The ghost of the Panama Canal

Lauren Jaeger discovered an emotional story from the Canal Zone in the museum's collections. 

Edward Ray aboard the steamship “Panama” en route to the Canal Zone.
Edward Ray aboard the steamship "Panama" en route to the Canal Zone.

Imagine opening your front door and seeing the ghost of your husband. That's what happened to Ella Louise Ray in 1912. Overcome with emotion, Mrs. Ray fainted.

In 1908 Edward Ray sought work on one of the world's biggest construction projects—digging the Panama Canal. An experienced iron molder, Ray got a job working for 65 cents an hour.

The strong and stocky 41-year old sailed from New York to Panama that May, leaving behind his wife, Ella, and six young children. Edward wrote to Ella shortly after arriving and complained about life in the Canal Zone. In his letter he described the scorching temperatures that made him "sweat all day." Ray also commented on the rowdy behavior exhibited by many of the men in the bars after pay day, reassuring his wife that he did not partake in this revelry. "i wish i was home," he lamented, "but you know i have to earn some money be for i will come home."

50,000 workers helped construct the Panama Canal, a vital waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
50,000 workers helped construct the Panama Canal, a vital waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Then the unthinkable happened. Mrs. Ray received a telegram dated September 19, 1912, stating that E. Ray had died in a Panamanian hospital.

 

This telegram and the other documents donated to the museum are stored in transparent Mylar folders to enhance preservation. "Pittsburgh, Pa., September 19, 1912: Sorry to advise we just received cableogram from the Isthmus stating that B. Ray died in Hospital Saturday. Kindly advise us disposition of body."
This telegram and the other documents donated to the museum are stored in transparent Mylar folders to enhance preservation.

The story of Edward Ray initially captured my interest during an inventory of a group of documents for the Work and Industry Collections Accountability Project. As my project team sorts through the thousands of objects in storage, takes photographs, and enters data into the museum's Collections Information System, we get the really cool opportunity to see and touch (while wearing gloves, of course) objects that are not on display. My teammate, Beth Komisarek, called my attention to Ray's endearing letter to his wife and we sighed with sadness upon the discovery of the morbid telegram.

 

Edward Ray’s letter to his wife reveals a vivid picture of life in Panama.
Edward Ray's letter to his wife reveals a vivid picture of life in Panama.

Edward's story resurfaced a few weeks later while I studied the collection records associated with the letter and telegram. In 1999, Ray's granddaughter, Audrey Stoner Schurmann, donated these documents related to Ray's work in the Panama Canal Zone. The museum retains correspondence with donors as part of its official collection records so that people like me can refer back to it for a bigger picture about the objects we collect. My favorite part of my job is reading these record files. In these letters and memos, I uncover the particulars that bring to life the objects in our storage rooms. As I turned the pages detailing Ray's documents, I rediscovered a surprising twist long since forgotten by the curators.

It turns out that Edward Ray did not die in Panama. In fact, Edward was very much alive and unaware that his family ever considered him otherwise. According to Edward's granddaughter, a man in Panama robbed Ray of his wallet. The thief later died in the hospital. Finding Ray's wallet among the dead man's possessions, the authorities incorrectly identified the body as Edward Ray.

Meanwhile an unsuspecting Edward Ray left Panama sans wallet, eager to return home to his family after enduring four grueling years in the Canal Zone (once strong and stocky, his family later described him as all "skin and bones" upon his return). After making quite the arrival in Brooklyn, New York, Edward settled back into family life and worked in the design and manufacture of bronze lamps, bookends, and other items. He died peacefully in 1934.

Audrey Schurmann recalled that her mother always spoke of this surprise homecoming with immense emotion. Beth and I also found ourselves quite touched by this happy ending. In this era of instant communication, we often forget how challenging it must have been for a family to have been separated for such a great time and distance.

You can learn more about what life was like for Edward Ray and other workers in the Panama Canal Zone in this online exhibition.

Lauren Jaeger is a Collections Documentation Contractor at the National Museum of American History.

Posted at 11:03 am EST in From the Collections