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The Whaling Museum of Cold Spring Harbor

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints & Photographs

By Nomi Dayan

Nomi Dayan

Becoming ill is never fun. Becoming ill when away from home is worse. And becoming ill at sea on a whaling ship is the worst of all. “Let a man be sick anywhere else — but on shipboard,” wrote whaler Francis A. Olmstead in 1841 in “Incidents of a Whaling Voyage.”

Whalers who fell ill could find little comfort. Olmstead continued to explain, “When we are sick on shore, we obtain good medical advice, kind attention, quiet rest, and a well ventilated room. The invalid at sea can command but very few of these alleviations to his sufferings.” There were no “sick days” for whalers, who were expected to work during busy times if they could stand. 

The incapacitated whaler would lie on his grimy, cramped straw mattress in his misery, listen to the nonstop creaking of the ship, roll from side to side with the swaying of the ship, and breathe the fishy, putrid air. He would eventually be visited by the “doctor,” a.k.a. the captain. The skipper would rely on his weak medical and surgical knowledge as he opened his medicine chest and offered some powdered rhubarb, a little buckthorn syrup, or perhaps mercurial ointment, chamomile flowers or cobalt. The whaler would then either recover or die. If he passed, the captain would casually mention his death in the next letter home, and perhaps pick up a replacement at the next port.

If the whaler was lucky, he might awaken from his burning fever and shivering chills to hear a soothing voice, feel a cool cloth being gently placed on his forehead, and perhaps taste a bit of food offered to him. He would sit up to catch a glimpse of this angel visiting him with her wide skirt and billowing sleeves.

She was none other than the captain’s wife. Women who lived on board whaling ships with their captain-husbands were primarily there to avoid the widow-like years ashore. Although these wives generally lived a profoundly separate life from the rest of the crew at sea, some wives recorded in their journals how they aided sick crew members as nurses. They wrote how they were bothered to see others suffer, and felt satisfied with their own usefulness in a situation where medical resources were bordering nonexistent.

Even if there was not much she could accomplish medically for a sick or hurt whaler, it seems her presence alone could be a comfort to men: Olmstead lamented that the attention an ill man received from other men “have none of that soothing influence which woman’s tender sympathy alone can impart.”

Mary Brewster, who sailed from Connecticut in 1845, observed that “a whaleship is a hard place for comfort for well ones and much more sick men.” She documented in her journal how “the best part of the day I have spent in making doses for the sick and dressing sore hands and feet. 5 sick and I am sent to for all the medicin[e]. I am willing to do what can be done for any one particularly if sick.”

Another wife of a coastal trader, Mary Satterly Rowland of Setauket, reported an unending job tending maladies and injuries: “First came Jack, a dose of salts. Second case Nick with a sore leg knocked off the skin on launching day. Thirdly Gardner taken cold and confined to the forecastle several days. Fourth, Cook Rheumatic pain and in bed sick … Fifth case Lawrence cut his toe.”

Martha Brown of Orient also played nurse at sea to an unfortunate young man, John. “I went into steerage this afternoon to give him some medicine, and asked him how he felt. His answer was ‘Mrs. Brown, I feel bad.’ My heart was touched. It is very hard to see him gradually growing worse and can do nothing for him.” One can imagine Martha’s grief watching him die shortly after. He was buried at sea.

One whaling wife’s experience as a nurse led her to falling in love with her patient. When 29-year-old first officer Will Williams was badly injured, Elizabeth Stetson nursed him all night, and continued to visit him when he was hospitalized. She washed his hair, cleaned his nails, and chatted – and chatted – and chatted, growing emotionally closer to him until she admitted in her diary, “I hope that Charles [husband] does not mind if I do love Willie so much.” Once he recovered, though, and rejoined the ship months later, she continued to get to know him – and his faults – and the spell was broken.

Most wives were happy to feel valuable and help contribute to the voyage’s success. Some took the initiative to go beyond their nursing roles: Calista Stover of Maine persuaded the crew of a sailing ship to swear off tobacco and alcohol while in port (the pledge didn’t stick). Others tried to reform men’s swearing. However, women tried to improve the crew, their support gives understanding to the root of the word “nurse,” which is Latin for “nutrire” – nourish. No wonder Charles. W. Morgan wrote, “There is more decency on board when there is a woman.”

