Lost at sea on a long journey home

Famed Shakespearean Actor Charles Francis Coghlan
Famed Shakespearean Actor Charles Francis Coghlan

SHE LOOKED EXACTLY THE WAY a preserver of history should look.

Tall.

Thin.

Large glasses wedged on the end of a large nose.

Hair in a bun, brown but streaked with strands of gray.

Sharp faced.

A head full of knowledge, a head full of memories.

Other people’s memories.

She carried a leather notebook. She never left her notes behind.

And she talked softly of the dead.

I was in Galveston and looking for a story.

She had one.

“Let me tell you about Charles Coghlan,” she said.

I nodded.

“He was a brilliant actor who was at the pinnacle of his fame when he came to Galveston,” she said.

“What year?”

“It was 1899.” She shrugged. “He was an Irish Shakespearean actor from Prince Edwards Island in Canada, and he would be starring in The Royal Box.” She smiled. “It was a play he wrote,” she said.

“Big moment for Charles.”

“It didn’t last long.”

“What happened?”

The coffin, lost at sea, that carried Coghlan home.
The coffin, lost at sea, that carried Coghlan home.

“Charles was stricken with gastritis as soon as he arrived?”

“Too much rich seafood?” I asked.

“I hope not,” she said.

She smiled again.

“Charles sat in the background and watched an understudy play the role.”

“It must have been quite a disappointment.”

“I’m sure it was,” she said, “but Charles recovered in time to play Hamlet.”

“How old was he?”

“Fifty-seven.”

“I thought Hamlet was a younger man.”

She shook her head.

“Not in Galveston,” she said. “The audience came to see Charles Coghlan. He was the star. They didn’t care how old he was.”

“It was his turn in the spotlight.”

Her smile turned wistful.

“He was standing in the spotlight when he died,” she said. “The applause was the last thing he heard. Charles died on stage, was placed in a lead-lined casket, and buried in one of Galveston’s finest cemeteries.”

“It was a long way from home,” I said.

“It was a matter of convenience,” she said.

“And that was the end of Charles Coghlan.”

“Not quite.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“I’m sure you’ve heard of the Great Storm,” she said.

“Tell me about it.”

“A hurricane slammed into Galveston in 1900,” she said. “It was devastating.”

She paused and stared across the gulf.

Stiff wind.

Whitecaps racing the tide ashore.

Sunshine as far as the eye could see.

“We lost six thousand lives and right at thirty-six hundred buildings,” she said. “The winds reached a hundred and thirty miles an hour, and the storm surge reached more than fifteen feet, which was seven feet higher than the tallest point of land on the island. It was a deadliest natural disaster in our country’s history.”

Her voice trailed off.

All I heard was the sound of the surf.

“We lost Charles Coghlan,” she said.

“What happened?”

“Ships were washed ashore,” she said, “and the floodwaters tore caskets loose from their graves and washed them out to sea.”

“The sea holds a lot of secrets,” I said.

“But not Charles Coghlan.”

I stared at her.

She stared at the Gulf.

“Eight years later,” she said, “Charles Coghlan’s casket washed up on shore. Two fishermen found it and saw his name inscribed on the metal nameplate attached to the coffin.”

“Here in Galveston?”

She shook her head.

“Where?”

“Prince Edwards Island,” she said. “The Gulf Stream had carried him around Florida and up the coast for two thousand miles.”

She sighed, removed he glasses, and wiped the sweat from her eyes.

I assumed it was sweat.

It might have been a tear.

“Charles Coghlan had gone home,” she said.

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