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The Wreck

A nightmare at sea turned into one of the greatest rescues in maritime history. When a rookie treasure hunter went looking for the lost ship, he found a different kind of ruin.

By David Wolman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 65


A longtime contributor to Wired, David Wolman has also written for The New York Times, Outside, Nature, BusinessWeek, and many other publications. He is the author of three works of nonfiction, and his first Atavist story, “The Instigators,” was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2011.


Editor: Katia Bachko and Seyward Darby
Designer: Tim Moore
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Illustrator: David Johnson
Video and Map: Courtesy of Taylor Zajonc and Endurance Exploration Group
Special thanks: Erin Kinchen, Joyce Miller, Mary Lou Eichhorn, Jonathan Frochtzwajg, Donna Blinn, Aimee Brigham, Timothy Cerniglia, the Zajonc family, and especially Phyllis Edwards

If you are a descendant of someone connected with the Connaught story, or think you might be, we would love to hear from you. The passenger list for the ship can be found here. Email David or send a note on Twitter to @davidwolman using the hashtag #thewreck.

Published in February 2017. Design updated in 2021.

Of the nearly 600 souls on board the crippled steamship, five were priests. Over the noise of ripping wind and sailors shouting, the holy men offered spiritual counsel to any passenger who would listen. They assured anxious women and children that God held them in His righteous hands. To the men they spoke more plainly: Barring a miracle on this Sunday, the Lord’s Day, October 7, 1860, everyone on the ship would drown in the turbid waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Just shy of 400 feet long, the craft carrying the priests and their makeshift flock was a colossus by the engineering standards of the day. The Connaught, christened in honor of the western Irish province where it docked, was close to completing its second transatlantic voyage. But with the destination, Boston Harbor, about 150 miles west, disaster struck.

Caught in a storm, the Connaught began flooding on its starboard side, tilting into the ocean at a steep angle. The engines died. Then came a fire belowdecks. The luxury ocean liner had transformed into a death trap.

Stranded on deck alongside the ship’s crew were poor Irish immigrants and card-carrying members of America’s upper crust, including Hugh Whittell, a wealthy California entrepreneur, and William Hurry, a prominent New York architect, developer, and abolitionist. Overhead, tied to the ship’s masts and snapping in the wind, were flags signaling distress.

Toward midday, the 42-year-old captain, Robert Leitch, ordered his crew to secure every hatch and to cover broken skylights and other openings with wet blankets and jackets. If he couldn’t stop the Connaught from becoming an inferno, he could at least slow the destruction, gaining perhaps another hour or two before the ocean consumed his ship and the lives on board. All the while, the five priests urged passengers to resist fear, remain steadfast in their faith, and die with dignity.

Then, in the distance, as if sent from heaven: a boat.

One hundred and fifty years later, Taylor Zajonc sat in his tiny home office poring over the details of the Connaught’s sinking. On the second floor of a prewar brick townhouse in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Georgetown University, the office still had its original single-pane windows, which meant that it was sweltering in summer and frigid in winter. The wood floors were so uneven that Taylor’s wheeled chair rolled away from his desk if left unattended. It couldn’t go far, though. “I stuffed that office with so many maritime history books,” Taylor recently told me, “that I was genuinely concerned the floor might give out and send me tumbling into the living room below.” Most days, his border collie–chow mix, Potter, slept at his feet.

Taylor’s job was to evaluate information about shipwrecks for potential survey, salvage, and recovery—what most people call treasure hunting. Tall, with wide eyes, thinning blond hair, and a calm disposition, the 28-year-old researcher wasn’t a maritime thrill seeker like those who, armed with scuba gear and a daydream, dive for gold in their free time in places like Key West. For Taylor, treasure hunting was a family business—his father taught him the ropes—and an intellectual pursuit. He spent more time scouring books than he did out on the water, piecing together historical data about lost ships: the cargo never recovered, the estimated location and depth of wrecks, insurance claims, passenger manifests, and more. He read so much about disasters that he sometimes experienced them in his dreams.

Recently, Taylor had started working for a wealthy Floridian who was getting a new search-and-salvage enterprise off the ground. The boss wanted Taylor to come up with a short list of wrecks they could hunt, based on location and potential profit; from that they would pick one to pursue. The Connaught was no secret to maritime historians. It was listed in numerous books about shipwrecks, with accounts indicating that it sank with £10,000 in gold bullion on board. Thanks to gold’s price jump in the mid-aughts, the lost haul would now be worth as much as $15 million.

Money, though, wasn’t the only reason Taylor focused his attention on the 1860 disaster. Treasure hunting is almost by definition about optimism. You need to believe that fortune awaits beneath the waves—all you have to do is go get it. Taylor, however, saw magical thinking as a problem, enticing adventurers to take fanciful, costly trips that often turned up nothing. He wanted to prove that a successful treasure hunter ignores the role of luck in a search and maximizes those of science and skepticism, an approach that tends to erase a good deal of the romance.

Where it endures is in the stories. Taylor’s dad had taught him that while treasure may capture the imagination, what sticks in our memories are the tales of the people who survived or perished in shipwrecks. In gathering evidence on the Connaught for his employer, Taylor would uncover a story so captivating, it was as if he had dreamed it. The plot began with an engineering marvel, a catastrophe, and a stunning feat of courage. It ended with piracy, treason, and a hero disgraced.

In April 1860, tens of thousands of people gathered at the docks just outside Newcastle, England, to witness the launch of the Connaught. Shipping executives schmoozed with local scions of industry and politics. As the giant ship slid stern-first along oiled rails into the water where the River Tyne meets the North Sea, the crowd cheered. A militia band played the folk song “Off She Goes.” The Connaught had been constructed in neighboring Jarrow by the shipbuilding firm of Palmer Brothers & Co., but it was being delivered to Galway, Ireland, where it would be the crown jewel of the city’s port and of the Atlantic Royal Mail Steam Navigation Company.