Nomi Dayan is the executive director of The Whaling Museum of Cold Spring Harbor. In honor of National Nurses Week, the museum is offering pay-as-you-wish admission for nurses (with current ID) and their families (up to 6 people) from May 7 to 12, as the museum recognizes the importance of nursing roles which whaling wives often took in the whaling industry.

REVISITING AN OLD SPORT

As part of the Museum Movies in Huntington series, the Huntington Historical Society will present a special screening of ‘The Great Gatsby’ (1974) starring Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston at the Whaling Museum, 301 Main St., in Cold Spring Harbor on Wednesday, July 11 at 7 p.m. $5 per person. Reservations are required (no walk-ins) by calling 631-427-7045.

 

By Nomi Dayan

Nomi Dayan

Whaling was a risky business, physically and financially. Life at sea was hazardous. Fortunes were made or lost. Whale hunts were perilous, as was the processing of the whale. Injuries were rampant and death was common, sometimes on nearly every voyage. In some instances, the deceased was none other than the captain.

Captain Sluman Lothrop Gray met his untimely end on a whaleship. Born in 1813, very little is known of his past, his family or his early experiences at sea. In 1838, he married Sarah A. Frisbie of Pennsylvania in the rural town of Columbia, Connecticut. His whaling and navigational skills must have been precocious, because in 1842, in his late 20s, Gray became a whaling captain — and a highly successful one. 

His wife Sarah joined him in his achievements, living with him at sea for 20 years. Three of their eight children were born during global whaling voyages. Gray commanded a string of vessels: the Jefferson and Hannibal of New London, Connecticut, to the Indian and North Pacific oceans; the Mercury and Newburyport of Stonington, Connecticut, to the South Atlantic, Chile, and Northwest Pacific oceans; and the Montreal of New Bedford, Massachusetts, to the North Pacific Ocean.  

While financially successful, Gray’s crew felt his harsh personality left much to be desired. Some of his blasphemies were recorded by a cabin boy on the Hannibal in 1843. Gray did not hesitate to flog crew members for minor mistakes. Unsurprisingly, when Sarah once reported her husband had taken ill, the crew rejoiced. To their chagrin, he recovered.

As Gray aged, he attempted to retire from maritime living and shift into the life of a country gentleman. He bought 10 acres of land in Lebanon, Connecticut, and lived there for seven years, where his house still stands. 

This bucolic life did not last, and Gray returned to whaling. With his wife and three children — 16-year-old Katie, 10-year-old Sluman Jr. and 2-year-old Nellie, he sailed out of New Bedford on June 1, 1864, on the James Maury. Built in Boston in 1825 and sold to New Bedford owners in 1845, the James Maury was a hefty ship at 394 tons. Gray steered the course toward hunting grounds in the South Pacific. 

Unexpectedly, after nine months at sea in March 1865, he suddenly became ill. The closest land was Guam, 400 miles away. Sarah described his sickness as an “inflammation of the bowels.” After two days, Gray was dead. The first mate reported in the ship’s logbook: “Light winds and pleasant weather. At 2 p.m. our Captain expired after an illness of two days.”  He was 51 years old.

Sarah had endured death five times before this, having to bury five of her children who sadly died in infancy. She could not bear to bury her husband at sea. Considering how typical grand-scale mourning was in Victorian times, a burial at sea was anything but romantic. It was not unheard of for a whaling wife to attempt to preserve her husband’s body for a home burial. But how would Sarah embalm the body?

Two things aboard the whaleship helped: a barrel and alcohol. Sarah asked the ship’s cooper, or barrel maker, to fashion a cask for the captain. He did so, and Gray was placed inside. The cask was  filled with “spirits,” likely rum. The log for that day records: “Light winds from the Eastward and pleasant weather; made a cask and put the Capt. in with spirits.”

