Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The ghost ship of 1647

© 2012 Christy K Robinson

Replica early-17th-century merchant ship, armed against pirates.
In the early 1640s, seeing their estates shrinking fast in the New World, the merchants of New Haven Colony formed a last-ditch partnership to build and stock a trading ship that could bypass the large ports (and of course fees) of Massachusetts Bay, and trade directly with England.

The tonnage of the ship was variously reported as 80, 100, and 150 tons, and there are claims that it was built at Long Island, New Haven, or Newport. (If it was built at Newport as the Bostonian Cotton Mather wrote, the Puritans could blame the heretical, godless Rhode Islanders for its faults!) The ship may have been built shoddily or too hastily, because it was liable to roll over, according to its master, Mr. George Lamberton, who “often said she would prove their grave.”  

 “The Shippe never went voyage before, & was verye Cranckesided,” wrote Governor John Winthrop of Boston. "Crank-sided" means lop-sided or askew. Oh, dear! Imagine trying to stand upright, or the distribution of cargo weight.

In January 1646, the ship set out from New Haven, loaded with wheat, beaver pelts, hides, and other goods valued at £5,000, which would be worth perhaps US$645,000 today. Because this was the coldest decade of the Little Ice Age, the ship’s master had to break through three miles of harbor ice to get out to Long Island Sound. There were about 70 people aboard the nameless ship. Part of the way, they were accompanied by their ultra-conservative Puritan minister, Mr. Davenport, who had close ties to Governor Winthrop, and who later became one of Boston’s ministers and magistrates. (Rev. Davenport had come to Massachusetts in 1630 in the Winthrop Fleet.) Many friends, investors, and well-wishers followed the ship to the harbor’s mouth, with prayers and tears, and heard Davenport pray,
“Lord, if it be thy pleasure to bury these our friends in the bottom of the sea, they are thine; save them!” 
(Yes, Davenport appears to have forgotten to take his happy pills that day.)
Click to enlarge. Page
from Cotton Mather's

Magnalia Christi Americana,
 about the ship.

Reverend Cotton Mather, in 1703, wrote that 
“Alas, the ship was never after heard of! she foundered in the sea; and in her were lost, not only the hopes of their future trade, but also the lives of several excellent persons, as well as divers manuscripts of some great men in the country, sent over for the service of the church, which were now buried in the ocean. The fuller story of that grievous matter, let the reader with a just astonishment accept from the pen of the reverend person [James Pierpont], who is now the pastor of New-Haven.”
Those lost were the ship's commander George Lamberton, (militia) Capt. Nathaniel Turner, "Thomas Gregson [my direct ancestor], Mrs. Goodyear, and seven or eight figures of importance." Mrs. Goodyear was the first wife of New Haven deputy governor Stephen Goodyear, who later married the widow of George Lamberton! Many of the rest of the 70 people aboard would have been ship's crew.

The godly people of New Haven, not hearing the fate of the passengers or their investments after 18 months had elapsed, fasted and prayed that the Lord would let them hear what he had done with them, and to prepare them to accept his will. A great thunderstorm blew up one day in June, and an hour before sunset, a ship of similar dimensions to the one which left in January appeared in the sky over New Haven harbor’s mouth and sailed into the north wind for half an hour. (Toward, not away from, the thunderstorm, which makes its appearance more significant.)

Rev. James Pierpont wrote his eyewitness account of the spectral ship.
Click to enlarge. Page
from Cotton Mather's

Magnalia Christi Americana,
 about the ship.
“A great thunderstorm arose out of the northwest; after which (the hemisphere being serene) about an hour before sunset a ship of like dimensions with the aforesaid, with her canvass and colours abroad (though the wind northerly) appeared in the air coming up from our harbour's mouth, which lyes southward from the town, seemingly with her sails filled under a fresh gale, holding her course north, and continuing under observation, sailing against the wind for the space of half an hour.

“Many were drawn to behold this great work of God; yea, the very children cryed out, There's a brave ship! At length, crowding up as far as there is usually water sufficient for such a vessel, and so near some of the spectators, as that they imagined a man might hurl a stone on board her, her main-top seemed to be blown off, but left hanging in the shrouds; then her missen-top; then all her masting seemed blown away by the board: quickly after the hulk brought unto a careen, she overset, and so vanished into a smoky cloud, which in some time dissipated, leaving, as everywhere else, a clear air. The admiring spectators could distinguish the several colours of each part, the principal rigging, and such proportions, as caused not only the generality of persons to say, This was the mould of their ship, and thus was her tragick end: but Mr. Davenport also in publick declared to this effect, That God had condescended, for the quieting of their afflicted spirits, this extraordinary account of his sovereign disposal of those for whom so many fervent prayers were made continually.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of the phantom ship,
A ship sailed from New Haven,
And the keen and frosty airs,
That filled her sails at parting,
Were heavy with good men's prayers.

"O Lord! if it be thy pleasure"---
Thus prayed the old divine---
"To bury our friends in the ocean,
Take them, for they are thine!"

But Master Lamberton muttered,
And under his breath said he,
This ship is so crank and walty
I fear our grave she will be!"

