‘Did I do my best?’: The mythology of Edward Spencer, hero of the Lady Elgin Disaster

September 7, 2020

When the Lady Elgin departed from Chicago’s LaSalle Street dock around 11 p.m. on Sept. 7, 1860, it was the start of a routine trip up the coast of Lake Michigan with its first stop in Milwaukee the next day. It never arrived.

The Lady Elgin was a sidewheel steamboat built in 1851 to serve as a cargo and passenger ship in the Great Lakes. By the late summer of 1860, the Lady Elgin was a well-regarded ship led by the respected Capt. Jack Wilson and making trips from Chicago to Superior, Wisconsin, and back.

It was a foggy, stormy night on the choppy seas of Lake Michigan, but there was nothing for the 398 people on board to be overly concerned about until about 20 minutes after 2 a.m. The Augusta, a schooner on its way to Chicago, was heading right toward the Lady Elgin. By the time the boats realized they were in each other’s path, the die was already cast. Just a few minutes later, the Augusta struck the Lady Elgin in its side at an almost perfectly perpendicular 90 degree angle.

The tiny Augusta sustained some significant damage and started to leak heavily, but it arrived in the Windy City just a few hours later in the early morning with its crew intact.

By the time the Augusta docked, the Lady Elgin was underwater and its passengers — those that were still alive — were fighting for their lives, hoping for a miracle to bring them to the close-yet-so-far North Shore.

For 17 people that day, Edward Spencer was their miracle.

The Initiative of Edward Spencer

Following the crash, Wilson soon knew the ship and everyone on it were in peril. And the passengers realized, too. People started jumping overboard — some swept away into the ether, while others held on to debris or tried to make rafts. A lifeboat was sent out. Those who stayed on the ship retreated to the top deck, which splintered into multiple rafts.

Early after dawn broke, the lifeboat reached the shores of Winnetka and the news of the disaster spread quickly. People all across the North Shore made their way to Winnetka in hopes of helping those still alive in the water.

Edward Spencer was with some friends in Evanston that morning as Henry Kidder, a man alerting locals of the tragedy, crossed their path. When Kidder explained what happened, Spencer and his pals immediately bolted north to Winnetka.

Spencer was in his mid-20s and a student at the Garrett Biblical Institute — now the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. More than one person — including his own brother — called him “frail,” but he had a passion for swimming. Spencer learned to swim on the Mississippi River as a child, and when he went to school in Evanston, his ability to swim and dive was superb.

“Of the 200 who volunteered for service that September day Spencer alone had the skill to battle with the waves,” former Northwestern Christian Advocate editor David D. Thompson wrote years later.

Spencer’s first rescue occurred on the way to Winnetka. He saw a woman holding on to some debris in the water, and with the help of his friends who made a makeshift sling, brought the woman to safety. He then continued to a place where a large group of volunteer rescuers had gathered.

For those lucky enough to survive long enough to get close enough to lay their eyes upon the coast, their journeys weren’t over. With violent breaking waves and an even more forceful recoil, the final stretch required Herculean effort from people who had exerted hours just trying to stay alive.

Rescuers like Spencer were tasked with swimming through the breakers to survivors and helping bring them to safety. It was not easy. Spencer and others had ropes tied around them and held on by people on the shore, ready to pull them in if something bad happened.

While in the midst of one rescue, a piece of wreckage smacked Spencer in the face and he began to bleed. Noticing this on shore, the person manning the rope began to pull on it to bring Spencer back. Spencer refused. He threw off the rope, reached the survivor and brought him to land. When he got back on shore, he spotted a local doctor named Henry Bannister and asked him to man the rope. Bannister accepted, and there were no more issues.

Between rescues, Spencer would sit near a fire, sipping an unknown stimulant to regain strength. By the time he had rescued his 15th survivor, he was fatigued beyond belief. But when he saw John Eviston struggling to keep his Ellen alive, Spencer made one last plunge.

“Spencer… dashed into the waves, once, twice and again, but was washed back by the huge seas,” wrote the Chicago Tribune on Sept. 10, 1860. “He followed a retreating roller; as it passed the two on the frail structure, the man with his burden in his arms leaped into the water and made laboriously towards his rescuer, not a second too soon; an angry roller was at his back; if it reached him he was lost; the rescuer toiled nobly, they neared one another, and just as the outstretched hands met, all was lost in a mighty submerging wave — its refluence told with a cheer that ran along the shore that they were safe.”

The saving of two people at once was the grand finale for Spencer’s supreme feat of strength and heroism that Saturday morning. His brother William, also a Garrett student, brought his valiant brother, so exhausted he was somewhat delirious, back to his room. Over the following days, Edward couldn’t think of himself as a hero. He wasn’t sure if he had done all he could have.

“The question that ran through him like a poisoned dagger as he remembered the three hundred lives and more who lost their lives in sight, and most of them in hearing of land — the one supreme question was, ‘Did I do my best?’” William would later write in a tract titled “He Did His Best.”

“Did I do my best?” Those words — opaque, pensive, striking — would turn Edward Spencer’s 15 minutes of fame into 160 years of adulation.

The Eminence of Edward Spencer

The disaster is the worst accident to happen on the open waters of the Great Lakes. Of the approximately 398 people on the Lady Elgin that day, less than 100 survived.

Newspapers across the world and the country featured the tragedy of the Lady Elgin. And Edward Spencer’s name was included in the copy.

“Edward Spencer, in his day, he went viral,” said Valerie van Heest, writer of the definitive account of the Lady Elgin story, “Lost on the Lady Elgin.”

