Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Letters of Condolence: The Aftermath of the Sinking of the S.S. Vestris

Letters of Condolence: The Aftermath of the Sinking of the S.S. Vestris

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 22, 2009

A few weeks ago we read about the sinking of the S.S. Vestris in 1928, with the loss of missionary Keith W. Burt and the dramatic survival of his companion, David H. Huish. Several members of Elder Burt’s family commented, mentioning, among other things, letters of condolence received by the family, including one written by James E. Talmage.

Susan E. Woods, a niece of Elder Burt, compiled a wonderful book about his life, incorporating biographical material, photographs, memories of Elder Burt’s brothers and sisters, and many, many letters. What follows is a small selection from those letters, beginning with some written by the elder in the weeks before his death. (I have chosen, as Sister Woods did, to preserve Elder Burt’s letters as he wrote them, including the terms he used to describe the black men he saw in the East, perhaps the first blacks he had ever seen; we all acknowledge the derogatory and offensive nature of these terms, but I’m asking that comments not dwell on those words in this post.)

It’s a long post, but I thought you might appreciate the drama of reading them just as they were written … and you might also appreciate the work that ordinarily goes into digesting lengthy primary records into posts of comfortable reading lengths!

Keith W. Burt, Late October 1928, Writing from the Mission Home, Salt Lake City

31 North State St.
Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S.A.

Dear Folks,

I’ve been so darn busy since I got down here I hardly know what to do. This must be only a brief note for I’ve got other important business to attend to. I’ve not had time to write before, making arrangements and one thing & another have sure kept me busy.

Listen Papa. I sail this coming Sat. Nov 3/28. So be sure you send me some money. After I had paid for my ticket $75 and $5.25 for a berth and $22.50 for a trunk, the cheapest I could get without getting a no good one and a small club bag so I wouldn’t have to carry this big suit case, which cost $6.00, I’m just about broke.

Papa please cable that money to Mr. Reynolds at 47 E. south Temple Street, Salt Lake City, and do it as soon as possible for I leave here on Sat. Noon Nov 3.

My address in South Am. is

Elder Keith W. Burt
In care of Reinhold Stoof
Rivadavia 8968
Buenos Aries, Argentina.
Sur America

How’s everybody at home. I sure hope everything’s OK. Well it’s about bedtime and we must be prompt so goodbye for now and don’t forget the money. Send to Brother Reynolds at 47 E. South Temple Street.



Keith W. Burt, 7 November 1928, Writing from Washington, D.C.

Union Station
Washington, D.C.
Nov. 7, 1928

Dear Folks:

Just a note to let you know I’m allright and getting along fine. We got here in Wash. D.C. at 8:15 A.M. this morning and since then we have walked this city over about 18 times, and we are dead tired. We have come all the way from Salt Lake (5 days) and we haven’t had our cloths (sp.) off once or we haven’t had a sleeper, or very little sleep. We have travelled constantly all the time.

Today we went all over and visited the state capital building, the Congressional Library, the White House, The Pan American Building and the Mint, where the U.S. money is made. We sure saw some wonderful sights. We then also visited the Arlington Cemetary where all the high doods are buried, and also saw General Lees old house. We also saw the Tomb of the unknown soldier. We took some snaps and if they are any good I’ll send you some.

We are now in the union station writing on old wooden benches so please forgive this scribbling. Just before we reached Washington I broke my glasses so bad I’ll have to get (just) some new frames when I get in New York (Tomorrow morning 6:40 A.M.). Tho we have so much to do I don’t know weather I’ll have time or not.

