Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Some Notes on Navy Biscuit


Every American seaman received 14oz. of “bread” per day during the War of 1812.  This was not a nice crusty baguette, fit for sopping up the remains of one’s stew.  No, what the purser’s steward flung into a sailor’s mess kid was a round, wheaten biscuit of obdurate hardness, the size of a man’s fist and as edible as flint.  What it lacked in digestibility it made up for with longevity:  biscuit kept dry and clear of pests could last for years.  Indeed, several museums in Britain and America possess specimens reportedly baked in the early-nineteenth century. [1] 

As with all its victuals, the Navy made every attempt to find bakers who could produce wholesome, high-quality biscuits. The oft-repeated tales of biscuits crawling with weevils or made with pea-flour and bone dust are mostly the concoctions of civilian authors writing from the comfort of their land-locked desks.[2]


A biscuit reportedly baked in 1854 and served as a ration on board USS Constitution in 1861.  Mariner's Museum loan, photo by David Bohl.
An 1818 contract for “Navy Bread” stipulates that the “bread shall have no rye flour or any other than Wheaton flour in it - & after being baked shall be thoroughly kiln dried & prepared in all respects for shipment.”[3]  Surviving pieces of British-made biscuit confirm that they were in fact made of whole-wheat flour.[4]  To ensure that the biscuit’s interior dried properly, bakers punched a series of perforations in each one.   Original specimens are usually about a half-inch thick, measure from 4 ¾ to 5 ¾ inches wide, and weigh about four ounces each.  Assuming American-made biscuit conformed to these dimensions, each man received between three and four whole pieces per day.[5]  Constitution carried 84,456 pounds of this bread for a six-month cruise, or a total of about 337,824 individual biscuits.  In 1816, the Navy Department estimated the average 44-gun frigate required 143,550 pounds of biscuit annually at a cost of $.06 per pound.[6]  How did a navy agent ever find enough bread to outfit a single ship, let alone an entire squadron?

The Royal Navy equipped its dockyards to produce bread on an industrial scale.  At Deptford alone the King’s bakers could manufacture enough biscuit in a day to feed more than 24,000 men.  American bakers made navy bread on nearly as large a scale.  Stephen Harris of Norfolk, Virginia used three brick ovens to bake 21 barrels of flour into biscuit per day.[7]  Baker William McKenny promised to deliver 2000 barrels containing 160,000 pounds of bread, or 640,000 individual biscuits.[8]

Unless graced with strong teeth and powerful jaws, sailors could not bite into the bread, but they had several ways to overcome its obdurate hardness.  Wrapping a biscuit in a cloth and smashing it with something hard (such as a knife handle) would succeed in breaking it into bite-sized bits.  If one were truly desperate, one could suck on these pieces, allowing the natural moisture of the saliva to break down the biscuit.  Alternately, the biscuit might be soaked in whatever liquid was at hand.

Numerous shipboard recipes called for a quantity of biscuit.  For breakfast, a sailor might warm his innards with a can of “Scotch [i.e. cheap or synthetic] coffee,” burnt bread boiled with water and sweetened with molasses or sugar.[9]  Similarly, a mess with a desire for a sweet dish might make “dandy funk,” or “dunderfunk.”  According to Melville, “Dunderfunk is made of hard biscuit, hashed and pounded, mixed with beef fat, molasses, and water, and baked brown in a pan. And to those who are beyond all reach of shore delicacies, this dunderfunk, in the feeling language of the Down Easter, is certainly ‘a cruel nice dish.’”[10]  Biscuit also figured in other concoctions such as lobscouse and possibly duff.  In 1813, however, David Porter “gave the strictist orders to the cook, not to permit any person to use the slush from the cask, for the purpose of frying their bread, &c., as this practice is very common among seaman:” he was afraid that the habit caused scurvy, “that dreadful scourge.”[11]