The Tribune, whose report was used in many newspapers, said Spencer and two Garrett classmates “were foremost among the heroes of the day.” The Weekly Wisconsin Patriot reported Spencer as “especially prominent in his efforts and plunged into the surf with a rope tied ’round his body, thus rescuing several from a watery grave.” In illustrated newspapers in New York and London, a drawing was published with the caption: “Edward Spencer and associates gallantly risking their lives in the surf to rescue the drowning people.”

Spencer wasn’t the only one to have his name in the press — a portrait of Wilson, who died after helping his raft come close to shore, was placed right in the middle of the illustrated papers — but his heroic saving of the couple seemed to be in many accounts of the disaster.

That day impacted the rest of Spencer’s life as he never fully physically recovered. Still weakened from his efforts, he soon dropped out of school and returned home. He later moved to California and lived on a farm. He never graduated or became a minister, but he did marry and have children. Stories said he lived the rest of his life as a “semi-invalid.”

Spencer returned to national prominence in early 1908 when a bill was proposed to award medals to Spencer and two others for their life-saving rescues on the Great Lakes, with President Theodore Roosevelt noted as one of the supporters. At Northwestern’s commencement later that year, the class of 1898 donated a bronze tablet that tells the tale of Spencer’s heroics. The plaque was put in the Lunt Library, currently known as Lunt Hall.

After almost 50 years away from Evanston, Spencer returned in 1910 for the graduation of a nephew from NU. “Students and alumni of all classes, as well as other residents of Evanston, rejoiced at the opportunity of seeing and meeting this man,” The Evanston News reported.

Spencer died in California in February 1917. Nine years earlier, when the class of 1898 was working on getting the plaque made, Charles Fahs, a member of the class, interviewed Spencer. According to “Lost on the Lady Elgin,” Fahs asked if Spencer regretted his decisions on Sept. 8, 1860 since his body was never the same.

“If I had to do it again,” Spencer said, “I should wish to do on that occasion just what I did.”

The Question of Edward Spencer

Even after death, Spencer and his story lived. The Sigma Alpha Epsilon headquarters on Sheridan Road commissioned a mural of Spencer for its building in 1934. A couple of years later, the bronze plaque was moved to its current location in Patten Gymnasium. And Lady Elgin retrospectives were written by different publications every so often.

For over 130 years, Spencer’s heroism was exalted without examination. But in January 1996, The Daily Northwestern published an article titled “The Real McCoy?” which raised the question of whether Spencer’s deeds were up to the task.

In the article, Patrick Quinn — a Northwestern archivist from 1974 to 2008 — cast doubt on some details in the Spencer tale.

“There’s no question that he did save lives, but so did the other Garrett and NU students,” Quinn said in the article. “It became a melo­drama. It was enhanced (and) made into a better story then it was. I just thought it was very suspicious.”

It’s a very fair argument to make. There was a tendency to embellish during that era, and there were other elements of the Lady Elgin story that were exaggerated over the years.

And there was no mention of the exact number of lives Spencer saved that day in the newspapers at the time. But there was also no mention of the number of lives anyone else saved either. To focus on more rescuers instead of the survivors and those who died would have been misguided.

And yet, Spencer was still the rescuer who received the most press. Spencer was the only rescuer to have one of his rescues written about in detail in the Chicago Tribune and was the only one mentioned in The Weekly Wisconsin Patriot.

Van Heest said while some of the parts of the story may have been exaggerated over the years, she does believe he saved 17 lives that day. Even after The Daily story came out, that 17 is still reported without question — although it is true no one can ever be sure.

The Legacy of Edward Spencer

The impact of the Lady Elgin is complex, far-reaching and ever-evolving, and Edward Spencer is included in that.

He wasn’t the only person to save lives that day. One man, Joseph Conrad, is reported to have saved 28 lives. Yet, Spencer has managed to withstand the waves of time to make it to the shore of continual remembrance.

“I think part of Edward Spencer’s self introspection about doing his best was because he got maybe what he felt was undue attention,” van Heest said. “There were other people that saved people but for some reason they didn’t get the attention.”

And Spencer has even evolved from just an ordinary hero. For some, it’s almost told like an ancient myth. For others, it’s a religious parable.

William Spencer, unlike his brother, did become a minister. And at some point, he started using his brother’s story.

“We may not be able to go down into the flood,” William Spencer wrote in “He Did His Best,” “we may not be trained or fitted for work in a foreign land or in the billows of a great city of our own country. But may we not all at least hold the line for some brave swimmer, and cheer him in his struggle with the waves?”

And his brother was not the only one to turn Spencer’s story into a life lesson over the years. A church sermon recorded in the Sept. 17, 1934 issue of the Fresno Bee used Spencer’s story. Today, when searching for Spencer on Google, articles like “What Happens When You Forget Gratitude?” and “In Search of Thankful Hearts” pop up.

It makes sense. The story has everything you can want from an inspirational tale. Asking oneself “Did I do my best?” is a universal feeling, and hearing the story of someone who performed heroically until literal exhaustion is bound to force some into introspection and reflection.

There have become two sides to Spencer — the myth and the man. The myth as someone for people to aspire to, a prism to compare their own actions to, an ideation of what true sacrifice for others means. The myth is the Spencer told in these stories.

But Spencer was a real person. His actions didn’t exist in a vacuum — they reverberated throughout the Great Lakes. Like in 1876, the federal government built a life-saving station on campus. For 40 years, students manned the station and saved over 400 lives. Spencer and the other heroes from NU and Garrett on Sept. 8, 1860 sparked that 16-year process to get the station built.

In a different world, Spencer’s actions would have been lost to history decades ago. But Spencer has withstood the test of time and will continue to do so. For Lee Murdock, a folk singer who sings a song called “Lost on the Lady Elgin,” it comes down to one thing that is universal about Spencer’s story:

“It’s heroism at its best.”

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