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Friday, October 20, 2023

Murder on the steamboat to New York


The victim in this story is a little known whaling skipper.

Named, Gerardus Post Harrison, he was born on September 2, 1819, to John and Harriet Wood Harrison. His father and brother were both painters, according to census records, and Gerardus was the sole mariner in the family. He was first recorded on the Braganza in 1834, aged just fifteen, giving his birthplace as New Bedford. He was a little fellow, just four feet, six inches, and by the time he shipped on the Waverley in 1842, at the age of 23, he had not grown any taller.

But, despite being vertically challenged, he was talented and strong enough to be promoted to the command of the Mars in 1852, and then again in 1856. It was then that he married Caroline Ophelia — known as Ophelia — Beaman, who had been born in Brooklyn, New York, on 2 December 1824. Her parents were Joshua and Mary Martin Beaman. After Joshua’s death in September 1834 her mother, Mary, had married a banker, John Bird.  

As a new bride, Ophelia sailed with her husband. According to the log of the Mars, August 21, 1856, ‘At 6 o’clock Capt Harrison & lady come aboard...’ Ophelia also connected with other whaling wives. On the Merlin, August 24, 1856, Henrietta Deblois noted that ‘Capt. Harrison & lady came on shore’ at Fayal. In 1858 Elizabeth Marble found Mrs. Harrison on shore at Geographer’s Bay, Western Australia: ‘She has ben on shore boarding one year but expects the ship in a few days and she will go the next Cruse … she is very well and has a fine boy.’ 

By the time of the 1860 census, Captain Harrison and Ophelia were living in New York with their two little sons, Orlando, aged three and Oscar, aged one, both born in Australia. Gerardus was registered as a shipmaster, and worth $5000, no small sum at the time. There was also a 16-year-old domestic, Susan Warner, who had also been born in Australia, so may have come to America with the Harrisons, to help with the small children.  

Five years later, when the 1865 census was taken, Gerardus and Ophelia were still in New York, but little Oscar had died back in 1860, and another boy had been born. Orlando was eight, and his new brother, Charles, was four, and had been born in Brooklyn. They were living with John Bird and his wife Mary, who were listed as Ophelia’s parents, and also as grandparents of the two boys. And, Gerardus was in fact, dead, though his family did not know that at the time. According to his gravesite, Gerardus had died on voyage in June 1862, in theory a whaling voyage. The reality is that he was murdered on the steamboat passage to New York.

Many years later, on September 4, 1878, Orlando filed an  affidavit at King’s County, New York, first of all testifying that he was the son of Gerardus Harrisson, deceased, and that ‘said deceased came to his death by violence at the hands of some person unknown, in or about the month of June 1862, as this deponent is informed, and believes, that [it happened] on the steamboat “Bay State” between the City of New Bedford in the State of Massachusetts and the City of New York.’

His information had come from Francis Harrison, the brother Gerardus had visited in New Bedford, and was confirmed by a letter that had been written by Francis on August 28, 1878, and was presented to the court. According to this, ‘In the month of June 1862 said Gerardus P. Harrisson was at my house in said New Bedford on a visit and on the twentieth day of said June he left my house saying he was going to the office of Chas. R. Tucker & co., who were at that time the agents of bark “Mars” to collect the balance of money in their hands due him and that he was going to Brooklyn that night and had telegraphed his wife to that effect as he had to attend to important business there on the 21st. He left New Bedford that afternoon of the 20th on the New York train via the Fall River boat for New York and I have never seen him since.

‘About two weeks after him leaving New Bedford I received a letter from his wife residing in Brooklyn N.Y. enquiring after him, to which I replied that I knew nothing about him except as herein above stated. Thus for the first time did I learn of his disappearance and immediately commenced to make search for him and enquiring as to his whereabouts, but with very disappointing results.

