Researching First Fury, provided some side benefits. One was that it answered questions I never knew I had; but, after the research, I knew I should have asked. Did you ever wonder about where these came from?
- Why is the toilet sometimes called a “head”?
- Why are office rumors sometimes referred to as “scuttlebutt”?
- Why is a hard time sometimes called “trying”?
- Why do some people refer to discarding something as “deep sixing” it?
- Why do some people yell “shake a leg” to motivate someone to move faster?
- Where does the term “son of a gun” come from?
- When someone is not making sense, why are they sometimes said to have “three sheets to the wind”?
- Why would someone dressed poorly be called a “clod hopper”?
You can find the answers at Where Did These Terms Come From in the Fun Stuff link at First Fury. These phrases became part of Ann’s vocabulary.
More pictures and resources are available on the book’s web site by clicking the “Pictures, Notes, Docs, etc” link.
Way back in 2002, while attending a conference in Boston, I took one day for a side trip to Mystic Seaport, Connecticut, to tour the Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaleship in the world, the oldest American commercial vessel still in existence, and almost identical to Ann’s ship the Christopher Mitchell. Over her 80 year career, the Morgan made 37 voyages, one where she “gammed” with the Mitchell; where the story of Ann was relayed and subsequently documented by Nelson Cole Haley, one of the Morgan seamen, in his book Whale Hunt.
What would Ann have thought as the small whaleboat that carried her drew closer to the ship floating in icy December Nantucket waters? Could she even fathom the idea that she would be working on the masts? Fifteen men (or in Ann’s case, 14 men and one woman) called the foredeck home. (The deck from the main mast aft was for the officers, harpooners, and tradesmen.) Not much area for a 3 year voyage. Below a portion of that deck was the forecastle. As I climbed down into the forecastle that would be their living quarters, I hunched over to avoid bumping my head on the beams that were no more than 5 feet above the floor. With two rows of bunks, one above the other, little room was left in a bunk for much else than lying down, yet she used it for all kinds of things she could not do in front of men. And she did these things in the dark; the forecastle had no windows and only one small entry way. Out of modesty, some men (and Ann for sure) covered the bunk with a curtain. Like the forecastle, the blubber hold gave her no room to stand up straight, yet she worked there (sometimes on her knees, sometimes bowed over) unhooking large slabs of blubber from the hooks as they were lowered into the hold. Then, after all the blubber was in the hold, she lugged smaller chunks of the bloody, oily, sometimes rancid flesh to the hold’s hatch and up. When trying a whale (boiling the blubber into oil) the tryworks fire cast an eerie light around the deck and the fumes hung about the ship as if all the worst smells in the world congregated there. Ann single-handedly saved the ship during a storm by leaping from the tryworks to the forward rigging and cutting loose the ropes that held the sails.
This was Ann’s life while she served as a crewman on the Mitchell. More pictures and resources are available on the book’s web site by clicking the “Pictures, Notes, Docs, etc” link.
When I tell people that I wrote a book on whaling, you would be surprised how many think it is a book on wailing. So, let me clarify that up front. This is a book about a young woman who participated in one of the most dangerous and vile professions of her time. First Fury was a fun project; and, every 2 or 3 months, I would like to share some interesting facts covered in that work. These updates should be educational as well as entertaining. But, as always, you can opt out any time by clicking the Remove Me link.
Whaling ships of the mid-19th century were about 100 feet long, 25 feet wide, and 17 feet deep. The forward half of the ship was home for a contingent of 15 men. In the case of our true story of Rebecca Ann Johnson, the ship Christopher Mitchell was home to 14 men and 1 woman, whom everyone thought was a young man of about 16.
Each ship carried 3 whaleboats stocked with items required to attack a whale. When a whale was seen, the crew manned each boat with 5 rowers and a Mate. The boats were launched and approached the whale as quietly as possible. If lucky, at least one pulled close enough for the harpooner to throw the harpoon into the side of the whale. This, of course, tended to excite the beast which took off, sometimes straight down. The harpoon was attached to the boat with a rope. If the whale swam away at the surface, then the boat was pulled along in what was known as a Nantucket sleigh ride. If it swam straight down and the rope was not released in time, the boat could be pulled down with the whale.
Find out more about what whaling was like by going to this fun link on the First Fury web site.
Next time I will talk about and attach a picture of the Charles Morgan, a ship displayed at Mystic Seaport, Connecticut, and almost identical to the Mitchell. I toured that ship to get a feel of what Ann would have experienced.
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