The Heroic Edwin Gaddis Of New York
I was struck by this simple memorial to Edwin John Gaddis who died July 23, 1883. His grave marker in section 91 of the cemetery reads as follows:
Edwin J. Gaddis,
Born October 23, 1861
Died July 23, 1883.
Drowned in Peconic Bay
Jamesport L. I.
While trying to save life
Greater love hath no man than this
That he lay down his life for his friends. John XV.13
Your honor, your name,
And your praises shall ever remain.
Your fame shall be eternized.
Eternized, a word not used much today means, to make eternal; immortalize.
Who was Edwin Gaddis? What was his life like? What would make someone risk (and lose) their life? Who exactly were the people he tried to save and were they actually saved?
Besides what is etched on Gaddis’ tombstone, there is virtually no information online about his life. There were however three news items online about his death. This most complete story that answers many of the questions I asked was reported by the New York Tribune on Wednesday, July 25, 1883:
LOSING HIS LIFE IN SAVING OTHERS:
A SAD ACCIDENT AT JAMESPORT. L.I — E. J. GADDIS DROWNED.
News was received at this city yesterday morning of the death by drowning of Edwin John Gaddis of No. 177 East Seventieth st., a young man well known in military circles. His mother, who lives in Fourth st., Jersey City, was the first to hear of her son’s death by a dispatch from her sister a resident of Jamesport, L. I. where her son had gone last Saturday to remain until Monday. The telegram read: “While trying to save two ladies, Eddy was drowned. Searching for the body.” About 9:30 a dispatch was received at No. 177 East Seventieth st., the house of George Hall, the uncle of young Gaddis, confirming the report of the fatal accident and stating that a thorough search was being instituted for the recovery of the body. Subsequently another dispatch announced that the body had been found. On the reception of the first dispatch, Gaddis’s mother and grandfather, Mr. Haybeck, and his brother George went to Jamesport. Mr. and Mrs. George Hall returned to the city at a late hour last night, and the story of the sad accident is best described in Mr. Hall’s words:
“A party of six, including myself, my wife and nephew, and two daughters of Mr. Hamilton, of Brooklyn, whom Eddy had escorted to Jamesport late Saturday at the request of their father, were bathing on Monday morning about 11 o’clock. The two ladies, whose names are Sarah and Ida Hamilton, waded out, out of their depth and called to me for help. I swam as rapidly as possible to them, and when I reached them they clutched hold of me and we all three sank. On coming up I contrived to shake Sarah from me at the same time calling to Eddy, who was standing in his bathing suit on the beach talking to my wife. He, seeing us struggling to the water and divining the cause of our shouts for help, without any hesitation rushed into the water to our assistance. When he reached me I had Ida safely above water. I pointed to Sarah, who was still struggling in her endeavor to keep herself above the surface. He swam directly to her, and when he reached her she clutched hold of him and they both went down. He never rose again. While all this was going on in the water, my wife, followed by some friends, was rushing wildly around shouting for some one to man the boats and come to our assistance. The boats finally put out and picked up Ida, Sarah and myself, almost insensible. The persons in the boat were entirely ignorant of Eddy’s whereabouts, not knowing that he had attempted our rescue at all, and so no attempt was made to look for any one else. My wife stood on the shore and screamed that Eddy was out in the water somewhere, but they did not understand what she meant until they came to shore. When they did understand it was too late. The body was recovered at 7 o’clock this morning. Miss Sarah Hamilton is still delirious, but it is thought that she will ultimately recover. She is sixteen years of age. Her sister Ida is thirteen years old, and has fully recovered from the shock.”
