In July 1931, the Danish freighter Pennsylvania wrecked on the coast of the island of Swona, in the North Sea of Scotland. The captain, wary for good reason, refused a local lifeboat’s assistance and waited to have his crew rescued by a Copenhagen boat. Once the crew left, salvagers from all the surrounding islands—known as wreckers—descended in small boats on the 6000-ton freighter. Evading local authorities, the skilled scavengers managed to sneak a King’s bounty to the mainland, including a piano, slot machines, car parts, American tobacco, gramophones, sewing machines, condoms and two new Cadillacs.
Officials attempting to find the salvaged loot were up against centuries of skill. Bounty was often hidden in caves, fields, even a secret compartment in the chapel at the local cemetery. As Bella Bathurst writes in The Wreckers, the whole community would get into the act, purposely confusing and evading the authorities. “One of the wives would take up a bundle of something—a bag of oatmeal, a sack of potatoes, a baby—wrap it well, and run from one end of the island to the other with it,” Bathurst writes. “Another wife, in another corner of the island, would do the same. And another, and another…each running in different directions.”
As long as there have been merchant ships, there have been wreckers. For many isolated coastal communities around the globe, shipwrecks were godsends—and a headache for government officials. The 1266 Rules of Oleron, a set of laws drafted by the French government, singled out pilots who "like faithless and treacherous villains, sometimes even willingly, and out of design to ruin ship and goods, guide and bring her upon the rocks, and then feigning to aid, help and assist the now distressed mariners, are the first in dismembering and pulling the ship to pieces.
During the Colonial Era, sea captains often tried to avoid notorious wrecker communities in places like the Cornish coast of England and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Legend has it that the Outer Banks town of Nags Head derives its name from wreckers’ practice of tying a lantern around an old horse’s neck. They then walked the horse up and down the sand dunes so that the dim light of the lantern would bop up and down like an anchored ship, making boats out at sea believe the water was deep and safe. It was not, and the ships would run aground. In the Florida Keys,the Georgia Gazette reported in 1790, “The wreckers…generally set the ships on fire after they have done with them, that they may not serve as a beacon to guide other ships clear of those dangerous shoals."
These practices made wreckers—along with pirates—the boogie men of sea travel. Eighteenth-century writer Daniel Defoe wrote disparagingly of the particularly notorious wreckers in the English town of Deal: “Oft to the shattered ships they go, And for the floating purchase row. They spare no hazard, or no pain, But ’tisto save the goods, and not the men.”
However, the practice of wrecking’s legality was often a gray area. A longstanding British law claimed cargo could be takenif no “man or beast” from the ship were living. Even today, in many places it is not illegal to salvage from a shipwreck as long as you claim your bounty at the local receiver’s office. "Let's just say that you live in a place where unbidden gifts arrive on your doorstep at night,” Bathurst writes. “You know that such items are unclaimed, and that unless you take them, they will remain so… you will not be stealing it; youwill be salvaging it. And you know salvage is as legal as breathing."
Indeed, many wreckers had a kind of honor system of their own making. “Such was the feeling of the wreckers,” a Liverpool police office explained in 1839, “that if a man saw a bale of goods or a barrel floating in the water, he would run almost any risk of his life to touch that article as a sort of warranty for calling it his own… If he could touch it, he called out to those about him, ‘That is mine.’ That is markedas his, and the others would consider that he had a claim to it.”
One wrecker may have even helped solve a long-brewingmystery. In 1813, Theodosia Burr Alston—daughter of Aaron Burr and the wife of South Carolina’s governor—disappeared off the East Coast of America while travelingon the vanished schooner Patriot. In 1869, a doctor treating a poor wrecker’s widow in Nags Head discovered a beautiful portrait of a woman who resembled Theodosia.
The widow, Polly Mann, recalled that her husband had come upon a scuttled schooner near Kitty Hawk decades before and found a cabin containing fine dresses and the portrait. Many surmise that this schooner was the Patriot, and the portrait Theodosia. Besides the portrait, Mann had many treasuresher husband had salvaged over the years, including a vase of wax flowers beneath a glass globe and a shell carved in the shape of a nautilus.
Wrecking also spawned legitimate businesses and professions around the globe. In many areas, including England and the Netherlands, the master of the wreck still oversees salvaging of ships in national waters. In Key West, the long tradition of wrecking began as early as the 15century, when Native Americans would dive to find the spoils of Spanish ships sunk off the coast. Soon, neighbors from the nearby Bahamas cornered the illegal wrecking trade, taking goods from Florida waters to auction off in Nassau.
In the 1820s, Congress, tired of their rightful spoils leaving the country, passed a law requiring that any booty from wrecks in U.S. waters be valued and sold only by American courts and American auction houses. Wrecking became big business. The first captain to claim the wreck legally became the wreck master and got to decide who was allowed to salvage the wreck. Today, you can visit the Wreckers Museum in Key West, once the home of 19-centurymaster wrecker John G. Geiger.
Wrecking still occurs, though the intentional destruction of ships is (thankfully) no longer part of the practice. In 1997, the Cita (a bulk carrier) wrecked off the Scilly Islands in England. Crates washed up on shore creating a free-for-all, as residents scoured the sand for tennis shoes, dresses, toys, doors, tins of water chestnuts, laminate floors, barbeque sets, and tobacco.
“We all went wrecking!” one man said. “First time since 1938. We could have got an EU grant for revitalizing an ancient industry!”