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An illustration of the Connaught’s launch in Newcastle. (London Illustrated News)

During the first half of the 19th century, advances in boiler designs, paddles, and metalwork had ushered in the age of steamships capable of traveling along the rivers of Europe, down the length of the Mississippi, and, soon enough, across oceans. In 1838, Irish scholar and popular science writer Dionysius Lardner wrote that it was “as chimerical to talk of going to the moon as running a steamer service to New York from the British Isles.” By 1860, an ocean crossing took just one or two weeks. Whoever owned the ships, governed their ports of call, and secured contracts for cargo stood to profit immensely. The Atlantic Royal Mail Steam Navigation Company was incorporated in 1858 for just that purpose.

The Galway Line, as it was informally known, was supposed to transform its quiet namesake into a port city to rival existing powers. That was the vision, anyway, preached by area businessmen. Ships carrying passengers and international mail would have a shorter journey to America than those departing from ports to the east, such as Liverpool and Dublin. A busier Galway would also require new rail links to handle increased traffic and freight, a pleasing prospect to entrepreneurs eager to lay tracks across Ireland. Announcements in the local press advertised a “New Line of Steamship to America” and offered fares to emigrants looking to set off westward.

The Connaught was the Galway Line’s most impressive ship. It was equipped with three 800-horsepower oscillating engines, and at its center stood two massive paddlewheels three stories tall. Whereas most vessels at the time had rounded bows, the Connaught was one of the first to incorporate a “wave line,” characterized by a concave hull that came to an unusually narrow point, almost like a blade. Engineers had calculated that the shape would make vessels cut more smoothly through water, speeding travel.

Matching the Connaught’s sleek figure was an all-white paint job that earned it a moniker: the White Boat. The bow was adorned on its right side with a favorite emblem of Ireland, Erin and her harp (from the Gaelic Éirinn go Brách, meaning “Ireland Forever”) and on its left with an image of Lady Liberty. The stern was ornate, with figurines and inset carvings of the ship’s name and port. On the main deck, framed skylights and companionways featured carved, polished teak accented with stained glass.

The real glamour, however, was inside. The saloon and first-class cabins had walnut and maple paneling with paintings depicting scenes of the Irish countryside. A lounge was furnished with the finest upholstery and capped by a marble ceiling. Throughout the ship was the same spare-nothing adornment: diamond-cut glass doorknobs, velvet couches, and burnished gold molding. Reporters for the Galway Vindicator who toured the ship took note of two bookshelves in the main cabin. Their contents: four volumes of the Book of Common Prayer, three miscellaneous titles, and 19 copies of the Bible.

The same members of the press were forbidden from joining the Connaught’s trial cruises around Galway Bay before the ship’s first ocean crossing. Reporters took this as a sign that the Galway Line’s top brass were hiding something, and they raised concerns about the vessel’s seaworthiness. They were drowned out, however, by the public fanfare surrounding the ship and by the blessing of local Board of Trade inspectors. Under a bright sky in the summer of 1860, the Connaught embarked on its inaugural voyage to America.

One afternoon in 1987, when Taylor Zajonc was five years old, his father paid an unannounced visit to his son’s kindergarten in Spokane, Washington, carrying a handful of tarnished coins and a six-inch metal spike. Tall and thin, Guy Zajonc wore a three-piece suit with a gold chain connected to a pocket watch. “This is real treasure,” he told the children. “It’s from a shipwreck nearly 300 years old.” Taylor, who was developing an early and keen interest in history—ancient Egypt, Vikings, and Captain James Cook were his favorite topics—was dazzled.

Guy was a respected attorney in town. He had a top-floor office, a good income, and a happy family. On weekends he volunteered as a high school track coach. Yet as his career wore on, he was finding real estate transactions and contract law less than thrilling, especially compared with the tales of adventure that he and Taylor were reading at home.

Before coming to his son’s school that day, Guy had met with a man who was hoping to raise money for a treasure hunt: salvaging a lost Manila galleon off the western coast of North America. The man brought along the coins and spike, artifacts from another wreck, as proof that the venture would be worthwhile. Guy had asked to borrow the items to impress his young son.

Treasure hunts are notorious for financing problems, personality clashes, and legal challenges.

Guy offered free of charge to help the man obtain a legal permit to recover the galleon—not always an easy task, given the ownership, insurance, and sovereignty disputes that treasure hunts can provoke. They are also notorious for financing problems, personality clashes, and legal challenges. The galleon project proved no exception and was scrapped in short order. Guy heard that an investor from Texas had lost $300,000 and had no clue where the money went.  

Still, Guy was hooked on treasure hunting. The world of underwater explorers is tightly knit, and he was suddenly an insider. All it had taken were some phone calls and a few trips to meet (and drink) with adventurers and investors. It helped that most of the players he encountered lacked legal training, which made Guy an instant asset. He got along with these dreamers, especially the eccentric millionaires who bankrolled the ventures—“likeable rogues,” he called them.

In 1998, Guy organized a mission to Japan’s “golden submarine,” the I-52, which had been discovered three years prior. Bombed by the Allies in World War II, the sub sank near the dead middle of the Atlantic, taking with it more than two tons of gold. Guy arranged for the shooting of a National Geographic documentary about the effort to salvage the wealth and established himself as a man who got things done.