And the ships that came from England,
When the winter months were gone,
Brought no tidings of this vessel
Nor of Master Lamberton.

This put the people to praying
That the Lord would let them hear
What in his greater wisdom
He had done with friends so dear.

And at last their prayers were answered:---
It was in the month of June,
An hour before the sunset
Of a windy afternoon,

When, steadily steering landward,
A ship was seen below,
And they knew it was Lamberton, Master,
Who sailed so long ago.

On she came, with a cloud of canvas,
Right against the wind that blew,
Until the eye could distinguish
The faces of the crew.

Then fell her straining topmasts,
Hanging tangled in the shrouds,
And her sails were loosened and lifted,
And blown away like clouds.

And the masts, with all their rigging,
Fell slowly, one by one,
And the hulk dilated and vanished,
As a sea-mist in the sun!

And the people who saw this marvel
Each said unto his friend,
That this was the mould of their vessel,
And thus her tragic end.

And the pastor of the village
Gave thanks to God in prayer,
That, to quiet their troubled spirits,
He had sent this Ship of Air.

What do you think? Was it a cumulus cloud made colorful by the sunset? Was it a ship of lost spirits? Was it a divine sign? Scores of serious and sober eyewitnesses thought it was the latter. Hurricanes, earthquakes, plagues, comets, eclipses, and other natural phenomena were always considered to be messages from God, to be interpreted by their ministers.

Shipbuilding went on very successfully in New England, but the principal building yards were in Massachusetts, Maine, and at Newport, not at New Haven. Typically, a ship would be built, loaded with cargo, and sailed to Europe, where it was sold after only one or two voyages. America’s shipyards built thousands of merchant and military ships during the 17th century. But the phantom ship of New Haven was never seen again.

New Haven’s lost ship, carrying 70 souls and the hopes and fortunes of many more, was part of the unmaking of the colony. In 1662, Charles II issued a charter (granting rights of self-government) to Connecticut Colony, based in Hartford, and the unchartered New Haven merged with their neighbor.

Christy K Robinson is the author of three books on William and Mary Dyer, which include many of their contemporaries: Anne Marbury Hutchinson, Edward Hutchinson, Katherine Scott, Henry Vane, John Winthrop, Jeremiah Clarke, John Cotton, and many others. You may find them at .

Christy K Robinson is author of the books:
·          We Shall Be Changed (2010)
·          Mary Dyer Illuminated (2013)
·          Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This (2014)
·          The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport (2014)
·          Effigy Hunter (2015)
·          Anne Marbury Hutchinson: American Founding Mother (2018)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The wedding in 1633

© 2012 Christy K Robinson

A Flemish wedding feast, perhaps between 1615 and 1630.
Not a white bridal gown to be seen.
Mary Barrett and William Dyer were married at St. Martin-in-the-Fields church in Westminster (London), on October 27, 1633. One year later, on their first anniversary, they buried their newborn son at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. And on their 26th wedding anniversary in 1659, Mary was taken to the gallows in Boston, Massachusetts, and stood there with a hanging rope around her neck, prepared to die (but reprieved on that occasion). 

According to legend passed down in Dyer descendants, the dress that Mary wore for the wedding ceremony was made of white silk, with gold and silver embroidery worked in insects and flowers (photo below).
A fragment of silk with (tarnished) silver thread,
as well as colored silk embroidery,,
said to have come from Mary Dyer's wedding dress.
Photo: Lorcan Otway

Another claim is that Mary Dyer wore that wedding dress to her execution on June 1, 1660, and that it was cut up to give as mementos or relics to family and friends.  

However-- Mary had wintered on Shelter Island, then had skipped going home to Newport by sailing straight to Providence, then walking 44 miles to Boston, determined that she should confront the authorities on their cruelty and if they wouldn't change the law, she was to hang and bring the greatest attention to her cause. On one or two of the nights before she arrived and she would have been camping out or sheltering roughly, there was a terrific lightning storm. Upon arriving in Boston, she was arrested, had her possessions confiscated, and was put in prison: not a sterile environment, by any means, but rather, a dirt or mud floor crawling with vermin. And really, what woman (in any century) would wear a wedding dress to her own hanging, even if she hadn't traipsed through sea and muddy land, and sat in prison for two weeks while wearing it? No, it doesn’t add up.

Helene Fourment, wife of
Peter Paul Rubens, in her 1630
wedding dress. Note the split skirt,
brocade, raised waist, and huge sleeves.
Also, the ringlet curls around the face
were fashionable, being worn by
Queen Henrietta Maria.  
I've seen references to the wedding dress story, but I wonder if it's a Victorian construct, like Mary’s invented royal genealogy and secret birth. Perhaps the garment with this embroidery did belong to Mary and was her own handiwork, but we'd never know for sure without fabric and dye analysis, we'd never prove it belonged to Mary, and there’s no guarantee it was from a wedding dress. 

