Coventry.


What Happened to the Bodies of the Victims?

We must consider the possibility that if Naronic was in fact foundering in rough seas, then her other boats may have been launched and also sank. Ok, then more questions come to mind, why were no bodies found floating with life vests on? Victims bodies should still be somewhat intact 21 days later in cold water. A few of Titanic's victims were found and identified as long as 6 weeks after the sinking. What about life vests? Marine life isn't going to consume a cork life vest. And finally, why was the third boat found floating empty?

It's disturbing as to why the Court of Enquiry was so quick to dismiss the possibility of Naronic striking an iceberg. What did they assume happened? They recorded that no icebergs had been sited in that vicinity within a one hundred mile radius, which has been proven to be untrue. How many ships had passed through that area at that time to make thorough ice reports? February in the North Atlantic  in that area, is not an unusual time of year to find an iceberg. It's been considered unlikely to find icebergs in the North Atlantic in April in that vicinity, but Titanic proved that to be quite possible. Just as White Star Line's first vessel to strike an iceberg, the Royal Standard did as well in April of 1864 and as far South in the Atlantic as the coast of Brazil !

Let's look at the history of the month of February from 1856 through1902 in that particular area of the North Atlantic.
February,1856, the SS Pacific sails from Liverpool for New York, carrying 351 passengers & crew disappears without a trace.
February,1896, the SS State of Georgia, sails from Aberdeen to Boston carrying 185 passengers & crew disappears without a trace.
February,1899, the SS Alleghany, sails from New York for Dover; carrying 221 passengers & crew disappears without a trace.
February,1902, the SS Huronian, sails from Liverpool for St. John's --carrying 366 passengers & crew disappears without a trace.

Source: The ShipList.com

So What Happened to Naronic?
The author received e-mail from two separate people stating that most likely a hurricane is to blame based on an alleged report
from the  Allen liner Pomeranian.  The Pomeranian had reached port in battered condition, reporting that on 4th March that she had run into
a hurricane which carried away her bridge and chart-house, swept ten people over the side and injured the captain and one of the passengers 
so badly that they subsequently died.  (This report from the Pomeranian was supposedly printed in an "unknown newspaper" on an "unknown date.")
A hurricane in early March in the North Atlantic is not only unusual but not 
even recorded in the history of weather data recording. (Hurricane season
runs June 1 - November 15) Official weather data recording in the US (US 
Hydrographic Office to become the National Weather Service) began in
1855.  source: National Weather Service
The author has received other e-mail from readers speculating that it 
could not have been an iceberg because it was the wrong time of year
for icebergs and few would be in that area of the Atlantic. Well, that's 
not accurate either. Iceberg "season" runs from January 1 to July 1. 
In 1913, (when the International Ice Patrol was formed) 277 bergs and ice fields were recorded in those very waters.  
So was it an iceberg, a really bad storm, or a combination of both that sealed Naronic's fate?  Unfortunately Naronic's final moments
are most likely going to remain a mystery for some years to come. If the wreck site is located and explored, addition information may 
come to light.
A Mad Bomber ?
Ok, lets throw another "wrench" into the Naronic mystery. This front page newspaper article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer 
in January of 1904.
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer Archives Dept.
Philadelphia, 16 Jan - Capt. DONAGHY, of the local detective force,
stated to-day that he would call upon District Attorney Bell, relative
to action in the case of GESSLER ROSSEAU, the dynamiter, but expressed
the opinion that the man would more than likely be turned over the New
York police, who have sufficient evidence to convict him in connection
with the sending of the infernal machine to the steamer Umbria in that
city in May, 1903.
While an effort will be made to connect the prisoner with other
crimes, yet it is the belief of the local police that ROSSEAU does not
know anything concerning the sinking of the SS Naronic, ten years ago.
Capt. DONAGHY bases his opinion in this respect on the fact that the
SS Naronic sailed from the other side of the ocean, while ROSSEAU, it is
believed, was never out of this country.  It is also the opinion of
the police here that ROSSEAU does not know anything as to the
Disappearance of OWEN KELLY, who went away mysteriously several months
ago.  ROSSEAU, however, endeavors to create the belief that he that he
possesses information concerning KELLY’S whereabouts. 
Then this article appears in a Kingston, NY newspaper four months later.
The Cunard ship Umbria   
Gessler Rosseau, whose real name was Gregory Russell, was an American born political terrorist
of sorts. He was referred to by the Philadelphia Police in 1905 (where he was arrested) as an 
"An American patriotic fanatic." He was upset about American foreign diplomacy and the democratic 
system as a whole, similar to American terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph. Rosseau 
liked expressing his discern for things by using dynamite. In May of 1903, he placed a bomb 
on the Cunard Liner * Umbria. Fortunately, it was discovered and disarmed before it exploded.
* Arthur Rostron, Captain of Titanic's rescue ship Carpathia, assumed one his 
his first officer's positions as Fourth Officer of the SS Umbia.
On January 11, 1905, he attempted to blow up a statue of Fredrick the Great in Washington, DC. He liked making bombs, but apparently wasn't very good at it, because this
one too was disarmed before it exploded. At his arrest in 1905, he admitted to placing the bombs on the Umbria and the statue in Washington, but emphatically denied
having anything to do with Naronic or it's disappearance.
Rosseau also admitted that he was a member of a secret organization whose intent was to blow up as many British ships as possible that were leaving New York. 
This may be where there was some concern as to whether or not he had something to do with Naronic's disappearance, although Naronic was inbound to New York
from Liverpool, and Rosseau had the alibi of being in the US when the incident occurred.
On March 28,1905, Rosseau was convicted for the Umbria and statue incident and sentenced to five years imprisonment. It's difficult to understand after reading the 
newspaper column above how finding firecrackers aboard the Tauric were linked to an explosion on Naronic. Media sensationalism may have had something
to do with those speculations.
If an explosion of any kind were the cause of Naronic's sinking there surely would have been wreckage and floating debris found on the sea when 
the SS Coventry and Teutonic ships passed through that area. Striking an iceberg and sinking would leave debris but not as much as an explosion would. 
So, the mystery of Naronic's disappearance lives on.
Bottle Locations