Now folks I’m going to tell you something. This is mainly for the kids (Bruce, Beth, Nina, etc). Just before we got in Wash. we passed the place where John Brown fought his greatest battle. Also we passed through Maryland, Virginia, and one or two other countries. We saw some of the quaint old houses, 2 and 3 stories, and painted white. All the houses here are mainly white and old fashioned. We passed through some hills and countries just like the ones described in “The Little Sheppard of Kingdom Come.” And say it sure reminded me of them too. The scenery was simply wonderful too. Today we saw one old Darky out driving a donkey and the donkey wouldn’t go and the darky was cussing to beat the band. Everywhere you turn down here you see a nigger, and wife and kids. Why today all we saw were niggers. It sure looked funny too, I not being used to it. Also all the high moguls down here have darkies as chaufers and they drive around in big swell cars.

Well folks we are sure tired and we have to stretch out along on the benches to write this, so I’ll close for now and write when I get in New York and have a good rest. Thanks ever so much for the money. I just got it in time and there is so much we have to pay for our trip. $234.50 for ship fare. $10.00 for Visa to Argentine Consul in New York. $5.00 head tax. $10.00 tips to our stewards as we are going such a long distance. $53.07 for our railroad fare to New York. We haven’t had any sleepers as we couldn’t afford it and we have to eat. Also we will have 2 days bill at hotel in New York which will be $2.00 a day. Then we sail and there will be no more holdups for money till we reach Buenos Aires. I hope.

Well folks, thanks again for the money and be sure all of you write as often as you can.

Your loving Son,


David H. Huish to Burt Family, 15 November 1928

273 Gates Avenue
Brooklyn, N.Y.
November 15, 1928

Dear Bro. Burt & Family: –

… The first time I met Keith was in the mission home in Salt Lake City on October 29th. From the very first I liked him very much and being with him almost every moment from then until Nov. 11th I had learned to love him more and appreciate his wonderful friendship. We slept to-gether at the mission home, in the same bed in the hotel, made the same arrangements and plans for the future, saw the same sights, went to-gether everywhere and I sense his loss very keenly.

While at the home we attended the same classes, sat side by side and on Friday of Nov. 2nd, we made arrangements for our trip all the way to South America. We left Salt Lake on Nov. 3rd, about 6 p.m. passed through Denver, Lincoln, Chicago, Pittsburg, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, crossed the whole continent and landed in New York Nov. 8th, about 8 A.M. We spent the next two days and a half seeing what we could see of New York City and on Saturday Afternoon about 4. P.M. set sail for Buenos Aires S.A. …

Saturday we both ate supper and went to sleep, the ship rocked quite a bit but we both slept well all night. Sunday Morning I got up and went down to the dining room and tried to eat breakfast but I could not eat – as the ship was tipped a little and rocking quite a bit. Keith didn’t even get up but he was a little seasick during the day. I went back to our room and we stayed there on the beds all day in order to avoid seasickness; we also stayed there all night but didn’t sleep much as the ship was tipped more and rocking worse. Monday morning we both went down to get breakfast but all the stewards were working baling out water, so we went back to our room and stayed until about 11. A.M. at which time they sent a boy down to tell all the people to get upon deck and buckle our life belts – saying there was no danger in order to keep the passengers calm. We watched them lower the life boats from then until about2. P.M. at which time we went down into one ourselves. They had some difficulty in lowering our boat and were just cutting it loose from the ship, when the ship sank with our life boat still tied on to the ship – we all saw this and were forced to take to the water – up until this time I had been sitting right by Keith’s side – when he said to me as he jumped out of the life boat – “we’ll have to take our chance.” He was a little ahead of me and I believe he got into the water, but I was on the side of the ship when it went down and it sucked me under with it but I caught hold of a box or life boat or something and came to the top again – I looked around for Keith, but I never saw him again – a wave separated us – I floated around in the water clinging to a plank 2″ x 12″, and pretty soon I saw a life boat not far off and I swam over to it and they helped me into it – we went around and picked up a lot of people in the wreckage – and I looked in several of the other life boats for Keith, but I could not see him.