Young Gaddis’s body will be taken directly to Green-wood Cemetery, where the funeral will take place today at noon. He was twenty-one years old, and was employed by T. B. Starr the jeweler of Fifth ave., as book-keeper. He was a corporal in the 71st Regiment and a member of the Central Congregational Church. He has a mother, a sister and two brothers.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of July 25 had some more information about the actual incident:
Where Heroism Led To Death
A New York Gentleman Loses his Life In An Effort To Save Two Ladies From Drowning
A week ago Edward (sic) J. Gaddis, of New York, went to Jamesport, L. I., to spend bis vacation. He was to have returned to the city yesterday, but his body was sent home this morning packed in ice. Mrs. Hamilton and her two daughters, of this city, were stopping in Jamesport for the summer. On Sunday the young ladies went bathing. They could not swim, and getting into deep water were in danger of being drowned. Mr. Gaddis heard their screams and hastened to their assistance, It was a life and death struggle. The young ladies were saved, but he was drowned. When he came within reach he was grasped tightly by both of them. Mr. Corwin and Mr. Young, both residents of Jamesport, pushed off in boats to rescue the party, but arrived too late to save Gaddis, w‘ho had disappeared by reason of extreme exhaustion. One of the young ladies had also gone to the bottom, but her body was raised with an oar, and in a brief time she was restored to consciousness. The body of Mr. Gaddis was recovered yesterday. Those who saw the struggle in the water praise his bravery. He was a bookkeeper in a large jewelry house in New York.
The New York Times of that same date contained an even shorter summary of the drowning with few additional details:
Drowned While Saving Others
Edwin John Gaddis, aged 21 years, recently employed as a book-keeper in a jewelry store in Fifth-avenue, this City, was drowned at Jamesport, Long Island, on Monday. His widowed mother, Mrs. Caroline Gaddis who is now residing in Jersey City, was informed of her son’s death by a brief telegram which stated that the young man was drowned while trying to save two young ladies of Brooklyn from a like fate. Young Gaddis went to Jamesport, which is on the north-west shore of Great Peconic Bay, on Saturday evening, and intended to return to his home on Monday. He was a Corporal of the Seventy-first Regiment, and had many friends in that organization. He was in the employ of Harper Brothers a few years ago. The time for the funeral has not yet been determined, but the interment will be in Green-Wood Cemetery.
That was it. Edwin Gaddis, a brave young man who forfeited his life in saving two acquaintances.
The father of the girls, Colson C. Hamilton, had his two daughters saved, but tragedy struck soon after.
Eldest daughter Lucy R. Hamilton died at the age of 19, according to the Brooklyn Eagle “after a long and painful illness,” on April 10, 1884. Colson’s wife Lucy died less than two months later on June 2, 1884 at the age of 39. Colson C. Hamilton was left a widower with four children to raise on his own Sarah, Ida, Alice and Colson Everett.
So what became of the rescued daughters Sarah and Ida? Did they live fruitful lives and have offspring?
Unfortunately Ida Hamilton died at the age of 18, on February 7, 1889 only six years after being saved. Her gravestone says something eloquently simple that I’ve never seen before as an epitaph, “Her sun set while it was yet day.”
Sarah Hamilton married Thomas Edwards on December 16, 1885. They had one child, Edward. Thomas Edwards died in 1906 and Sarah died on April 27, 1915 at the age of 48. It is unknown what became of their son Edward Edwards.
Coincidentally Ida and Sarah are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in section 159, less than half a mile from their savoir Edwin J. Gaddis. Sarah’s grave is unmarked as is her father Colson C. Hamilton who passed away in 1911.
Did the Hamilton family pass the story down to future generations? If their lineage has continued, do the Hamilton descendants know of the incident? I wonder.
I know people still do heroic things today, sometimes sacrificing their lives to save others. Maybe I’m wrong about this, it just seems there was a greater sense of civility, chivalry and sacrifice in the 19th century than there is today.
And what of Edwin J. Gaddis?
On the day I stood in front of Gaddis’ memorial taking photographs, I paused and pondered about all of the things I have written here and more.
In our internet age where millions of words are written about shallow celebrities and trivial things, I was not surprised when I researched and found that there was almost no information about Edwin Gaddis.
Besides a findagrave.com entry and the contemporary news stories in the local newspapers, no one today would know of Edwin Gaddis and his ultimate sacrifice.
Despite the noble words on his tombstone, Gaddis’ story has been forgotten. That is until now. For those of you who read this story, may Edwin Gaddis’ fame “be eternized.”