Amid the picturesque graveyard surrounding Presbyterian Church on Edisto Island in the South Carolina Lowcountry is a marble obelisk blackened with age. It’s a memorial not only to a handful of parishioners who died in one of the 19th centuries worst sea disasters but a reminder of just how dangerous travel by ship was at one time.
Eight names appear on the 15-foot marker, including that of Rev. James Joseph Murray, 43; his wife Mary, 38; daughter Elizabeth, 15; and son William, 11, victims of the sinking of the steamship Pulaski on June 14, 1838.
In addition to Murray and his family, Margaret Seabrook Mikell, 31; Joseph Edings Seabrook, 15; Sara Ann Edings, 27; and Sarah Josephine Edings, 5, are also listed. They were among approximately 130 individuals who died when the ship, which started from Savannah, Ga., June 13 en route to Baltimore, Md., was rent by a boiler explosion and foundered 30 miles off the North Carolina coast.
The death toll was said to have been the greatest suffered to that point by a steam-powered vessel.
Murray, Mikell, Edings and Seabrook are common names throughout both the graveyard and the region, and it’s likely the loss of the Pulaski touched most, if not all of the church’s parishioners in one way or another.
To give an idea of how common major maritime disasters were a century or more ago, the loss of the Pulaski doesn’t even rank among the top 80 deadliest ship disasters of the 19th century. In fact, if one looks at Wikipedia’s list of 19th century maritime disasters ranked by lives lost, the Pulaski isn’t mentioned at all, which leaves one wondering just how many other significant tragedies of that era have been forgotten.