‘Several years afterward I was at Groton Junction … and while there a person by the name of John Keyes sitting near me heard my name “Harrisson” called, and after I had gone away said Keyes asked Mr. Ross, who kept the house where we were “what Harrisson is that” and on hearing who I was he said “I sailed with his brother Gerardus P. Harrisson”  … then told me that Gerardus P. Harrisson was dead, that sometime in the month of June 1862 he was murdered on his way to New York in the steamer “Bay State” halfway between New York and New Bedford and his body was thrown overboard. Mr. Keyes saw all this and named some of the parties who participated in the murder but he had never told this to anyone before because he was frightened and did not dare to.’

John Keyes is not in any of the crew lists of Gerardus Harrison’s ships, and during the last voyage of the Mars he was a seaman on the Active, so it appears that by saying he had ‘sailed with’ Captain Harrison he meant that he was on the Bay State at the time of the murder. If it was a brutal group attack and he was a helpless witness, keeping silent for so many years would be understandable. As he said, he was frightened.

According to Orlando’s testimony, Ophelia had been left with just $25, so it seems that the family was depending on the rest of the money from the Mars voyage. If Gerardus was carrying a lot in cash or bonds when he left the agent’s office, robbery and murder are plausible.  Whatever the facts, Ophelia was left impoverished and baffled by her husband’s disappearance. Her state of mind can easily be imagined.  

Ophelia passed away on 10 October 1896, and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, New York, alongside much of her family. Gerardus has a memorial there, too, but there is no body in the grave.

(The discovery of the murder was made by genealogy sleuth Kay Vincent, and the details of the affidavits are on; the whaling details can be easily found on

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Cooking in America


One of my most vivid memories of first setting up house on Long Island is my desperate search for cornflour.  In most countries that is the powdery stuff that is mixed with a liquid and then added to a stew or whatever to thicken the gravy.  Luckily, I seemed exotic enough for people to notice me, or perhaps it was just that I looked so puzzled, because a woman trotted up to me with her trundler, and said, "Are you looking for something?"

"Yes! Cornflour!"

"Corn starch," she said with a broad grin.  She had lived in England, and knew what I was talking about.

Maybe I became well known in that supermarket, because a total stranger came up to me one day and said, "You have to buy the Hoagies!  You have to buy the Hoagies!"

Well, I did admire the enthusiasm.  It turned out to be a kind of hamburger bun. The sort you put hot dogs (chipolatas) inside. They are larger versions of sliders -- small buns (dinner rolls) that you put little weenies (Cheerios, cocktail sausages) inside, and serve with pre-dinner drinks. 

And kosher salt wasn't kosher at all.  It was what we call flaky sea salt, and is apparently called that because it is the best salt for drying out the blood from meat. 

And lox looked just like smoked salmon, only more raw, being translucent.  Tried cautiously, it tasted the same, only more moist.  And fattier.  As I found out, most prized (and expensive) lox salmon is taken from the belly of the fish.

Everything is very, very sweet. All kinds of processed food had to be taken with great caution. Pumpkin ravioli sounded fun, but the pasta turned out to be filled with pumpkin pie mix, complete with sugar (or molasses) and cinnamon. Rather odd on your dinner plate. And pecan pie, to my Kiwi tastebuds, was too sweet to be edible. Key lime, the same. Desserts, on the whole, were to be avoided. Puddings, being smooth and creamy, like our custards or mousse, were more fun. And corn pudding, served with the main course, was wonderful.

Gabanzo beans had me totally fooled. It wasn't until I got back to New Zealand that I understood that the canned ones were just our ordinary chick peas. 

Romaine lettuce looked like cos, and so that was easy, only American supermarkets sell them in a bunch of three, just the hearts.  I miss that a lot.

Menus at restaurants could be baffling, too. What we call an entree is entirely different from what they call an entree.  Here in Kiwiland it is a starter.  In the US of A, it is the main course.  Why? I never, ever, found that out.