Biscuit (when not fried in beef slush from the cask) was certainly wholesome (it provided 1727 calories per day), and probably not vile-tasting.[12]  For years, however, writers have repeated lurid tales of biscuits swarming with maggots, weevils, and other undesirable creatures.  Unfortunately, when one hears “maggot,” one thinks of fly larvae that tend to breed in rotten meat.  Clearly, such animals never attacked ship’s bread, but it could play host to two other unpleasant insects.  Tobias Smollett, among others, reported that “cockroaches” regularly consumed biscuit and reduced it to dust.  These were probably not real cockroaches, but rather the Cadelle Beetle (Tenebroides mauritanicus).  The beetle’s larvae can grow up to 20mm long, and appear as white, black-headed worms - the sailor’s “maggot.”  Jocularly referred to as “bargemen” because they looked like small oarsmen swarming a boat, the insects did not eat the biscuit themselves, but rather hunted the miniscule Bread Beetle (Stegobium paniceum).  Scarcely 4mm across when mature, the bread beetle’s larvae were the creatures with an appetite for biscuit, and it was they who could reduce a bag to dust.  True weevils (of the family Curculio) might also have been present, since several species feed on grain.  Yet these are also quite small and would be indiscernible in their larval stage.  All three insects breed quickly in warm, damp conditions, and once packed away in the bread room, they could multiply rapidly.[13]  None of these was particularly harmful if ingested, and since many below-decks regions of the ship remained dark even in the middle of a sunny day, it is likely many sailors unwittingly consumed the creatures on a daily basis.  

How did the biscuit become infected in the first place?   The baking facilities available in 1812 were not kept to the same standard we would expect from a bakery today, and it is likely they acted as magnets for any creature that fed on grain.  After removing it from the ovens, the bakers left the biscuit to dry on racks, and it would have been easy for a beetle to lay its eggs among the batches’ many perforations.  Royal Navy bakers piled thier biscuit in 112-pound bags and then packed them in barrels for transport. Although this was the standard method of food transport in the early nineteenth-century, a barrel is not the ideal container for biscuit.  According to one source, the U.S. Navy recognized this and by the War of 1812 regularly packed biscuit in airtight boxes, which kept it “tasty.”[14]  Alas, there were no precautions that could defend against the most persistent pest of all: ship rats.  During the USS Essex’s passage to the Pacific, rats “had found the way into our bread-rooms, and had occasioned a great consumption of that precious article.”[15]

So, you’d like to try your hand at making this 19th century staple?  You could closely follow William Burney’s guide to the process:

The process of biscuit-making for the navy is simple and ingenious, and is nearly as follows. A large lump of dough, consisting merely of flower and water, is mixed up together, and placed exactly in the centre of a raised platform, where a man sits upon a machine, called a horse, and literally rides up and down throughout its whole circular direction, till the dough is equally indented, and this is repeated till the dough is sufficiently kneaded. In this state it is handed over to a second workman, who, with a large knife, puts it in a proper state for the use of those bakers who more immediately attend the oven. They are five in number; and their different departments are well calculated for expedition and exactness. The first man on the farthest side of a large table moulds the dough, till it has the appearance of muffins, and which he does two together, with each hand; and then delivers them over to the man on the other side of the table, who stamps them on both sides with a mark, and throws them on a smaller table, where stands the third workman, whose business is merely to separate the different pieces into two, and place them under the hand of him who supplies the oven, whose work of throwing or chucking the biscuits on the peel must be performed with the greatest exactness and regularity. The fifth arranges them in the oven, and is so expert, that though the different biscuits are thrown to him at the rate of seventy in a minute, the peel is always disengaged in time to receive them separately. So much critical exactness and neat activity occur in the exercise of this labour, that it is difficult to decide whether the palm of excellence is due to the moulder, the maker, the splitter, the chucker, or the depositor; all of them, like the wheels of a machine, seeming to be actuated by the same principle. The business is to deposit in the oven seventy biscuits in a minute; and this is accomplished with the regularity of a clock; the clack of the peel, during its motion in the oven, operating like the pendulum. The biscuits thus baked are kept in repositories, which receive warmth from being placed in drying lofts over the ovens, till they are sufficiently dry to be packed into bags, without danger of getting mouldy; and when in such a state, they are then packed into bags, of an hundred weight each, and removed into store-house for immediate use.[16]
A baker, from the first American edition of The Book of Trades, or Library of the Useful Arts, 1807.

