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Friday, June 21, 2019

Whaling wives and deathbeds

Mary Brewster, courtesy Mystic Seaport Museum

Mary Brewster, wife of Captain William Brewster, sailed on the whaleship Tiger of Stonington, Connecticut.  
“The best part of the day I have spent in making doses for the sick and dressing sore hands and feet,” she wrote in July 1846;  “5 sick and I am sent to for all the medicin,” but failed to note what the medicines were.  
Caroline Mayhew, courtesy Martha's Vineyard Historical Society

Another formidable female was Caroline Mayhew, the daughter of a Martha's Vineyard doctor, who was on board the Powhattan in April 1846 when the ship limped into St. Jago, Cape Verde Islands, with eight men down with smallpox.  The port doctor refused to come on board, putting the ship into strict quarantine instead, but Caroline managed to cure them, though she never described her methods. 
Less lucky in a similar situation was Lucy Ann Crapo, wife of the captain of the whaling bark Linda Stewart, which in June 1880 dropped anchor at Talcahuano, Chile, with four sick seamen.  This port doctor did consent to come on board to look at the men, and diagnosed smallpox.  As it turned out, they had a harmless rash—but it killed them all the same, because he sent them to the smallpox ward, where they contracted the disease from the men who were already there.  “The want of knowing one [kind of rash] from the other has made a sad chapter in our voyage,” wrote Lucy Ann.
Inevitably, there were wives who attended deathbeds.  One was Sarah Gray of Liberty Hill, Connecticut, whose sea-going career spanned twenty years, culminating in a voyage on the whaleship James Maury.  The log for March 24, 1865, reads, "Light winds and pleasant weather.  At two PM our Captain expired after the illness of two days at 5 PM."  They were in tropical waters near Guam, and Captain Sluman L. Gray had died of dysentery, after just three days of illness.
Refusing to allow him to be slid into the sea like an ordinary man, Sarah insisted on pickling the corpse, and so the log for the following day reads, "Light winds from the Eastward and pleasant weather, made a cask and put the Capt. in with spirits."  It was a cask that became quite famous.  On June 28th, the James Maury was captured by the Confederate raider Shenandoah.  The Civil War had been resolved eleven weeks earlier, but Captain Waddell, the commander of the raider, refused to believe it, seizing ships and burning them as usual.  Accordingly, when the James Maury was captured, Sarah Gray hysterically expected the worst.  However, Captain Waddell had heard about the cask and the corpse, and had decided to ransom the 'Maury as a gentlemanly gesture. 
Accordingly, 222 prisoners were put on board of the 395-ton ship, and the James Maury was sent off to Honolulu, the cask undisturbed.  With such extreme overcrowding, it must have been a nightmare journey, but somehow, eventually, Sarah got the cask home (the bill for cartage from New Bedford was $11) and buried her husband where he lies today, in the Liberty Hill graveyard.  Local legend has it that he was buried cask and all, but it seems much more likely that the preserved corpse was taken out of the barrel and put into a regular coffin first.

Annie Ricketson, courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum

Unfortunate, too, was Annie Ricketson of Fall River, Massachusetts, who sailed on the Pedro Varela.  In 1885 her husband, Daniel, became very ill with some kind of blood poisoning, Annie recording that “one of his testicles come to a sore and bursted and running badly,” and she was terribly afraid for his life.  The schooner beat head winds to get to Barbados, and Captain Ricketson was carried on shore on a litter, to be treated by two shore doctors.   They gave him ether and cleaned out the abscess in his groin—and drove Captain Ricketson insane.  At that, the two surgeons reverted to more traditional methods, putting a blister plaster on the back of his neck.  “I never felt so bad in my life as I did when I cut that hair off,” Annie wrote, and that page of her journal is still stained with her tears.
After two months of watching this kind of blundering, Annie took her husband back on board, and nursed him until he could walk and talk again.  Then they picked up a boat off Annabon, West Africa, in which three sick men had been set adrift.  Daniel fell ill again, and Annie headed for the Azores—where the schooner was put under quarantine, the port surgeon refusing to come on board.  So Annie put to sea again.  Two days later, her husband died.


Linda Collison said...

I always appreciate your unearthing the contributions of wives aboard ship. It's too bad they didn't leave behind more of their methods but like today, even with modern medicine and technical interventions, its often nursing care that saves us - or doesn't.

Having sailed short-handed with Bob, my husband, on a pleasure sailboat, not a whaling vessel, I felt the enormity of being the designated medical officer, on-board nurse, chief cook, and second mate. I stood my watch, handed, reefed, and steered, and prayed we both stayed well.

We did. I attribute it mostly to good hydration. Fresh water in sufficient quantity!

World of the Written Word said...

Thank you Linda. There were quite a few accidents and illnesses on the world cruise (though thankfully not norovirus, the bane of cruising, as the Sea Princess is a very clean ship). As everyone agreed, it is hard to be hurt or sick when such a long way from home, and despite the cost, the medical service on board was much appreciated. I certainly appreciate the burden you were carrying, and am sure you prayed a lot for good health.