The voyage continued on to the Bering Sea in the Arctic; death and a marinating body did not stop the intentions of the crew from missing out on the summer hunting season. 

However, there was another unexpected surprise that June: the ship was attacked by the feared and ruthless Confederate raider Shenandoah, who prowled the ocean burning Union vessels, especially whalers (with crews taken as prisoners). The captain, James Waddell, had not heard — or refused to believe —that the South had already surrendered. 

When the first mate of the Shenandoah, Lt. Chew, came aboard the James Maury, he found Sarah panic stricken. The James Maury was spared because of the presence of her and her children — and presumably the presence of her barreled husband. Waddell assured her that the “men of the South did not make war on women and children.” Instead, he considered them prisoners and ransomed the ship. Before the ship was sent to Honolulu, he dumped 222 other Union prisoners on board. One can imagine how cramped this voyage was since whaleships were known for anything but free space.

A year after the captain’s death, the remaining Gray family made it home in March 1866. The preserved captain himself was shipped home from New Bedford for $11. 

Captain Gray was finally buried in Liberty Hill Cemetery in Connecticut. His resting place has a tall marker with an anchor and two inscriptions: “My Husband” and “Captain S. L. Gray died on board ship James Maury near the island of Guam, March 24, 1865.” Sarah died 20 years later and was buried next to her husband.

It is unknown if Gray was buried “as is” or in a casket. There are no records of Sarah purchasing a coffin. Legend has it that he was buried barrel and all.

Nomi Dayan is the executive director at The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor.

Above, Simon shows the audience a photo of the crew right after being rescued. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Danger on the high seas: Reliving ‘the perfect storm’
A painting by George Schoenberg depicts the rescue on Oct. 29.

By Heidi Sutton

The Whaling Museum in Cold Spring Harbor hosted a presentation of “The Accidental Sailor” with guest speaker and storyteller Nelson Simon last Thursday evening. In front of a captivated audience, Simon recounted how he and his crew members were caught in “the perfect storm” off the coast of North Carolina and how they all miraculously survived. With a slide show and readings from his journal, Simon gave a dramatic day-by-day account up until that fateful hour when the ship starting taking on water and had to be abandoned.

Simon opened the lecture by reading the names of his crewmates: Joey Gelband, Laingdon Schmitt, Jen Irving, Peter Abelman, Damian Sailors, Marty Hanks, Barbara Treyz and John Nuciforo.

“A ship in a storm is like a tiny quadrant of order in a huge universe of chaos and it only works if everyone does their job, and these people did,” said Simon solemnly.

The Anne Kristine

In late Oct. 1991, the Brooklyn resident found himself aboard the Anne Kristine, a 150-year-old Norwegian schooner bound for Bermuda from Mills Basin, Brooklyn. The 95-foot ship, which had been lovingly rebuilt by explorer Norman Baker in 1986, was to be transported to Bermuda and then continue on to Puerto Rico to take part in a scientific expedition to study whale behavior.

Simon had second thoughts from the very beginning, a sort of sixth sense about the whole thing, but signed up nevertheless as the last, and least experienced, ninth crew member. Why did he do it? “Maybe being an immigrant, we are taught to fit in, go along, to accommodate people. I didn’t want to be a bother,” explained Simon, who was born in La Paz, Bolivia. Though he had recently sailed on the Clearwater Sloop for a week down the Hudson River holding educational tours, he couldn’t help but wonder what he had gotten himself into.

What was supposed to be a pleasure cruise, turned out to be a near death and life-changing experience for Simon as the ship found itself caught between a nor’easter and Hurricane Grace, battered relentlessly by enormous waves for days until the captain sent out a Mayday.

Unlike the fishing boat Andrea Gail and its six-member crew who were lost in the storm never to be seen again, the crew of the Anne Kristine were all rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard on Oct. 29. Simon described how each crew member had to jump into the raging sea one at a time with a life jacket and flashlight and wait to be plucked out by a helicopter rescue crew.

Last seen turning sideways in the waves, the ship was lost at sea.