If perhaps you don’t have access to a Navy bake house, you can still make it at home in your oven.   Here’s what you’ll need:

4 cups stone-ground whole wheat flour (note, do not use white, refined flour for this recipe- it won’t work!)
½ cup water (or so)
DO NOT ADD SALT

Preheat the oven to 175 to 200 degrees

Mix the flour and water until you get a stiff dough.  Roll the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until well mixed.  Cover with a damp cloth and let sit for ten or fifteen minutes.  Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough until it is about ¾ in thick.  Most surviving biscuit is 4 1/2 to 5 inches in diameter, but remember they'll shrink in both dimensions when baked.   Use a cookie cutter or coffee can to cut out round biscuits.  Take a large nail or medium-sized screw driver and punch 15 to 20 holes in the biscuit in a regular pattern (to let it dry thoroughly).  Don’t use the tines of a fork for this operation.  The holes are too small and produce a wholly inaccurate pattern on the biscuit surface.  Place the biscuits on a lightly-floured cookie sheet and bake for 3 or 4 hours.  Turn off the heat and let the biscuits cool in the oven. 

For a really authentic experience, store your biscuit in a canvas bag on the back porch for three months, break up, and enjoy!  Remember, ship’s biscuit was really a way of efficiently transporting and distributing flour- don’t try to bite it!



[1] Period documents invariably refer to this as “biscuit,” “ship’s biscuit,” “ship’s bread,” or simply “bread.” The term “hardtack,” often used to describe hard military bread, seems to have been an invention of the second quarter of the 19th century, and was only popularized during the Civil War.
[2] For examples of such pervasive myths, see John Masefield, Sea Life in Nelson’s Time (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1905, reprint ed., 1984), 121-122.  Masefield was only 24 when he wrote his book, and though he had been to sea himself, “many of the stories he repeats in this book,” as Janet Macdonald writes, “smack of an ancient mariner getting more and more outrageous as the grog went down, and of course they nicely reinforced the late Victorian sense of superiority over their forebears.” [Feeding Nelson’s Navy: The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era (London: Chatham Publishing, 2004), 12]
[3] William McKenny contract, 1818, Contracts, RG 45, E 336, vol.2, NARA, Washington, D.C.
[4] For examples of biscuit, see James P. McGuane, Heart of Oak, A Sailor’s Life in Nelson’s Navy (New York, W.W. Norton & Co.: 2002), 36.
[5] Dr. Cutbush says that “from three to three and a half biscuits will generally weigh fourteen ounces.” Edward Cutbush, Observations on the Means of Preserving the Health of Soldiers and Sailors, (Philadelphia, Thomas Dobson: 1808), 123.
[6] “Estimate of Pay and Provisions for a 44-Gun Frigate, 1816,” American State Papers, vol. XIV, No. 135.
[7] A. G. Roeber, A New England Woman’s Perspective on Norfolk, Viginia, 1801-1802: Excerpts from the Diary of Ruth Henshaw Bascom (Worcester, Mass, American Antiquarian Society: 1979), 304.
[8] William McKenny contract, 1818, Contracts, RG 45, E 336, vol.2, NARA, Washington, D.C.
[9] William Robinson, Jack Nastyface: Memoirs of a Seaman (Annapolis, Md., Naval Institute Press: 1983), 33.
[10] Melville, White Jacket, or the World in a Man-of-War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995),134.
[11] David Porter, Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean, reprint edition (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: The Gregg Press, 1970), 63.
[12] Extracted from the calorific content of British naval rations as summarized by Macdonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy, 177.  The American ration was 14 oz per day which equals 396 grams.
[13] Macdonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy, 97-98.
[14] Ibid., 18.  It should be noted that every Navy receipt for bread, in Boston at least, mentions “bags” and “barrels” rather than “boxes.”
[15] Porter, Journal, vol. 1, 75.
[16] William Burney, A New Universal Dictionary of the Marine (London, T. Cadell & W. Davies: 1815).

Friday, July 11, 2014

Sightings: Constitution in the Charlestown Navy Yard

Constitution has called the Charlestown Navy Yard home since 1897.  Today, half a million people visit her as she lays comfortably at her berth on Pier 1.  She sticks out like a sore thumb, a black and white relict from an earlier age.

In the early 20th century, however, the ship seemed less out of place.  To be sure, her graceful lines would never blend in with the steel hulls of destroyers and battle cruisers, but those Dreadnought descendants still had a certain jauntiness and elegance to their lines that our modern warships completely lack. 

