While sailing home across the Indian Ocean in 1852, the clipper ship Flying Cloud encountered a vessel heading in the opposite direction. Flying Cloud’s captain, Josiah Creesy, exchanged fruits, vegetables and chickens for newspapers from New York. He was shocked to read his own obituary in one of them.
He had no idea the premature death notice was actually a welcome bit of news.
Josiah Creesy had grown up sailing in Marblehead, Mass., where his wife Eleanor grew up learning ocean navigation from her father. Together they sailed the world’s fastest clipper ship, the Flying Cloud. She was launched during the Gold Rush from Donald McKay’s East Boston shipyard in 1851. Less than six weeks after her launch, she sailed from New York to San Francisco in 89 days, 21 hours.
The next year Josiah and Eleanor Creesy made the voyage in the astonishing time of 89 days, eight hours. They found themselves instant celebrities around the world. Their record would hold for a century.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing on that record-breaking trip. While rounding Cape Horn, Flying Cloud encountered severe storms that ripped her sails and tore off her topmasts and rigging. The insubordinate first mate took it upon himself to cut up some of the rigging. Creesy needed every inch of rope on the stormy seas with no ship chandlery nearby. He relieved the mate of his duties, “in consequence of his arrogating to himself the privilege of cutting up rigging.”
While sailing from China to New York across the Indian Ocean, Creesy didn’t know his insubordinate mate planned to file a lawsuit against him. He never found out, either, how his obituary appeared mistakenly in the newspaper in 1852, 19 years premature. Telegraphed from New Orleans, it read, “this gallant sailor is no more.”
A Fake Obituary
“Two days after sailing from San Francisco, bound to China, he died, and the ship proceeded in charge of the mate,” it continued.
He was a native of Marblehead, and about forty-six years of age. For many years, he commanded the ship Oneida in the China trade, and was distinguished for the rapidity of his passages. In the Flying Cloud, he made the shortest passage on record to San Francisco, and eclipsed the finest and most costly merchant ship in the world (the Challenge), and yet this crowning triumph of his life was attended with many disasters to his spars and sails; still, he pressed on, disdaining to make a port short of his destination. In every scene of a sailor’s life ‘with skill superior glowed his daring mind’ — his dauntless soul ‘rose with the storm and all its dangers shared.’ But now he rests from his toils, regardless of his triumphs. Peace to his manes.
Creesy found out after passing Java Head. Flying Cloud fell in with a ship headed the other way. Creesy exchanged chickens, fruits and vegetables for newspapers from New York.
The first mate paid for his lawyer’s room and board while he awaited the arrival of the Flying Cloud to prosecute Capt. Creesy.
But upon reading the obituary, the first mate gave up on the lawsuit and shipped off to sea. The lawyer, meanwhile, made off with his three months’ advance pay.
Josiah Creesy went on to serve in the Union Navy during the Civil War and died in 1871. His wife, Eleanor, lived until 1900. They are buried together in Salem’s Harmony Grove Cemetery.
This story updated in 2022.