From left, friends Paul Maggio and Jonny Rosenblatt, storyteller Nelson Simon and Joan Lowenthal, Elizabeth Fusco and Amanda Vengroff of The Whaling Museum. Photo by Heidi Sutton

“Anne Kristine did everything that we asked of her,” stressed Simon. “She held up under the most challenging circumstances. She was completely seaworthy. There was some talk afterward that she had let us down but nothing could be further from the truth.” Instead, Simon blamed human error, citing several key mistakes including “heading east instead of west” and not priming the pumps properly.

For the crew, telling Norman Baker that his beloved ship had sunk was hard. “Anne Kristine wasn’t just a ship, she was a community,” said Simon. Baker held a memorial for the ship shortly after at his home in Massachusetts — 150 people showed up, including the nine-member crew that sailed on her last.

Even after 26 years, Simon still gets emotional speaking about the event. “In preparing this [lecture] I remembered how afraid I was,” said Simon. He described the scene right before he was rescued — “a young man standing on the ship’s deck, looking up at the [midnight sun], wondering how he got here and waiting for his chance to get away.”

From left, Don Eckerle and Mark Waldron investigate The Whaling Museum’s archives. Photo courtesy of The Whaling Museum

Don Eckerle and Mark Waldron know a thing or two about history. They have poured through tens of thousands of marriage licenses, birth records, death certificates, military enlistments and even Titanic claims — and now, for the first time, through hidden records of Cold Spring Harbor’s whaling history.

The two Kings Park residents are trustees of the German Genealogy Group, an organization established in 1996 to provide genealogical research support. The group currently hosts a website (www.theggg.org) that indexes genealogical research aids freely available to its 1,100 members and the general public, assisting people from Long Island and beyond to find their roots. The records are chiefly centered in the New York metropolitan area and represent all nationalities.  Additional indexed records are continually being added to the website, many of which are not available on other sites.

The Whaling Museum’s collection is both a local and nationally significant resource for preserving our cultural heritage, but the archives are largely unknown to the general public. A generally untapped resource, the collections provide insight and documentary evidence of Cold Spring Harbor’s infrastructure and Long Island’s development not found in any other repository. The collections contain 95 percent of existing manuscript material from the Cold Spring Harbor whaling fleet, including photographs, correspondence, ledgers, scrapbooks, crew lists, ship logs, journals, deeds, poems and records that document the people, places and moments from the 18th to 20th centuries. A significant portion of the collection documents 44 voyages by nine local ships from 1836 to 1862.

Beginning in 2016, Eckerle and Waldron painstakingly examined the collection folder by folder, carefully lifting names into an index containing the name of the person or company, the year of the record, the type of record and its location in the museum. Their project resulted in gathering the names of 4,000 people.

“Long Island possesses a vibrant and fascinating maritime heritage. Periodically, we receive research requests from people exploring their ancestry or scholars investigating individuals, which up until now was a wild goose chase,” said Executive Director Nomi Dayan. “Don and Mark’s tedious work greatly enhances the accessibility of our archives to serve as a first level of research support. We are hopeful this project will result in an increase in public interest and build advocates of this important cultural heritage resource,” she said.

Waldron noted, “The records indexed for The Whaling Museum are a perfect example of what we try to do. It was surprising to see the wide variations in the types of documents: crew lists, ship owner lists, personal letters, obituaries, probate records, land deeds. Some of these records go back to the 18th and early 19th century. There was even a page that had the words to the song “Yankee Doodle” published for a July 4th celebration in 1803!”

Waldron has been researching his own family history for 22 years and belongs to several genealogy organizations. “When I first began, most of the research was done via microfilm, which was very slow and tedious.  The advent of on-line indexes and records has made genealogical research much easier. Creating digital indexes to records is very rewarding, especially when the archive tells you that they are receiving record requests due to the index we’ve created.”

Eckerle has traced one family line back to the late 1500s in France. “Through my research, I was able to even trace one daughter-in-law’s family line back to the Mayflower and connected her to a few very significant men in the Revolutionary War period.”

The index is available through www.theggg.org as well as www.cshwhalingmuseum.org.