The museum recently acquired a collection of glass plate negatives created by the skillful and prolific photographer Leslie Jones.  He worked for the Boston Herald-Traveler between 1917 and 1956 and his photograph collection (now mostly housed at the Boston Public Library) provides an incredible look at life in and around Boston during those years.  He seems to have especially adored Constitution, because he snapped hundreds of photos of her over the years.

Here we see Constitution as just one more Navy ship in a Navy Yard full of them.  Here's a selection of some of the best photos. 

Constitution alongside the pier, in the midst of a destroyer squadron sometime between May 1926 and June 1927.  The four destroyers are of the Clemson-class, and include USS Sturtevant (DD 240) and USS Childs (DD 241).  The receiving ship behind Constitution is USS Southery (IX 26).

Another view of the same scene.  Note the floating crane in the left foreground.

In this particularly artful shot, civilian workers mount one of Constitution's newly-cast 24-pounders on the gundeck in 1930.

Constitution, newly restored and with sails bent to the yards, leaves Boston for her three-year, 22,000-mile "National Cruise" in July 1931.  Her tender, USS Grebe, can be seen peeking out from behind the frigate's bow.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

A New Song for the Fourth of July (1815)

The Analectic Magazine, the country’s premier literary rag published between 1813 and 1820, was fond of printing the finest specimens of American poetry and song.  The magazine’s first editor was none other than Washington Irving, and he used its pages as a platform for enlarging and improving taste in the arts.  He was especially concerned with what he termed “popular poetry.”  Aware that “nautical songs, and other little poetical effusions” appeared only in ephemeral form (in broadsides and newspapers), and consequentially fearful that they might be forever lost to posterity, Irving asked for “a person of discriminating taste” to collect and publish these works.

Such a worthwhile undertaking would take time, so in the meantime, some of the “best specimens of the poetic talent of this country” graced the pages of the Analectic Magazine.  The November 1815 edition reproduced “A new song” “Sung before the Corporation of the City of New York, The Fourth of July, 1815.”  Titled “The Frigate Constitution,” it recounted the glorious career of the famed ship during the late war with Great Britain.  As the preface makes clear, Irving considered this work a fine example of what one should look for in genuine “folk” productions (even though it was written by a New York lawyer).

The following song appears to us to possess much of the rough carelessness, and unstudied simplicity which should characterise the genuine sailor’s song, and we have therefore selected it, as affording an agreeable contrast to the inflated and absurd productions that have been palmed upon the public as naval songs, the writers of which seem to have considered swelling metaphors, sublime conceits, and extravagant bombast, as excellent substitutes for truth, humour, and natural feeling.  The solid glory of our naval victories has been obscured and caricatured, not illustrated by these tawdry decorations; and poetry, instead of decking the brows of our heroes, with wreathes of evergreen, has for the most part, bedizened them out with ill-sorted and fantastic garlands of artificial flowers.
THE FRIGATE CONSTITUTION.
A new song.

Tune- “Moggy Lauder.”

BY FRANCIS ARDEN, ESQ.

Argo of Greece, that brought the fleece
To the Thessalian city,
As we are told, by bards of old,
Was sung in many a ditty;
But Yankees claim a prouder name
To spur their resolution,
Than Greece could boast and do her most –
The frigate Constitution.

When first she press’d the stream’s cool breast,
Hope hail’d her pride of story;
Now she o’erpays hope’s flatt’ring praise,
By matcheless deeds of glory;
Of all that roam, the salt sea’s foam,
None floats to Neptune dearer,
Or fairer shines in fame’s bright lines,
Or more makes Britain fear her.

