The American Colony in Jerusalem

Image Montage of Horatio Spafford, home, and childrenIn 1871, Horatio Spafford, a prosperous lawyer and devout Presbyterian church elder and his wife, Anna, were living comfortably with their four young daughters in Chicago. In that year the great fire broke out and devastated the entire city. Two years later the family decided to vacation with friends in Europe. At the last moment Horatio was detained by business, and Anna and the girls went on ahead, sailing on the ocean liner S.S. Ville de Havre. On November 21, 1873, the liner was rammed amid ship by a British vessel and sank within minutes. Anna was picked up unconscious on a floating spar, but the four children had drowned.

Spafford Family Album

The Spafford daughters, Annie, Maggie, Bessie, and Tanetta (top row, left to right) drowned when the S.S. Ville du Havre sank after it was hit by a British vessel en route to Europe in November 1873. A fellow survivor of the collision, Pastor Weiss, recalled Anna saying, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.” The Spafford's son Horatio (bottom row second from right), born three years after the tragedy, died in 1880 at age four.

Spafford family photographic album, ca. 1880. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (1)

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The Spafford Cottage at Lake View, Chicago

At their home in a north side suburb of Chicago, the Spaffords hosted and sometimes financially supported many guests. Horatio had been active in the abolitionist crusade and the cottage was a meeting place for activists in the reform movements of the time such as Frances E. Willard, president of the National Women's Christian Temperance Union, and evangelical leaders like Dwight Moody, who ignited a religious revival in America and Europe. Spafford, a senior partner in a thriving law firm, invested in real estate north of an expanding Chicago in the spring of 1871. When the Great Fire of Chicago reduced the city to ashes in October of the same year, it also destroyed Spafford's sizable investment.

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Sinking of the Ville du Havre

In 1873, to benefit his wife's health, Spafford planned an extended stay in Europe for his family. At the last moment Spafford was detained by real estate business, but Anna and the four girls sailed to Paris on the steamer Ville du Havre. Within twelve minutes on November 21, 1873, the luxury steamer sank in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean after being rammed by the British iron sailing ship the Lochearn.

Currier & Ives. Sinking of the Steamship Ville du Havre. New York: Currier & Ives, ca. 1873. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (5)

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Anna's Telegram to Horatio

Anna was picked up unconscious by the crew of the Lochearn, which itself was in danger of sinking. Fortunately, the Trimountain, a cargo sailing vessel, arrived to save the survivors. Nine days after the shipwreck Anna landed in Cardiff, Wales, and cabled Horatio, “Saved alone. What shall I do…”

Anna Spafford. Transatlantic cable message, December 1, 1873. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (6)

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Horatio and Anna Spafford, ca. 1873

Anna Larssen, later Americanized to Lawson, was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1842. Horatio was immediately attracted by Anna's beauty and intelligence when she attended his Sunday school class in Chicago. When Horatio realized that Anna, fourteen years younger than he, was only fifteen, he arranged for three years tuition at a boarding school near Chicago before the idea of marriage could be discussed. The couple married in 1861.

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“It Is Well with My Soul”

After receiving Anna's telegram, Horatio immediately left Chicago to bring his wife home. On the Atlantic crossing, the captain of his ship called Horatio to his cabin to tell him that they were passing over the spot where his four daughters had perished. He wrote to Rachel, his wife's half-sister, “On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs.”

Horatio wrote this hymn, still sung today, as he passed over their watery grave.

Horatio Spafford. “It Is Well with My Soul.” Manuscript hymn, 1871. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (8)

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