Florida Keys News
Sunday, September 27, 2009
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Family finds Maine victim buried in Key West

A 110-year search ended this month at the Key West Cemetery, where Sexton Russell Brittain found the remains of John Henry Ziegler, a New Jersey man who died in the explosion of the USS Maine in 1898.

Ziegler's mother never knew where her son was buried after the explosion in Havana Harbor that led to the United States' involvement in the Spanish-American War.

"She had been searching for this sailor since his death," Brittain said. "And then when she died, her relatives continued looking. They went through Navy records and asked their legislators for help, but never found where he was."

Ziegler's remains were supposed to arrive in Norfolk, Va., on Dec. 26, 1899, for burial in Arlington National Cemetery, a relative named Cheryl Griffith told Brittain.

More than 200 sailors died in the attack and all were supposed to be buried in Arlington, said Monroe County historian Tom Hambright, who also wrote a book about the USS Maine.

The deceased initially were buried temporarily in Havana to prevent the spread of disease from decaying bodies.

"But about a month or two after the explosion, our government sent an investigative team to Havana, and while early divers were going through the wreckage of the ship in Havana Harbor, they found more remains, and those were brought to Key West," Hambright said.

The bodies that were found immediately after the explosion on Feb. 15, 1898, were temporarily buried in Havana and then moved to Arlington. The ones that were found subsequently came to Key West.

John Henry Ziegler was one of them.

"The folks at Arlington always say they have all the sailors from the Maine, but we have about 25 of them here," Hambright said. "The plan was also to take the bodies from here to Arlington, but by the time they decided that, the people of Key West already had raised money and established a memorial to commemorate the men."

That memorial still stands today as one of the most visited sites in the city's famous cemetery.

Brittain found Ziegler's name on one of the headstones.

Griffith, the relative, somehow learned that Key West had some Maine sailors in its cemetery, Brittain said.

"I have a list of the ones who were identified and buried here," he said, adding that it was not the first time he had helped someone find a lost relative. "This family had been searching all these years, and finally found him."

Griffith was grateful to Brittain and relieved that Ziegler was properly buried in a memorial dedicated to his military service.

The family decided to leave their relative here, and will erect a headstone at the family plot in New Jersey commemorating his life and death and stating that Ziegler is buried in Key West.

"It is great to know that he is being honored and is with his crew," she wrote to Brittain earlier this month.

mbolen@keysnews.com

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