"On Wednesday morning, with my wife, I embarked----the Sea Bird at Manitowoc for Chicago----that day nothing of interest occurred, but about midnight a stiff breeze--ing the boat roll heavily in the sea.,----rendering stoppage at intermediate----extremely difficult. I retired about----o'clock, Wednesday evening and remarked at the time to my wife that it was a terrible evening, an assertion which she acquiesced in with an apprehensive shudder.
"On Thursday morning I arose at 6:30, and went out on the deck cabin to get some air. The boat was rolling as in the night, the lake was extremely rough, and the wind high. On the guards I met the first mate and entered into conversation with him relative to the distance from Chicago, the weather, and the probable hour the boat would reach that city. He informed me we were then off the clay banks, between Lake Forest and Waukegan, and about 25 miles from Chicago. 'If nothing happens,' said he, 'we will reach Chicago about 10 o'clock.'
I repeat his exact words, because to me they now have a strange significance. I then returned to my stateroom, where my wife was still abed. A few moments later I heard the alarm of fire, and, rushing out to ascertain the cause of the alarm, I discovered the after part of the boat in flames, and rapidly involving the cabin which I had just left. I then made an attempt to reach my wife's room, but the intense heat compelled me to withdraw. I called out to my wife to get out. I got no response. The rapidity with which the fire extended drove the passengers forward. The scene at the time was of the most harrowing character. Women in night-dresses and frightened men rushed frantically about seeking agencies of escape. Some jumped overboard with planks, others with chairs, and no sooner had they touched the water than their agonizing shrieks told of their inability to keep above the treacherous element. When the heat compelled me, I too jumped in the water in the direction of a plank which was floating around. By vigorous swimming I reached it, and, fortunately, I soon clambered on a part of the paddlewheel box with which the waves brought me in contact. The piece was just large enough to sustain me, and for twelve hours I was heaved and tossed about. I prayed for relief, but none came, not a sail could I see anywhere. From my position I could hardly discern the shore and for hours I knew not whither I was going. I was chilled almost to death, and the wind blew with a piercing severity. My hands were numb, and I could hardly sustain myself. I saw about 28 persons jump into the water. Most of them sank immediately. I think there were about ten women on board. When the excitement was at its height we attempted to launch the small boats, but the flames compelled us to desist. The only persons on board I knew were George W. Emery and Joseph Smith, of Manitowoc, and Mr. Chamberlain."75
The newspaper account was incomplete as to how Mr. Leonard saved himself. The newspaper was also very skeptical about the truth of Mr. Leonard's statement, saying that the length of time in the water and the direction in which he drifted tended to partially discredit his story. Mr. Leonard's truthfulness, however, was vouched-for by Mr. J. D. Cronant, a student at the Garrett Biblical Institute in Evanston who was well acquainted with him.76 The Chicago Tribune didn't even mention Leonard's story, and only a week later did they even mention Leonard at all, saying the people of Manitowoc vouched for him.