Over the next few years, he tackled several more projects. Whenever he visited a shipwreck site, Guy tried to bring his sons. (Taylor has a brother, Austen, who is younger by three years.) In September 2000, a team of Russian explorers was taking wealthy tourists to visit the final resting place of the Titanic. Guy was part of that expedition, and he managed to talk the Russians into letting his sons tag along. The following year, Taylor joined the same crew on a cruise to the Bermuda Triangle to investigate the wreck of a trading vessel that sank in 1810, carrying millions of dollars in silver coins. He participated in a submarine dive to more than three miles below the ocean’s surface, a depth that for a teenager—so far as Taylor knows—remains a record. Only as an adult would he realize how exceptional these experiences were. “Almost everybody thinks the way they grew up was totally normal,” Taylor told me.

In 2003, Guy became general counsel for a new Florida-based company called Odyssey Marine Exploration. With Odyssey’s launch, and that of another large firm in London, treasure hunting arrived on Wall Street, complete with stock issuances and ticker symbols. (Odyssey’s is OMEX.) With big-league financing and sturdy corporate structuring, the new ventures would be far removed from the world of weekend divers and quixotic explorers. Odyssey had slick offices in Tampa, a 230-foot research vessel, a $1.5 million tethered robot for filming and retrieving debris from the seafloor, and about 100 employees. In Guy’s first year, the company recovered an estimated $75 million in gold from the SS Republic, found off the coast of Georgia.

When a $100-a-day position opened up for an archaeologist’s assistant—really a glorified gopher—Guy called Taylor to see if he wanted it. The younger Zajonc was a semester away from finishing his bachelor’s degree in psychology at Western Washington University.

“Take a night to think about it,” Guy said.

“OK,” Taylor replied. “But it’s going to be yes.”

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The Connaught’s maiden voyage from Galway to Boston, with a stop in St. John’s, Newfoundland, was anything but auspicious. One of the ship’s pistons fractured, causing a two-day delay. After undergoing repairs stateside, it began the journey home, but another piston failed. The ship eventually limped back into Galway almost a week behind schedule.

Optimists would call this sort of thing typical: “Baby disorders and untoward misfortunes,” The New York Times reported, “the usual forerunners of gigantic success.” Besides, it could have been far worse. Steamships were prone to boiler explosions and spontaneously combusting piles of coal. Dozens of vessels were lost due to accidents throughout the 19th century.

The Connaught’s second crossing began on September 25, 1860. A few days in, it passed another ship bound for Europe that had lost its masts in a storm. Captain Leitch offered assistance, but the damaged vessel was faring just well enough that its crew declined. The Connaught steamed on, straight into the same storm. Within a day, heavy seas were blasting the ship, sending waves over the sides and into the bulwarks, shattering windows on the deck. A number of paddlewheel blades were lost or damaged.

Before sunrise on Wednesday, October 3, the Connaught docked in St. John’s. Two passengers were so shaken by the storm that they decided to stay put, not traveling on to Boston. The Boston Pilot later reported that even some seasoned mariners “felt there was great danger” on board. Just a few more hours in rough seas and the Connaught “might have broken her back.”

One of the passengers who declined to continue was Reverend Peter Conway from Headford, near Galway, who had listened to confessions and administered penance during the worst of the storm. Conway was so unimpressed by how the grand ship had performed that, in an undated letter published in the Newfoundlander newspaper, he called the Connaught “the worst ship ever built.” He opined that the builders should have been prosecuted for putting so many lives in danger.

Most of the passengers, however, were sufficiently reassured when Leitch and the local representative of the Galway Line hurried to recruit mechanics to repair the ship. While that work was under way, coal and provisions were replenished, and a dozen new travelers boarded, including W.H. Newman, the U.S. consul to St. John’s. In addition, £10,000 worth of gold was loaded onto the Connaught for transfer to Boston. Who the money belonged to and what its ultimate destination was have never been confirmed; one theory is that the British government was making payments for expenses incurred during a recent visit to North America by the teenage prince who would go on to become King Edward VII.

The Connaught left St. John’s on the same day it had docked. For the first time since the storm, the mood on board was sanguine. The crew sang traditional Irish chanteys, such as “Haul Away, Joe” and “The Lever Line.” As they steered toward Boston, they faced only a moderate headwind from the southwest.

In January 2004, Taylor Zajonc moved to Tampa to start working at Odyssey. He was a quick study and impressed the company’s research experts. They agreed to let him become a “stack rat,” delving into library special collections, newspaper microfiche, and obscure corners of the Internet looking for information about shipwrecks. Taylor read his way through the books and binders in Odyssey’s research archive, which was scattered across office shelves, filing boxes, and storage units, then reorganized the materials into a searchable filing system. “It was a mess like you wouldn’t believe,” he told me, “years’ worth of stuff that had just piled up.”

An ad for the Connaught’s first voyage. (Boston Daily Advertiser)
An ad for the Connaughts first voyage. (Boston Daily Advertiser)

Next he began honing Odyssey’s research methods with an almost compulsive commitment to empiricism. From field experiences with his dad, he had seen how assumptions and bias threatened the chances of a successful discovery or salvage mission. A classic example was the I-52. After the initial find, the project leader saw black-and-white video footage of the wreckage that revealed a cluster of rectangular shapes. They had to be gold bullion, he decided, based on their size and lack of corrosion. (Part of what makes gold so bewitching is its resilience to deterioration.) So his team went to retrieve them. The objects, though, turned out to be tin ingots—there is so little chemistry in the deep ocean that most metals barely deteriorate. The misstep cost the mission precious time and resources.

