Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Imagining stories for Claus and Jürgen

I wondered in my last entry if Claus (aged 32) and Jürgen Holtorf (age 8) may have sailed together from Hamburg to New York in April 1852. Further research shows that the ship they sailed on, the Rhein, arrived in New York on April 29, meaning it took a mere 28 days to complete the journey. So it was not wrecked, a possibility that I raised in the last blog. And despite what I have read in other places, which suggests that the journey usually took at least 40 days, this trip was a quick one.

However, the mystery deepens when scanning through the passenger list of arrivals on the Rhein in New York on that date. Claus has disappeared and only Jürgen remains. However, this time Jürgen’s age is listed, but as 32. I have already mentioned that if indeed these were our Holtorfs, then Jürgen would have been around 8 years of age, and Claus would be 32.

What happened to Claus? Did he die on the voyage? Or was it really young Jürgen who died and then Claus took his name? And what could possibly have prompted Claus to do such a thing?

The “Rhein” was a 450 gross ton, three masted barque, built in 1848. She was constructed of wood, and carried 20-1st class and 200-steerage passengers. She sailed between Hamburg and New York for the Hamburg America Line from 1849 to 1858 when she was sold. [Merchant Fleets by Duncan Haws, vol.4, Hamburg America Line]


The Rhein, 1848 Source: Arnold Kludas and Herbert Bischoff, Die Schiffe der Hamburg – Amerika Linie, Bd. 1: 1847-1906 (Herford: Koehler, 1979), p. 21.

Why did people die on voyages between Europe and the USA? The following description is of three common diseases and comes from the Mecklenburg Vorpommern GenWebsite:

Three diseases in particular were rampant on ships: cholera, typhus, and smallpox. Cholera, an infection of the stomach and intestines, was a particular problem. Once cholera struck a ship’s passengers, it spread quickly. Noone knew what to do for the problem. One recommended treatment was to administer a dose of Epsom salts and castor oil in combination, rub the patient’s face with vinegar, and then give the patient 35 drops of laudanum, a highly addictive opiate. If there was no ship’s doctor, and there usually wasn’t, the captain had the medicine chest. The medicine chest often contained remedies such as balsam, drops of various kinds, cream of tartar, peppermint, powdered rhubarb, or pills advertised on the waterfront as useful for curing a number of ailments. Any of those treatments might be tried.

Outbreaks of smallpox were less common but more feared. The disease was often accommpanied by pneumonia, encephalitis, blood poisoning or some other ailment, and the mortality rate was high. The worst killer of all on sailing ships was typhus, a liceborne disease that afflicts the victim’s skin and brain, causing dizziness, headaches, and pain throughout the body, together with bloodshot eyes, a dark red rash and a dull stare.

Typhus was common in the crowded conditions and was known by the nickname of “ship fever.” It is a wonder that as many passengers survived the voyage as did. Those that did not were buried at sea. 


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