A week later on April 18th James Leonard made his way to Milwaukee enroute back home to Manitowoc. He stopped to tell an updated story to the Milwaukee News which was also published in the Chicago Times and the Manitowoc Pilot. This is their account:
"The last thing he remembers on board the boat, there was a general confusion and alarm among the passengers, and efforts were being made to knock down the partitions and doors to staterooms. A cry had been made to lower the boats, and a rush was made for that purpose; but it was too late. Mr. Leonard declares that there were four boats aboard, and they were all located aft the wheel-house. They might have been reached two or three minutes after the discovery of the fire, but not afterwards. When the alarm was given, the captain was abed, and the boat was in command of the first mate. The captain immediately appeared on deck, in his pants and vest. There was a cry from some one, at this time, to head the steamer toward shore, and he thinks the wheel was set for that purpose, and then abandoned. The steamer started toward shore and then went round in a circle. He saw the captain and second mate attempt to aid the passengers by getting over partitions and rubbish, after which the captain seemed bewildered, being utterly powerless to do anything further. He believes the officers did all they could under the circumstances, except the steamer possibly might have been stopped on the instant of the general alarm. Mr. Leonard put on a life-preserver and left the boat within ten minutes after the cry of fire. The boat was then covered with heat and flames, and he escaped by jumping to a plank floating in the water, with his clothes and overcoat on. About that instant a piece of the paddle-box, about eight or nine feet square, tumbled overboard. This he secured, and, taking his knife from his pocket, he cut two holes through it, and, with the small rope of his life-preserver, he bound one of his legs to it. A little later, he succeeded in protecting himself from the cold by cutting the cotton wadding from his overcoat, which, with the lining of his coat, he bound about his head and hands. In this manner, he first floated southward and then westward, till about dark, when he reached the breakers on the shore, about ten miles this side of (north of) Evanston. When the schooner Cornelia approached the wreck of the Sea Bird, Mr. Leonard was about a mile away, but was unable to attract her attention, though he made an attempt by swinging his hand. When he reached the breakers, he was coated all over with ice, and, in order to reach the shore, he was obliged to cut off his overcoat with his knife, when he jumped into the breakers, he found that he could touch the bottom with his feet, and soon reached the dry land. With one leg partially frozen, he clambered up the bank, and wandered along the shore in search of a human habitation, but found none until he approached Evanston.
"In explanation of the errors in his previous statement, Mr. Leonard desires to say that, when he reached Evanston, he was utterly exhausted, and he has but a faint recollection of anything further that occurred that night or the next day. Body and brain for the time being partially paralyzed. He says no person can describe the mental excitement and suffering he endured that long wintry day, with the icy water dashing over him, and with but a faint hope of rescue. These, and the reaction which ensued, were sufficient to explain all the discrepancies in his first account. He has no recollection of speaking of his wife, though she was uppermost in his mind throughout the perils he encountered. He has no recollection of many other parts of that statement, some of which are without foundation. He did, however, have a conversation with the mate about half past 6 in the morning, and about 15 minutes before the alarm of fire, in which the mate told him they were about 25 miles from Chicago.
"Mr. Leonard is 27 years of age, and has lived in Manitowoc since 1845, where he was a clerk in the store of George S. Glover five or six years. During the war, he was a member of the 5th Wisconsin regiment; and when going to Chicago on the Sea Bird, he was on his way to take possession of a grocery store he has recently purchased there. In all respects he is a respectable citizen, and all who know him may well rejoice at his singular and extraordinary escape from fire and flood."77
Additionally The Manitowoc Pilot said that Mr. Leonard stated that the last person he saw jump off the burning steamer was James Leykom. He also saw Doucett, Denahae and Pfeffer, in the water, but the others from Manitowoc he did not see after the alarm was given.78
It is strange that the only newspaper account mentioning James Leonard's stop-over in Milwaukee before boarding the Seabird again enroute to Chicago was in the April 17, 1868, edition of the Manitowoc Pilot. Also the story is unclear about Mr. Leonard's wife, Martha. Even though James mentioned in his early statement that his wife perished in the flames of the Seabird, he later denied having ever spoken about his wife. This writer can find no documentation that his wife ever went aboard the Seabird, stopped over in Milwaukee, or even left Manitowoc. The guess is that Mr. Leonard was either delirious or the Chicago papers took some liberties with the truth. There is, however no documentation that she didn't go along either.
In another early newspaper account James Leonard said he saw twenty passengers jump into the water. Some swam around for a time and others seemed to sink almost immediately. He saw no women jump overboard and saw no women in the water. He believed there were about ten women on board, all of whom must have perished in the flames. Leonard also thinks there were not more than thirty passengers, having estimated that a large number of passengers got off in Milwaukee.79
Leonard reportedly returned to Manitowoc aboard the Orion on April 19th. He didn't complete the deal on the grocery store, but instead stayed in Manitowoc until 1874. Then he moved to Green Bay, taught in schools and became a superintendent of schools. After that he went into the insurance business and had some success. He died in Green Bay in 1901.80
Another victim had the name John H. Leonard, who was from Chicago. When his brother learned of James H. Leonard's survival, he rushed to Evanston, carrying a photograph, to see for himself that this wasn't John. To his sorrow, there was no similarity between the two.81
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