At Odyssey, Taylor was learning that emotions and marketing optics seemed to factor into discussions about projects as much as probabilities and evidence did. He decided to draft a white paper on “actionable shipwreck intelligence.” A wreck, he wrote, should be rated according to four criteria: confidence that it can be found, value of the presumed cargo, likelihood of recovery, and the path to legal salvage. Imagine, for instance, a shallow-water wreck with verifiable cargo worth hundreds of millions of dollars. A promising target—except that it’s just a few miles from a North Korean naval base. For a wreck to warrant the company’s attention and resources, it would need to score well on all the criteria.

Taylor’s method soon became the standard format for the research department’s reports. Yet around the same time, the Zajoncs began noticing subtle discrepancies between what Odyssey’s research staff reported to upper management and what the company was telling investors. The father and son—along with other employees—raised concerns about the company’s headline-grabbing claim that it had found the HMS Sussex, which sank in 1694 near Gibraltar with ten tons of gold. They believed Odyssey executives should have been more forthright about the possibility that what they had found was another wreck in the same area.

At odds with the company’s leadership, Guy quit just before Christmas in 2005. He went back to lawyering in Spokane and, as always, kept an eye out for new adventures. Guy told me that it felt to him as if Odyssey, which became entangled in seemingly endless court battles, had “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”

For Taylor, who quit soon after his father did, the situation was crushing. Straight out of college, he’d hit upon a dream job. Now it was gone. To make ends meet, he took a position developing architecture and engineering courses for an online-education firm. Recalling his disappointment, Taylor told me, “I thought I would never be able to do something quite so interesting again.”

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The Connaught’s luck began to run out soon after the ship departed St. John’s. On Friday, October 5, 1860, increased winds began beating the ship’s bow. Waves intensified, too, pummeling the steamer overnight and into Saturday. By that evening, the Connaught was facing another full-on tempest.

Around 8 p.m., a leak was discovered in the engine room. Leitch ordered that pumps be brought down from the deck and set his crew to bailing. Some passengers, noticing the commotion, convivially stepped up to lend a hand. Despite their efforts, water began filling the engine room and seeping into the forward bunkers.

Passengers felt the ship pitch hard to the right and stay that way—a result of it taking on so much water. Stepping out onto the deck, Hugh Whittell, the California entrepreneur, was met by a deafening rush of wind. Crewmen were scrambling about for pumps and buckets, muttering to one another. They told Whittell that everything was under control. If the wind cooperated, the Connaught would reach Boston that night.

In fact, the situation was worsening. By early Sunday morning, the encroaching waters belowdecks threatened to kill the fires that powered the forward boilers. Around 4 a.m., the flooding in the engine room extinguished the fire used to fuel the ship’s steam pump, rendering useless an essential tool for combating the leak. Four hours later, water finally overwhelmed the ship’s furnaces, and the engines sputtered to a stop. An eerie quiet followed.

Hundreds of the Connaught’s passengers gathered on deck. Some asked Leitch what they could do to help, and he requested that men continue to bail seawater. Lingering hope soon gave way to dread, however, when anxious whispers spread word of a new danger: fire.

Smoke had begun rising through the stoke hole toward the rear of the ship. Leitch dispatched an officer to find the source of the fire, but the man met only an impenetrable cloud. The blaze, which seemed to be coming from somewhere between the boilers and the stern, must have been building while all hands were dealing with the leak.

The exhausted crew responded with buckets of seawater and wet blankets, but they were fighting blind. Unable to get close to the fire’s source due to the flooding and smoke, they could only aim their dousing in the general vicinity of where the flames emanated from deep within the ship’s belly. The Connaught was still taking on water and slumping further into the sea. Waves sizzled as they met the metal hull, which was burning from the inside out.

At least one passenger made preparations to leap into the ocean. Finding a rope maybe 15 or 20 feet in length, he tied himself to a metal railing on the ship’s low side. Should the heat of the fire become unbearable, he would jump into the water and pay out the rope to get away from the flames. There he planned to remain until someone saved him or the great ship pulled him under.

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W.H. Newman, the U.S. consul who boarded in St. John’s.(Library of Congress)

Leitch was no stranger to disaster. As captain of the steamship City of Philadelphia a few years earlier, he had been caught in a severe fog and had run the ship aground near Cape Race, east of Newfoundland. With calm waters and the Newfoundland shore less than a mile away, the evacuation into lifeboats proceeded smoothly. All the passengers were transported to safety with luggage, food, and sails, which they used to craft makeshift tents as they awaited help.

The Connaught didn’t have the same advantages; it was in rough waters and far from land. With no way to get the upper hand on the fire or the leak, the captain must have known that salvation would require another ship. Leitch told a crew member to scramble up the mainmast and scan for distant sails. “Nothing to sight, sir,” the man shouted back.

The passengers on deck anxiously watched the sailor. Minutes later he yelled, “Sail on the lee bow!”—but the vessel was too far away to notice the Connaught’s distress flags and soon slipped from sight. Other ships followed the same agonizing pattern.  

Then, a little before noon, another vessel appeared.

“Can you make out if she is coming toward us?” Leitch asked.

“I think she is, sir,” the sailor answered, followed soon after by, “She sees us!”

W.H. Newman, the U.S. consul, had been moving hand over hand along the railing of the sloping deck to keep from falling. He later wrote that before spotting the brig, everyone on board was “humanly speaking, without hope.” When Newman heard the crewman’s shout from the mainmast, he looked out on the horizon and could see the ship heading toward the Connaught “with bursting canvas, dead before the gale.” The crew fired a cannon, an emergency signal, to beckon the vessel to their aid.

Passengers rejoiced. The priests announced that deliverance was imminent. When the two ships were roughly 200 yards apart, Leitch called for the other captain to make himself known. “The brig Minnie Schiffer, Captain Wilson,” came the reply.

