[Henrietta Crosman is] the niece of Alexander Crosman, who was Admiral Dewey's classmate at Annapolis. This uncle of hers immediately ranked the present Admiral of the navy, but he was eaten by sharks in Panama waters while trying to save the lives of two sailors.
-New York Times, February 9, 1902
One of my very favorite stories comes from E.H. Tobias and regards a game in 1861 that was broken up by Union troops. Sadly, I've found a contemporary account of the game and it didn't happen as Tobias told it.
The above account of the death of Alex Crosman is another one of my favorites for a couple of reasons. First, I was working on a biographical sketch of Crosman, a member of the Cyclone Club, for the Baseball Pioneers project and was having trouble finding any information about Crosman's death. I was doing some research on the subject late one night when I stumbled upon the above article from the Times. It was a lucky find and I was happy to have any information regarding Crosman's demise. Randomly finding the information you desperately need at 3:30 in the morning, right before you're about to give up and call it a night, makes for a memorable research find.
The second reason I love this story is the obvious one: Alex Crosman was eaten by sharks. While not too great for Crosman, from a story-telling point of view, this is just fantastic. How many baseball players do we know who were eaten by freakin' sharks?
However, while this is a great story and made it into the Baseball Pioneer book, it's most likely not true. Less than a year later, I found the following information:
A dispatch received from the U.S. Consul at Jamaica confirms the report of the drowning of Captain Alexander T. Crossman, commanding steamer Kansas, but gives no details.
-Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, April 29, 1872
There may be some truth in the Times report. This all may have happened near Panama and Crosman may have drowned while trying to save some his sailors. I don't know but I don't believe that Crosman was eaten by sharks.
And I don't want you to think I'm making light of Crosman's death. I have a lot of respect for Crosman, who served his country honorably during the Civil War. He died while serving his country. He appears to have been an outstanding naval officer. So I'm not making fun of him. It's just that the eaten-by-sharks-story is so good and so unique. It always grabs people's attention when I tell it. So, as a historian, it's always been a favorite tale to tell. But the fact is that it's unlikely that the tale is true.
Henrietta Crosman, the likely originator of this tale, was a rather famous star of stage and screen. I can imagine her inventing the story or, rather, embellishing the story of her uncle's death to entertain a crowd at a turn-of-the-century New York soiree.