Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Sandwich Island Girl, 1888

Updated: August 2018

In 2006, East Coast surf historian Skipper J. Funderberg discovered an illustration of a young woman surfing in New Jersey, dated 1888. It was a woodcut engraving that appeared on the cover of the National Police Gazette of 18 August 1888, with a description on page 14. The covers caption read: “A Gay Queen Of The Waves: Asbury Park, New Jersey, Surprised By The Daring Of A Sandwich Island Girl.” The image depicts a girl surfing Asbury Park shore break.1

The print caused much discussion among us writers of surfing’s history.2 The big question the image raised: was there really a brief instance of someone -- female or not -- surfing Asbury Park, New Jersey, in the summer of 1888? If so, that would put Asbury Park as the first spot known to have been board surfed on the East Coast.

The description that goes with the engraving reads:

“A group of summer loungers on the beach at Asbury Park, N.J., were watching the extraordinary antics of a dark eyed, bronze-faced girl in the sea a few mornings ago. The object of all this interest and solicitude was beyond the line of breakers and standing on a plank that rose and fell with the swelling waves. Her bathing dress was of some dark material, fitting close to the figure, the skirts reaching scarce to her knee. Her stockings were of amber hue, adorned with what from the shore seemed to be vines and roses in colored embroidery. She wore no hat or cap. Her hair, bound across the forehead and above the ears by a silver fillet, tumbled down upon her shoulders or streamed out upon the wind in black and shining profusion. Her tunic was quite sleeveless, and one could scarcely fail to observe the perfect development and grace of her arms. As a wave larger than those which had gone before slowly lifted the plank upon its swelling surface, she poised herself daintily upon the support, her round arms stretched out and her body swaying to and fro in harmony with the motion of the waters. As the wave reached its fullest volume she suddenly, quick as thought, and with a laugh that rang full into shore, drew herself together, sprang into the air, and, her hands clasped together and clearing her a way, plunged into the rolling sea. There was a little cry from timid feminine watchers on the sand, but the smiling face was above water again while they cried, and the daring Triton was up on the plank again in another moment and waiting for a second high roller. So she has been amusing herself and interesting the mob for three mornings. She is as completely at ease in the sea as you or I on land, and the broad plank obeys her slightest touch.”3

Skepticism was the order of the day for all of us taking a critical eye to the print, caption and accompanying text. Questions centered around: Who could this be? What does the image and text really tell us? Can the source be trusted? Are there any other references to this event?

Who Could This Be?

Because it was a purportedly brief period of three days, one critic brought up the idea that it might be part of a larger event taking place at that time. Perhaps she was a performer promoting the circus that was in town on Aug. 15: “Frank A. Robbins' Gigantic and Sensationally realistic wild west hippodrome, caravan, circus, menagerie, museum, aviary and aquarium.” Or maybe she was a circus performer just out for a morning swim?4

DeSoto Brown of Hawaii’s Bishop Museum pointed out that “if she’d been a performer, there would have been some sort of plug in the text for where she was currently appearing. And if she had been performing – and she really was from Hawaii – I think we would know about her already. The hula was still too immodest to perform on stage then, I would say, so I don’t know what such a person would have been doing had she been an entertainer.”5

Another thought that this might be Hawaiian princess Ka’iulani, traveling on her way to England. However, this was discounted as Ka’iulani did not leave Hawaii until the following year, on May 10, 1889.6

What does the image and text really tell us?

