GALVESTON — It swept across this barrier island 115 years ago, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, a hurricane that brought an end to 3,600 buildings and more than 6,000 lives. The Great Storm’s winds blew at more than 130 mph and the storm surge reached 15.7 feet at its pinnacle — 7 feet above the island’s highest point at the time. As is the case with any historic event, a multitude of personal tales and odd events have endured, adding color and intrigue to the Great Storm’s infamy.
Descendants of those who witnessed the 1900 hurricane tell of ships washed ashore and ancestors trapped beneath buildings, many of the stories culminating in a heroic flourish. But one story more than the thousands of others gained international notoriety — the legend of actor Charles Coghlan endures five score after the event, a story so bizarre it’s retold from books dedicated to strange coincidence to Web sites given to tales of the paranormal.
Legend claims Coghlan, an Irish-born actor of significant fame in the late 1800s, died while performing in Galveston on Nov. 27, 1899. Published versions of the story differ regarding the type of casket that held Coghlan’s remains, but the stories agree that he was buried in Galveston.
The Great Storm, according to the tale, unearthed Coghlan’s coffin and washed it out to sea. Eight years later, the legend says, Coghlan’s coffin was found by fishermen near his rented home on Prince Edward Island, Canada, where he was identified by an inscribed metal nameplate on the casket.
One version of the story appeared in a 1979 book by Alan Vaughn; a slightly different telling is published on a Web site called Paranormal Canada. The tale is also told — with minor differences in detail — on dozens of independent Web sites.
The legend spread after the story was widely published as a Ripley’s Believe It or Not syndicated feature. It was republished and discussed at length in Ripley’s first book, published in 1929.
The original Ripley feature said: “Charles Coghlan comes home! He died in 1899 and was buried in Galveston. When the tragic flood came his coffin was washed out to sea and the Gulf Stream carried him around Florida and up the coast to Prince Edward Island — 2,000 miles distant — where he lived.”
Charles Burney Ward wrote for the Ripley book that Coghlan’s daughter had searched unsuccessfully for 27 years for her father’s remains until she saw the Ripley feature in the Saturday Evening Post.
As Ward told it, Coghlan’s daughter demanded to know where Ripley got his information. Ripley attributed the story to famous Shakespearean actor Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, a contemporary and friend of Coghlan’s. Ripley Entertainment spokesman Edward Meyer said the Coghlan story is one of Ripley’s best known. “We’ve had a lot of questions about this over the years, but mostly from Prince Edward Island,” Meyer said. “It’s definitely a well established part of Ripley lore.”
But is it true? “Everything that Ripley printed we stand behind as true to the best of our knowledge,” Meyer said.
The legend, as told and retold, often contains obvious falsehoods. Some accounts claim Coghlan was born on Prince Edward Island, but both The New York Times and The Galveston Daily News reported in the actor’s obituaries that he was born in Ireland. It is also claimed that Coghlan died on stage in Galveston while performing as Hamlet, but again newspaper accounts of the day contradict the legend.
The Daily News reported on Nov. 28, 1899, that Coghlan had been staying at the Tremont Hotel for about a month.
Although he was supposed to appear in a play he wrote entitled “The Royal Box,” an understudy played the role as Coghlan was stricken with gastritis as soon as he arrived on the island.
“That year Coghlan was playing Hamlet in Galveston, Texas, a small dusty town in the southeastern part of the state,” says the account published at Paranormal Canada. “He was 57 years old and at the peak of a brilliant career when he died on stage. A week later, Coghlan was lowered into a granite vault in a lead-lined coffin on Galveston Island.”
A Nov. 27, 1997 account by a non-staff member published in The Daily News concurred. “Also inundated was the cemetery in which had been buried, with many coffins, including his, swept out to sea on a tidal wave, never to be recovered,” the story said.
The story also quoted Henry Hibbert’s “A Playgoer’s Memories” as saying Coghlan’s body was washed up on a Pacific shore — a quote that does not speak well of Hibbert’s geographical knowledge.
But it’s unlikely that Coghlan was even buried in Galveston, much less washed to sea during the 1900 hurricane. Both The New York Times and The Galveston Daily News reported on Nov. 28, 1899, that Coghlan’s body would be sent immediately to Prince Edward Island for burial.
The following day, the Daily News published a follow-up story that said Coghlan’s widow intended to have his remains cremated, in keeping with her husband’s wishes. Since the nearest crematorium at the time was in St. Louis, the widow planned to take Coghlan’s body with her to New York, where there were family members and a cremation could be accomplished.
The Daily News reported that Coghlan’s body was at the Levy Brothers funeral home, awaiting transport to the East Coast.
But there, attempts to verify precisely what became of Coghlan abruptly halt. Although the funeral home is still in operation, a spokes-man said all records from that time — which would have conclusively established the disposition of the actor’s remains — were lost in a 1979 fire.
What remains is a tantalizing tale from the Great Storm — believe it, or not.
Believe it or not this is one of Ripley's more popular and well known legends. Especially in British Columbia, however when I asked Galveston Island residents about the legend I was surprised to hear few had ever heard of Charles Coghlan or his floating coffin.
Want more information on haunted locations? Why not try one of these books. www.galvestonghost.com has even been credited and mentioned in most of them as a source of information.
Interested in more myths and legends? Check out my blog for more discussion of content posted in the myth section of the GalvestonGhost website and comment to let me know what you think.