There were great discoveries, though.  Collard greens, oh, I so fell in love with collard greens. Cheap as chips, and could be used in stews and soups and casseroles (cooked, by the way, in a Dutch oven), or as a creamed vegetable.  But I was truly staggered one day when the supermarket checkout operator leaned over the counter, and whispered, "You really shouldn't buy collard greens, dear."

"Why on earth not?"

"They are meant for the colored folks."

"Well," said I, totally gobsmacked, because she was not meaning to be racist, just very helpful. "I am sure they don't mind sharing."

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

The perils and pitfalls of a newspaper book reviewer


The throttling of the books review section of your local newspaper or magazine is a tragedy, not just for publishers and their authors, but for book stores, too.  That is why online marketers have space for buyer book reviews on their websites.  And a lot of those amateur reviews are well-written and thoughtful.  There is also a terrific lot of rubbish.  And Algorithm Isaac (AI for short) is a looming threat, too.

But what about the book reviewers?  They are a hardworking lot, as I know from long experience.  

Trying to cast my mind back to the first book review I wrote isn't easy, as it was so long ago -- back in the 1980s.  I had a note from the books review editor of the New Zealand Herald suggesting that I was the perfect person to review a certain book -- a maritime book, perhaps.  I was flattered, and he was such a pleasant, affable, and kind person that I was hooked.  I read the book, flicked off a review within the strict 300-word limit, and felt happy when I saw it in the newspaper.

Alas, as he loved the review, he loved the speed I had produced it, so wanted me to do more.  Other newspaper editors got into the act, for here was a reviewer who actually produced! And that within the 300-word limit! With the quotable 12-word phrase that publishers loved to put on the jacket of the author's next book, what's more. Magazines, including internationals, were sending review requests, so that added to the pile. Not long after that I was flying to the United States and back on a regular basis ... and absolute cartons of books were following me.

What to do with the books, once read, turned into a problem. Long flights were useful, as I could read a book or two, write down my review in a notebook (reviews were typed and posted to the editors, back then), and leave the book or two on the plane. My stepsister lived in a small seaside town with a small seaside library, which welcomed my books with huge enthusiasm.  Some books I kept, which often meant having to post them back to New Zealand.  It was then I found out the US Postal Service's "M-bag" option, where you could stow up to 11 kilos of books in a bag that had been made by prisoners and pay a set price. Those bags were regarded with great curiosity by the NZ Postal Service, but they worked.

Many books were not the usual kind of reading matter for me. Mega-bestsellers, for instance.  But there were some marvelous discoveries -- a biography of Marilyn Monroe by Donald Spoto, Fatal Passage, by Ken McGoogan, Pierre Berton's Arctic Grail are just three that come to mind. And then there were the review requests that came in from top magazines and newspapers, which allowed a 1200-word review -- bliss! -- and published the review as a full-page item. And, because they paid by the word, the money was unusually nice.

There are bad books, inevitably. It was impossible not to feel sorry for the publisher, editor, and author, but objective reviewing is essential.  Otherwise it isn't fair.  I haven't had death threats.  Yet. But there have been people who have let me know that they don't like me.

There is also the problem of time-lag. Often months elapse between the submission of the review and its publication, though this has improved with the internet. But with non-fiction studies, the book could be out of date before the review got into print. Worse, for me, is when reviews I had written for new authors appear long, long after those few crucial weeks after publication.

There have been funny moments.  There was the time when a box of Harlequin romances arrived.  Now then, no one reviews Harlequin/Mills & Boon, but I had snuck in a nice review written by a romance author who was actually an extremely good writer, and also an extremely nice woman, and I guess they had heard about it.  So I left the open carton on my doorstep, and the books vanished, not just one by one, but at startling speed.

But then there were what are called in the trade, "Sadistic Subbies."  They are the people who place your review and give it a headline. 

A book had arrived by a mega-selling author that I hated. Let's call him "X". So my extremely lukewarm review ended by saying that only the author's most ardent fans could enjoy this latest offering.


