The Girl in the Barrel

I dug through my photos last night, trying to get inspired for today’s blog post. While scrolling through the images, I ran across the above picture. Located in the Martin family plot at Oakdale Cemetery, the little cross is engraved with the name ‘Nance’ and no other information. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s one of the most famous burials in the port city. This is the gravesite of the girl in the barrel.

Have you ever heard the legend? It’s well known around Wilmington. The first time I heard it, I was still in grade school. Since then, I’ve recounted the tale dozens of times. It was one of the girls’ favorites when they were little. It goes something like this:

The Girl in the Barrel

Silas Martin moved his family to the port of Wilmington from Maine in search of better business opportunities in the mid-1800s. It was a smart move. Silas quickly rose in society as a prominent shipping captain who ferried local exports to distant locations.

In the winter of 1857, Silas planned a months-long journey that would take him to Cuba. Not wanting to travel without his family, he decided to bring along his two adult children, John and Nancy.

The trip was nothing new to John, who often sailed along with his father to help out on the ship. But Nancy was incredibly excited, as this would be her first trip to the Caribbean. They boarded Silas’ ship in early spring, waving goodbye to their mother, Margaret, and the rest of their family.

The early days of the trip were smooth sailing. The family stopped all along the East Coast at ports, where they dropped off goods and explored new places.

But soon, Nancy fell ill. Being off the tip of Florida, Silas decided to continue on his way. As soon as they reached Cuba, he rushed Nancy to a doctor. But it was too late – all the doctor could do was keep her comfortable. Nancy died on May 25.

Heartbroken at the loss of his daughter, Silas refused to leave her body behind in a foreign land. He was resolved to bring Nancy back to Wilmington for a proper burial, where Margaret could see her laid to rest.

To bring Nancy home, John and Silas strapped her to a chair with belts, then lowered the chair into a barrel of rum and sealed it shut. The alcohol would preserve Nancy’s body for the ride home. They stored her makeshift casket below deck and sailed for Wilmington.

Sadly, they wouldn’t make it home before tragedy struck again. John was swept overboard and lost at sea during a storm. His body was never recovered.

When Silas arrived in Wilmington, he arranged for Nancy’s burial in Oakdale Cemetery. She was laid to rest, sitting up inside the same barrel that transported her back home.

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