Uninhabited until the 1930s, tiny Wake Island had no claim to fame but for a shipwreck that caught the attention of national news media. One dark and stormy night in March 1866 a German sailing ship struck the eastern reef of the low-lying atoll. The shipwrecked Libelle, a stranded opera star, and hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of buried treasure made for story-telling gold. When Pan American Airways sent a crew in 1935 to build a station for its new trans-Pacific clipper service, workers found scattered evidence of the wreck on the reef, including piles of heavy chain and a huge anchor. By 1936 the corroded, seven-foot tall anchor stood on display on the manicured grounds between Pan Am’s clipper pier and the newly constructed hotel. And every clipper arrival brought a fresh audience for the oft-repeated and embellished shipwreck story.
My interest in the old Libelle story was renewed while working on an article for the Pan Am Historical Foundation recently (Echoes of Wake Island). In her book Wings over Wake, the travel writer Dorothy Kaucher described encountering the shipwreck site in the summer of 1937 with her “tour guide,” the Pan Am doctor. After crossing Peale channel on a wobbly little barrel boat, they set out to explore “Wake the Desolate, where no human beings had ever dwelt.” Fearless boobies and terns watched as they pushed through the brush toward the far reef, then under low tide and swarming seabirds. “Like a stranded and slithering monster” stood a pair of coral-encrusted mounds that turned out to be piles of the Libelle’s anchor chain, its links embedded in the reef after seven decades. As they waded out to the chain, the doctor told Kaucher that she was only the second woman to have ever set foot on that spot – a dramatic opening for the tale of the shipwrecked opera star. Kaucher devoured the story, including the tantalizing mystery of $300,000 in treasure buried on that very beach and the ghostly ring of a ship’s bell that some still heard on the island. She herself would retell the tale in articles and lectures she gave after her return to the mainland.
The doctor’s version was based on research done by Pan Am’s first airport manager on Wake, Colonel Bicknell, soon after the anchor was discovered. Bicknell found the story in an old missionary magazine, “The Friend.” At the time, the 1866 shipwreck and subsequent salvage voyages also made the news in Honolulu, New York, and Boston. Since Pacific shipwrecks were not uncommon, the press attention can be attributed to the famous passenger and her survival against all odds. Additional details and more recent research flesh out the story – though people still tend to cling to a buried treasure mystery.
Under the command of a Captain Tobias, the bark Libelle was heading from Honolulu to Hong Kong when it struck Wake Island on the night of March 4, 1866. The captain dropped anchor and chain from the grounded vessel, but passengers and crew spent the first night on the ship as it slowly took on water. When morning dawned their plight was clear: all thirty vacated the doomed Libelle, wading across the eel-infested reef to shore. The passengers included the English opera star Madame Anna Bishop, age 56, her husband Martin, her accompanist, and an assistant, embarking on a world tour. Also aboard were two diplomats – Hawaii’s consul-general to Japan and a Japanese envoy heading to Japan to negotiate a treaty, five other Europeans (three men and two women), and ten Chinese travelers in steerage including two women and two babies.
Crewmembers built a rough shelter for the women, retrieved some food, wine, and fresh water from the ship, and brought the treasure ashore: silver coin, other valuables, and a thousand flasks of mercury (quicksilver) which they buried. The crew salvaged the Libelle’s 22-foot longboat and smaller gig, but remaining cargo and passenger possessions – including Madam Bishop’s extensive wardrobe, jewelry, and all of her musical scores – would go down with the ship. Days turned to weeks as the stranded group supplemented their dwindling provisions with fish and seabirds and rationed precious water. After three weeks, they concluded that their only hope for survival lay in escaping Wake Island.
The longboat and gig were pushed through the brush to the lagoon where passengers presumably boarded to cross the calm turquoise water. At Wilkes they faced the sea – neither calm nor turquoise. With the first officer and twenty-one passengers crowded into the longboat and eight men, including Captain Tobias, in the gig, they set out for Guam, some 1,400 miles to the west. Immediately beset by heavy swells the two boats separated: the gig was never seen again. There is no account of the desperate journey on the longboat, but it took thirteen days for those twenty-two souls to reach Guam.
The Spanish governor of Guam established quarters for the recovering victims and dispatched the schooner Ana with the Libelle’s first officer to search for the gig and then proceed to Wake to retrieve the buried treasure. (By rights, two-thirds of the recovered treasure would go to the Spanish crown and one-third to the salvage crew.) They found no trace of the gig and the Ana returned to Guam with only the silver, valued at just under $94,000. After three months on Guam, the opera star and her troupe gamely headed to Manila to resume their world tour. Many years later, Madam Bishop’s grand-niece read about Dorothy Kaucher’s experiences on Wake Island in 1937 and contacted the author. Surprised and delighted at the connection, Kaucher peppered her with questions about her aunt and sent her a piece of white coral from the island.
The wrecking cruise business was booming in the Pacific in the 19th century and news of the Libelle and buried treasure spurred at least four more groups to mount expeditions to Wake Island in 1867-68. The sunken ship itself was the target, but while the buried silver had been recovered, the unrecovered flasks of quicksilver dangled a lucrative lure. Valued at over $50,000, that alone was worth the gamble. (The Libelle’s cargo of specie and quicksilver/mercury, is estimated to actually have had a value of about $150,000 – half the $300,000 that sustained the buried treasure rumor for seventy-plus years.) Several crews reached Wake to dive the wreck and hunt the island for the quicksilver. Salvage reports showed each expedition retrieving about 250 flasks.
Ironically, a salvage captain and eight or nine Hawaiian divers sailed to Wake on the Moi Waihine in September 1867, but became stranded on the island when their ship blew away three days after arrival. They would wait five long months for rescue. That’s a long time to live on fish, birds, and rainwater, but maybe the hope of finding that buried treasure sustained them.
Kaucher, Dorothy. Wings over Wake. San Francisco: John Howell Publisher, 1947.
Spennemann, Dirk. “The Wreck of the Libelle.” (2000) http://marshall.csu.edu.au/Marshalls/html/Wake/WakeVisitors03.html