Not many of us would have the tenacity, patience, or energy to research one particular subject for twelve years, but that was precisely what Michael McCarthy, author of Ashes Under Water: The SS Eastland and the Shipwreck that Shook America, did. He accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of compiling a mass of new information and facts about the 1915 disaster, its aftermath, and the civil trial that followed.
But don’t, for a minute, think that this book is a boring litany of statistics. It is, on the contrary, just the opposite. McCarthy has succeeded in penning an engaging, engrossing, emotional tale of an unimaginable tragedy. Ashes Under Water is a stunning piece of narrative nonfiction that equals the likes of Jay Bonansinga’s bestseller, The Sinking of the Eastland; America’s Forgotten Tragedy or Erik Larson’s book to movie, The Devil in the White City.
McCarthy alternates his short, well-paced chapters between six main characters – Walter Steele & William Hull, the last owners of the Eastland, Joseph Erickson, the Chief Engineer, Clarence Darrow, the soon-to-be-famous lawyer who defended Erickson in court, Captain Harry Pedersen, and James Novotny, a Western Electric employee who brought his wife and two young children along on what was to be a fun-filled outing. The entire Novotny family perished (along with 21 other entire families) onboard the Eastland.
McCarthy adds two particularly touching features to this book. The first features involves a story about the doctors who were the first to arrive on the docks after the capsizing.
“Doctors with rolled sleeves and ties were quickly growing weary, checking each dire case carried to them, having spent an hour pressing their fingers to the throats of the victims and then calling out one of two words.
The first: “Pulmotor.” It was the name for a squeaking contraption recently developed to revive unconscious miners …
Besides “Pulmotor,” there was only one other word the doctors would say: “Gone.”
Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone.”
McCarthy filled pages with the word using it 844 times to represent each and every victim. Seeing that single, simple word repeated so many times was heartbreaking. And effective.
His second emotionally charged feature was called: The Red Cross Toll. When the Red Cross began distributing compensation to the victims’ families, they made a numbered list, highlighting the deceased in bold print.
“No. 357. (Polish) Sister, 18; brother, 10, brother, 8, brother, 6, aunt, 29. The only wage earner of four orphans, an employee of the Western Electric Company, was drowned. An aunt had been living with them to do the housekeeping, and she earned about nine dollars a week by needlework.”
Again, heartbreaking and effective.
In Ashes Under Water, McCarthy makes a case for the hardworking, dedicated, heroic Chief Engineer who posthumously shouldered the blame for the disaster. Author George Hilton of Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic believed that Joseph Erickson deserved to have his good name cleared and now, McCarthy has done just that. Ashes brings long overdue justice to Erickson and his descendants. There is much more to Erickson’s fascinating story and that could be a blog for another day, but for right now, let’s just offer Michael McCarthy our heartfelt thanks for telling this story of injustice, greed, and lies in detail and in depth.
McCarthy’s new book is perfect for anyone – from high school history classes to adult book clubs. The short chapters make for easy bedtime reading but they also work just as well for the daily Metra commute.
McCarthy, a former Chicagoan, now resides in Joseph Erickson’s town of South Haven, MI. McCarthy is traveling on book tour and will be in the Chicagoland area for two upcoming events.
Barbara’s Bookstores, Willis Tower, Lower Level Friday, 12/19 from Noon to 2 PM
Barbara’s Book Market, Glen Town Center, Glenview, IL Saturday, 12/20 from 2 – 4 PM
I’m hoping to make one of those events, so I can meet Mike McCarthy in person and get my copy of Ashes autographed. I hope to see you there. As always, Remember the 844 who are gone, gone, gone, but not forgotten.
Ashes Under Water: The SS Eastland and the Shipwreck that Shook America by Michael McCarthy. Available in hardcover and Kindle on Amazon.
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