“Illustrations of surfers had already appeared in a number of publications by this time,” continued DeSoto Brown, “although the image was certainly not yet very well known. These would have been descriptive books about other lands, or would have been personal accounts of travel to Hawaii. Tourism [in the Hawaiian Islands] at this point was practically nonexistent. The earliest publication which is purely commercial, specifically printed to promote travel to Hawaii, probably appeared in this same year. (There are at least 3 different editions of it, with different copyright dates). This is a foldout brochure from the Oceanic Steamship Co, which has a number of illustrations, including a surfing scene. I doubt many people on the east coast would have seen it, however, since the Oceanic ships traveled only in the Pacific. My point is, even though surfing was not yet widely known in the late 1880s, pictures of it had been published and there was at least some awareness in the American public. Certainly this picture and accompanying article show this is true, since there is no detailed explanation of what surfing was, or how it was done. Thus the readers of the Police Gazette can be assumed to have already had some familiarity with the concept.”7

Australian Geoff Cater questioned both the text and the image, summarizing that “the text and the image do not clearly indicate wave riding; the text does not resemble any of the many other accounts of surfriding published in the 19th century; the image is likely to be constructed from previously published images” -- specifically, “the board is almost a direct copy of the one in Jacques Arago’s Wahine, Hawaii, circa 1819...the stance and the hand positions are possibly analgam from the riders in Wallis McKay ‘Surf-swimmers, circa 1874.’”8

Elaborating further, Geoff wrote: “A close reading [of numerous descriptions of surf riding in the 1800s] indicates that the writers go to considerable effort to convey to the reader the elementary characteristics of surf-riding. They invariably include details that include the board, paddling-out, wave selection, take-off, riding in various positions, wave sliding angle and wipe-outs. Detailed descriptions of the rider's attire are scarce (both the number of descriptions and the attire).”9

If the rider existed and the event took place as described, how did she surf with a dress, stockings and head band? And where did she get the board from?

Can the source be trusted?

Surfing biographer Craig Lockwood addressed the subject matter of the National Police Gazette, itself:

”... the Police Gazette, (there were several and were euphemistically referred to as "Gentleman's Periodicals")... Socially and culturally, the Police Gazette and its subsequent imitators were roughly the equivalent of a combined Ring Magazine-National Inquirer-Playboy-True Detective, typically in a tabloid or digest format. The subjects were those aimed at titillating a very sexually inhibited and repressed Victorian male audience, and it was a table-top staple of the neighborhood saloon, barbershop, and athletic club -- all bastions of the younger male middle-class and skilled tradesmen.”10

“Scantily clad -- well, by the mores of the times, scantily clad -- women were featured at every possible opportunity... As can be imagined by reading the pages of the Star or Inquirer today, the level of journalism found in these periodicals was inspired by a combination of rumor, innuendo, and extrapolative falsification, with as much emphasis on females in ‘unusual’ situations as possible.”11

Craig’s opinion was that to ascribe much validity to a magazine like the Police Gazette was giving it more credit than it deserved.12 He added, however: “If memory serves me right, Robert Louis Stevenson visited and wrote about Hawaii and seeing surfing about this time. His adventures in the South Seas were widely published and commented upon during the late 1880s. I seem to recall that something about his travels -- letters or other correspondence -- were published in Harper's during the same period. It might prove interesting to do a little literary detective work, i.e., an analytic comparison between the Police Gazette’s piece’s details and those of R.L. Stevenson’s.”13

In “Sandwich Island Girl Hangs Five,” Skipper Funderberg went into greater detail about the National Police Gazette [NPG]:

“Richard Kyle Fox was the Editor and Proprietor of the NPG from 1877 until his death in 1922. Fox perfected the sports page and the gossip column, as well as the use of large illustrations to dramatize the stories in his paper. Before Fox, these things did not exist as we know them today. Fox turned a text heavy medium into something visually exciting. Even Thomas Edison was a regular reader. Irving Berlin wrote a song about it: ‘The Girl on The Police Gazette.’ Hugely popular, even across the ocean, the publication made an appearance in James Joyce’s masterpiece ‘Ulysses.’”14

“... news reporting in the 19th century was not like today. There was no television, no movies, and no radio. We take many details for granted in a typical news story that were not considered important back then. Getting the names of participants, attributing quotes, and other factual details were often not priorities. The NPG decided what its focus was and stuck to it. One focus was on women’s appearance and movements – anything that was sexually titillating for the time. Who she was and where she came from was of less importance. The NPG certainly was a publication that mixed fact with fiction.”15