Wednesday, October 4, 2023



Samuel Gavitt was born about 1812 in Rhode Island, the son of Arnold and Mercy Rodman Gavitt.  He married Rebecca Babcock on April 1, 1841 -  In the 1850 census for Westerley, Rhode Island, Samuel Gavitt, mariner, was 32, and his wife, Rebecca, was thirty, meaning she was about 21 when she wed.  

On 23 March 1851, the Daily Alta California reported him in command of the Ellen Morrison, a merchant bark at the time. How long he had been commanding merchant ships is unknown, but later that year he went to Stonington, Connecticut, to take command of the whaleship Tiger. It was apparently not a happy move. The Tiger left Stonington Septermber 19, 1851, and shortly after that six of the crew mutinied and were sent home for trial. The ship was not reported again until February 18, 1852, when Gavitt made port at Valparaiso. Then he was at Lahaina on April 26, to cruise, and at Maui on November 10. That December, the ship was declared full and headed home; arrived May 21, 1853. A short and profitable voyage. Unsurprisingly, Gavitt was given another command, this time of the Rebecca Sims, and while it is not known if Rebecca sailed on the merchantmen or the whaleship Tiger, she was certainly with him this time.

One of the boatsteerers, Alonzo D. Sampson, who published his whaling memoir, Three Times Around the World in 1867, had a great deal to say about her. Sampson thought Gavitt (he spelled it Gavett) ‘was the best man I ever sailed with. He was too good. He spoiled such of his men as good treatment could spoil.’  By contrast his wife, ‘who sailed with him, was not so popular. In the first place,’ he elaborated, ‘sailors have a prejudice, pretty generally justified, against women on board a ship. They think a woman there is always in the way of somebody, and the Captain’s wife is generally in the way of everybody. For the want of something else to do, she is constantly meddling with matters that she does not understand, and influencing her husband to neglect his duty for her, to shirk the danger and exposure inseparable from a faithful discharge of his office, and instigating him to acts that annoy and irritate the crew.

‘Mrs. Gavett was a fine lady, and a fine-looking lady — all the worse, we thought, for a woman in her position of a sailor. She was unnecessarily haughty, or rather supercilious, towards the men, going out of her way sometimes to intimate her contempt for them. On the other hand we did not lack for ways in which to make her understand we considered her more of a nuisance than otherwise.  We had a story among us, with a great deal of truth I believe, that she was fast, and that the Captain brought her along to save her character and his purse.

‘During the beautiful weather that favored our run to the Cape Verdes, she passed most of the daytime on deck, where a chair was set for her, she not having, in sailors’ phrase, "got on her sea-legs," if it is not irreverent to suppose that the Captain’s wife possesses these members.’ (pages 78-79)  And, when they arrived at St Vincent in the Cape Verdes, she had the pleasure of being entertained on board the American sloop of war Dale, which was nice for her, and a good augury for the voyage. Despite this the ship was storm beset when doubling Cape Horn, and at one stage ‘the whole ship’s company, the Captain’s wife not excepted, were gathered on deck expecting the worst.’ She watched as energetic seamanship saved the ship, and apparently approved when Captain Gavitt treated the crew to as much grog as they could drink. 

It was not the last emergency, by any means.  The officer on watch mistaking a landmark on entering the harbor of Lahaina in the dark, the ship was ‘brought up all standing’ when it crashed on a sandbar. The shock was tremendous, all the lanterns went out, dunnage clattered everywhere, and everyone rushed up to deck — ‘Among the crowd that stood dumbfounded around the captain was his handsome wife. She seemed to be even worse affected than she had been under far more fearful circumstances in the Strait of Le Maire ... "Oh! Samuel," she cried in tones of despair. "Oh! Samuel, what shall we do?" To be ready for the worst,’ in case the bottom of the ship was broken, the boats were cleared away.  More energetic seamanship got the ship off the sandbank with no harm done, and by daybreak they were anchored off Lahaina.  