We floated around I our life boat until we picked up 19 persons in all. We had no rudder and only three oars, so we were helpless at the hands of the waves of the sea, and therefore could not pick up any more people because we couldn’t get near to them – a colored man on our boat was the only one who understood the art of sailing. We drifted around and bailed water all night – it wasn’t so bad at first but during the night there came up two or three storms – one hail storm – and every moment we were in danger of being engulfed by the mighty deep – night came on and we had no flares nor torpedos to give signals and our case was about exhausted – about 11. P.M. came our first hope when we saw the flashlights of a rescue ship a long way off – we just kept drifting, holding on, hoping and praying for help – from then until about three oclock in the morning the ship or ships as it proved to be later, kept coming nearer and the seas became worse, about 4 A.M. the American Shipper picked up their first life boat and all the time we were trying to attract their attention with a small flash-light, finally after daylight they sighted us, they picked up three other life boats in the mean-time, and about eight oclock we were picked up, the last boat this ship picked up.

This ship then searched around with the other ships for more survivors until about noon, then we started for New York – the other ships picked up three life boats and a few stragglers – we arrived in N.Y. a little after Nine O’clock Wednesday morning.

I’m at the mission headquarters here in N.Y. and we haven’t heard anything about Keith yet. We have been hoping and praying for his safety but we can’t always know the providence of the Lord concerning us. I was with your son Elder Burt right up until the ship sunk, so I suppose you would like to hear my story and all about what happened & how I was met by some of the missionaries of the Eastern States Mission, and Brother Steed, who brought me to the mission home here. The elders are treating me the best they know how and we are using every possible channel to get information from Elder Burt, but as yet he is lost. I really hoped for his rescue before my own and the first thing I did when aboard the ship was to look for him. But if he is gone I feel he is doing a greater work than any of us here are doing, and all we can do is acknowledge the hand of god in all of his dealings – I feel absolutely that it was through His help that I was spared, and if I had gone, I know my folks would feel that it was His will for me to go.

I wish to express my sincere feelings for you in your loss and the feelings of the missionaries here, and I pray God to bless you and help you to stand your bereavement.

Yours very sincerely,


William H. Steed to Burt Family, 15 April 1928

William H. Steed was a close family friend who happened to be in New York at the time of the disaster. He assumed the self-appointed burden of doing everything that could be done to find news of Elder Burt, and to relay that information to the family at home, by telegram and letter.

123 Wadsworth Ave, NYC
Apt. S4, Nov 15, 1928

Dear Bro. and Sister Burt and Family:

My deepest sympathy goes out to you in this sad hour of suspense and trial. I can understand your feelings and the wounds inflicted through this terrible disaster.

I have watched the papers, phoned the shipping Company for information and visited the rescue ship, to see if we could learn any thing concerning him, but so far we have failed to get trace of him.

Elder West and myself met Elder Huish, Keith’s companion, as he came off the American Shipper, one of the rescue ships. I took him to the Mission headquarters, in a Taxie where he met pres. Rolap and he told the story of the tragedy and of his separation from your dear son, Keith. He phoned me today stating he was writing you the full account and sending it by air mail, so I will not attempt to repeat it at this writing. The wire I sent you first was a false report given to me by the shipping Company and I felt very sorry, after I had learned later of so many missing, I had sent the message. I knew you would be very anxious to hear and I wired you as soon as I received word.

In talking over the matter with Pres. Rolap about sending you another message, he thought it best to wait until we got further news, but when I reached home last night and found your wire waiting for me, I immediately answered it giving you as much information as I could.

The Authorities of the church will do all they can to get information concerning him and I assure you I will give my best efforts in doing all I can for you.

As I explained in my night lettergram we still have hope as there are some vessels unheard from and we pray that if it be in the providence of our Father in Heaven that he yet may come through safe.

There are some bodies unidentified on some of the ships not in yet. These ships will all be visited and we will watch and do all in our power to recover him.

