New Expedition Will Explore the 1898 Shipwreck Known as ‘New England’s Titanic’—And You Can Livestream It

Blood stars and Acadian redfish lurk near plates and a stove from the Portland.
Blood stars and Acadian redfish lurk near plates and a stove from the Portland.
Courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NOAA

The weekend after Thanksgiving in 1898, New England was hit with a storm so fierce it sank roughly 150 ships and killed hundreds of sailors and passengers. It was nicknamed the “Portland Gale” after its most famous casualty: the SS Portland.

The opulent, 291-foot steamship had been ferrying passengers between Boston and Portland, Maine, for nearly a decade when it perished in the Atlantic along with every person on board, and the tragedy shocked the entire region—people later began calling the Portland “New England’s Titanic.” But while we know all about the iceberg that clobbered the “unsinkable” RMS Titanic, nobody’s quite sure why the reliable Portland was unable to weather the 1898 storm. In fact, for 91 years, nobody knew where it was.

The merry Portland illustrated in calmer waters circa 1890.Antonio Jacobsen, National Undersea Research Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Oceanographic technology had advanced considerably by 1989, when divers John Fish and Arnold Carr teamed up with Richard Limeburner, an oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), to search for the sunken ship. They knew where bodies and detritus from the wreck had been found along the shore, and they knew what time the ship sank—the victims’ watches had all stopped ticking around 9 a.m. After estimating the shipwreck’s general location by tracing the victims’ paths in reverse, they used sonar to scan the ocean floor for signs of the ship itself. They weren’t disappointed.

The shipwreck rests in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, an area between Cape Ann and Cape Cod that’s home to approximately 200 shipwrecks. And although the researchers couldn’t prove their wreck was indeed the Portland in 1989, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed it in 2002. Since then, there have been several expeditions to explore the remains, but none has solved the mystery of what caused its fatal plunge.

Next week, the NOAA and the WHOI are joining forces for a new expedition—and they’re livestreaming some of it.

The Portland's walking beam illuminated by an ROV called Pixel.Courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NOAA

The first two 45-minute programs are airing on Tuesday, August 25, at 2:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. EST on both the NOAA and WHOI websites. Viewers will follow a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) as it inspects the Portland, while scientists narrate its progress and answer questions about the project.

They are, of course, hoping to find out why the Portland sank. An earlier investigation revealed that the crankshaft on the port side was disconnected from the connecting rod, which could’ve caused an engine malfunction. However, that may have happened when the Portland struck the ocean floor. It’s also possible that the ship exhausted its fuel source before it could make it to safety.

“We're still hoping to examine the boilers and see if there is any coal remaining,” Kirstin Meyer-Kaiser, the project’s lead scientist, tells Mental Floss. “If we cannot find any coal, this would suggest that the Portland had run out of fuel.”

An anchor on the upper deck, taken over by sponges, sea squirts, and lamp shells.Courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NOAA

But the researchers aren’t only focused on filling in the Portland’s historical blanks. They’re also interested in studying its current role as a vibrant habitat for ocean life. For sponges, anemones, and other invertebrates that stay in one place—called sessile invertebrates—shipwrecks offer the chance to settle on higher ground, where ocean currents move more quickly and food floats by more often.

“We actually see some pretty distinct patterns in the Portland community,” Meyer-Kaiser explains. “There's a dense aggregation of anemones on the walking beam, the highest point on the wreck, because those animals are taking advantage of the food sources available to them there.”

The Portland's highest point, the walking beam, is a happening place for plumose anemones and other suspension-feeding species.Courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NOAA

A shipwreck’s nooks and crannies are prime real estate for fish and other species seeking shelter, and the abundance of those species then attracts predators to the area. In short, shipwrecks are fantastic for biodiversity.

“This year, we had the opportunity to visit a natural boulder reef site and compare the biological community to the wrecks we're studying,” Meyer-Kaiser says. “The boulder reef community had some of the same species, but it was missing the large sponges, anemones, and many of the fishes we see on shipwrecks.”

An Atlantic cod caught in the headlights near a capstan on the upper deck.Courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NOAA

Next week’s expedition will explore a second shipwreck, too: an unidentified coal schooner. Its hull is covered in a layer of copper to prevent biofouling, or the build-up of barnacles, algae, and other organisms that attach themselves to the submerged parts of vessels. Overexposure to copper can be toxic to marine life [PDF], and Meyer-Kaiser says the schooner’s layer has definitely kept its biological population smaller than it could’ve been. “It's actually fascinating to see anti-fouling measures working so well even a century or so later!” she says.