Captain John Wilson of New Orleans, to be precise, in command of a cargo ship, laden with fruit and wine and not even a quarter of the Connaught’s size.

Micah Eldred was itching to do something exciting with a multimillion-dollar fortune earned in the financial industry. A native Floridian who loved the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Eldred had watched closely as search-and-salvage ventures came and went, sometimes burning huge amounts of capital with little to show for it. Believing he could do it differently—and that there was money to be made—he connected with Guy Zajonc through a mutual contact in 2009 and said he wanted to start a business.

After his experience at Odyssey, Guy had come to believe that a viable treasure-hunting enterprise was likely a chimera. “You’re too smart for that,” he told Eldred. When the 41-year-old entrepreneur insisted that he would put up $600,000 of his own money, the elder Zajonc relented. To start, Eldred didn’t need to buy a fancy vessel or equipment, Guy advised. He needed research. “This may sound self-serving,” Guy said, “but it’s the truth: You should hire my son.”

A few weeks later, Eldred did. Taylor was about to get married and move to Arlington where his wife, Andrea, had secured a government job. He was hired part-time to develop a list of wrecks from which Eldred’s new business, dubbed Endurance Exploration Group, would pick its first target.

Working from home, with excursions to the library at Georgetown, Taylor focused his energies on steamships. Records are more plentiful for steamers than they are for earlier ships, and hulking masses of metal on the seafloor are more easily detectable than decaying wooden wrecks are. The Connaught made Taylor’s list early, and it scored well on the criteria he’d carried over from his Odyssey white paper. The wreck, believed to be about 600 feet underwater, was too deep for scuba divers but well within the range that remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) could handle. It was close enough to U.S. shores that the legal route to salvage would likely be straightforward. And, of course, there was the missing gold.

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A rough map of the Connaught’s location when it sank.

To identify the shipwreck’s probable location, Taylor combed through newspaper clippings, government communiqués, and weather reports. Sometimes he imagined himself as one of the two captains—Leitch and Wilson—making decisions in real time.

In October 2010, several months into his research, Taylor got a break when he came across an account of the burning and sinking of an unnamed ship, written by a mariner who had been off the coast of New England in 1860. The article included a bare-bones map and rough coordinates of where the mariner believed he had spotted the vessel. (Eldred and Taylor requested that I not share the specifics of where the account was located. “It’s clearly a findable document,” Taylor wrote in an email, “but we’d sleep better at night knowing that someone still needs to spend the money and time to dig if they ever want to look for the Connaught themselves.”)

Taylor contacted Eldred about the latest piece of evidence. They decided it was time to move their operation out of the library and into the sea.

Fifty years old and standing about five-foot-eight, with brown hair, gray eyes, and a small scar on his forehead, John Wilson was a longtime seafarer. Born in Baltimore, he later moved to New Orleans, his wife’s hometown, and built a career as a ship captain and co-owner of a few different vessels. He spent much of his time transporting cargo in and around the Gulf of Mexico. In the 1840s, working for an import-export business called Schiffer & Brothers, he delivered goods to Tampico, Mexico, during the Mexican-American War. In 1856, commanding the Minnie Schiffer, which was named after the daughter of one of the company’s owners, he transported soldiers of fortune to Nicaragua, where they participated in a short-lived attempt by William Walker, an American civilian, to conquer the country.

On October 7, 1860, Wilson was nearing the end of his latest journey, bringing the Minnie Schiffer home to America with cargo from Europe. When he spotted a ship, a cloud of smoke, and distress flags in the distance, he told his crew of six men—four of whom spoke no English—to bear down on the vessel. As he got closer, he could see that the boat was pitched on its side. After hearing cannon fire, Wilson ordered a crewman to raise a flag in reply.

He piloted close enough to the Connaught to communicate with Captain Leitch. “Make ready to take us all on board without delay,” Leitch yelled. “The ship is all on fire below.” Wilson responded, “Yes, I am ready to take you.”

The fire inside the Connaught was so intense that passengers still stranded on deck could feel the heat through their shoes. More than once, flames leapt out of the ship’s skylights.

Some passengers on the Connaught quietly worried that the Minnie Schiffer was too small for the task at hand. The tops of its masts were almost even with the larger ship’s bulwarks. If Wilson decided to take only some of the passengers, or even if a rumor broke out that he would, pandemonium would follow. When Leitch asked if his counterpart could accommodate everyone, however, Wilson responded that he “would stand by as long as there was one on board.”

The rescue would depend on the Connaught’s lifeboats ferrying passengers to the Minnie Schiffer. There were fewer skiffs than needed for everyone on board—commonly the case for ships of that era—necessitating dangerous trips back and forth. Leitch ordered the men on his deck to form two parallel lines facing each other, creating a tunnel of sorts to usher women and children to the sides of the Connaught. Because the seas were rough, the lifeboats would be lowered first, and passengers would descend ladders or be let down by ropes once the vessels were on the water.

As the first skiff neared the ocean’s surface, a violent wave threw it against the Connaught’s iron hull, smashing the lifeboat to pieces. The rest of the boats made it to the water intact, but they were moving targets for the passengers trying to board—smacking against the ship one moment, separating from it by several feet the next, rising up to a ladder’s final rung with one wave, dropping far below with the next.

A man named Patrick O’Flaherty slipped as he tried to load into one of the boats. Leitch himself climbed down a line, swung out over the water, and pulled O’Flaherty to safety. William Hurry, the wealthy Manhattan developer, fell out of a lifeboat and was overwhelmed by the waves. Thomas H. Connauton, the first mate, threw him a wooden pulley that was buoyant enough to buy Hurry a few minutes above water. The crew tossed him a line and dragged him back to the lifeboat.