Elder Huish stated it was impossible to sink with a life preserver on and the water was very warm. He wanted to find Keith as soon as he came off the boat and felt sure he was saved but his name did not appear as one being rescued on either of the boats that docked yesterday morning, but the paper stated he was missing. Twenty-two children were all lost, not one saved. They were all put in a life boat which capsized throwing women and children helpless into the raging sea. The reports are terrible that have been told by the survivors and no doubt many are true. This terrible affair cuts me as though he was one of my own and I sincerely pray God to give you strength to meet the worst, if it comes to that. He alone knows and he alone can save. Also through Him comes that influence that can give comfort, that man cannot give.

May God bless you all in this hour of distress and whatever may come may you feel that He so willed it to be. Nothing would please me, or give me more joy than to see Keith safe and with us here, so we could send such news to you.

I did not get in touch with Keith before he sailed on Saturday as we expected he would be here on Sunday and we did not know when or what ship he was to sail on. Our first news was when we saw his name among the list on the Vestris. He or his companion did not call at mission headquarters. They arrived in New York on Thursday, and sailed Saturday.

We will likely get more news tomorrow and will wire you as soon as any thing new arrives, and I assure we are doing all in our power and as fast as it can be done.

I pray that the comforting influence of the Holy Spirit may abide with you all and accept of my deepest sympathy in this sad hour. I am Yours Truly,


William H. Steed to Burt Family, 19 November 1928

123 Wadsworth Ave. N.Y.C.
Apt. S4, Nov. 19, 1928

Dear Brother & Sister Burt and Family:

Words fail me in trying to give you solace and comfort and to express my deep sympathy and sorrow for you in the loss of your dear son. God alone can give that comfort and heal the wounds inflicted.

All the bodies that have been picked up from the wreck have been identified and so far no trace of Keith can be found. The last time he was seen was when he leaped from the life boat, which was hanging on the side of the vessel, into the water, and his last words were, “Well, we will have to take a chance.” It is supposed he was sucked under as the vessel sank, as it went down almost immediately after he leaped into the water, because Elder Huish didn’t have time to follow him and jumped on to the side of the ship and was taken down with it, but happened to catch hold of a plank and came back up and a few minutes later was rescued or was taken into a life boat.

There isn’t any further news, from any source, of any more bodies or living passengers being picked up and I am very sad that we can not hold out any further hope of his being found alive. The reports coming from the newspapers, is something terrible and the testimonies of the different members of the crew and passengers show that the vessel was not fit and should have never left port without being overhauled.

If Keith’s body happens to be picked up, at any time, he will be easily identified, because he had his passport in his pocket. When the two elders were notified to leave the ship or that the ship was going to sink they went to their room and got what money they had with them and their passports so they would be able to continue on their journey, in case the vessel did sink.

The way he was taken was very sad, however the Lord wanted him on the other side to fill a mission to the millions of spirits who once lived upon this sphere of action and who are waiting to hear the great plan of redemption which our Father in heaven has again established through His son and by the hand of the Prophet Joseph in these latter days. That great work devolves upon the shoulders of those holding the Priesthood and that the answer why so many of the brethren holding this authority are being taken, they are needed across the great divide. My thoughts turn to the beautiful words of the hymn, “My Father Knows.”

Keith is the first elder or missionary, of this church, going on or coming off a mission to lose his life crossing the ocean and he will wear a martyr’s crown. He was set apart to fill a mission to the inhabitants of South America and no doubt he will labour there among those spirits that once lived on that continent hundreds of years ago and instead of preaching to a few hundreds, living on earth, he will expound the gospel to millions of God’s children in the great beyond. We must be submissive to the Will of Our Heavenly father, as he is at the helm and will guide us safely through this short period of earth’s schooling and when we reach the goal, no language can explain or express the joy and satisfaction that will come to those who are faithful, when they meet their friends and loved ones, among our Father’s mansions, in the realms above. Unless we are willing to sacrifice our all, upon the altar, for His sake, we cannot be counted worthy and be saved in His Kingdom, where that fullness of joy is realized. God holds in his hands the destinies of all nations. He is all powerful. His promises fail not and his blessings are predicated on Law and those who live those laws will receive the blessings.