White wedding dresses didn't become fashionable until about 1840, more than 200 years after Mary's wedding. For centuries, women wore their nicest go-to-meeting dresses to be married in, but unlike today, they wore them again and again for other occasions. In Mary Dyer's time, the colors most commonly used were deep reds and greens. Blue was the desirable color to symbolize loyalty. The skirt for a wedding would have been split in front to reveal another skirt beneath, perhaps in silk brocade.

["Woman's jacket [English] (23.170.1)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (May 2010)]
This is an embroidered white jacket from 1615-20 England, with flowers, insects, gold and silver thread, popular during Mary’s childhood years. But once Henrietta Maria of France became queen consort to England's Charles I in 1625, styles changed to a higher waist with full, stuffed sleeves, making this stiff, fitted model less fashionable and rather dated by 1633. Check out the description of the jacket at 

 In my novel, I've made a small nod to the legend, if that's what it is, by having Mary embroider a bodice to go with a colored skirt. Seamstresses often changed sleeves, collars, bodices, skirts, etc., by picking out seams and reconstructing them in a new style, and embroidering or embellishing with lace and ribbons, which would lend a reason for the rumor of the gold bodkin (see below).

Margaret Layton, painted by Marcus Gheeraerts
the Younger, ca 1615-1620,
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
This jacket was in style 15-30 years before
Mary Barrett Dyer's wedding.

Lately, I've wondered if the scrap of fabric came from Mary Dyer, and was connected to a wedding, perhaps it belonged to Mary's mother and her wedding, which might have taken place between 1595 and 1608.

The groom in a wedding dressed colorfully, with knee breeches and ribbon rosettes at his knees. He’d have worn a long waistcoat (vest) of a rich fabric, over a white linen shirt, with a knee-length jacket over all. There would have been plenty of lace at his neck and down the front, and on his cuffs. In his large hat, he may have worn an ostrich feather. William Dyer was a milliner, which provided leather fashion accessories for men. He would certainly have worn fancy boots with turned-down top cuffs, and embroidered or beaded leather gloves.

Marriage and the Book of Common Prayer
Late September and all of October was a busy time for weddings, because in the agrarian economy, the harvests were stored, and people had a bit more time to leave the farm in the care of servants and visit in a city for wedding festivities. The custom of the day was for the wedding to be performed at or near the door of the church, using the liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer, and to be followed by a Communion/Eucharist service at the chancel.

(When Prince William and Catherine Middleton were married in April 2011, I followed the words of the liturgy by reading the marriage service in the 1549 BCP as the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke it. Same words!) 

An early 17th-century wedding,
during the Elizabethan
or King James I years,
when Mary's parents married.
Puritans, on the other hand, often refused to be married in churches, believing that marriage was not a sacrament (they recognized only baptism and Eucharist/Communion), and that it was a civil union. In addition, they wished to avoid the Anglican service performed from the BCP, seeing it as too closely-related to Roman Catholic liturgy. Puritans of the early to mid 17th century would often be wed by magistrates in taverns, homes, or places of business. The fact that the Dyers were married in the church tells us that at that time, they were following Anglican, not Puritan, tradition.

The ministers of St. Martin’s were Dr. Thomas Mountford and William Bray, both of whom had strong ties to William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, so we can be sure that the Dyer wedding would have been Anglican, through and through. St. Martin-in-the-Fields parish contained fine homes of important government members. The house that William Dyer leased after living in it during his apprenticeship was around the corner from Thames-side York House and Durham House, large residences for important members of government. After the ceremony, there would have been a feast and drinking, with hired musicians, dancing (sarabande, bourree, jig, etc.), and perhaps games. There may have been a bride-cake. It was probably an expensive party, considering their business contacts, neighbors, and living in a posh area.   

The gold bodkin
This golden bodkin, said to be Mary Dyer’s,
with the initials MD stamped on it,
was offered for auction Feb. 21, 2006. 
The wedding dress story is accompanied by a story that Mary Dyer’s gold bodkin was also passed down to her descendants. A bodkin is a tool with a blunt or rounded point that helps pull drawstrings or ribbons through a casing (today, a strip of elastic for a skirt waistline). My bodkin looks like a safety pin on a 12-inch metal rod. A bodkin is not the same as an embroidery needle that a seamstress would use to decorate cloth. An embroidery needle has a sharp tip, and a long eye to accommodate the multiple threads or metallic wire. It’s quite possible that Mary used a bodkin as she constructed clothing for her husband, children, and servants.

If the story is true, and if Mary owned a gold bodkin, and if it was actually this one: a gold bodkin tells us that it was probably a gift from a wealthy person, and that it came to her when she’d been married (because of the D-for-Dyer stamp). Perhaps it was a wedding gift, or it came sometime after the 1633 marriage.

The Puritan laws of Massachusetts Bay from 1634 on, forbade women to wear gold and silver embroidery, lace, or silk scarves. If they disobeyed, they could receive the same penalties as men who were drunks, petty thieves, or domestic abusers: ten lashes of the multiple-strand whip and time in the stocks. On the other hand, they employed lace makers to keep their husbands looking spiffy. 

Hmmm, the underlying conflict is not so different from laws men attempt to impose on women in the 21st century.