When the first load of survivors finally set foot on the Minnie Schiffer, Wilson spotted some of the Connaught’s sailors trying to hide among the throng of travelers to avoid going back to assist. He yelled at them to do their duty, and they reluctantly returned to the lifeboats.

By that point, the fire inside the Connaught was so intense that passengers still stranded on deck could feel the heat through their shoes. More than once, flames leapt out of the ship’s skylights. By sunset, only about 200 people had been carried to the Minnie Schiffer, leaving some 400 yet to be rescued. Darkness would bring more hazards, and crew members from both ships begged Wilson not to send them back to the blazing steamer. A few again tried to hide, this time belowdecks on the cargo brig.

“Every soul must be saved!” Wilson shouted.

He gave the order to maneuver his ship close enough to the Connaught to throw over a line. Tying off was a huge gamble: An explosion on the Connaught, or even a wayward ember, could have jeopardized the Minnie Schiffer and all on board. Yet narrowing the gap between the ships would also speed the transfer of the remaining passengers.

The risk paid off. By 9:30 p.m., all the passengers were safely away. Fire soon shot up the ropes, masts, and mainsail of the Connaught. When the last of his crew had escaped, Leitch, weaving his way through the smoke and flames, made one last sweep of the ship before climbing down into a waiting lifeboat. By 10:45, he was aboard the Minnie Schiffer, his face and hands singed. Rescued travelers were crammed so tightly in the bulwarks and on deck that some were forced to perch in the ship’s rigging. The brig also towed the Connaught’s lifeboats, filled with additional passengers.

Wilson turned the Minnie Schiffer toward Boston. He ordered his crew to offer caskets of wine and raisins to the survivors. He then made his way around the deck, distributing cups of water and asking people if they were injured.

Hours later, behind the overloaded brig, a giant fireball drifted on the horizon, illuminating the night sky.

In the summer of 2013, Micah Eldred chartered a commercial fishing boat out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. With rented sonar gear and a small crew, he began surveying nearly 800 square miles of ocean floor in search of the Connaught. It was painstaking work, moving over a measured grid for days at a time as if endlessly mowing a lawn. Sonar emits sound waves and picks up responding signals. Depending on the depth and distance of a wave’s bounce and whether it ricochets off sand, metal, wood, or another material, a different signal comes back. The technology then creates images out of the sound waves, known as sonographs.

Taylor took a vacation with his wife at the same time the survey was happening. Sonar missions, he explained, “aren’t that interesting. You’re just one more mouth to feed.” Back home in Arlington, he received the sonographs and got to work cataloging everything he saw. He tabbed through image after image on his computer, zooming in to squint at shadows, bumps, ripples, and shapes that might have represented something man-made.

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An ROV scanning the ocean floor for the wreck.

Near the middle of the search area sat an obvious shipwreck. It had a pronounced, narrow shape with a tapered bow. Taylor knew that the survey area was full of World War II wrecks. He also knew that sonographs can behave like a Rorschach test: People see what they wish to see. Skeptical that this was the Connaught, he still showed the image to Eldred, who pointed out a bulge on one side that he thought looked an awful lot like the shadow of a steamship’s paddlewheel. Eldred sent the images to some sonar specialists, who replied that the measurements didn’t match up: This wreck wasn’t the same length as the Connaught.

Guy Zajonc, who also took a look at the data, was more optimistic. He noted that a boxy section in the middle of the wreck indicated heavy machinery of the sort steamers once carried. He also eyed two similarly sized black holes where masts may have stood. In a phone call with Eldred, Guy said, “That’s your boat.”

Weighing the conflicting opinions, Taylor toggled between lithographs of the Connaught and the sonar images. What was he missing, he wondered? He touched base with his father, who suggested that the length issue might be a red herring. Guy zeroed in on a rough line, or “knife cut,” running across one image. He thought it indicated a hiccup in the software that had translated the sound waves into pictures. If he was right, the glitch could explain the size discrepancy that the sonar experts had identified.

The hunch was enough for Eldred to green-light a follow-up expedition. It was time, finally, to go down to the wreck.

Two days after rescuing the Connaught’s passengers, the Minnie Schiffer arrived in Boston Harbor. As it approached India Wharf, hundreds of people who had gathered on the docks began cheering and waving hats. Spouses, siblings, cousins, and friends had gotten word of a disaster and rescue at sea. Now they crowded the shore, screaming the names of relatives they hoped to find alive.

Some of the Connaught’s passengers, elated or delirious, tried to jump from the ship as soon as the wharf was within reach. Others wore the stunned look of civilians in a war zone. Some didn’t have shoes. A number of passengers sat down on the wharf, seemingly unsure of what to do next. One girl clung to a prayer book that she had held throughout the catastrophe.

Over the course of the following week, more-detailed accounts of the rescue began to emerge. Passengers furnished newspapers with personal stories, all of them praising Leitch, whose “intrepid coolness,” wrote the Boston Evening Transcript, was crucial to the survival of the passengers. Then there was Wilson, the “brave and unselfish commander,” as the Baltimore Sun described him. “Judging from his well-known humanity,” wrote The New York Times, “nothing could have afforded him so much gratification as the opportunity of being instrumental in saving so many human lives.” The paper touted that “in his social relations, no less than among his sea-faring acquaintances, he is distinguished for his urbanity and great kindliness of character. With his employers he has always stood very high for his integrity, his only fault being, they say, that he is so unselfish and liberal that he saves nothing for himself. Having no children of his own, he has adopted and brought up several orphans.”

Neither captain gave interviews, but each provided the authorities and the press with an official statement. Leitch’s was an exacting, if not exhaustive, technical account, all but devoid of emotion. Wilson’s was a few short paragraphs that applauded the conduct and courage of the Connaught’s officers and passengers while chastising the sailors who had tried to hide instead of manning the lifeboats.