‘Neath Hull’s command, with a tough band,
And nought beside to back her,
Upon a day, as log-books say,
A fleet bore down to thwack her;
A fleet, you know, is odds or so,
Against a single ship sirs;
So cross the tide, her legs she tried,
And gave the rouges the slip sirs.[1]

But time flies round, and soon she found,
While ploughing ocean’s acres,
An even chance to join the dance,
And turn keel up, poor Dacres;
Dacres, ‘tis clear, despises fear,
Quite full of fun and prank is,
Hoists his ship’s name, in playful game,
Aloft to scare the Yankees.[2]

On Brazil’s coast, she rul’d the roast,
When Bainbridge was her captain;
Neat hammocks gave, made of the wave,
Dead Britons to be wrapp’d in;
For ther, in ire, ‘midst smoke and fire,
Her boys the Java met sirs,
And in the fray, her Yankee play,
Tipp’d Bull a somerset sirs.[3]

Next on her deck, at Fortune’s beck,
The dauntless Stewart landed;
A better tar ne’er shone in war,
Or daring souls commanded;
Old Ironsides, now once more rides,
In search of English cruisers;
And Neptune grins to see her twins,
Got in an hour or two, sirs.[4]

Then raise amain, the joyful strain,
For well she has deserv’d it,
Who brought the foe so often low,
Cheer’d freedom’s heart and nerv’d it;
Long may she ride, our navy’s pride,
And spur to resolution;
And seamen boast, and landsmen toast,
The FRIGATE CONSTITUTUION.


Constitution in all her glory. USS Constitution Museum collection.
 

[1] This stanza refers to Constitution’s narrow escape from a British squadron off Long Island in July 1812.
[2] According to some accounts, Captain James Richard Dacres ordered the words “Not the Little Belt” painted on Guerriere’s foretopsail before the August 19, 1812 action with Constitution.
[3] Constitution defeated HMS Java on December 29, 1812.
[4] On February 20, 1815, under the command of Charles Stewart, Constitution defeated HMS Cyane and HMS Levant.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

For now we see through a glass

The museum recently acquired an interesting artifact with a provenance important to Constitution’s story.  The single draw telescope crafted by famed London instrument makers Dollond is not unusual in itself.  But pull the brass eyepiece from the wooden barrel, and all is revealed.  There, four names are neatly engraved.  They read Adml. Robert Lambert, Capt. Henry Lambert, R.N. 1812, Adml. Sir George Robert Lambert G.C.B., and Vice Adml. Rowley Lambert C.B. 

The Lambert Family telescope.
Here’s nothing less than a genealogical record of one very salty family!    The second name concerns us the most.   Born in 1784, Captain Henry Lambert commanded HMS Java during her fateful battle with Constitution on December 29, 1812.

According to the son of Lambert’s First Lieutenant Henry Ducie Chads (who wrote down his father’s anecdotes of the battle some years later), “an hour and 20 minutes after the Action had begun the gallant Captain Lambert fell mortally wounded.  He was standing on the Quarter Deck facing forward and talking to my father who was facing aft, the Constitution at that time raking them astern, when a Musket Ball struck him in the shoulder.  The wound was a very similar one to Lord Nelson’s.”

The musket ball, supposedly fired by American Marine Sergeant Adrian Peters, pierced the left side of Henry’s body under the clavicle and fractured the first rib.  It continued on, going through the left lobe of his lung before lodging in the spine.  Java’s surgeon, Thomas Cook Jones administered opium and wine to dull his agony, but the wound proved mortal. He lingered for several days. though soon became delirious.  The evening after he was landed with the other prisoners at Bahia (now San Salvador), Brazil he died.  This was the 4th of January 1813. [1]

Wholly consumed with repairing Constitution’s damage and preparing for sea, “not an American Officer attended his funeral!- but the Portuguese buried him on the ramparts with Military Honours and paid every respect to his memory.” Lieutenant Chads wrote to the Secretary of the Admiralty the day after Lambert’s death:

With the deepest sorrow I have to inform you of the death of Captain Lambert on the 4th inst. of the wounds he received in the action with the Constitution American Frigate.  In him the Country has lost a most valuable and Gallant officer and myself (who have served under his Command some years) the officers and crew a kind friend.
   
His remains were interred this morning with Military honors in fort Sn. Pedro & it is with much satisfaction I add that every respect was shown on this occasion by his excellency the Conde Dos Areos (Governor) & the Portuguese in general.

There was at this time no Protestant cemetery in Bahia, although one was established later in 1813 for the many British merchants resident in the city.  Forte de São Pedro still stands in the city’s southwest quarter (on Rua Forte de São Pedro), but we have not been able to determine whether or not Lambert’s grave still exists or is visible.  The fort was apparently restored in the 1980s, so if a marker still exists, it was probably uncovered then.