Then there was more excitement, as Captain Gavitt raced his ship against the Vesper, having laid a bet with Captain Edward Howes that he would beat him to the ‘fishing’ ground, a race that he won by one day. There, in the Ochotsk Sea, Rebecca endured snow storms where the ship pitched madly, and an anxious night when the ship was driven by the ice, with the loss of all her anchors. There were bears to watch, too — bears that came to eat the carcasses of the whales after the blubber had been removed. There was much to watch that was grisly.

In November 1854 they dropped anchor at Hilo, where they stayed two months, and Rebecca could marvel at the current eruption. ‘A stream of lava from one of the many craters started in the direction of the town, but Mr. Coan, the missionary there, went up to the mountain and prayed, and soon after the lava stopped flowing that way.’ From there they sailed to Honolulu, laying off and on outside the port instead of dropping anchor, to deter attempts to desert that ship. As Sampson casually mentioned, there were attempts to swim ashore, but it was often a doomed venture, because of the sharks.

At this stage Samuel Gavitt was rather keen to leave Rebecca at the islands, according to this raconteur, but she flatly refused to leave This meant that she was on the deck when they called at the island of Ascension (Pohnpei), where the natives who came on board to trade ‘were dressed in suits of cocoa nut oil, only without a rag of anything else about them, [and] the captain’s wife voted them a great curiosity, and gave them considerable of her attention.’  And then there was a racy encounter with an immense sea serpent, described by Sampson with relish. The huge, writhing beast had first been raised by the whaleship Monongahela, and the Rebecca Simms, according to the boatsteerer, arrived in time to witness the great battle between the whaler’s boats and the harpooned monster.  The head, he said, was like an alligator’s, and eleven feet long. This, however, should be taken with a grain of salt, as it was an old story, dating back to 1852, and he was utilizing a current craze for monstrous sea serpents to spice up his yarn.

 Easier to authenticate is that the Rebecca Sims then called at Guam, where Captain Gavitt found himself in a quandary. ‘Of course it was absolutely necessary that his lady should visit town, and at the same time it was equally impossible to get any other mode of conveyance except on ox-back …’ wrote Sampson. ‘Mrs. Gavett, with a bravery that distinguishes her sex when the result sought is a visit, declared her ability to ride an ox, and her willingness to "try it on." So she went on shore where quite a number of these horned steeds were quietly waiting … An animal was selected rather with reference to steady going than to speed, and a small mountain of folded blankets, which gave him quite a poetic resemblance to a camel, at least in the hump, was strapped onto his back.

‘To this eminence the lady was elevated, not exactly “by a turn of the wrist,” but by pure muscle, and bos was solicited to propel in the direction of town. On the contrary he began a rapid “advance backwards,” until the rider was brought into contact with certain cocoa nut trees … [and] she was wiped off at imminent risk of limbs and neck. The stupid brute, unaware and probably unworthy of the honor intended him, then trotted off for the bush.’ Rebecca Gavitt, though bruised and humiliated, was still determined to go to town, so a couple of poles were fetched and a chair slung from them, and four natives took up the burden and ‘Mrs. Gavett was borne in state, if not in triumph, to town.’

Captain Gavitt needed a new first mate at this stage, but the one he hired in Guam took a strong dislike to Mrs. Gavitt, and left. Then, thought without a first officer, Gavitt carried a theatrical troupe to Manila, and there he hired a Frenchman, Lavalette by name, on the recommendation of Mrs. Gavitt. ‘He may have had any possible number of qualities fitting him for the place, but none of us ever discovered them. Lavalette’s heels [had] turned Mrs. Gavett’s head, and she exclaimed in an ecstasy of admiration, "Oh! Captain, do ship Mr. Lavalette, he is such a splendid dancer!" and that decided the matter.  The dancing master, as we called him, was shipped.’  He turned out to be totally incapable of harpooning a whale, which disappointed Mrs. Gavitt greatly — ‘She was probably at a loss to imagine how a man who danced so well could fail to be a good whaleman.’