“I have to continue to believe the NPG is describing a real event.”16

Writing about Asbury Park, itself, Skipper continued:

“Asbury Park, NJ, is located 55 miles south of New York City and 60 miles away from Philadelphia, PA. Founded in 1871, Asbury Park was considered a country by the sea destination; boasted a mile and a quarter beach; is one of about fifty-four seaside cities on the Jersey Shore; and nestled about halfway along the hundred mile stretch of coastline between Cape May, NJ, and Sandy Hook, NJ. More than a half million people a year vacationed in Asbury Park during the summer season, riding the railways from the New York City Metropolitan Area.”17

“At that time on the Jersey Shore, Asbury Park would have been a more religious and teetotaling clientèle than Cape May or Atlantic City. Founded in 1869, Ocean Grove, NJ, the seat of the Temperance Movement on the Jersey Shore, is the southern border of Asbury Park. A visionary Methodist clergyman, Reverend Ellwood H. Stokes, convinced his congregation to invest in three hundred acres and one mile of beach front. The community was known as the Queen of Religious Resorts, and enforced a multitude of strict rules, including no beach bathing on Sundays. This would have played into the hands of the NPG editors, who delighted in exposing hypocritical clergy and tended to scoff at religion and temperance in general. The NPG editors had great fun at the institution’s expense. In short, the NPG would have jumped at the chance to portray something extravagant or un-ladylike among the straight laced beach goers.”18

Discovery of 2017

Skipper J. Funderberg continued his search for whether this event did happen or not and who “The Sandwich Island Girl” could have been. In 2017, he wrote me with some exciting news:

“I have recovered a Philadelphia Press Letter release published in three United States newspapers [Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, 2 August 1888, page 9; St. Louis Post Dispatch, main edition, St. Louis, Illinois, 4 August 1888, page 7; The Tennessean, Nashville, Tennessee, 5 August 1888, page 8]. They provide important additional information, not published in the National Police Gazette, August 18, 1888 article.”19

The new information is as follows:

"When she has had enough of it she will bring the plank into shore, she riding upon the further and gliding it like a goddess over the crests and through the foam of the biggest breakers. She comes from the Sandwich Islands and is making a tour of the country. Her father is an enormously rich planter. She arrived in the Park a week ago with the family of a wealthy New York importer. She is at a fashionable hotel and is one of the most charming dancers at the hotel hops, as well as the most daring swimmer on the Jersey coast. She is well educated and accomplished, and, of course, speaks English perfectly and with a swell British accent that is the despair of the dudes. She learned to be the mistress of the waves in her childhood at her native home by the sea, where she modestly says, all girls learn swimming as a matter of course, quite as much as girls in this country learn tennis or croquet.”20

So, the event and the girl or young woman are not fabrications of the National Police Gazette, but part of a released story from the Philadelphia Press Letter that was picked-up by three other newspapers in addition to the NPG.

Discovery of 2018

So, in summary, the mystery of the Sandwich Island Girl began in 2006, when Skipper Funderberg discovered a wood-cut illustration of her in the August 18, 1888 edition of the National Police Gazette. This was followed up later in 2017 by his finding a syndicated Philadelphia Press Letter article dated July 29, 1888, pre-dating the Gazette article and which was also published in several other newspapers.

Yet another find was made in 2018, when an Asbury Park Press reporter doing archival research discovered a personal ad in The Daily Press -- predecessor of the Asbury Park Press. Placed by J.L. Graham of Sea Bright on August 6, 1888, it read:

"The undersigned desires to know the whereabouts of a young lady from the Sandwich Islands who is stopping in the park."21

The ad appeared three days after The Daily Press ran a short blurb about Graham’s search, titled: "Will the search be successful?" Graham had told The Daily Press that he had a home in the Sandwich Islands and knew the lady.

