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July 11, 2023

The Tragic Tale of Captain William Browne and the Shipwrecked Brutus

The Tragic Tale of Captain William Browne and the Shipwrecked Brutus

In the annals of maritime history, tales of shipwrecks have always held a poignant allure. One such tragic event took place on the night of February 21, 1802, off the coast of Cape Cod. It was during this fateful voyage that Commander William Browne, at the helm of the ship Brutus, met with a devastating snowstorm that would claim his life and the lives of eleven other crew members.

Commander William Browne, a skilled and active leader, was entrusted with the command of the ship Brutus, which belonged to the esteemed firm of Crowninshield in Salem, Massachusetts. Departing from Salem on that chilly February day, the Brutus, carrying a cargo of coffee and pepper, set sail alongside two other ships, the Ulysses and Volusia, all bound for distant shores. As the ships made their way through the unforgiving waters, a fierce snowstorm descended upon them, engulfing the vessels in a flurry of blinding snow and icy winds. It was on the night following their departure that disaster struck. The Brutus, the Ulysses, and the Volusia found themselves at the mercy of the raging storm, battling the elements in a desperate fight for survival.

The ferocity of the storm proved too much. The Brutus, battered and crippled, struck a grim fate on Cape Cod. Just after 7 p.m. on that fateful Monday night, the ship began to break apart, forcing the crew to abandon their vessel. With the help of the main mast, all but one crew member managed to reach the shore near Providence Town. The freezing cold took its toll, and the crew dwindled in number as they struggled against the elements. Commander Browne, a respected and well-informed merchant, was the first ashore who succumbed to the severity of the cold. The second mate, Mr. Ayres, also fell victim to the harsh conditions, having lost his boots along the way.

Despite the overwhelming odds, a glimmer of hope emerged from the darkness. The crew spotted the ship Volusia, but she lay cloaked in a thick layer of ice, rendering her crew unaware of their presence. Desperate, they hailed the vessel but received no response. It was only when they stumbled upon a fence that they realized their proximity to the Light House, a beacon of salvation in the stormy night. With the help of the Light House Keeper, the survivors were brought to safety, their exhausted bodies and shattered spirits finding solace within its walls.

The tragedy of the shipwreck not only claimed lives of Captain Browne and eleven of his crew of fifteen, but also shattered dreams of future happiness. Captain Browne had been engaged to Priscilla Webb, a woman who, upon his untimely death, chose to remain unmarried for the rest of her life. Her devotion to his memory became a testament to the enduring love she held for the courageous captain.

While the majority of the crew were buried in Truro, a village located near the site of the tragedy off Cape Cod, at some point Captain William Browne's remains were returned to Salem where he was laid to rest in the Howard Street Cemetery. A large slate headstone with an urn and willow carved at the top was erected to his memory. The story of his fateful voyage is engraved beneath the urn and willow forever reminding the living of the perils of making a living on the sea.

The full engraving on the headstone reads, "William Browne. Commander of the ship Brutus, Belonging to the firm Crowninshield, Which sailed from Salem on 21, February 1802. And was shipwrecked on Cape Cod, In the terrible snowstorm of the night following that day, With two other ships, the Ulysses and the Volusia from the same port. He Perished with the greater part of the crew, from the severity of the cold, after landing near Province Town. He is remembered as a skillful and active commander, a well informed merchant, rich in all the social virtues and dear to his friends and to a tender mother."

Photo: Howard Street Cemetery - Salem, Massachusetts

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