In addition to studying the biodiversity that is there, the researchers will also hunt for clues that might help uncover the schooner’s identity. They’ve spotted a shoe, a bowl, a speed-measuring device, an instrument they think is a telescope, and the numbers 898 nailed into the bow stem post. According to Meyer-Kaiser, this figure is a little like a house number or a license plate, and they’re sifting through historical records to find a match.

You can tune into the schooner expedition on Wednesday, August 26, at 2:30 p.m. EST and 6:30 p.m. EST, and on Thursday, August 27, at 2:30 p.m. EST, through NOAA or WHOI.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

Little Weesy Coppin, the Ghost That Foretold the Franklin Expedition’s Fate

An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
Royal Museums Greenwich, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On May 19, 1845, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail from England and headed for the Arctic. Commanding the expedition was Sir John Franklin, a distinguished naval officer with a few Arctic voyages under his belt. Britain’s Admiralty was hopeful that, within a year, he would arrive in the Bering Strait having successfully charted the Northwest Passage.

But as 1846 slipped away with no sign of either ship—and no word from the explorers—it became clear that something had gone wrong. Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, lobbied the Admiralty to investigate, and so began a steady stream of expeditions to locate the missing vessels. By spring 1850, they were none the wiser as to what had happened to the ships or the sailors. The country was captivated by the mystery, and Lady Jane was growing increasingly desperate for any lead.

It was around this time that a shipbuilder named William Coppin sent her a strange letter. The ghost of his daughter, he said, knew where to find the Franklin expedition.

Weesy Puts on a Show

Coppin lived in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, with his wife, his wife’s sister, and the couple’s five young children. In May 1849, their 3-year-old daughter, Louisa (Weesy for short) had died of gastric fever, but that hardly stopped her from being present. Soon after her death, her siblings reported seeing a “ball of bluish light” that they all agreed was Weesy; they even started setting a place for her at meals.

One night, Weesy’s older sister told her aunt that the words “Mr. Mackay is dead” were glowing on the wall of the bedroom. Though her aunt couldn’t see them herself, she nevertheless asked after Mr. Mackay—a banker friend of the family—the next day, and discovered that he had indeed passed away the previous night. Weeks later, the aunt suggested that the children put Weesy’s apparent clairvoyance to good use by questioning her about the fate of Sir John Franklin.

Weesy responded with flair, filling the room with an Arctic scene that showed two ships amid snowy mountains and narrow channels. When asked if Franklin himself was still alive, Weesy revealed “a round-faced Man [ascending] the Mast and [waving] his hat,” and she answered a query about his exact location with a series of abbreviations that included “P.RI” and “BS.”

An illustration of the two ships from Francis Watt's Pictorial Chronicles of the Mighty Deep.Kokstein, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The spectral illuminations were only visible to Weesy’s sister Anne, who copied them onto paper and showed her father upon his return from a trip. Coppin wasn’t wholly disbelieving, but he didn’t act on the information immediately. Then, in May 1850, after hearing that Lady Jane was preparing to send a ship to search for her husband, he wrote her a letter detailing Weesy’s appearance.

“[The abbreviations] constantly lead me to believe that [Sir John Franklin] is in Prince Regent Inlet off Barrow’s Strait, likely in the Victory in Felix Harbour or not far from it at this moment,” he said, and encouraged Lady Jane to direct her commander to that area. Shortly after, he met with her in person to reiterate his advice.

Charting a Course

Here’s where accounts of the story begin to diverge. In 1889, a reverend named J. Henry Skewes published a book—at Coppin’s behest—that credited Weesy’s vision with causing Lady Jane to point her expedition south, toward Prince Regent Inlet, instead of north, like she had been planning. While it’s true that the government had focused most of its search north toward Wellington Channel, it’s not true that Lady Jane herself had only considered a northern mission. In June 1850, she mentioned in a letter that Coppin visited her after “reading in the newspaper a paragraph of the ship’s being about to sail for Regent Inlet,” implying that she had already intended to explore that region.

Wellington Channel to the north, and Prince Regent Inlet to the south.TerraMetrics/Google

Skewes’s book also alleged that Weesy’s original directions had been much clearer than a few cryptic initials. According to him, she illuminated the words “Erebus and Terror. Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel.” At that point, no place named “Victoria Channel” existed on the map, which Skewes used as evidence of Weesy’s omniscience. Since the Coppins were collaborating with Skewes, it’s possible that they simply recalled the events differently than they had decades earlier. They had also repeated the same séance several times, so the stream of intelligible words may have come later. In Coppin’s initial letter to Lady Jane, however, he said nothing about a “Victoria Channel.”