News of the astounding incident soon went global: In terms of the number of lives saved, it was one of the most successful rescues in maritime history. Survivors, dignitaries, and fellow mariners arranged for gifts and financial compensation for Wilson, including a gold pocket chronometer presented to him by the British consul in Boston. During their time aboard the Minnie Schiffer, rescued passengers had also decided to reward Wilson and his crew. Led by William Hurry, the impromptu committee raised $500 in pledges on the spot, with some people managing to donate only a few pennies. A follow-up meeting was held two nights after disembarking in Boston, at the grand Tremont House hotel. This time the discussion was about recognition and compensation for the crews of both ships—men who were, in W.H. Newman’s words, “instruments in the hands of God.”

A few days later, in New York City, Hurry met with Galway Line representatives and agents from various life-insurance companies. At Hurry’s urging, more than $3,300 was pledged in recognition of the “generous and humane spirit of the noble-hearted Captain of the Minnie Schiffer.” By mid-November, the fund for Wilson stood at more than $5,000—about $150,000 today—and growing. Donors included individuals, small businesses, law firms, Wells Fargo Bank, shipping companies, and the Panama Railroad Co.

Leitch soon went back to work; he would captain passenger ships for another quarter-century before retiring in England. Wilson, meanwhile, returned to Louisiana, where the sensation of the rescue made him a local celebrity. There were profiles in newspapers and gifts delivered to his door, including a silver plate and pitcher. Hurry’s fund was set to arrive, too.  

According to one press account, the captain took a job as a harbor master in the city. It’s possible that this was a position earned as a result of his heroism. Just as likely, though, he accepted it to take a break from grueling long-distance journeys. To Wilson’s admirers around the globe, he was surely deserving of rest.

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On a glassy September morning in 2014, the crew of a rented research vessel called the Manisee lowered a tethered ROV into the Atlantic. The ROV pilot used a joystick to drive the boxy, yellow-and-black machine toward the seafloor. Eldred stood in the cramped cabin next to the pilot and watched the ROV’s grainy video feed on a monitor.

First a school of fish, then some broken bottles and dead coral came into view, followed by giant shards of a ship’s iron hull. A few minutes later, the Connaught’s massive and unmistakable paddlewheel appeared. It was the first time anyone had laid eyes on the ship since the early-morning hours of October 8, 1860.

Eldred cracked a smile and picked up his satellite phone. He called Guy Zajonc in Spokane, even though it was before 5 a.m. there. “We have video!” he announced. Guy gave a groggy congratulations. Then Eldred called Taylor in Arlington. The younger Zajonc should have been thrilled, and he did indulge in a quiet, slow-motion fist pump. Mostly, though, the bookish treasure hunter felt relief. “Finding the Connaught meant my methodology worked,” he told me. “Failure would have meant that it was flawed.”

The Manisee crew’s next move was to rig a magnet and a small grabbing device on the ROV and send the machine back down to the wreck. The idea was to recover metal fragments, which could be used to validate the ship’s identity. The ROV did better than that, though, scooping up a number of artifacts, including dishware adorned with the turquoise seal of the Atlantic Royal Mail Steam Navigation Company. To search for the lost gold, the team would eventually have to return with advanced excavation technology—specialized gear that can cut through tangles of fishing nets and push aside heavy piles of debris.

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Footage from the initial discovery of the shipwreck.

Eldred marvels at what took place on the water back in 1860. “Think about that time period,” he told me recently. “It was common for people to not even know how to swim. Transporting all 600 of them from that huge vessel to a 100-foot-long sailing ship, and no one getting hurt or killed in the process—it’s just amazing.”

Endurance Exploration Group pushed out an announcement of its discovery, but initial media attention was scant. Perhaps this was because there was no money shot of gold hitting the deck. Or maybe it was because no one died in the sinking. The Connaught was an almost-tragedy, and a long forgotten one at that. It lacked the heartbreak of the Lusitania or Titanic. The only real victim was the Galway Line, which never recovered from the disaster and subsequent accidents involving other ships in its fleet, forcing the company to fold in 1864.

Yet there is a legacy of personal ruin here. Just not the one Eldred or Taylor expected to find.

By the end of 1860, the American republic was fraying. Within six months of the Connaught disaster, the Civil War began. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, issued a proclamation “inviting all those who may desire, by service in private armed vessels on the high seas, to aid this Government in resisting so wanton and wicked an aggression, to make application for commissions or letters of marque and reprisal to be issued under the seal of the Confederate States.”

In shorter terms, Davis authorized southerners to become pirates to make up for the Confederacy’s naval inferiority. Among the first ships to enter into service was a 500-ton steamship called the Calhoun that berthed in New Orleans. Within a few months, its 85-man crew had overtaken six neutral vessels and confiscated cargo including whale meat, oil, and $24,000 worth of limestone.

The Calhoun’s captain was none other than John Wilson.

Word seeped out of the South that the famed captain had “identified himself with the interests of the Southern States,” as the London circular Bond of Brotherhood put it. In June 1861, the Galway Vindicator noted that Wilson had “recently gone into the privateering business,” and the following winter a New York Times headline read, “The Defection of Capt. Wilson, of the ‘Minna Schiffer.’”

Why, asked a reporter with the Boston Journal in January 1862, would a person “held in the highest esteem as a brave man by the people of the North,” who had gained worldwide fame under the flag of the United States, turn and “renounce his allegiance to the Government which had protected him in every sea, and cast his lot with the conspirators”? It was a rhetorical question: The writer professed to have learned the captain’s motivations. He had spoken with someone close to Wilson who relayed that the captain felt he was “no longer a citizen of the United States”—for reasons dating back to well before he was extolled as a hero.