In our Sunday evening service, last night, Elder Huish related the story of the disaster, of the many hours of anguish and suspense, also of the long, dreary and stormy night they were being tossed to and fro, by the waves in the little leaky lifeboat, not knowing but at any time they might be hurled in to the mighty deep and swallowed in the raging tide. His clothing soaking wet and shivering, he said he never prayed harder in his life than at that time. He expressed his sorrow for Keith, whom in the short acquaintance he had learned to love, also prayed that God would bless you, his parents, in the hour of your trial, While he was speaking, my thoughts were on Keith and how I wished that he too was there to relate his story, and no doubt he was there, but we could not see him. There, while the large audience sat listening, a beautiful spirit of peace and solemnity pervaded the meeting and I felt like weeping. President Rolap offered a beautiful prayer invoking the blessings of God upon you good people, who have had your heart strings torn asunder. The whole church mourns with you; the prayers of the saints ascend to our Father in heaven in your behalf and you will be comforted and peace and joy will come to you an hundred fold. As I write these words my heart is touched and the tears stream from mine eyes. I feel that he was very near and dear to me because of you, such excellent neighbors, and such noble brothers and sisters of the gospel of Christ.

We who have passed through these ordeals can understand how to sympathise with you and can feel your sorrows and truly mourn with you. I’m enclosing one of Elder Huish’s photos as he is Keith’s last and only mission companion in this life. He is a fine young man and the two would have been wonderful missionaries. I thought you would appreciate one so I asked him for it, to send to you and he was more than pleased to do so.

May God bless you with His Spirit that a feeling of peace may come to you and that you will rejoice that he has been called to fill a far greater mission among the spirits beyond the veil.

Yours truly,


Alice McCarthy to Burt Family, 26 November 1928

2156 Rae Street, Regina
Nov. 26th 1928

Dear Bro. & Sister Burt and Family.

May I express my heart felt sympathy to you in the suspense and sorrow you have been called upon to go through over the sinking of the ship Vestris. The news of Keith being lost at sea has cast a gloom over all the missionaries here as well as elsewhere, and yet God knows best. He does things in His wisdom that is hard for man to understand. Keith is all right no matter where he is. You offered him to serve the Lord for a short time. the Lord has a bigger job for him which will keep him from you for a little longer than three years perhaps, but eventually you will all again be reunited and your joy then will far exceed your sorrow now.

One of the missionaries here said to me, “Surely Sister McCarthy harm could not come to Elder Burt when he was enroute to the mission field. Surely his Priesthood and garments would protect him.” I answered yes they would and did protect him. For no matter where Keith is I know that God was near him, to give him courage and strength. We need not weep for him, though I realize the separation is hard and a life time seems so long and yet ’tis a short time compared to all eternity. Keith was always a clean living boy and how much better it is for him to be called as he was than those who go leaving behind a memory that makes one shudder. Those who have little hope of happiness in the next world.

Keith is not being denied the privilege of preforming a mission. There are far more souls on the other side that are waiting to be preached the gospel to than there are in this world. I think even now he is doing a big work and perhaps far more good than he ever would in South America.

May God comfort you and always bless you that you may accept His will. I remain sincerely Yours


William H. Steed to Burt Family, 28 November 1928

123 Wadsworth Ave, NYC
Apt. S4, Nov. 28, 1928

Dear Bro. Burt and Family:

Your wonderful letter reached me the other night and I surely appreciated hearing from you and feeling the beautiful spirit it carried with it. I say wonderful because in it I read a deeper meaning and a far richer view of life than the out side world has. such great hope of eternal reward for sacrifices you have had to make and your acknowledgment of same, submitting yourselves to the Will of God who has power to give life and to take it away.