A close up of the draw, with Lambert names inscribed.

But what of the telescope?  Could it have been at the battle, tucked away safely in Lambert’s cabin?  Possibly.  What we know for sure is that it was owned first by his father Robert (b. abt 1732, d. abt 1805), a Royal Navy officer who had five sons, all of whom served in the Army or Navy. [2]  Henry was his third son.  The third name, George Robert Lambert (b. 1775, d. 1860), is Henry’s brother, another naval officer who earned the sobriquet “the Combustible Commodore” for his role in starting the second Burmese War.  The fourth name, Rowley (b. 1828) was George’s son, who also died an admiral.

So this unremarkable telescope, a commonplace part of a naval officer’s baggage, has become an important memorial to a whole family who devoted themselves to King and Country.




[1] Thanks are due to Mr. Keith Evetts for the post-mortem report from Surgeon Jones.
[2] This might also have been Henry’s brother Robert, Jr.  He attained the rank of Rear Admiral and was the officer responsible for guarding Napoleon on St. Helena.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Letter for Father’s Day


 On a blustery autumn day in 1791, an 18-year-old Isaac Hull sat down to write a letter to his father Joseph.  For a year, the future naval hero had been serving before the mast on merchant vessels trading with Europe, learning the practical seamanship for which he later became so famous.  The letter, though written in the formal style so common in correspondence between fathers and sons in the 18th century, betrays some measure of filial affection.  The young sailor is anxious for news from home, and equally anxious to make his family proud.  He offers his opinion about this brother Joseph’s decision to teach school, and acknowledges that he could have gone to school too- but chooses the sea.

So here is his letter, with all its quirks of spelling and punctuation, and all of its insight into the formative years of Constitution’s most famous commander.

                                        Boston  Oct 8th 1791

Honoured father

    It being Now a year since I left home and have not heard from home till now by Capt more he informs me of my aunt Betseys Death which I was very sorry to hear I under stand that you was Downhere this spring and was very uneasy a bout me but I am very sorry to hear for I think my self Better off than at home I have the offer of going second mate of a brig 160 tons but am at a loss wheather to Except or not the oner that I am with hes 2 brigs and the ship I am at Presant alone in Relaiding salt out I have 9 Doller Pr month- Sir Please to remember me to my mother and ask hir to forgive my staying so long Let my little brothers no I am well.  I under stand that Joseph has left my uncle David which in my opinion is the worst thing he Could do  I should ad vise him not to spend his time in keeping school for I think that no business at all my uncle Coud hab got me in to a Chool at 10 dolers Pr month But Choose the sea –
I shall onely beg your Patens for not Comeing home but you shall hear from me every opertunity and I wish you to advise me how to Conduct as I do not forget that I have a father –
                            Sir I remain your son
                                                        Isaac Hull

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The cost of dying in the Federal Navy

A recent article in the New York Times reports that the price of an American funeral these days averages about $8,000. [1] This staggering figure helps us understand how the funeral industry shovels in revenues in excess of $20 billion each year.  And with the annual death rate not expected to decline until the mid 2020s, the industry of dying is anything but a dying industry.

With caskets starting at $1,500, coupled with the price of embalming, a cemetery plot, a headstone, and the services of a funeral director, the price shelled out for a final resting place can quickly rise.

The thing is, the American way of death has always followed the ebb and flow of fashion, and has been as variable through the centuries as domestic architecture and clothing.



New England Puritans often spent vast sums burying the deceased.  While the coffin and a carved slate headstone accounted for some of the cost, much of the cash was spent on the living.  Mourning rings and suits, bell ringers at the meetinghouse, hearse and the horse to pull it, gloves for the mourners, and hearty amounts of food and drink increased the bill.  In fact, it was not unusual for funeral expenses to eat up twenty percent of the deceased’s estate.