Above illustration source/credit: DATABASE OF SHIP COLLISIONS WITH ICEBERGS Brian T. Hill - http://imd-idm.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/ice/bergs2_01e.html

           Naronic                      Naronic Passengers                         

       Crew Members                   Cattlemen, cattle tenders and    

                                                                            horse tenders

William Roberts, Captain

Timothy Connors

George Wright, First Mate Paul McEntre
Herbert Burbridge, 2nd Mate James Shannon
C.G. Ireson, 3rd Mate James Kane
J.P. Owen, Carpenter Henry Larkin

Thomas Davies, Boatswain

Paul Smith
Isaac Morris, Boatswain's Mate John Watson
Christopher Tesch,  (ABS) William Shaffer

John Campbell, ABS

James O'Hara
Thomas Rogers, ABS James Burke
George Williams, ABS Henry Beney
Patrick Reid, ABS William McGee
Thomas Lackey, ABS Patrick McGinty
Thomas Rammage, ABS John Watson
Richard Williams, ABS Henry Berg
Maurice Barnes, ABS Thomas O'Conner
Patrick Haythornthwaite, ABS Joseph Stafford

Thomas Evans, ABS

Joseph Shannon
Peter Monahan, ABS William Tobin
John McMahon, ABS William Burke
John Hughes, ABS Joseph O'Hara
Samuel Grundy, ABS James McKee
John Duncan, Chief Engineer James Cain
Robert Lucock, 2nd Engineer Lawrence Butler
Earnest Pugh, 3rd Engineer

John Jolly, 4th Engineer

Franklin Morgan, Refrigeration
John Leary, Store Keeper
Daniel Lynch, Store Keeper
John Whelan, Greaser
John Murphy, Greaser
John McDanough
Gilbert Hanna, Greaser
Thomas Bull, Greaser
William Phelan, Fireman

Patrick Burke, Fireman

Patrick Finlay, Fireman
Alfred Jones, Fireman
James Manley, Fireman
David Keefe, Fireman
John Carr, Fireman
Edward Daley, Fireman
James Billington, Fireman
Thomas Murphy, Fireman
Daniel Cadogan, Fireman

Thomas Cummings, Fireman

John Cain, Trimmer
Isaac Evans, Trimmer
John Madden, Trimmer
Frank Routledge, Trimmer
Hugh Timulty, Trimmer
Robert Mayor, Trimmer
Isaac Taylor, Steward
James Morris, Steward
Arthur Martin, Steward
Alexander Carry, Steward
William Dunn, Cook  
Richard Roger, Cook


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