I admire your braveness and know it comes from the testimony of the true gospel of Christ, you have received, through accepting it and obeying its principles. I too have a testimony and am grateful for it, although tired to the very core I am still fighting for I know that this is the true church.

Since receiving your letter I haven’t seen Elder Huish as he went to Philadelphia Sunday also bro. Rolap was away, however as soon as I do see them I will be pleased to deliver your message.

I am inclosing a few verses, they are not very good, but I am no composer or writer however they tell a portion of the story and I want you to know I tried to do my best in helping you in every way I could.

The blow struck me very hard and as I have tried to express my feelings in other letters I know you will understand.

The chance of recovering Keith’s body is not very good, unless he was picked up by accident. There are one hundred thirteen missing and I don’t suppose any of the bodies will be found. There were a few picked up at time of rescue, but none since.

A body after being in the water for a time will rise to the top and then in a few days will sink again.

Dr. Coffin told me the other evening that several of his relations have been drowned at sea and not one has ever been found. Dr. is a member of our church and has lived here nearly all his life and he states there isn’t much hope of recovering any of the bodies of those missing.

I would do anything to recover it if I could do so for you.

One thing you are entitled to remuneration for the loss of property or his effects. I also notice a number of suits for large amounts being brought against the Company for loss of life.

Anything I can do for you let me know. May God bless you all and peace be with you. with Kind Personal regards I am,

Yours Truly,


THE MARTYR by W.H. Steed

Dedicated to the memory of Elder Keith Burt, of Cardston, Alta., Canada, who lost his life on the ship Vestris, as it sank off the coast of Virginia, on her way to South America Nov. 13, 1928.

The call came to a noble youth,
To spread glad tidings and teach the truth,
Which God had sent from out of space,
A wondrous plan, to save the race.

The answer of this wonderful son,
“Thy will, Oh Father, not mine be done.”
The parents with farewells, amid tears of joy,
Were soon separated from their dear boy.

All alone he traveled, from day to day
Thinking of those loved ones far away:
How he would miss them and their love,
While performing the work for the Master above.

Another was added, a companion brother.
They traveled on and loved each other:
Passing from city to city and o’er country wide,
Finally they reached the ocean side.

A few days rest from their tedious trip,
They prepared for passage on the Vestris ship.
It sailed away from New York’s shore,
To become a wreck and return no more.

On, on she sped through the surging sea,
With her precious cargo of humanity,
Men, women and children, happy and strong,
Filled the air with music, laughter and song.

Then came a change, the sea rolled high,
On came the storm, and a blackened sky;
The vessel tossed and rocked to and fro,
And the engines ceased running and refused to go.

Danger was seen by those on board,
But the sturdy Captain said not a word;
Firm and steadfast he stood on deck
Hoping for a change, to avoid a wreck.

The S.O.S. sent out, but alas, too late,
Those on board saw the vessel’s fate.
Wild with excitement, men rushed here and there,
While women stood gazing in a deathly glare.

“To the life boats,” the Captain cried,
And children were torn from their mother’s side;
Down they were lowered into the billowy deep
To arise no more from that ghastly sleep.

Death cries were heard as the vessel went down
From struggling souls, who have not been found;
Among the missing was the noble youth,
Who was sent abroad to preach the truth.

His mission call, was for another sphere,
While his companion was left to labour here,
The spirit has gone on, many souls to save,
But his body lies resting in a martyr’s grave.

David Huish to Burt Family, 3 December 1928

273 Gates Avenue
Brooklyn, N.Y.
Dec. 3, 1928

Dear Brother Burt:

Some time ago I wrote to you, Nov. 15th, I believe which told our story to you as clearly as I could.

I have been changed to labor in the British Mission, and we’re going to leave here day after to0morrow, so I thought I’d write you a letter and tell you good-bye.

