Reuben Crewe knew that he had dodged a bullet. He had gone seal hunting on the Harlaw in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the vessel had sunk. Reuben and some of his crewmembers made it to St. Paul's Island in the Cabot Strait before finally being rescued. When he eventually returned home, his wife, Mary, was overjoyed to hear him say that he would never venture on the ice floes again.
Three years later, Reuben and Mary's eldest son, Albert, age 16, rushed home and, while out of breath, explained to his mother that his Uncle Ben had a berth for him on one of the ships set to hunt for seals. A bitter argument ensued between parents and son. Reuben had endured the darkest side of the seal fishery, and Mary had spent too many cold and lonely nights worrying about her husband's fate.
But Albert would not be denied and his parents reluctantly agreed to their son's wishes. As recorded by Albert's half-sister, Mildred Gough in Doug Cole's book, called Elliston: The Story of a Newfoundland Outport, Reuben said to his wife later that night, "Mary, you know what this means, don't you? I must go with him. He … knows nothing of what this is all about or what he has to face".
In the next few days, Mary occupied her time preparing heavy wool mittens, thick guernsey sweaters and thick canvas jackets. Eventually Reuben Crewe and his son Albert departed Elliston, Trinity Bay to board the vessel called Newfoundland. They would soon become a part of one of this province's most gripping tragedies.
On Tuesday, March 31, 1914, Reuben, Albert and their fellow sealers disembarked their vessel in search of seals. A blinding, and bitterly cold, blizzard developed and, through a series of ill-advised decisions, 132 men found themselves stranded and exposed on an open ice floe. Within hours, seventy-eight Newfoundlanders froze to death. Among them were Reuben and Albert Crewe.
Nimshi Crewe, a Newfoundland historian with roots in Elliston, wrote that "a still-living survivor who saw them die said that the father and son kept together until both were exhausted, when they lay down on the pan and the father drew his son's head up under his guernsey for him to die in his bosom. The father died soon afterwards and, thus clasped together, they were brought into St. John's."
Mary Crewe later recorded that on the night of March 31, "like every other night since they left home, I fell asleep with them on my mind. Sometime in the night, I awakened suddenly, as if someone had touched me. As I glanced around the room, which was bright with the moonlight, I saw my husband Reuben and Albert John kneeling by the side of my bed. Reuben had his hands folded in prayer as I'd often seen him and Albert had his head bowed. There was such a look of peace on Reuben's face! Why - I even noticed the double stitching on the sleeves of their canvas jackets!
I got up, lit the fire, wrapped myself in a blanket and waited for the day to come. I could not go back to sleep."
Before the local clergy informed her of the tragedy, Mary knew "that something dreadful had happened." And even before survivors related the circumstances of their death, she knew that her husband had stayed close to their son - just as he had promised he would.
Copyright, Apr. 26, 1999.