The Death of Captain Webb

Alas brave Captain Webb has acted the part of a fool
By attempting to swim the mighty Niagara whirlpool,
Which I am sorry to say and to relate,
Has brought him to an untimely fate.

’Twas in the year Eighteen hundred and eighty-three,
With the people of America he did agree,
For $10,000, to swim through that yawning whirlpool;
But alas! He failed in doing so — the self-conceited fool.

Captain Webb, he courted danger for the sake of worldly gain
And the thought of gaining for himself — world wide fame;
And although many people warned him not to throw his life away,
He rushed madly to his fate without the least dismay.

Which clearly proves he was a mad conceited fool,
For to try to swim o’er that fearful whirlpool,
When he knew so many people had perished there,
And when the people told him so, he didn’t seem to care.

Had it not been for the money that lured him on
To the mighty falls of Niagara, he never would have gone
To sacrifice his precious life in such a dangerous way;
But I hope it will be a warning to others for many a long day.

On Tuesday the 24th of July, Webb arrived at the falls,
And as I view the scene in my mind’s eye, my heart it appalls
To think that any man could be such a great fool,
Without the help of God, to think to swim that great whirlpool;

Whereas, if he had put his trust in God before he came there,
God would have opened his blinded eyes and told him to beware;
But being too conceited in his own strength, the devil blinded his eyes,
And all thought of God and the people’s advice he therefore did despise.

But the man the forgets God, God will forget him;
Because to be too conceited in your own strength before God it is a sin;
And the devil will whisper in your ear — there’s no danger in the way,
And make you rush madly on to destruction, without the least dismay.

At half-past three o’clock Webb started for the river,
Which caus’d many of the spectators with fear to shiver,
As they wondered in their hearts if he would be such a fool
As to dare to swim through that hell — whirlpool.

Webb was received by the people with loud and hearty cheers;
And many a heart that day was full of doubts and fears;
A many a one present did venture to say –
“He only came here to throw his life away.”

The Webb entered a boat, in waiting, and was rowed by the ferry-man;
And many of the spectators seem’d to turn pale and wan;
And when asked by the boatman how much he’d made by the channel swim,
He replied $25,000 complete every dim.

Have you spent it all? Was the next question McCloy put to him,
No, answered Webb, I have yet $15,000 left, every dim;
“Then” replied McCloy, “You’d better spend it before you try this swim;”
Then the captain laugh’d heartily but didn’t answer him.

When the boat arrived at point opposite the “Maid of the Mist”
The captain stripped, retaining only a pair of red drawers of the smallest grist;
And at two minutes past four o’clock Webb dived from the boat;
While the shouts and applause of the crowd on the air seem’d to float.

Oh, Heaven! it must have been an awe inspiring sight,
To see him battling among that hell of waters with all his might,
And seemingly swimming with ease and great confidence;
While the spectators held their breath in suspense.

At one moment he was lifted high on the crest of a wave;
But he battled most manfully his life to save;
But alas! all his struggling prov’d in vain,
Because he drown’d in that merciless whirlpool God did so ordain.

He was swept into the neck of that hell — whirlpool,
And was whirl’d about in it just like a light cotton spool;
While the water fiend laughingly cried ”Ha! ha! you poor silly fool,
You have lost your life, for the sake of gain, in that hell — whirlpool

I hope the Lord will be a father to his family in their distress,
For they ought to be pitied, I really must confess;
And I hope the subscribers of the money, that lured Webb to his fate,
Will give the money to Mrs. Webb, her husband’s loss to compensate.

Capt. Webb Missing Yet

No Trace of his Body Found by the Anxious Searchers

The Captain’s Story of how he Tried to Swim the Whirlpool Rapids and how he Proposed to do it

BUFFALO, July 25. —No trace has been found of Capt. Matthew Webb, the champion swimmer, who was engulfed in the Whirlpool Rapids yesterday. His manager, Mr. Frederick Kyle, has kept up the search to-day, and has expressed a hope that the Captain may have passed through the whirlpool alive and landed somewhere. in an out-of-the-way place, where he may be lying helpless on the river, bank, but this is extremely improbable. Rumors have also been circulated that the Captain was found in Lake Ontario with both legs broken and still swimming, but of course there is nothing in such stories. It is probable that the body will eventually be found either in the whirlpool, where bodies sometimes float about for days, or in the river or lake below.

It may be remembered that Webb visited the falls in June and looked the situation over. In an interview after the visit he is reported as saying that his object in attempting to swim the rapids was to earn $10,000, but there could have been no such money on this swim. He tried in vain to make an arrangement with the railroads to run their trains and let him have 40 per cent. of the excursion proceeds. The Niagara Falls hotel proprietors were asked to guarantee $1,000. Neither roads nor hotels would make terms, and he returned to Boston. But the affair was widely noticed, and the Captain seams to have made the attempt merely for the name of it.

