The remains, basically stripped of flesh except for a decomposing torso, was also missing an arm and both feet. Coroner John Mastenbroek estimated the deceased to have stood at least 6-feet tall, but he did not hold an inquest into the matter.
However, local authorities were all but certain the individual was a crewman of a steamer that broke apart in a wintery gale and went down in Lake Michigan on Jan. 21, 1895, offshore between Saugatuck and South Haven.
“There is every reason to believe that it was one of the Chicora victims,” the Grand Haven Tribune reported. “But it will ever be a mystery as the few bones found left no clue.”
However, Capt. John Lysaght of the Grand Haven Life Saving Station, a native of St. Joseph, disagreed.
“I do not think the body is from the Chicora, and do not believe any body from the Chicora would float now and wash up on the shore,” Lysaght told the Tribune.
The 200-foot Chicora had picked up a cargo of flour in Milwaukee and was heading back to her St. Joseph port early on the day she vanished.
The six days after the Chicora disappeared, a dog — “positively recognized” as an animal aboard the steamer when she left port — had come ashore and was mulling around Pottawattomie Park in Benton Harbor, apparently searching for its owner. However, this claim was said by some to have been a myth.
Then something stranger happened on Feb. 3, 1895, when supposed sightings of the phantom vessel took place off the south shore of Chicago and near Whiting, Ind.
Capt. M.J. Powers of the Chicago Fire Department was summoned when witnesses first saw the spectacle and spotted the object himself. Powers described the anomaly as “a long black line against the white field of ice” drifting out in Lake Michigan an estimated 3-9 miles offshore.
“I do not say it was the hull of the Chicora,” Powers told the press, “but it had the appearance of the half-submerged hull, about the length of a vessel like the Chicora. The upper works were gone and in it could been seen several black objects, which might be taken for human beings.”
Word spread and crowds quickly gathered. “Hundreds” of persons reportedly climbed to the tops of houses to take a look; some with spy glasses in hand. Rumors surfaced after an entourage of men who dared to walk out onto the ice for a closer look reported seeing “men on the wreck making signals” and “shots being fired” as an appeal for help. One report claimed some men from Miller Beach, Ind., were able to make out the name “Chicora” on the side of the vessel, but authorities could verify none of the claims.
Tugboats were dispatched in an effort to rendezvous with the object, but ice near the ports prevented the effort.
However, Capt. Consaul of the tugboat Protection — who perhaps was the closest witness to the object — reported he saw an iceberg with “hundreds of seagulls” flying about it, which from a distance might appear to “resemble human beings moving about.”
Then what many believed was the Chicora vanished from sight again until May 2001 when the Southwest Michigan Underwater Preserve Committee discovered the wreck resting upright with an intact hull in 270 feet of water, 16 miles off the coast of Saugatuck.
“Most would agree,” the Michigan Shipwrecks website states, “the loss of the steamer Chicora remains the single greatest mystery on Lake Michigan.”
The official report on the tragedy notes a crew of 23 men and two passengers died in the sinking, and that “no bodies were ever recovered.” Unless, of course, you count the unidentified “headless man” buried in Lake Forest Cemetery.