"If someone went through that much effort to find her, it certainly offers more proof she was real," Skipper pointed out.

It is not known if Graham ever located her.22

The Search Continues

There is still hope that the identity of “The Sandwich Island Girl” will be discovered and whether or not it was true she surfed a couple of days off the beach at Asbury Park, New Jersey, in the summer of 1888. This is because there are more people researching the subject and discovering sources of information not previously considered.

Not long after the unearthing of the Griffith ad, I received a copy of a letter sent to Desoto Brown of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. It is reproduced in near-entirety below, courtesy of Vinnie Dicks, its author:

“Aloha, I live at the Jersey Shore and saw the recent article in the Asbury Park Press regarding the Police Gazette Sandwich Island girl of 1888, which added new information to the story. It describes a contemporaneous ad taken out looking for the girl by a J. L. Graham. My book on Jersey Shore history was focused on this era... I can shed some light on J. L. Graham who is mentioned as the source of the 1888 ad... I can prove John Lorimer Graham had the means, the recognition and the reason for attempting to contact a Hawaiian girl who may have been at the Jersey Shore in the late 1880s.23

1) John L. Graham was married to a Hawaiian Alii Princess in 1885.
2) Graham's father was among the richest men in NY at the time.
3) His father owned a seaside estate in Rumson Neck on the Shrewsbury River, across from Sea Bright.
4) His wife was missing home and unhappy

“J.L. Graham's wife was Eleanor Kaikilani Coney a descendant of Kamehameha, born in 1867 to John Harvey Coney and Laura Amoy Kekuakapuokalani Ena. Coney was from Litchfield NY, but settled in Hawaii where he was named Sherrif of Hilo due to his wife's royal land holdings there. He entertained Mark Twain during his visits to Hawaii. Eleanor was his 5th child.

“’I stopped 3 days with Hon. Mr. (Coney), Deputy Marshal of the Kingdom, at Hilo, Hawaii, last week, & by a funny circumstance, he knew everybody that ever I knew in Hannibal & Palmyra. We used to sit up all night talking, & then sleep all day. He lives like a Prince.’ - Twain.24

“John Lorimer Graham had the wealth and social status to marry into a Hawaiian aristocratic family as he was the son of Malcom and Ann Douglas Graham of New York City.

“Malcom was one of the wealthiest men in the country as he was one of the founders of Schuyler, Hartley and Graham, the largest gun manufacturer and supplier to the Union during the Civil War, and as such his son would have met the approval of Coney who was from New York, and his wife who instructed her children to turn away from their Hawaiian Alii roots.

“The couple wed in Honolulu Dec 17,1885 and this was reported in several English language Newspapers in the Islands. They steamed to New York afterward; her first trip to the US. They entertained Princess (Later Queen) Liliuokalani in their flat when she visited New York before her trip to Europe to attend the Jubilee of Queen Victoria.

“For a summer home, Malcom Graham bought the estate of the President of the NY and NJ Railroad E. Boudinot Colt who had built "Harbourage" at 29 Ward Ave in Rumson on the bluff in 1884 and remodeled it. The "Register" indicated the remodeling would make the home one of the most elegant on the Rumson Bluff. Malcolm died in 1899 of typhoid he contracted while in Rumson for the summer.

“John L.'s wife Eleanor would likely have wanted to meet any Hawaiian, having been taken away from her home and culture and thus the ad to find the surfer girl makes perfect sense. She was also not happy with her marriage.

“Sadly their marriage did not last, and they were divorced by 1891. Eleanor and her children traveled with the now overthrown Queen Liliuokalani from SF east as she appealed to the US federal government to restore her to the throne. Eleanor later married Dutch painter Hubert Vos who eventually took her back to Kauai where she lived for a time at Nawiliwili. Her portrait painted there by Vos is beautiful.