The expenditures at last became so burdensome (and so out of keeping with the moral aesthetics of the Puritan theocracy), that Massachusetts passed sumptuary laws in 1721 restricting the amount people could spend on funeral gifts and trappings. [2] Sixty years later, people had become so lackadaisical in their treatment of the dead, Massachusetts legislators found it necessary to pass laws to ensure that they received at least a modicum of care. [3]

Death rates in America fell during the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries, but that didn’t mean death ceased to be visible part of everyday life.  For the sailors who manned the ships of the early United States Navy, premature death almost seemed the rule rather than the exception. Falls, drownings, and violent deaths occurred all the time.  Disease spread among a crew with ease, and in southern climates especially, yellow fever, malaria, or a host of other ailments could decimate seamen and officers alike.

The Navy’s bean-counters neatly filed away the expenses incurred for burying seamen and officers just as efficiently as they did purchases of door nails or copper sheathing.  At sea, burials tended to be simple, quick affairs.  But on shore, decorum and fashion demanded more care and elaboration.

Usually, the Federal government bore these expenses.  The elaborateness of the burial depended in large measure on the rank of the individual who died.


The coffins of Captain James Lawrence and Lieut. Augustus Ludlow.  Killed on board USS Chesapeake in June 1813, the two officers received a splendid funeral when their bodies were brought home later in the year.

When Lieutenant Benjamin Turner crossed the bar at New Orleans in 1807, his funeral cost $88.07, or more than twice what he made per month while alive.  Mr. Charles Depre provided 40 feet of cherry boards for his coffin.  New Orleans milliners supplied 67 yards of black crepe to drape the coffin and hearse.  There were 50 funeral cards (and a “carrier” to distribute them).  The Reverend Philander Chase charged $20 for his “offices” at the funeral, and lest he appear improperly attired, he needed a sash of cambric muslin and black ribbon for his hat.  The sexton, Henry Mitchell, submitted a bill for the use of the hearse and pall ($4) and for burying Lt. Turner ($4). [4] Altogether, the funeral must have been a fitting, if somber, send off for one the Navy’s promising young officers.

The expense for burying common seamen seemed paltry by comparison.  When sailor John Thompson died in March 1813, his funeral cost $18.25.  Undertaker John F. Nooton nickel and dimed the Navy Department.  He charged for digging the grave (eight feet deep, and $.50 extra because the ground was frozen), for a coffin and pall, for using the “Funeral Car” and the horse to pull it, for filling out the death certificate, for tolling the bell, for laying the corpse in the coffin, and for caring the corpse to the grave. [5]  These charges seem elaborate compared to those paid for the burial of USS Guerriere Seaman William White.  When he died in Philadelphia in September 1814, he was placed in a “stained coffin” costing $7 and the “horse, hearst & Grave” cost another $2.[6]

If nothing else, it is surprising the Navy willingly incurred these expenses.  At a time when the Navy Department was extremely parsimonious, questioning nearly every expenditure, the sums it spent to convey its officers and men to their final resting places convey a sense of obligation and care that was substantiated by other aspects of naval life.  The Navy took care of its own.



[1] Glaser, Gabrielle. "The Funeral: Your Last Chance to be a Big Spender," The New York Times. April 18, 2009.
[2]  David E. Stannard, The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 112-115.
[3]  Ibid., 159-160.
[4] Benjamin Turner accounts, Fourth Auditor of the Treasury, Numerical Accounts, No. 6359, RG 217, NARA.
[5]  John Nooton bill to Josiah Snelling, 23 March 1813, in Henry B. Rapp settled accounts, Fourth Auditor of the Treasury, Numerical Accounts, RG 217, NARA.
[6] George Ritter receipt, 21 September 1814, Fourth Auditor of the Treasury, Numerical Accounts No. 908, RG 217, NARA.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Axeman Cometh

Back in January, we gave you a preview of a short film we’ve been working on.  It's the story of one very special axe.  Happily, that film is now finished!  It took many hands to produce.  Dr. Rob Martello of Olin College helped whip the script into shape.  Derek Heidemann of Resurrection Iron Works, along with Dave Wilson, expertly reproduced the axe from a bar of wrought iron.  Justin Kennick used the axe to hew a log at Coggeshall Farm in Bristol. RI.  Last, but certainly not least, MassHumanities provided the funds to make this all happen.

Not only does the film bring alive the story of one artifact, but it is intended to serve as a model for future film projects here at the museum.  We will strive to repeat this for other classes of artifacts.  For this reason, we aimed to keep production costs as low as possible, and did all of the editing in house.

We hope you enjoy the show!