I saw Brother Steed yesterday, he wanted to know some things about what Keith had with him, and concerning claims I had made. I told everything I had done, all he wished to know, and I believe his ideas are about right about what to do. I told him, to wire Reynolds for permission to collect passage money, and the amounts I had put in my claim.

I feel that everything will come out alright but you should act promptly, as time is an enemy to things of this character. Since being here at the Mission home I have come to feel fine, and find no loss, due to the venture, only that of your son and our brother. During the last week I secured a prayer and answer, written by Rey L. Pratt, at the death of his own son, and I think it applied very true to Keith, so I am sending a copy of it inclosed. I hope you like it, maybe you have it already. Brother Steed also gave me a copy of his own poetry about the disaster, entitled the Martyr, and I think it is very good and also applies very well, he said he had sent you a copy too.

I hope you find comfort in the Lord’s service, and acknowledge His hand in all things, as I think you do. I also trust that the young people of Cardston have sufficient faith to see his providence. This is all I wish to say, and I extend to you the sympathy of all the missionaries here at the office.

Your brother,


James E. Talmage to Burt Family, 4 December 1928

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
The Council of the Twelve
Salt Lake City, Utah
December 4, 1928.

Bishop William W. Burt,
2nd Ward,
Cardston, Alberta, Canada.

My dear Brother: – And let me extend my greetings to your good wife, sister Burt.

An examination of missionary records has just brought home to me the fact that Elder Keith W. Burt, whose mission was terminated at sea, in the steamship Vestris, is your son. Heretofore I had not understood this relationship; otherwise I would have written to you earlier. I remember you, brother Burt, as our efficient and devoted missionary in England, where from November 1924 to May 1926 I had the pleasure of serving as your fellow-missionary; and I am deeply affected now that I come to realize that your son had started for the field of his appointed labor, and was transferred while on the way.

I know that in such bereavement as you are enduring, mere words mean little; but I feel assured that your knowledge and enduring testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ will sustain you and yours even under this great trial. Some day you will understand better than is now possible the reason why such a sorrow should be permitted to come upon you. You may rest in the comforting assurance that all is well with your boy, and that, moreover, he is working as a missionary though in a different field, and we may say in a different world, from that to which he had been first assigned.

If the Lord had given us an absolute guaranty that missionaries traveling to or from their fields of labor, or while engaged therein, should always be exempt from the possibilities of accident or illness, there would be a lesser degree of the spirit of sacrifice in the going forth of our missionaries than is now manifest in the fact that they go to meet conditions such as they are, and to be subject to risk of limb, health, and life.

Sister Talmage, who has come into the office while I am dictating this letter, joins me in every assurance of true sympathy and condolence in your temporary loss, and in the confident trust that the Lord will sustain you all in this time of sorrow. She and I have talked over the good work you did, brother Burt, while we labored together, and we appreciate the association we had with you overseas.

May the Lord be mindful of you and give unto you a goodly measure of the peace and comfort such as He alone can give.

Cordially your brother,


Melvin J. Ballard to Burt Family, 7 December 1928

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
The Council of the Twelve
Salt Lake city, Utah
December 7, 1928

Bishop Chas. W. Burt
Cardston Alberta

Dear Brother Burt:

I have for a long time been thinking of writing to you. the loss of your precious son has stunned us all. It was certainly disheartening to know that he was not among the survivors of the Vestris. I have been on the Vestris a number of times. I looked upon it as one of the safest boats going to South America, so no regrets can be had that he was not sent on what was thought to be a good boat.

I have however been thinking of his being taken from your point of view. He could have done no missionary work anywhere in the church to have obtained the distinction that has come to him. He has fallen as a martyr to the cause and passed away as the only missionary who has lost his life in vessels going down at sea. That in itself gives him a unique place. That he is still a missionary there is no doubt. the Lord has simply transferred him to another field. Why he should have to sacrifice his life we cannot tell. I have had a feeling that it is the beginning of a series of disasters upon the sea. The Devil rides as a destroyer upon the waters. He surely was there; and yet in the death of your son there was no triumph for he goes innocently and purely to his Father’s realm where he will continue his labors.

