Acadian Driftwood: The Legend of Actor Charles Coghlan’s Castaway, Homeward-Bound Metal Coffin

by Owen James Burke

The handsome Charles Francis Coghlan, a 19th century French-born Anglo-Irish actor.
(b. France/Canada (?), 1841, d. Galveston, Texas, 1899.)

Things wash ashore over time. Sometimes they’re derelict fishing vessels, sometimes they’re legos. Sometimes they’re messages in bottles, and sometimes they’re caskets carrying the corpses of famous actors.

In November of 1899, famed Anglo-Irish actor and playwright Charles Francis Coghlan passed away after suffering a heart attack – likely due to stress brought on by chronic gastritis. Before Coghlan’s death, it’s rumored that he visited a fortune teller who told him that he’d die and be buried far from home, but that his remains, like driftwood, would return back to his Acadian birthplace. But he was far from home – he died on the coast of Galveston, Texas.

The news of Coghlan’s death shot round the world. Coghlan’s remains were placed in a metal casket and stored in a vault until they could be transported to New York. Once there, he was to be cremated and interred on the Prince Edward Island (Canada) farm he’d purchased for his retirement.

While trying to deal with the death of her husband, Coghlan’s estranged common-law wife, London-born Actress Louisa Elizabeth Thorn, learned that their daughter, Gertrude, had taken ill in Montreal. She rushed to Gertrude’s bedside, leaving Coghlan–who 6 years prior had married Kuhne Beveridge, an aspiring young sculptor 33 years his junior–to ripen in his Galveston casket. (Family life for Coghlan was rocky from the start; his father disowned him early on after learning that he was going to pursue the abominable dream of becoming a professional thespian.)

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Above: American sculptor Kuhne Beveridge, who was married to Coghlan for a brief time beginning in 1983, before finding about his estranged first wife and child. Image: Library of Congress.

Nine months passed, and the actor’s body still lay in Texas awaiting delivery northward. But that fall, a titanic storm surge (brought on by what was to become known as the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900) swept an untold number of people into the Gulf of Mexico–some of whom, like Coghlan, were already in their coffins. This is because most Galvestonians had been buried in sepulchers above the ground. This sort of burial may seem excessively honorary (or, you know, putrid), for even a famous Victorian-era actor, but it’s necessary in places like Galveston and New Orleans, where shallow aquifers prevent a coffin from being interred even one fathom deep.

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The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 claimed between 6,000 and 12,000 human lives, and is still the deadliest national disaster in United States History. Floating debris could be seen for miles along the Texas shoreline.

Coghlan’s hurricane-borne disappearance captivated family, friends and the acting community. Coghlan’s daughter, Gertrude, who rose to fame as an actress in her own right, spent 27 years and thousands of dollars searching for her father’s lost remains. The New York Actor’s Club put out a long-standing reward for anyone who recovered the casket. Sadly, slowly and surely, hope receded.

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Gertrude Coghlan in ‘The Lion and the Mouse’ at the Hudson Theatre on Broadway. Image: Flickr.

Then, in 1907 or -08, story has it that 7 (or 8) years after the storm–almost to the day–fishermen off Prince Edward Island spotted a barnacle-lathed object in the unmistakeable frame of a sarcophagus at Fortune Bridge, on an island none other than that of Prince Edward (PEI) in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence –  the very place where Coghlan had purchased his retirement home (and by some accounts, had also been born).

Hauling this mysterious, derelict crate aboard, the fishermen reportedly cleaned the growth from a plaque to reveal the name of their part-time neighbor and local celebrity, Charles Francis Coghlan.

They brought the casket ashore and gave Coghlan a proper burial at home, near the church where he was supposedly baptized. In attendance were surviving friends and loved ones, excluding his father, who, if he was still alive at the time, would not necessarily have been concerned with the passing of his degenerate son.

Over 20 years went by until a 1929 Ripley’s Believe It or Not! article penned by Robert L. Ripley was published in England’s Evening Post, and news of the two-decade-old story began to circulate.

Skeptical of Ripley’s’ claim, Gertrude and her husband Augustus Pistou–not only a son-in-law to the late Mr. Coghlan, but also his former manager–phoned the Evening Post to find out where Ripley had gathered his information.

Ripley responded that he had read the account in two separately published books by two of Mr. Coghlan’s “closest associates”: Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, another well-known actor of the time (credited by some as having played “the best Hamlet of the 19th century”); and Mrs. Lily Langtry, an illustrious actress, playwright and general object of great public scorn and scandal.

Ripley cited a passage in Sir Robertson’s book, A Player Under Three Reigns:

“Shortly after his burial there was a great storm came up from the Gulf, which swept his coffin, with others, into the sea. The Gulf Stream bore him around Florida, up the coast, about 1,500 miles to Prince Edward Island and he came ashore not far from his home.”

When asked where he’d obtained the information, Sir Robertson told the reporter that a theatrical producer named George C. Tyler, another former manager of Coghlan’s who just happened to have an office in the same building as Mrs. Pitou–came forward saying that he’d heard the story told “by several persons in whom [he had] confidence.”

Mrs. Langtry, with whom Coghlan starred in several performances, wrote a similar account in her autobiography, The Days I Knew.

Ultimately, no official confirmation of the whereabouts of Mr. Coghlan’s remains were ever made public, and the only people who really know what was etched on that metal casket are a handful of now-deceased Canadian fishermen. What’s left of Ripley’s account is a more recent telling of the story, found in this weird little book of curiosities.

Mr. Pitou, along with much of the public, was still not entirely convinced by the heresay.

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Today, Coghlan is immortalized as “a Victorian-era Tom Selleck”. I suppose I see it. . . .

Now, to the skeptical but undiscerning landlubber, the thought of a coffin drifting down and around thousands of miles of coastline only to bend northward and return to the very shores where its occupant once lived is nothing short of miraculous. However, any sailor familiar with the northeastward flowing Gulf Stream is acutely aware of how precisely its path follows the Atlantic seaboard of North America up to the Canadian Maritime where it veers east toward Europe.

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Above: Benjamin Franklin’s illustration of the mighty Gulf Stream.

Before the Gulf Stream shoots across the North Atlantic and up toward the Arctic, however, it discharges several back-eddies (think of the edge of a river, where the water slows and flows upstream, and see the graphic above). Many of these eddies occur within the Canadian Maritime and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which would conveniently dump something large and buoyant right around Newfoundland or somewhere thereabout.

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Graphic: Gulf of Maine Census.

Whether or not the story holds water, no one can definitively say–especially at this late juncture when all we have are conflicting accounts and no official record of a relatively generic name. Another version of the tale, published in January of 1907 in The New York Times states that a hunter found the partially buried casket 19 miles outside of Galveston. Other sources maintain that he was shipped inland to Kentucky well before the storm, but that those records were lost in a fire.

Largely regarded as little more than folklore, a coffin finding its way home by way of an ocean current might be highly improbable, but far from impossible, and the old adage lives on: never let the truth spoil a good story. -OJB

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And good on you, Mr. Coghlan, for following and achieving your dream. Image via Galveston Ghost.

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