When I moved to Lynbrook in 1972, I strolled through the Rockville Cemetery and noticed a mass grave. It was dated 1837. I was surprised to learn that no one in the village had any real understanding of how or why 139 shipwreck victims came to be buried there.
I wanted to learn more, but I had no idea back then how far my journey of discovery would take me. Indeed my search for the long-lost story of two shipwrecks led my wife Nori and me to places as far as Liverpool and Dublin. It concluded with my award-winning book, “Water and Ice: The Tragic Wrecks of the Bristol and the Mexico on the South Shore of Long Island. But it didn’t end there. The book also led to speaking engagements from East Rockaway to Southold to Albany.
Then something else really exciting happened. An attendee at one of my lectures emailed me that an oil painting, “The Wreck of the Mexico,” was up for auction on Cape Cod, and that it looked eerily similar to the very scene I had described. I drove up to the Cape and bought the painting -- for $1,300 -- even though it was listed as having been painted in England by an unknown artist. I later determined that the painting “The Wreck of the Mexico” was actually done on Long Island, in 1837, by James Fulton Pringle. The Museum of Art in New York City, among other noted museums, has works by Pringle. His depiction precisely matches not only my book’s description but also the wreck-scene in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
Now here is the really big news: In January 2014, Joshua Ruff, the Chief Curator and Head of Collections at the Long Island Museum of Art, History and Carriages in Stony Brook (LIM), visited our house in Lynbrook to view the painting. He declared it to be among the finest Long Island historical paintings. After long consideration, Nori and I decided that the painting – regardless of its true value (probably about $20,000) -- belongs not to a placement over our fireplace where it has hung for two years, but to all Long Islanders. And so we decided to loan it to LIM for five years, after which we will gift the painting outright to the museum.
The painting has just been put on display at LIM, in a place of honor. LIM currently has an important exhibition featuring the paintings of the renowned artists William Sydney Mount and Shepard Alonzo Mount. The Mount brothers’ paintings are reason enough to visit the museum, but the Pringle painting’s connection to Lynbrook history – and to the victims’ mass grave in Lynbrook -- should add an extra incentive for local residents to take the trip out to Stony Brook.
Art Mattson is the Lynbrook Village historian. His book is available at gift shops on Atlantic Avenue in Lynbrook and on