Source of the Week: Thomas Nast’s shipwreck cartoon

Everyone loves a good cartoon. This wood engraving, published on December 29, 1877 in Harper’s Weekly as “Death on Economy,” shows Uncle Sam (a Nast creation) looking at the drowned bodies washed ashore from the shipwrecked USS Huron. The Huron, an iron sloop-rigged screw gunboat, ran aground off Nags Head, North Carolina a month earlier in a fierce storm. Heavy seas prevented most of the crew from reaching the shore and no assistance ever came; the nearby life-saving station had not yet opened for the season.  Ninety-eight men lost their lives on the Huron; most apparently had washed overboard and drowned

Nast’s editorial cartoon was part of the widespread criticism leveled against the federal government for its failure to provide adequate funding for the United States Life-Saving Service (to save money life-saving stations on the Carolina coast were only open from December to April). The caption reads: “U.S. ‘I suppose I must spend a little on life-saving service, life-boat stations, life-boats, surf-boats, etc.; but it is too bad to be obliged to waste so much money.” Unfortunately, the Huron was just one of several deadly shipwrecks along the American coast in the winter of 1877-78. In response, Congress appropriated funds to build additional life-saving stations and extend their months of operation. Later that year, Congress created the United States Life-Saving Service as an independent agency in the Treasury department. (For a solid introduction to the Life-Saving Service see this.)

Thanks to the Library of Congress for making this image available online here. For more on Thomas Nast this is a great place to start. On the Huron‘s shipwreck and current disposition see North Carolina’s Office of State Archaeology website.


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