Told much less often than the tales of medical derring-do are stories of captains who killed their men with a lethal combination of ignorance and officiousness.
One such was Captain William Cleveland of the Salem, Massachusetts, ship Zephyr. While at anchor off an island in the notoriously unhealthy Straits of Timor, in 1829, Captain Cleveland overheard a hand named Cornelius Thomson complain that he had felt a little chilly in the night. On being cross-examined about it, Thomson protested that he felt perfectly well. Cleveland, however, was determined "to be on the safe & cautious side"—as his wife Lucy put it—and commenced upon a ferocious course of treatment, which started with "a powerful dose of Calomel of Julep," progressed through a "dose of castor oil" and several enema injections to raising blisters "upon the calf of both legs after soaking them well in hot water," and culminated with "a blister on the breast, throat rubbed with linnament &c." Within hours the poor fellow was delirious, and by morning he was dead. It was the day after his twenty-first birthday.
Captain Benjamin Morrell of Stonington, Connecticut, had a somewhat bizarre reason for allowing himself to watch his sailors die—that his wife, Abby Jane, was one of the complement on board his schooner Antarctic. In October 1829 she, along with eleven of the men, fell ill of what he called “the intermittent fever.” It was, in fact, cholera—not that it made any difference to the outcome. “Had she not been on board,” he wrote, “I should certainly have borne up to the first port under our lee … But I reflected that some slanderous tongues might attribute such a deviation … solely to the fact of my wife’s being on board. That idea I could not tamely endure … ‘No! perish all first!’ I muttered with bitterness, as I gloomily paced the deck at midnight.” Morrell medicated the patients with “blisters, friction, and bathing with hot vinegar,” rather than put into port and risk “the unfeeling sarcasms of … carpet-knights.” Two men died, but the rest recovered, and Morrell’s reputation was safe.
Other American shipmasters found their wives useful, roping them in to help with medical emergencies—to hold a patient’s head while the master of the ship got going with knife and saw, for instance, and also for nursing duties, sickbed work being part of the traditional female realm. One such was Mary Stickney, wife of Captain Almon Stickney, who sailed on the whaleship Cicero of New Bedford in the years 1880 and 1881, and kept an interesting record of the men she treated. Sores and boils were common, partly because of working with salty rope and canvas, but also because of micro-organisms which live naturally on the skin of the whale. Unsurprisingly, mishaps happened when a man lost his balance on the decks or in the rigging. Cuts and bruises could be due to more than simple accidents—during shipboard fights, for instance, or after after the first mate caught them slacking on duty.
Mary Stickney failed to describe what she prescribed for all these ailments, merely noting that she had carried “1 Paper box of Medacine” on board, but her journal is eloquent testimony that whaling was a rough life, and a tough one for all on board. One man, Will Winslow, was very ill indeed, being both feverish and delirious, but was back on lookout at the masthead the instant his head was clear enough to keep his balance—and somehow it is not a surprise, either, to find that Mary was famous for keeping a talking parrot on her shoulder.