Even though Lady Jane had probably already set her sights on the south, Coppin’s conviction did seem to encourage her, and she instructed him to share Weesy’s vision with a select few influential figures around town. In early June, she saw off Captain Charles Codrington Forsyth in the schooner Prince Albert, hoping he’d return with news of her husband from beyond the inlet.

Unfortunately, the inlet was frozen, and Forsyth couldn’t get through.

Breaking News and Breaking Ice

The expedition wasn’t entirely fruitless—it was Forsyth who broke the news in England that another expedition had located three graves on Beechey Island, thus confirming that the Terror and Erebus had at least spent part of the winter in Wellington Channel [PDF]. There was still a chance that Franklin and his men had journeyed on toward Prince Regent Inlet after stopping on the island.

Lady Jane began preparing another mission, this time with Captain William Kennedy in command, and Coppin stuck around to help with shipbuilding and fundraising. Kennedy even spent a few days with the Coppins in Londonderry and supposedly corroborated Weesy’s account (though he didn’t see her messages for himself). Kennedy managed to make it through Prince Regent Inlet, but pivoted westward and came back empty-handed.

A portrait of William Kennedy painted by Stephen Pearce in 1853.National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Independent of Lady Jane's endeavors, a Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor named John Rae was making significantly more progress in the area. After passing through the inlet in 1851, he came to a narrow body of water that he christened “Victoria Strait” before encountering ice and turning back. During a surveying mission in 1854, Rae spoke with local Inuit, who reported having come across a few dozen white men on King William Island—not far from Victoria Strait. He even bought several English-made items from the Inuit, including a plate that bore Sir John Franklin’s name.

Now, Lady Jane directed her attention to King William Island, financing an expedition led by Francis Leopold McClintock in the late 1850s. In 1859, his lieutenant finally discovered an incontrovertible clue to the Franklin expedition’s fate: a boat, skeletons, and a note that explained Franklin had died in June 1847 and his crew had abandoned the ships—marooned in ice—in April 1848.

Little Weesy’s Contested Legacy

The note found during McClintock's 1859 expedition.Petecarney, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Coppin wasted no time asking Lady Jane to validate that Weesy’s leads (as Anne had transcribed them) had, in fact, been correct. Lady Jane obliged.

“I have no hesitation in telling you that the child’s chart … represented the ships as being in a channel which we believed at the time to be inaccessible, but which it has since been found they actually navigated,” she wrote. “Moreover, the names ‘Victory’ and ‘Victoria’ written by the little girl upon her chart correspond with that of the point (Point Victory) on King William’s Land, where the important record of the Erebus and Terror was found, and with that of the strait or channel (Victoria Strait) where the ships were finally lost.”

That said, she did decline returning the original chart to him. As Shane McCorristine writes in his book The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration, that could have been because she feared becoming a laughingstock if he published it. With Franklin’s demise no longer a mystery, entertaining the supernatural no longer had value.

A sketch of Lady Jane Franklin drawn by Amélie Romilly in 1816.The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Emmet Collection of Manuscripts Etc. Relating to American History, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Coppin’s story stayed under the radar until Skewes released his book, Sir John Franklin: The True Secret of the Discovery of His Fate, nearly 15 years after Lady Franklin’s death in 1875. The author so fervently believed that Weesy had expertly directed explorers to the Franklin expedition that his account seems exaggerated at best and downright ludicrous at worst, despite plenty of firsthand details from the Coppins. After its debut, John Rae and Francis McClintock both denied that the long-dead toddler had influenced their exploratory routes in any way.

Furthermore, as historian Russell Potter explains on his blog Visions of the North, Weesy’s phantasmal allegations weren’t totally accurate. Though the idea that Franklin may have gone south instead of north did ultimately lead to some discoveries, there’s no evidence that either the Terror or the Erebus actually went through Prince Regent Inlet. And when Weesy revealed the vision of a healthy Franklin waving his hat from the top of the mast, he had already been dead for more than two years.

In short, the ghost of Little Weesy didn’t single-handedly solve the mystery of the missing Franklin expedition. (In fact, the ships themselves weren’t even located until 2014 and 2016 off the southwestern coast of King William Island, far from Prince Regent Inlet and south of the island's Victory Point.) But you’d be hard-pressed to prove that her ghost didn’t exist at all—and considering that the story helped her father secure about a decade’s worth of work and plenty of high-society connections, she made an impact from beyond the grave.