Who is John Maynard?

John Maynard is in many ways a fascinating character, although so little is known about him. In fact, only two things are known about him with any certainty, the first being that he was a hero:

Maynard was the steersman of the "Swallow," a ferry on Lake Eyrie in the 20s and 30s of the 19th Century, which served the route from Detroit to Buffalo. One fateful evening a fire started in the engine room when the boat was still around half an hour away from its destination, and spread to the rest of the ship. John Maynard steered the ferry towards the shore, remaining at his post even as it became cut off by the flames, and beached it. The remainder of the crew and all of the passengers were saved, but Maynard died.

It is perhaps (but only perhaps) curious that this heroic deed became famous in Germany while remaining unsung in the country in which it occurred. The reason for that being that one of the foremost writers of 19th Century Germany, Theodor Fontane, took it as the inspiration for a poem, in the form of a ballad:

„Wer ist John Maynard?“
„John Maynard war unser Steuermann,
Aushielt er bis er das Ufer gewann,
Er hat uns gerettet, er trägt die Kron’,
Er starb für uns, unsre Liebe sein Lohn.
John Maynard.“
   "Who is John Maynard?"
"John Maynard was our steersman
Hold on he did 'till the shore he won
He resued us, he bears the crown
He died for us, our love his own
John Maynard"

The poetic quality of the piece, as you would expect of an author of Fontane's stature, is better than your average melodramatic doggerel, although it is unashamedly and very successfully melodramatic. Over four verses we are treated to a masterfully paced rendition of the progression from a lovely evening with everyone looking forward to their arrival, to fear and desperation in the face of the spreading fire and then, to dramatic salvation on the beach of Buffalo, with Maynard's dogged promise to his captain to hold the course repeated in an ever weaker voice in the background:

„Noch da, John Maynard?“ Und Antwort schallt’s
Mit ersterbender Stimme: „Ja, Herr, ich halt’s“
   "Still there, John Maynard?" The answer strong
With dying voice "Aye sir! Still holding on!"

After which all that remains is to give the hero a hero's funeral, with a procession of ten thousand mourners, fill the grave with flowers, and give him a marble gravestone with a suitable epitaph:

Hier ruht John Maynard. In Qualm und Brand,
Hielt er das Steuer fest in der Hand,
Er hat uns gerettet, er trägt die Kron’,
Er starb für uns, unsre Liebe sein Lohn.
John Maynard.
   Here lies John Maynard. In smoke and flames
He held the wheel firm in his hands
He resued us, he bears the crown
He died for us, our love his own
John Maynard

Given how well-known and how well-loved the ballad of John Maynard has been in Germany ever since it was published in 1886, it is no surprise that German tourists came to Buffalo to see the site of the drama and the grave with its golden inscription. What was a surprise and something to a disappointment to those who did this was the second incontrovertible fact about John Maynard: he never existed.

The facts on which Fontane's poem are based are these: on August 9th, 1841, the paddle-steamer "Eyrie" caught fire en route from Buffalo to Eyrie, Pennsylvania and sank, with the loss of 170 lives. It set a course for the lake shore, but never arrived there. The steersman, Luther Fuller, stayed at his post and was either seriously injured or died.

Fontane was not the first writer to tell the story of the heroic steersman of the Lake Eyrie steamer. Various versions of it were printed in the press starting in 1845. The name of the ship varied from version to version, but the name of John Maynard was constant from the start. Prose and poetry versions proliferated in English and also in German after the translation of John Bartholomew Gough's version into German. Emil Rittershaus published a poem based on the Lake Eyrie disaster in 1871, where the emphasis was on the suffering of German immigrants rather than the heroism of John Maynard, and apparently encouraged other writers, including Fontane, to use the story in their own work. So Fontane didn't just make the whole thing up: that distinction goes to an unknown American journalist.

Given the lesser literary quality of most of the treatments of the story of John Maynard, it is unsurprising that it was more or less completely unknown in Buffalo, except by those who had talked to disappointed German tourists. To avoid the numbers of these swelling any further, and in the spirit of international friendship and cultural exchange, there has been a bronze four foot by four foot John Maynard Memorial Plaque at the Erie Basin Marina since June 10, 1998. (It was intended to be unveiled on September 27, 1997 in the course of the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the twinning agreement between the cities of Buffalo and Dortmund, but wasn't finished yet, so they unveiled a paper mock-up instead.) The plaque features Fontane's poem in German and English translation, with a mention of the burning of the Eyrie "with Luther (Augustus) Fuller at the helm."

The partial and over-literal translations above are mine. If you want to know more, http://johnmaynard.net/ will probably tell you all you need. It has an English translation of the poem on the front page and links to several others. The text of the original German is at http://de.wikisource.org/wiki/John_Maynard_%28Fontane%29

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