May the peace and blessings of Heaven come to you as I am sure it will in the consciousness that your son is still an honored missionary. I am with love and best wishes

Your brother,


Lyman Hinman Jacobs to Burt Family, 5 December 1928

Northern States Mission
1315 S. 25 Street
Terre Haute, Ind.
December 5 – 28.

Dear Bro. Burt & Family:

I have felt keenly the sad event that you have been called to bear. I watched the papers, searched bulletins and asked all the time about it but finally had to admit that it must be so.

The Sunday before I left, it was a beautiful fall day – we stood on the meeting house steps & talked over our missions. I told him what I hoped to do, he told me of his long desire to go South. It was the best talk we ever had.

I have known him only to find he was a gentleman. A thing that cannot be said of very many young men today, at least in its fullest sense.

I have been out in the world long enough to know that a good Mormon boy has no peer.

I pray that God will comfort you at this time.

I remain, Your friend,


J.S. Ferrell to Burt Family, 9 December 1928

Provo, Ut
280 So. 1st East

Dear Bro. & Sister Bert & Family,

If the meloncoloy awe was general (and I believe it was) one of the most pathetic events for a long time has happened in the annals of Mormon history was recorded when your son Keith was lost at sea.

I watched and followed the daily reports believeing and believeing until there was no virtue in believeing, that Keith Bert would in some way, some how, somewhere be rescued.

We condour your sorrows & trust that our Father will in His own way, console & compensate, and in some way fill up the vacency in your hearts. Herbert my boy in Okla. City (an Elder) knew your boy and wrote me re it in terms of very deep regret. We mortals are so powerless – you have our blessings





  1. Thanks for this, Ardis. Reading Elder Burt’s own letters shortly before his death, and then the remembrances and tributes, really went a long ways to flesh out and humanize the memory of this good soul.

    Also, I thought Elder Talmage’s letter was absolutely brilliant. He seems to have avoided the temptation to fill in all the blanks about the tragedy. Instead, he points to the readers’ faith in Jesus Christ and asserts that “[s]ome day you will understand better than is now possible the reason why such a sorrow should be permitted to come upon you.” How wonderful.

    Comment by Hunter — June 22, 2009 @ 9:12 am

  2. It’s a bit sad reading Burt’s final letters, filled with such enthusiasm for his mission and life, and knowing that these dreams would be cut short en route to Argentina.

    Comment by Steve C. — June 22, 2009 @ 10:23 am

  3. A terrific addition to the story. Thanks Ardis, and thanks to Elder Burt’s family for adding so much to the story.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 22, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

  4. It is wonderful that Sister Susan Woods and her family have given permission for these letters to be presented here as a follow-up to the earlier account of the tragedy.

    Comment by Maurine — June 22, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

  5. Does anyone know how I can contact Susan Woods. I am Keith Burt’s brother’s grandson and would very much like to speak with Susan.

    If you can help me, please email jaranburt [at] gmail [dot] com

    Thank you

    Jaran Burt

    [Jaran, I sent a copy of your note to the address Susan left when she commented. I hope you make your connection. — Ardis]

    Comment by Jaran Burt — August 7, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

  6. Hello Ardis,
    Will you please remind me who you are and how you obtained the information to include here? It is not a problem, I would just like to know if you are related, and how you came by the information.


    Comment by Susan E. Woods — March 3, 2014 @ 1:01 pm

  7. Susan, I am not related. I work in the Church Archives as a historian, primarily of the 20th century. A family member (can’t remember who after all this time, but I’m sure it’s part of the catalog record) provided copies of these letters to the Archives for public use.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 3, 2014 @ 1:09 pm