In the interview referred to Webb is reported as saying: “I am going to swim the Whirlpool Rapids, and I will say that is the angriest bit of water in the world. I came over from England to make the trial, and I went to the Rapids last week and made a critical examination. They are rough, I tell you, and the whirlpool is a grand one, but I think I am strong enough and skillful enough to get through alive. The people at Niagara tell me that it will be simply committing suicide. You ought to hear the blood-thrilling tales they related for my benefit. A year or two ago a boy who was paddling around in the shoal water was drawn into the rapids and had his head cut off. A girl fell into the river last Summer from the suspension bridge, and when her dead body was picked up at the end of the rapids it was bereft of all clothing but a pair of stockings.”

“My plan is this: the current, they say, runs 80 miles an hour, and the river is 95 feet deep. It is wide just below the falls, but narrows at the rapids. I am only afraid of two awful ledges or rock which jut out from the shore and cut the whirlpool. The water fairly shrieks and hisses as it boils over them now. I want to avoid the sides, and yet dare not go into the middle, for there is the vortex, and that means death. I will go out into the middle of the river in a small boat, just above Suspension Bridge. At the time appointed I will leap into the river and float into the rapids. Of course I will make no attempt to go forward, for the fearful speed of the water will carry me through. When the water gets very bad I will go under the surface and remain beneath until I am compelled to come up for breath. That will be pretty often, I’ll wager. When I reach the whirlpool I will strike out with all my strength and try to keep away from the suction-hole in the centre. My life will then depend on my muscles and my breath, with touch of science behind them. It may take me two or three. hours to get out of the whirlpool, which is a quarter of a mile long. When I do get through I will try to land on the Canadian side, but if the current is too swift, as I think it is, I will keep on down to Lewiston on the American side.”

This seems to be an outline of the plan which Capt. Webb really attempted to follow, but instead of floating easily with the current until he reached the whirlpool, and being then ready to strike out with all his power, the probability is that the terrible force of the water buffeted him about and completely exhausted, if it did not kill, him. Finding himself helpless, he may have given up the struggle, when he disappeared, or he may have dived and been unable to rise. In any event, he could not have struggled long in the pool without being seen.

New York Times, 26th July 1883

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Comments (1) »

  1. In the year 2018, on the 21st day of January at 7:17 am

    Although it may seem… odd for the esteemed poet to criticize Captain Webb for his arrogance and his lack of humility in challenging nature itself, especially given his own penchant for challenging nature– i.e., his own, as well as repeatedly noting the Captain’s conceit (And I would be the worst kind of apologist not to grant that McGonagall is, in this case, certainly ignoring the beam in his own eye) I can make a case for one serious difference between the two– their choices of overweening ambition.

    McGonagall, after all, chose poetry as his method of pursuing fame and fortune. It is not unfair to say that he had a certain success in this. True, fortune was never to be his lot, and in truth has rarely been the lot of most poets– Tennyson, Burns, Shakespeare and the like are minorities when compared to the vast throngs of those who have chosen to take up a quill and foolscap to express themselves– but neither is fame, and that McGonagall certainly achieved. For the most part, after his passing, a fate not unusual among the lists of famed poets– but often enough none had such fame in life, where McGonagall at the least had a certain notoriety.

    Captain Webb, on the other hand, seems to have achieved the opposite. By swimming the Channel, he gained some fame and fortune– as noted above, some 25 thousand dollars, which was a princely sum at the time. (In fact, I believe that many an actual Prince would have been at times hard-pressed to lay his hands on such a sum, and certainly not by such a relatively simple process.) Had he let it stand at that, he would have surpassed McGonagall, but he did not– and therefore their lives ended in a tie.

    A Tie, you ask? But you said yourself, Webb had both Fame AND Fortune! Yes, he had both. But I put it to you that he lost a far greater fortune by losing his life– perhaps some of his remaining funds contributed to a higher than average sort of casket, true, but one can’t suggest that he enjoyed it.

    Webb chose to to pursue the art of dangerous physical achievements, and when successful, gained by them. But gained only because they were dangerous, to his body, health, and very life– and when the danger was more than he had a true chance of defeating, he misjudged his skill and thus died. Perhaps not the ‘mad, conceited fool” McGonagall writes of, but someone who certainly overestimated his abilities to defy Nature. He’d done it once… and Nature is not known to forgive being cheated more than once, and neither is the Reaper.

    McGonagall, on the other hand, had arguably more conceit than Webb, and overestimated his abilities far more than the brave Captain, but he chose poetry as his field of endeavor, and unless one is given to writing clever, biting and virulent and slanderous lampoons against the less tolerant Crowned Heads of the area and era, poetry is generally far less dangerous to one’s health– much less vastly less lethal when one errs in judgement. (Of course, one cannot say that McGonagall had any talent for clever and biting anything, and his respect for any head with a crown is legendary, so the above example wouldn’t be anything he would– but I digress.) One cannot drown in poetry– although one will admit that there’s quite a lot of it one feels swamped by.

    And so, one had both fame and fortune, but lost fortune and life. McGonagall never had fortune– but a sort of fame to this day, and kept his life the longer. I shall consider that a tie, myself.

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