Erasmus “Rasmus” Scarborough Midgett (1851–1926) was a surfman with the United States Life-Saving Service on Hatteras Island in North Carolina who single-handedly rescued ten men from the sinking barkentine Priscilla.
The Priscilla, a 643-ton vessel, was out of Baltimore, Maryland and captained by Benjamin Springsteen, who was joined by his wife and 12-year-old son, Elmer, and a crew of 12. She grounded three miles south of Gull Shoals Station and 2.5 miles north of Little Kinnakeet Station. Today, the Priscilla wreck is located at GPS coordinates 35.458859°N 75.482629°W.
For his heroic action, which ranks among the Coast Guard’s top ten rescues of all time, Midgett was awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal from the Secretary of the Treasury. The inscription read on one side: “To Rasmus Midgett for rescuing single-handed ten men from the Priscilla, August 18, 1899” and on the other: “In Testimony of Heroic Deeds in the Saving of Life from the Perils of the Sea.
Rasmus’s son Arthur Vanburen Midgett also received a gold medal as one of Chicamacomico Station’s surfmen who participated in the famous Mirlo rescue.
Photos of Rasmus’s great-great grandson Ernie Foster holding Rasmus’s gold medal, an audio of Ernie telling the story of his great-great grandfather and a door from the Priscilla given to Rasmus are on display at Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station where Rasmus once served as a surfman.
According to Foster, Rasmus was on patrol for the Gull Shoals Life-Saving Station on August 18, 1899. He left southward at 3:00 a.m. on his horse, Tom Creef. Facing hurricane-force winds at sea, the Priscilla bottomed out and grounded about the same time Rasmus left for his patrol. Three-fourths of a mile from the station, Rasmus saw items washed ashore, which indicated a shipwreck.
After traveling two more miles on his patrol and finding more debris, Rasmus heard what sounded like faint voices. He held his lantern high over the ocean and saw a ship had keeled over and the mast had fallen across the ship. Men clutched to what was left of the ship about 100 yards from Midgett. He had been on patrol now for about an hour and a-half in one of the worst storms ever to hit the Outer Banks, the San Ciriaco.
The San Ciriaco storm had sustained winds of 100 mph, which were recorded at the weather bureau station at on Hatteras. The seas broke over the Priscilla with such force that Captain Springsteen’s wife and son and two crewmen were ripped from the ship and washed away. An hour later the hull broke in two and the crew clung onto the broken half of the aft section, which was pelted by twenty-five foot waves and swept to ground near the shore.
Foster relates that his great-great grandfather knew it would be three hours before he could get help from his fellow Gull Shoals Station’s surfmen. The Priscilla was badly breaking up; so Midgett decided to try rescuing the men immediately.
The surf was violent, breaching the narrow stretch of sand between the ocean and Pamlico Sound. Midgett followed each wave as it receded, getting as close to the wreck as possible on each run, yelling instructions to the shipwrecked men. He told them that when he called, one man should jump to him off the debris and head towards shore. As soon as Rasmus had a chance, he again ran forward into the receding wave, calling for a man to jump. He helped the man reach the shore, pulling him through the waves.
Midgett repeated this exhausting feat six more times, each time dragging a man to safety, but he faced yet another problem. Three men still on the ship were too exhausted to swim towards shore. Midgett, undaunted by what lay ahead, entered the violent surf, boarded the wreck, and one by one, carried each exhausted man to the beach. Rasmus directed the seven men who were still able to walk to begin heading towards the station. Midgett himself cared for the remaining three, including the Captain of the Priscilla, Benjamin E. Springsteen. Giving his own coat to Captain Springsteen, Rasmus then made certain the three injured men were safe from the raging surf. Wind gusts and rain pounded his face and sand needled the legs of the horse he rode as Rasmus went back to get help from the life-saving crew at Gull Shoals station.
Keeper Pugh was on the beach at Gull Shoals when Rasmus came into sight. Upon hearing Midgett’s amazing story, Pugh ordered two of the surfmen to harness horses to their carts and go after the disabled men. He directed the other surfmen to prepare a room for Captain Springsteen and his surviving crew.