Gavitt headed for the Hawaiian Islands after another season in the ice, and then sailed from Honolulu on Christmas Day, 1856, to cruise on the way home, arriving at New Bedford May 23, 1857.  The voyage was over, and ‘Alonzo’ Sampson was headed for another ship.  As for Captain Gavitt, as Sampson meditated, ‘I hope he was able to live in some other occupation [as] I certainly think he deserved it.’ And that is what must have happened, as there is no records of Gavitt whaling again. Or of what happened to Rebecca.

So, how true is all this?  There is no Alonzo Sampson on the Rebecca Sims crewlist, but there is a William Sampson shipped as an ordinary seaman, and authors, like sailors and ships, often sail under false colors. The crew of the ship changed constantly, so Sampson could easily have become a boatsteerer (harpooner) as the voyage went on. The dates mentioned in the book are mostly confirmed, too: April 28, 1854, at Lahaina; October 18, at Honolulu from Ochotsk Sea; March 17, 1855, at Lahaina after a cruise; at Shantar Bay October 1855; at Hilo November 9, from the Ochotsk; cleared December 14, to cruise; at Guam in March 1856, then the Ochotsk; took oil from the wreck of the Alexander; Honolulu November 17, also December 12, then home, arriving May 31, 1857. (Dennis Wood abstract)

So, while William Sampson was a born raconteur who embroidered his yarn, his humorous stories of Mrs. Captain Samuel Gavitt are probably based on reality.

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

So your book has been pirated?


Yes, nine of my books have been pirated by AI creators.

She Captains

Island of the Lost

In the Wake of Madness

A Watery Grave

Shark Island

Run Afoul

Deadly Shoals

The Notorious Captain Hayes


So if you read a castaway story, a pirate story, a yarn about sefaring wives, or an extraordinary Tahitian priest and navigator, and it sounds a lot like something I wrote, it wasn't me, it wasn't copied by some imitator, it was stolen by a robot, to be used by robots.

Fellow writer Alaric Bond warned me of this, so I headed for the Authors Guild.

The item was headed 



Hitting the search Books3 dataset link (which takes you to another link inside an Atlantic article) and then entering my name brought up the nine titles, but not the editions. A warning here -- you can only do this once, unless you subscribe to The Atlantic, as once you have had your freebie, they want your money.  A fine magazine, but hardworking writers don't have the money or the time, in most cases.

I also found newspaper articles, such as this one from the Australian edition of The Guardian.

It is rather reassuring to find that I am in the company of such illustrious writers, but as they say, it is the biggest act of copyright theft in history.  It is not right, it is not nice, and it should be stopped.

So ... now what, indeed. 

Here is what the Authors Guild very helpfully suggests. I strongly recommend that it should be followed by all authors, and not just those with books that have been pirated, because who knows who is going to be swept up in the net next?

Actions You Can Take Now

Litigation can take a long time, but there are other important actions you take to speak out in defense of your rights now:

  1. If your books are in the Books3 dataset, or if any AI system has intimate knowledge of them, you can send a letter to AI companies telling them that they do not have the right to use your books. We have created a form to make it easy for you to send this letter.
  2. Sign our open letter to the CEOs of AI companies demanding they compensate writers and get proper permission. More than 15,000 writers have signed to date. You can add your signature here
  3. Take action to prevent future unauthorized use of your work in AI systems. Read more about how to do this here. 
  4. Support the Authors Guild in our efforts to protect writers by becoming a member or making a donation. Your support helps us fight to protect writers’ copyrights against AI misuse and ensure that authors are entitled to control the use of their work and be compensated for it in the age of AI.  
  5. Stay informed on the lawsuits and legislation that could impact you by signing up for our newsletter. The landscape is changing rapidly, and we share information about regulations that pertain to AI use of creative works.

Having your book used by AI can be discouraging, but don’t feel powerless. Take action to protect your rights, join forces with other authors, and push the industry toward a fairer system of transparency and compensation. With collective action, we can shape an AI future that respects authorship and protects the profession at large.