Grave Spotlight

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

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Elizabeth Skelton

(1840 - Sept. 22, 1899)

Oct. 18, 2010 -- The Scotsman was a 6,041-ton ocean liner, 471 feet long and 49 feet wide, built in 1894 and owned by the Dominion Line. On Sept. 14, 1899, the ship left Liverpool, England, bound for Quebec, via the Strait of Belle Isle, north of Newfoundland, carrying a diverse cargo for delivery to Canada and 396 souls -- 268 passengers, a crew of 114, nine cattlemen and five stowaways. The passengers included William and Elizabeth Skelton of Los Angeles, who were returning home after a year in England.

Due to a seamen's strike in Liverpool, the crew of the Scotsman on this voyage consisted mainly of scabs and anyone who could be picked up at the dock and was willing to work. (A report by the Associated Press described the ersatz crew as "a gang of wharf-rats and hangers-on.")

After crossing the Atlantic Ocean, at 2:40 a.m. on Sept. 22, on a dark night with gale-force winds, thick fog and high seas, the ship ran aground eight miles southeast of the Belle Isle lighthouse. The passengers were all in bed, but most ran up to the deck after the ship hit the rocks, wearing coats over their nightclothes.

In the thick fog, the passengers and crew didn't realize where they were, or how close they were to shore. Captain H.T. Skrimshire ordered five lifeboats lowered and the women and children taken off. The first lifeboat was lowered off the port side, filled with passengers, including Elizabeth Skelton.

"I was anxious for my wife's safety, and so placed her in one of the first boats to leave the ship," William Skelton said later. "Immediately on touching the water, the boat filled with water and was swamped, carrying almost everyone in it to certain death. A few were rescued, but a greater number could do nothing in the heavy sea."

It wasn't until the lifeboat reached the water that the passengers realized that the plug hadn't been placed in the bottom of the boat. The lifeboat quickly filled with water and sank, and 11 women and children, including Elizabeth Skelton, drowned.

During the confusion on deck, crew members broke into the ship's liquor supply, and into the passengers' cabins. They forced some passengers at gunpoint to open their cabins, and used knives to slice open their suitcases and steal their valuables. They grabbed jewelry and pulled rings off the fingers of the frightened women on deck. Some of the steerage passengers joined the crew in looting the first-class cabins.

"The members of the crew were veritable pirates, and took everything they could lay their hands on," William Skelton said. "I also believe that certain of the passengers took part in the looting. ... Everything belonging to my wife had previously been stolen. Her baggage had been ripped open and all her jewelry purloined. I had myself to take my wife's cloak out of the hands of one of the men passengers. A small silver salt-cellar, part of our lunch outfit, was the only thing left." Investigators later estimated that the marauding crew members stole an estimated $10,000 in cash, jewelry, clothing and other merchandise from the passengers -- nearly $250,000 in 2010.

By morning, the fog had lifted to reveal that the ship had run aground at the foot of a 300-foot cliff. Ladders were placed from the ship to the shore, and the passengers went ashore, then climbed up to the top of the cliff. Some of the passengers were barefoot, and many were still in their nightclothes and coats.

More than 200 people spent a day on the plateau at the top of the cliff, surviving on biscuits and corned beef taken from the ship, as well as wild berries they found, before a small group set off in an attempt to reach the Belle Isle lighthouse. The journey, over steep cliffs and through swamps, took them two days. When they arrived and told their story, the lighthouse signaled a passing ship, the Montfort, which arrived on Sept. 26 -- five days after the ship ran aground -- to pick up most of the passengers and crew members, and brought them to Quebec. Several other ships arrived and picked up the remaining passengers and crew.

The passengers did not remain together on the desolate, uninhabited, 20-square-mile island, however. Many set off in small groups to search for food, which made their eventual rescue even more difficult, as rescuers had to search the island to find them.

In addition to rescue workers to assist the passengers on the Montfort when it arrived in Quebec, the police were waiting to question the crew members. Twenty-three crew members were immediately arrested when they were found to be carrying jewelry, dresses, men's clothing, and personal papers, including the will of one of the passengers from the Scotsman. Police suspect that some crew members threw stolen goods overboard when they realized the police were boarding the ship, and a diver was sent to search for additional stolen merchandise.

As the police officers escorted the crew members from the Montfort, a large crowd gathered on the dock, with many shouting, "Throw them into the river!" "Had it not been for the presence of the police," according to press reports, "the threat would probably have been carried into effect."

When another rescue ship, the Ottoman, arrived in Montreal, 28 crew members from the Scotsman were arrested, carrying jewelry and other items stolen from the passengers.

"I have no hope of recovering my wife's body, and I do not anticipate that any of the lost will ever be recovered," William Skelton said when he reached Montreal. "I saved absolutely nothing. ... Tonight I start my journey across the continent to California. Of all I possessed a few days ago, I only take with me the clothing I have on, my wife's cloak, and this small silver salt-cellar."

It is not known whether Elizabeth Skelton's body was ever recovered. A memorial marker for her was placed at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles. William Skelton died the following year.

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