During the Mexican-American War, Wilson had owned a ship called the Star. Carrying commercial goods to the port of Matamoras, on Mexico’s eastern coast, the Star was captured by U.S. officials occupying the city. Although it was a U.S.-flagged vessel, the boat’s cargo was owned by a foreign merchant, which may have been what prompted customs officers to pounce. The goods were confiscated, and the ship was sent to Galveston, Texas, where it was later sold. The merchant brought a claim against the Treasury Department for illegal seizure and was compensated. Wilson did the same, and a judge ruled in his favor. Yet he never saw a cent. The failure of “authorities at Washington to make reparations,” wrote the Boston Journal reporter, “naturally excited Capt. Wilson to enmity against the Government, and when the rebellion broke out, actuated by a spirit of revenge, he embraced the earliest opportunity to obtain redress.”

Once proclaimed a “gallant commander,” by 1862 Wilson was dubbed “the recreant captain.” This was the turnabout of a public caricature, however—an incomplete picture of a man who wasn’t so simple to begin with. Historical records indicate that, as The New York Times reported, Wilson may have adopted at least one child. However, accounts also show that he owned slaves. In addition to lugging food and wine on the Minnie Schiffer, Wilson co-owned or captained ships at various times that transported human cargo within the United States. All before he took up arms against the government and targeted fellow mariners.

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The Minnie Schiffer rescuing the Connaught’s passengers. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

In the winter of 1862, shortly before Union forces set out to seize New Orleans, the Calhoun was captured smuggling gunpowder, coffee, and chemicals from Havana to Louisiana. By that point, Wilson had already moved on to command other ships. In scattered accounts, he is listed as an owner or captain of a number of pirate and blockade-running ships, including the J.O. Nixon, Florida, and Cuba. There is a brief mention in a Philadelphia newspaper indicating that he may have been detained in Key West in March 1862. An 1863 roll of prisoners of war includes a John Wilson who violated a blockade on the Potomac River. There is also a John Wilson listed on the passenger manifest of a ship traveling from Mobile, Alabama, to New Orleans in June 1865. This was just after the war ended, and there were a number of former prisoners on board the ship. Otherwise, clues as to Wilson’s whereabouts at this time are scant.

After the war, the government offered amnesty to most secessionist sympathizers, but not to anyone who had disrupted “commerce of the United States on the high seas”—that is, not to pirates. The exception was reversed two years later, yet Wilson lived out his days in obscurity and poverty.

Toward the end of the 1870s, local newspapers ran a few short items urging the public to lend support to the old captain and to his wife, who had suffered a stroke. They lived in a small house on Franklin Street, on what is now the edge of the French Quarter. In 1875, the New Orleans Republican ran a one-paragraph classified ad with the title “A Silver Souvenir.” It reveals the depths of Wilson’s destitution:

Several prosperous merchants in New York city held a meeting for the purpose of paying a tribute to a gentleman who had proved himself a humanitarian and a hero. A neat sum of money was contributed, which purchased a splendid silver pitcher and salver. Both pieces bore appropriate inscriptions to the honor of Captain John Wilson of the big Minnie Shipper. This honor was conferred on the captain as a slight token for his noble conduct in having rescued half dead passengers from the wrecked steamship Connaught, about 150 miles from Boston. The event was duly chronicled in all the leading newspapers of the day, and Captain Wilson suddenly became renowned. He was prosperous then, possessing all manly faculties, but his condition is different now. The hand of hard fate has pursued him, and chance has landed him in our city at the bottom of the ladder. Through thick and thin he has clung to his silver present, but at last he has nothing else left which can procure bread and meat. The pitcher and salver may be seen in the Phoenix saloon, St. Charles street, and as a last resort will be disposed of, simply to satisfy a foolish habit of eating. Who will be the purchaser?

A local British consul saw the ad and wrote an editorial pleading for donations on behalf of the captain, who was now nearly blind. The letter was reprinted in other newspapers, and from as far away as New York and Ohio, people wrote back and sent money. One Connaught passenger sent a note to the Republican, passing a message on to Wilson and anyone else who’d been involved in the rescue.

“By the by,” it read, “tell them I have a daughter we call ‘Minnie Schiffer.’”

Micah Eldred wants to return to the Connaught, possibly as soon as this summer. He’s sure the gold is there—all he has to do is go get it. True to his pragmatic nature, Taylor Zajonc said of the pending salvage mission, “I’d be the last person to guess what might happen next.”

With his research for Eldred complete, Taylor now channels his love of treasure hunting into fiction. His first novel, The Wrecking Crew, is a swashbuckling maritime adventure about a down-on-his-luck salvage expert named Jonah Blackwell who demonstrates almost preternatural competence under pressure. The second installment in the Jonah Blackwell series, Red Sun Rogue, comes out in March. Taylor has only moved on from the Connaught in the literal sense. It’s “one of the great stories,” he told me—the kind that sticks.

One piece of the tale, though, is lost forever. Almost no one is buried in the ground in New Orleans, because the high water table would spit bodies back out during heavy rains. Captain John Wilson, who died on September 20, 1877, was entombed at the Girod Street Cemetery. His crypt’s inscription read, “Commander of American brig ‘Minnie Schiffer’ who rescued 601 lives from British steamer ‘Connaught’ which burned at sea Oct 7, 1860.”

That tomb is long gone. In 1957, bodies from the Girod Street Cemetery were exhumed to make way for downtown development. Some remains were interred elsewhere, but most were not. Wilson’s bones were most likely crammed into an old oil drum and thrown away.