“Graham traveled the world, living in Australia, becoming a minister and dying on the Isle of Jersey.

“I spoke to Skipper Funderberg for a long time Sunday. We agree its unlikely that the definitive identification of the girl on the Police Gazette will likely never be resolved, but she is legendary and romantic, and these little facts only add to the mystery.

“However, being intrigued, I am informally following logic. The Philadelphia article mentions her father was a wealthy hawaiian planter visiting New York with an importer.

“Given Planter's Monthly in 1888 offers the name of virtually every plantation operation manager, and the owners/investors are available through other sources, its a matter of finding evidence that one of them with an appropriate age daughter visited the east coast during the Summer of 88. This is not a needle in a haystack, but a few hundred stalks of hay.

“The great historians of the sugar plantations in the islands have made this too easy not to look into...”25

Many Americans on the U.S. Mainland had learned of surfing in a Harper's Weekly story about Hawaiian surf riders that was published in the early 1880s. It appeared in the Red Bank Register in April 1883.

So far, the earliest surfing on the U.S. East Coast -- that has been successfully documented -- is in 1909, when Burke Haywood Bridgers rode waves standing up on a surfboard at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. However, if the “Sandwich Island Girl” can be proven to have existed and surfed, she may push the date back for East Coast surfing 20 years and move it 600 miles up the coast to Asbury Park. As it stands now, her importance in surfing’s history is that she represents the earliest known illustration of a surfer standing up, riding a surfboard on a wave, in the continental United States.

Additional Details

1  National Police Gazette, 18 August 1888, p. 1.
2  “Sandwich Island Girl,” LEGENDARY SURFERS, 23 March 2006,
3  National Police Gazette, 18 August 1888, p. 14.
4  LEGENDARY SURFERS, 21 July 2006. Comment by “bfrank.”
5  “Sandwich Island Girl 2,” LEGENDARY SURFERS, 22 April 2006 - DeSoto Brown quoted.
6  “The Ka’iulani Board,” LEGENDARY SURFERS,
7  “Sandwich Island Girl 2,” LEGENDARY SURFERS, 22 April 2006 - DeSoto Brown quoted.
9  “Sandwich Island Girl 4”, LEGENDARY SURFERS, 3 May 2006 -
10  “Sandwich Island Girl 3”, LEGENDARY SURFERS, 24 April 2006 - Craig Lockwood quoted.
11  “Sandwich Island Girl 3”, LEGENDARY SURFERS, 24 April 2006 - Craig Lockwood quoted.
12  “Sandwich Island Girl 3”, LEGENDARY SURFERS, 24 April 2006 - Craig Lockwood quoted.
13  “Sandwich Island Girl 3”, LEGENDARY SURFERS, 24 April 2006 - Craig Lockwood quoted.
19  Funderberg, Skipper J. Letter to SHACC and Malcolm, 1 January 2017, send in email 3 January 2017 with three scans of the newspaper items referenced.
20  Funderberg, Skipper J. Letter to SHACC and Malcolm, 1 January 2017, send in email 3 January 2017 with three scans of the newspaper items referenced. New material from the newspapers quoted.
21  Radel, Dan. “Asbury ‘Sandwich Island Girl’ clue may upend East Coast surfing history,” Asbury Park Press, 1 August 2018.
22  Radel, Dan. “Asbury ‘Sandwich Island Girl’ clue may upend East Coast surfing history,” Asbury Park Press, 1 August 2018.
23  Dicks, Vinnie. Email to Malcolm, copy of correspondence sent to Desoto Brown, Bishop Museum, 7 August 2018.
24  Dicks, Vinnie. Email to Malcolm, copy of correspondence sent to Desoto Brown, Bishop Museum, 7 August 2018. Mark Twain quoted.
25  Dicks, Vinnie. Email to Malcolm, copy of correspondence sent to Desoto Brown, Bishop Museum, 7 August 2018. Mark Twain quoted.

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