In my previous post, Kirk Session Report 1909, I made reference to the accounts which mentioned church collections for “Sufferers in Southern Italy”.

Well, you know me by now, I love a good mystery… I set about investigating what happened in Southern Italy that caused people to suffer and why were people in Scotland collecting money for them.

It all started at approximately 5.20am on the morning of December 28th 1908, when a massive earthquake hit Southern Italy. The epicentre was under the Strait of Messina which separates the island of Sicily from the mainland region of Calabria (right on the “toe” of Italy’s “boot”).

The earthquake was the highest ever recorded at the time, measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale, and although it only lasted 20 seconds both the Sicilian city of Messina and the mainland city of Reggio Calabria were almost completely destroyed.

The tsunami that followed brought waves estimated to be 40 feet (13 metres) high crashing down on the coasts of northern Sicily and southern Calabria.

Between 100,000 and 200,000 people were killed – Messina having lost almost half its population.

messina-3This photo shows how the port of Messina looked back in the early 1900s and I’m struck as to how similar it is to some of the old photos of Ardrossan harbour and seafront area (it also being a port town at that time with the large clipper ships in the bay).

But to get some more information as to just how devastating this earthquake was, I turned to the internet and found this in-depth report on Wikipedia;

A boys’ boarding school was pulverised, burying the students.

A total of 348 railway workers were killed when the two railway stations crumbled.

Several foreign consulates were reduced to piles of rubble with only their respective standards messina-earthquakeleft intact. American consul Arthur S. Cheney and his wife Laura were killed. The French consul and his children also lost their lives. Ethel Ogston, wife of the British Vice-Consul died instantly after being struck by a falling iron balcony as she attempted to escape through the streets with her husband, Alfred and small daughter, both of whom survived. Former US Consul and Messina correspondent for Associated Press, Joseph Pierce and his family were crushed to death when their damaged home, close to the port, was brought down by the force of the waves created by the tsunami.

Can you imagine surviving the earthquake only to look out your window and see a 40 foot wave crashing towards your home?  Terrifying!

The photos above and below show the devastation of the aftermath.

A number of notable Italians were among the dead including politicians, the Attorney General of Messina Crescenzo Grillo, local patriots of the Italian unification and members of the nobility and literati.

messini4The Chief of Police died in his home, killed by a fallen beam. 

Tenor Angelo Gamba who had performed onstage in Aida the evening before the earthquake also lost his life together with his family when the Hotel Trinacria collapsed. Miraculously the other performers in the operatic company, including Hungarian soprano Paola Koraleck (who performed in the role of Aida), were pulled out alive from the hotel’s wreckage.

The Italian navy and army responded and began searching, treating the injured, providing food and water, and evacuating refugees (as did every ship). Giolitti imposed martial law with all looters to be shot, which extended to survivors foraging for food. King Victor Emmanuel III and Queen Elena arrived two days after the earthquake to assist the victims and survivors.

The Wikipedia report goes on to reveal how news of this disaster travelled around the World and explains why churches all over the World were collecting for the “Sufferers in Southern Italy”;

The disaster made headlines worldwide and international relief efforts were launched. With the help of the Red Cross and sailors of the Russian and British fleets, search and cleanup were expedited. The Russian battleships Tsesarevich and  Slava and the cruisers Admiral Makarov and Bogatyr, British battleship HMS Exmouth and the cruisers HMS Euryalus, HMS Minerva and HMS Sutlej were ordered to provide assistance; the SS Afonwen was in Messina harbor during the quake (anchored in 45 fathoms (80 m) of water, but there were only 30 fathoms (55 m) when she sailed full of refugees). The French battleships Justice and Verite, and three torpedo boat destroyers were ordered to Messina. The U.S. Navy’s Great White Fleet and supply ships USS Celtic and USS Culgoa were also ordered to assist. Other nations’ ships also responded.”


The above photo shows some of the 100,000 – 200,000 bodies awaiting burial after the event.

But the troubles didn’t stop there;

Homeless residents of the affected areas were relocated by the Italian Government to various parts of mainland Italy and Southern Sicily but with no homes, no jobs and no food, a humanitarian effort was needed. America, Canada and the UK were among many countries offering a new home to the survivors.

At 5.40am on the morning of 23rd January 1909 “…. the cargo ship SS Florida carried 850 such passengers away from Naples. Lost in a dense fog, the Florida collided with the RMS Republic, a luxury passenger liner. Three people aboard the Florida were killed instantly. Within minutes, pandemonium broke out on the ship. The captain of the Florida, Angelo Ruspini, used extreme measures to regain control of the desperate passengers, including firing gunshots into the air. Eventually the survivors were rescued at sea and brought into the New York harbour where they would start a new life.

Luckily, the RMS Republic was the flagship of the White Star Line’s Boston service and, being one of the ten largest passenger liners in the world at the time, was fitted with a new Marconi radio and so could send out a Morse code call for help. This was to be the first recorded distress call use of the Marconi radio and resulted in 1,500 people being saved, many of whom were rich American millionaires.

The following photographs show the RMS Republic before her collision with the SS Florida – and a dramatic photo of her sinking, stern dipped beneath the sea, at 8.40pm on the 24th January 1909, the day after her collision;

rms_republic rms_republic_sinking  Miraculously, SS Florida managed to make it to New York despite extensive damage shown below;


Her passengers were transferred to The White Star liner RMS Baltic who answered the Republic’s distress call but not before a riot nearly broke out as the Italian refugees from SS Florida were asked to wait until the millionaire first class passengers of RMS Republic were boarded first.

Following the sinking of RMS Republic, there were many rumours that she had been carrying lots of gold and valuables belonging to the wealthy millionaires she had been transporting (presumably there had been lots of insurance claims following the sinking).

One rumour was that the ship had been carrying $250,000 of gold to pay staff of the US Navy’s Great White Fleet; another rumour said she had been carrying gold intended for the relief effort following the earthquake; and yet another rumour said she had been carrying $3,000,000 in gold as part of a loan to the Imperial Russian Government.

It’s worth noting however that the values (above) attributed to the alleged gold on board are based on 1909 figures. In today’s money this equates to nearly $5 billion.

Now, where’s my scuba kit. 😀